Ravishing Rhododendrons


Tales of the Rose Tree Jane Brown

Tales of the Rose Tree

Ravishing Rhododendrons and Their Travels Around the World

Tales of the Rose Tree (written by Jane Brown) was sent to me by the lovely Sue Ramin from my publisher’s office (David R. Godine). Beautifully written and amply illustrated with paintings, photographs, and botanical illustrations, Jane Brown’s Tales of the Rose Tree achieves what she set out to do, and then some—“to construct a history of the genus Rhododendron that pays tribute to the mystery and majesty of these plants.” Every lover of gardens and garden history will want to own Brown’s richly researched and sumptuous celebration of a genus that, in some form or another, nearly everyone grows in their backyard, but about which most know very little.

Jane Brown, the English garden writer whose works include Gardens of a Golden Afternoon (the story of the partnership of Edward Lutyens and Gertrude Jekyll), Lutyens and the Edwardians, and biographies of Vita Sackville-West and Beatrix Farrand, writes that “Rhododendrons are a race of giants on a global scale, at home in the snows of the Himalayas and the swamps of Carolina, in the jungles of Borneo and the island inlets of Japan. They are too complex a genus of single truths, and many of the 1,025 species that we know are of a manageable size, for all azaleas are rhododendrons…”

The first rhododendrons came into Western gardens during the working life of Carl von Linné, the Swedish naturalist we know as Linnaeus, who conjured the genus name from Greek rhodon (rose) and dendron (tree) to create rhododendron. China claims as natives over half the species; her southwestern provinces of Sichuan and Yunnan and the Autonomous Region of Tibet are especially rich in rhododendrons. “That some species are given geographical names—sinogrande, bhutanese, afghanicum, caucasicum, ponticum, or dauricum—reveals that they have evolved especially in response to their particular habits, and yet these names string a necklace of rhododendrons across Eurasia. Others can be added, carolinianum, californicum, canadense, japonicum, to extend the necklet around the earth.”

Brown asks for what reason the similarities? It was the American botanist Asa Gray (1810 -1888) who, in frequent correspondence with Charles Darwin, suggested an answer. In 1859 Gray published his conclusions on the similarities between the flora of Japan and eastern North America, suggesting “before the glacial epoch the flora of the North Temperate Zone had been relatively homogenous, extending in a more or less undisrupted belt across North America and Eurasia.” Rhododendrons, being tough survivors of some 50 million years, had happily circled the globe during this time. Gray further proposed that with the advances of the glaciers, temperate flora was pushed southwards; when the ice finally retreated other complications—“mountain building in particular”—made life difficult for the rhododendrons trying to regain their former territory. Remaining communities found they had to adapt and recolonise, or die. But in eastern North America and eastern Asia (including the great Plain of China), Gray further suggested the ancient flora had survived or was able to recolonise without drastic change: “thus the similar flora in the two regions today constitutes relics of the preglacial flora that once encircled the globe.”

Marydel Coast Azalea (Rhododendron atlanticum 'Marydel')Native to the east coast of the United States, the Marydel Coast Azalea (Rhododendron atlanticum ‘Marydel’), seen here growing in our Gloucester garden, has a fabulous fragrance of sweetness and of spice.

In a thoroughly entertaining and often humorous manner, Brown tells numerous stories, including tales of Quaker John Bartram (1699-1777), the first native-born American to devote his entire life to the study of nature, along with his son William’s (1739-1823) rhododendron collecting and travels of thousands of miles with native American Indians as their hosts in the floral wonderland that was America. Brown’s beautiful book brings to light the curious history of Westerners and rhododendrons as one of swashbuckling plant collectors and visionary gardeners, colonial violence and ecological destruction, stunning botanical successes and bitter business disappointments.

In Tales of the Rose Tree, Jane Brown lists Heritage Plantation in Sandwich as one of the best places in America to find rhododendrons. I am more intrigued than ever to see their collection, and would add too that the Arnold Arboretum in Jamaica Plain has a stunning collection of species rhododendrons from temperate regions around the globe, including many North American species of rhododendrons.

Cape Cod Rhododendron Festival

Heritage Museums & Gardens and The Thornton Burgess Society co-present the Cape Cod Rhododendron Festival on June 4 & 5 from 10am until 4pm each day.

This two-day celebration of rhododendrons features private garden visits, hybridizing rhododendron demonstrations, a rare rhododendron auction, exhibits, authors & book signings, plant sale, horticulture lectures by Kim Smith, Sharon Ackland, Mal Condon, Irwin Ehrenreich, Paul Miskovsky and Larry Pannell and so much more!

For more information or to purchase tickets, please contact Arlene Hoxie at (508) 888-3300 ext. 111 or email at ahoxie@heritagemuseums.org.

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