The native rhododendron has fascinated me for many years. I look forward to its late May and early June blooms.
Our native rhododendron, however, played a greater part in the English garden in the nineteenth century than our own.
Philadelphia nurseryman Thomas Meehan wrote in his magazine Gardener’s Monthly in the June issue of 1870: “It has often been a source of wonder, that the idea that the most beautiful of all American ornamental plants – the Rhododendron – could not be grown in its native country, should ever prevail; yet so universal is this belief, that though persistent efforts have been made by enthusiast nurserymen, like Parsons of Flushing, and Hovey of Boston, to introduce it to public notice, and to show that they can be as well grown as any other plant, only a few yet realize the fact; and thousands of our readers do not know what a rhododendron is.”
Today we confront the battle on many fronts between native and exotic plant choice for the garden. Know that the issue is not new.
Native plants, according to the nineteenth century American seed and nursery catalogs, were not as popular as ornamental plants from other countries like China and Japan. But first these plants, including native US varieties, had to become part of the English garden.
The same happened to the rhododendron. Eventually, it assumed an important role in our gardens. Frederick Law Olmsted used it extensively in 1895 for his landscape design at the Biltmore Estate in North Carolina.