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Rhododendron Collection at Wespelaar Arboretum and Herkenrode Gardens
Belgian Dendrology Society – Yearbook 2015
19 April 2015
Rhododendron is a genus of widely cultivated ericaceous shrubs and trees, with the larger
concentration native to Central Asia. They were introduced into western gardens mostly
between the eighteenth and nineteenth century and their popularity has increased
progressively since, ultimately determining their status of sovereign woodland plants.
At Arboretum Wespelaar and the linked gardens of Herkenrode, they are among the
favourites together with Acer, Magnolia and many genera in Betulaceae and Fagaceae.
However, the genus Rhododendron has the largest representation with over 700 taxa. The
specimens have been accommodated here according to their climatic and soil requirements,
with greatest concentration in the Verlat Wood, Vijverbos and Marnef Wood.
As an Italian horticulturalist currently working in the United Kingdom, I stayed at Wespelaar
for a fortnightly work experience in early April 2015, thus in perfect time for observing and
enjoying the Rhododendron collection. On Sunday 19 April, I attended the study day on
lepidote rhododendrons organised by Arboretum Wespelaar in conjunction with the Belgian
Dendrology Society. This article will talk about the afternoon visit of the Rhododendron
collections, which officially closed the study day and my stay in Belgium.
Our conductor and cicerone was Koen Camelbeke, Curator at Arboretum Wespelaar and
experienced rhododendrons grower and enthusiast. The contingent was also reinforced by
Head Gardener Christophe Crock, real plantsman and friend, and Kenneth Cox, world-
recognised expert on Rhododendron and lecturer during the seminar.
We looked specifically at the lepidotes, which are characterized by the presence of small
scurfy scales on various vegetative and even generative parts, most notably on the underside
of the leaves. This definition is not arbitrary but essential for classifying the large and
taxonomically complex genus Rhododendron. In point of fact, lepidotes almost never
hybridize with the non-scaled elepidotes, so permitting to split the genus into two distinct
subgenera of great taxonomic and horticultural utility.
A quantity of dwarf and alpine species from Eastern Asia are included in the lepidotes, with
many of the most popular cultivars bred from them. In this wide group are included many of
the sections and subsections we were about to admire in our walk-around, such as
Cinnabarina, Heliolepida, Lapponica, Ledum, Maddenia, Pogonanthum, Rhodorastra,
Scabrifolia, Triflora and Uniflora.
Our visit took its first steps in the Werner Wood, a woodland area which stretches along the
northern edge of the Arboretum. This is the domain of Betula and Fagus collections, with a
wonderful understory of colorful hybrid rhododendrons and azaleas. ‘Taurus’ is a cracking
hybrid obtained by crossing R. strigillosum with R. ‘The Honourable Jean Marie de
Montague’. It’s a tall but well-behaved rhododendron and displays large, vibrant red flowers
in tall trusses. I stood for some time in front of its magnificent red blossoms; that true, red,
with no hint of pink, purple or violet contained, was radiating an aura of classical nobility that
I’ve seen rarely matched elsewhere in the plant kingdom.
Koen Camelbeke standing by a fantastic specimen of Rhododendron ‘Taurus’.
On the left, Kenneth Cox, world-recognised expert on the genus.
‘Taurus’ is with no doubt one of the best red hybrids ever raised, but unfortunately for us, not
a lepidote. After prolonged jubilations, came the inevitable rappel à l’ordre from Koen, who
invited us to stick with the lepidotes and proceed to the Vijverbos, the woods on the northern
boundary of the Arboretum. This is a section yet to fully establish but it already presents
beautiful open vistas and gentle undulations of lawns and riverbanks where charming spring
ephemerals grow, such as lesser celandine (Ranunculus ficaria), wood anemone (Anemone
nemorosa) and slender speedwell (Veronica filiformis). Rhododendrons are grown here, but
from Taliensia and Argyrophylla subsections, which are in the elepidotes. Once again Koen
remembered our obligation to the lepidote species and guided us to the Verlat Wood, where
the majority of the Rhododendron collection of Wespelaar is displayed.
In this wood, the natural conditions are perfect for the cultivation of rhododendrons and many
other ericaceous woodlanders. The dense canopy of mature Corsican pines (Pinus nigra
subsp. laricio) not only creates ideal dapple shade, but also provides protection, with average
temperatures generally five degrees warmer in winter and cooler in summer. In addition to
that, the needles of the conifers have over time built up a thick top layer of light acid soil. The
Rhododendron collection has been set out according to the different sections and subsections,
so permitting comparison of closely related taxa. The emphasis is on wild species, although
some first generatio crosses have been allowed. The maintenance is intense and involves
constant planting-out, mulching, pruning and recording of the individual specimens. Some
more tender species, notably from Himalaya and south-west China, may need replaced after
particularly severe winters; also overgrown or unattractive plants are cut back and
substituted.
The Verlat Wood houses the majority of the Rhododendron collection,
as well as many beautiful woodland plants.
The first specimens we admired in the Verlat Wood were representatives from the
Rhodorastra subsection. These are odd azalea-looking members in the lepidotes, which
feature a deciduous or semi-deciduous habit and wide funnel-shaped flowers. They are early
flowering and prove to do well in the Belgian climate, providing some partial shade and
protection against late frosts is given. R. dauricum comes in two forms, one persistent (var.
sempervirens) and one semipersistent; the flowers are bright purplish-red. ‘Midwinter’ is a
popular selection, very early flowering; ‘Hokkaido’ is also a reliable white form, flowering
immediately after in February / March. The second species in the group is R. mucronulatum,
an old favourite deciduous rhododendron, which was the first introduction from Japan. The
flowers are single or up to three in a truss, mostly rosy to pink-mauve.
Immediately nearby the Rhodorastra Bed is a section planted with young, mixed specimens.
Christophe informed us that establishing plants are covered during harsh winters with
horticultural fleece laid over a temporary structure of bamboo canes. This overwintering
system, together with a combination of skillful horticultural practices, is among the keys of
the success of Arboretum Wespelaar in growing Rhododendron. Other techniques are home-
made propagation and raising, minimal pot culture, seasonal mulching with oak leaves and
pine needles; among the pruning methods, the terminal-bud-pinching technique is worth
mentioning, giving well-branched plants with the minimum effort and equipment.
The Pogonanthum Section was the next series to be botanised. They typically feature daphne-
like flowers that are clustered together, with long corolla tubes so that styles and stamens are
not always visible; the leaves present the most irregular scale pattern. The entire group
stopped in admiration of a magnificent specimen of R. kongboense, flowering in a deep shade
of pink. This species is perfectly hardy, but not common in cultivation. Moreover, the leaves
(as always for the species in this section) are strongly aromatic and were apparently burnt and
used as incense in its native regions of eastern Himalaya. Many of us stuck up their noses at
the idea of such horticultural crime.
The Uniflora Group is a series of dwarf characters fairly close to the Lepidota and, as the
name suggested, includes plants with either single or at the most double flowers. At
Wespelaar are grown three of the five species. The pale pink blossom of R. pemakoense first
attracted our attention; the small, compact structure and floriferous habit of this species make
it a good choice for rock gardens. The type species R. uniflorum var. imperator was also
displayed. This is a true alpine rhododendron, which naturally grows on cliff ledges in North-
eastern Burma. In the western gardens it flowers in May and always forms dense mats.
We then entered in the realm of the larger growing rhododendrons, grouped in the Triflora,
Cinnabarina and Heliolepida Subsections.
Triflora is one of the most useful in the domestic garden, as they have a light, airy appearance
and lacks the bulkiness of other larger rhododendrons. Flowers are zigomorphic, with three
petals pointing up and two petals pointing down. R. augustinii was the first species we
bumped into; it’s a strong, reliable plant, featuring very distinguishable leaves having a rather
soft texture, smooth upperside and hairy underside, especially on the midrib. This is the only
blue-flowering species within the subsection. R. davidsonianum is not the easiest to grow in
the subsection, but the specimen that we saw at Wespelaar was truly fantastic. In a section
where real pinks are rarities, some forms of davidsonianum pass the test with flying colours.
Many interesting hybrids were also in flower, such as ‘Shamrock’, a cross between R. keiskei
and R. hanceanum with lovely pale yellow flowers. On the other hand, it was a bit early for
flowers on R. concinnum. Koen told us about his predilection for dark flowers in
rhododendron and concinnum is among the best ones, with blue-violet to reddish-purple
forms. Not without a certain sense of unfulfilled expectation, I casted my eye on a mature
specimen which was just about budding out, and proceed over.
The Heliolepida subsection is very close to Triflora, presenting similar characters such as
large-habit, easily-grown species which take hard pruning well and perform diligently in
gardens. A distinguish feature in Heliolepida is that all its members have aromatic foliage. R.
rubiginosum is the most frequently seen species, featuring small trusses of widely funnel-
shaped, rosy-mauve flowers beautifully spotted with brown. This is a tall, vigorous
rhododendron, ideal for interior windbreaks and informal hedging. R. bracteatum and
heliolepis are the other important species in the subsection which find representation at
Wespelaar.
The Cinnabarina subsection finds representation in the beds nearby, especially with the type
species R. cinnabarinum and its numerous hybrids, some of them having been in cultivation
for more than hundred years. ‘What a Dane’ is a more modern hybrid and flowers in yellow
and red. Another striking selection is ‘Arthur Grumiaux’, named after the famous Belgian
violinist. All these cultivars of cinnabarinum have distinctive flowers, which are waxy and
tubular, with long tubes and short lobes. They are among the most attractive rhododendrons
with the only downside being a certain tendency to suffer from mildew.
Discussing the attributes of R. pemakoense
Plants in the Scabrifolia subsection are smaller to the previous three series, being closer to the
Virgata subsection. They all are small shrubs up 4 feet tall and are characterized by clusters
of pink-reddish flowers and hairy, tough leaves and twigs. Only 4 species (all from south-
west China) and their hybrids exist. R. spinuliferum was represented in the plots by two
healthy plants, wild collected in Buthan. The pollination mechanism is still a bit of a mystery
because of the very narrow tubular corolla. The spectacular ‘Spinulosum’, a hybrid between
spinuliferum and racemosum, also finds representation at Wespelaar.
We were by then in the middle of the Verlat Wood and the profusion and variety of species
and hybrids began to be simply overwhelming. We gradually abandoned the initial systematic
criteria and started lingering on the individual specimens, comparing distinguish features and
exceptions. Some of us audaciously left the charted tracks and deviated in direction of the
fantastic magnolias. Impossible to resist: their flowers, glorified in the dappled shade of the
woods, acted like sirens’ songs. A group of deserters lost in contemplation of ‘Shirazz’.
Others were bewitched by the flowers of ‘Athene’, trying to recognise their peculiar scent.
Kenneth Cox stated toothpaste: we all agreed.
We then moved progressively eastwards, on a woodland path running along the northern
shelterbelt. The rank of Leyland cypresses (x Cupressocyparis leylandii), together with the
pine canopy, offers considerable protection for less-hardy species, such as Taiwania
cryptomerioides and Betula insignis, a lovely Chinese birch with showy clusters of long, big
male catkins, up to 16cm long.
At that point Koen had to call the group back to order again, inviting us to focus on the
Lapponica section, which finds vast representation in the Verlat Wood. Taxonomically this is
an extremely difficult group, with taxa interbreeding in the wild and leading to challenging
classification. Species are dwarf and therefore good for the small or rock garden. R. cuneatum
is one of the most recognisable within the section because of its unusually large size, up to 4
or 5 feet. This is a genuine lepidote indeed, with densely scaly branchlets and also leaves
densely scaled on both surfaces. The flowers are deep rose to a rich pink and contrast
magnificently with the purple-blue of R. polycladum Scintillans Group.
The next group we explored was the Maddenia section, a large series of mostly tender and
often epiphytic shrubs. R. ciliatum is moderately hardy, but in colder regions should be
grown in full sun and away from frost pockets. It grows up to 4 or 5 feet, spreads widely and
should be used more in modern gardens. We also noticed ‘Snow Lady’, a cross between
ciliatum and leucapsis. This is a highly elegant rhododendron, with pure white flowers and
brown anthers borne on lax trusses.
Our visit concluded with a walk through Herkenrode, the private gardens of Philippe de
Spoelberch that are linked with the arboretum. Here the rhododendrons are displayed
differently, as groups and subsections are accommodated more liberally, often mixed together
according to a more personal taste. However, some systematic criteria are used, especially
due to the scientific approach of the owner.
The connoisseur touch became instantly obvious when we saw R. groenlandicum
‘Compactum’, a real specimen lepidote commonly known as Labrador tea. It used to be in the
genus Ledum before to be included in 2010 in the Ledum subsection of Rhododendron. We
noticed some of the previous year’s seed caps, revealing the habit of the fruits to open at the
base, and the remarkable indumentum on the underside of the leaves.
R. pentaphyllum was cultivated in a bed nearby. This is another oddity, known as the five-
leafed azalea, even technically being a rhododendron. In point of fact, rhododendrons
distinguish from azaleas by having 10 stamens instead of 5 (plus from a number of secondary
features such as evergreen and broader foliage). This is almost always true, apart when – of
course – there are exceptions, consisting in a small group of 10-stamened azaleas, which
seem to refuse to read botanical literature. Unfortunately for us pentaphyllum wasn’t in
flower at that time of the year, but is said to be a very shy flowerer at any rate.
At that point the group slowly started to walk back to the Arboretum. The last rhododendron
we bumped in was R. lapponicum, with its unmissable sheer blue colour. Koen presented to
us the fascinating hypothesis of crossing lapponicum with augustinii, so combining deep blue
colour with good size and obtaining effective plants for the garden use.
Koen then gave command to break ranks and we all started walking back to Wespelaar in
loose formation for the final disbandment. Brushed by a gentle breeze, Magnolia ‘Petit
Chicon’ was dropping its yellow petals on the floor, premonition of the botanical glories still
to come over the seasons at Wespelaar and Herkenrode.
Systematic planting of rhododendrons by section and subsection at Wespelaar Arboretum

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Rhododendron collection at Wespelaar Arboretum

  • 1. Rhododendron Collection at Wespelaar Arboretum and Herkenrode Gardens Belgian Dendrology Society – Yearbook 2015 19 April 2015 Rhododendron is a genus of widely cultivated ericaceous shrubs and trees, with the larger concentration native to Central Asia. They were introduced into western gardens mostly between the eighteenth and nineteenth century and their popularity has increased progressively since, ultimately determining their status of sovereign woodland plants. At Arboretum Wespelaar and the linked gardens of Herkenrode, they are among the favourites together with Acer, Magnolia and many genera in Betulaceae and Fagaceae. However, the genus Rhododendron has the largest representation with over 700 taxa. The specimens have been accommodated here according to their climatic and soil requirements, with greatest concentration in the Verlat Wood, Vijverbos and Marnef Wood. As an Italian horticulturalist currently working in the United Kingdom, I stayed at Wespelaar for a fortnightly work experience in early April 2015, thus in perfect time for observing and enjoying the Rhododendron collection. On Sunday 19 April, I attended the study day on lepidote rhododendrons organised by Arboretum Wespelaar in conjunction with the Belgian Dendrology Society. This article will talk about the afternoon visit of the Rhododendron collections, which officially closed the study day and my stay in Belgium. Our conductor and cicerone was Koen Camelbeke, Curator at Arboretum Wespelaar and experienced rhododendrons grower and enthusiast. The contingent was also reinforced by Head Gardener Christophe Crock, real plantsman and friend, and Kenneth Cox, world- recognised expert on Rhododendron and lecturer during the seminar. We looked specifically at the lepidotes, which are characterized by the presence of small scurfy scales on various vegetative and even generative parts, most notably on the underside of the leaves. This definition is not arbitrary but essential for classifying the large and taxonomically complex genus Rhododendron. In point of fact, lepidotes almost never hybridize with the non-scaled elepidotes, so permitting to split the genus into two distinct subgenera of great taxonomic and horticultural utility. A quantity of dwarf and alpine species from Eastern Asia are included in the lepidotes, with many of the most popular cultivars bred from them. In this wide group are included many of the sections and subsections we were about to admire in our walk-around, such as Cinnabarina, Heliolepida, Lapponica, Ledum, Maddenia, Pogonanthum, Rhodorastra, Scabrifolia, Triflora and Uniflora. Our visit took its first steps in the Werner Wood, a woodland area which stretches along the northern edge of the Arboretum. This is the domain of Betula and Fagus collections, with a wonderful understory of colorful hybrid rhododendrons and azaleas. ‘Taurus’ is a cracking hybrid obtained by crossing R. strigillosum with R. ‘The Honourable Jean Marie de Montague’. It’s a tall but well-behaved rhododendron and displays large, vibrant red flowers in tall trusses. I stood for some time in front of its magnificent red blossoms; that true, red, with no hint of pink, purple or violet contained, was radiating an aura of classical nobility that I’ve seen rarely matched elsewhere in the plant kingdom.
  • 2. Koen Camelbeke standing by a fantastic specimen of Rhododendron ‘Taurus’. On the left, Kenneth Cox, world-recognised expert on the genus. ‘Taurus’ is with no doubt one of the best red hybrids ever raised, but unfortunately for us, not a lepidote. After prolonged jubilations, came the inevitable rappel à l’ordre from Koen, who invited us to stick with the lepidotes and proceed to the Vijverbos, the woods on the northern boundary of the Arboretum. This is a section yet to fully establish but it already presents beautiful open vistas and gentle undulations of lawns and riverbanks where charming spring ephemerals grow, such as lesser celandine (Ranunculus ficaria), wood anemone (Anemone nemorosa) and slender speedwell (Veronica filiformis). Rhododendrons are grown here, but from Taliensia and Argyrophylla subsections, which are in the elepidotes. Once again Koen remembered our obligation to the lepidote species and guided us to the Verlat Wood, where the majority of the Rhododendron collection of Wespelaar is displayed. In this wood, the natural conditions are perfect for the cultivation of rhododendrons and many other ericaceous woodlanders. The dense canopy of mature Corsican pines (Pinus nigra subsp. laricio) not only creates ideal dapple shade, but also provides protection, with average temperatures generally five degrees warmer in winter and cooler in summer. In addition to that, the needles of the conifers have over time built up a thick top layer of light acid soil. The Rhododendron collection has been set out according to the different sections and subsections, so permitting comparison of closely related taxa. The emphasis is on wild species, although some first generatio crosses have been allowed. The maintenance is intense and involves constant planting-out, mulching, pruning and recording of the individual specimens. Some more tender species, notably from Himalaya and south-west China, may need replaced after particularly severe winters; also overgrown or unattractive plants are cut back and substituted.
  • 3. The Verlat Wood houses the majority of the Rhododendron collection, as well as many beautiful woodland plants. The first specimens we admired in the Verlat Wood were representatives from the Rhodorastra subsection. These are odd azalea-looking members in the lepidotes, which feature a deciduous or semi-deciduous habit and wide funnel-shaped flowers. They are early flowering and prove to do well in the Belgian climate, providing some partial shade and protection against late frosts is given. R. dauricum comes in two forms, one persistent (var. sempervirens) and one semipersistent; the flowers are bright purplish-red. ‘Midwinter’ is a popular selection, very early flowering; ‘Hokkaido’ is also a reliable white form, flowering immediately after in February / March. The second species in the group is R. mucronulatum, an old favourite deciduous rhododendron, which was the first introduction from Japan. The flowers are single or up to three in a truss, mostly rosy to pink-mauve. Immediately nearby the Rhodorastra Bed is a section planted with young, mixed specimens. Christophe informed us that establishing plants are covered during harsh winters with horticultural fleece laid over a temporary structure of bamboo canes. This overwintering system, together with a combination of skillful horticultural practices, is among the keys of the success of Arboretum Wespelaar in growing Rhododendron. Other techniques are home- made propagation and raising, minimal pot culture, seasonal mulching with oak leaves and pine needles; among the pruning methods, the terminal-bud-pinching technique is worth mentioning, giving well-branched plants with the minimum effort and equipment. The Pogonanthum Section was the next series to be botanised. They typically feature daphne- like flowers that are clustered together, with long corolla tubes so that styles and stamens are not always visible; the leaves present the most irregular scale pattern. The entire group stopped in admiration of a magnificent specimen of R. kongboense, flowering in a deep shade of pink. This species is perfectly hardy, but not common in cultivation. Moreover, the leaves (as always for the species in this section) are strongly aromatic and were apparently burnt and used as incense in its native regions of eastern Himalaya. Many of us stuck up their noses at the idea of such horticultural crime. The Uniflora Group is a series of dwarf characters fairly close to the Lepidota and, as the name suggested, includes plants with either single or at the most double flowers. At Wespelaar are grown three of the five species. The pale pink blossom of R. pemakoense first attracted our attention; the small, compact structure and floriferous habit of this species make
  • 4. it a good choice for rock gardens. The type species R. uniflorum var. imperator was also displayed. This is a true alpine rhododendron, which naturally grows on cliff ledges in North- eastern Burma. In the western gardens it flowers in May and always forms dense mats. We then entered in the realm of the larger growing rhododendrons, grouped in the Triflora, Cinnabarina and Heliolepida Subsections. Triflora is one of the most useful in the domestic garden, as they have a light, airy appearance and lacks the bulkiness of other larger rhododendrons. Flowers are zigomorphic, with three petals pointing up and two petals pointing down. R. augustinii was the first species we bumped into; it’s a strong, reliable plant, featuring very distinguishable leaves having a rather soft texture, smooth upperside and hairy underside, especially on the midrib. This is the only blue-flowering species within the subsection. R. davidsonianum is not the easiest to grow in the subsection, but the specimen that we saw at Wespelaar was truly fantastic. In a section where real pinks are rarities, some forms of davidsonianum pass the test with flying colours. Many interesting hybrids were also in flower, such as ‘Shamrock’, a cross between R. keiskei and R. hanceanum with lovely pale yellow flowers. On the other hand, it was a bit early for flowers on R. concinnum. Koen told us about his predilection for dark flowers in rhododendron and concinnum is among the best ones, with blue-violet to reddish-purple forms. Not without a certain sense of unfulfilled expectation, I casted my eye on a mature specimen which was just about budding out, and proceed over. The Heliolepida subsection is very close to Triflora, presenting similar characters such as large-habit, easily-grown species which take hard pruning well and perform diligently in gardens. A distinguish feature in Heliolepida is that all its members have aromatic foliage. R. rubiginosum is the most frequently seen species, featuring small trusses of widely funnel- shaped, rosy-mauve flowers beautifully spotted with brown. This is a tall, vigorous rhododendron, ideal for interior windbreaks and informal hedging. R. bracteatum and heliolepis are the other important species in the subsection which find representation at Wespelaar. The Cinnabarina subsection finds representation in the beds nearby, especially with the type species R. cinnabarinum and its numerous hybrids, some of them having been in cultivation for more than hundred years. ‘What a Dane’ is a more modern hybrid and flowers in yellow and red. Another striking selection is ‘Arthur Grumiaux’, named after the famous Belgian violinist. All these cultivars of cinnabarinum have distinctive flowers, which are waxy and tubular, with long tubes and short lobes. They are among the most attractive rhododendrons with the only downside being a certain tendency to suffer from mildew.
  • 5. Discussing the attributes of R. pemakoense Plants in the Scabrifolia subsection are smaller to the previous three series, being closer to the Virgata subsection. They all are small shrubs up 4 feet tall and are characterized by clusters of pink-reddish flowers and hairy, tough leaves and twigs. Only 4 species (all from south- west China) and their hybrids exist. R. spinuliferum was represented in the plots by two healthy plants, wild collected in Buthan. The pollination mechanism is still a bit of a mystery because of the very narrow tubular corolla. The spectacular ‘Spinulosum’, a hybrid between spinuliferum and racemosum, also finds representation at Wespelaar. We were by then in the middle of the Verlat Wood and the profusion and variety of species and hybrids began to be simply overwhelming. We gradually abandoned the initial systematic criteria and started lingering on the individual specimens, comparing distinguish features and exceptions. Some of us audaciously left the charted tracks and deviated in direction of the fantastic magnolias. Impossible to resist: their flowers, glorified in the dappled shade of the woods, acted like sirens’ songs. A group of deserters lost in contemplation of ‘Shirazz’. Others were bewitched by the flowers of ‘Athene’, trying to recognise their peculiar scent. Kenneth Cox stated toothpaste: we all agreed. We then moved progressively eastwards, on a woodland path running along the northern shelterbelt. The rank of Leyland cypresses (x Cupressocyparis leylandii), together with the pine canopy, offers considerable protection for less-hardy species, such as Taiwania cryptomerioides and Betula insignis, a lovely Chinese birch with showy clusters of long, big male catkins, up to 16cm long. At that point Koen had to call the group back to order again, inviting us to focus on the Lapponica section, which finds vast representation in the Verlat Wood. Taxonomically this is an extremely difficult group, with taxa interbreeding in the wild and leading to challenging classification. Species are dwarf and therefore good for the small or rock garden. R. cuneatum is one of the most recognisable within the section because of its unusually large size, up to 4 or 5 feet. This is a genuine lepidote indeed, with densely scaly branchlets and also leaves densely scaled on both surfaces. The flowers are deep rose to a rich pink and contrast magnificently with the purple-blue of R. polycladum Scintillans Group. The next group we explored was the Maddenia section, a large series of mostly tender and often epiphytic shrubs. R. ciliatum is moderately hardy, but in colder regions should be
  • 6. grown in full sun and away from frost pockets. It grows up to 4 or 5 feet, spreads widely and should be used more in modern gardens. We also noticed ‘Snow Lady’, a cross between ciliatum and leucapsis. This is a highly elegant rhododendron, with pure white flowers and brown anthers borne on lax trusses. Our visit concluded with a walk through Herkenrode, the private gardens of Philippe de Spoelberch that are linked with the arboretum. Here the rhododendrons are displayed differently, as groups and subsections are accommodated more liberally, often mixed together according to a more personal taste. However, some systematic criteria are used, especially due to the scientific approach of the owner. The connoisseur touch became instantly obvious when we saw R. groenlandicum ‘Compactum’, a real specimen lepidote commonly known as Labrador tea. It used to be in the genus Ledum before to be included in 2010 in the Ledum subsection of Rhododendron. We noticed some of the previous year’s seed caps, revealing the habit of the fruits to open at the base, and the remarkable indumentum on the underside of the leaves. R. pentaphyllum was cultivated in a bed nearby. This is another oddity, known as the five- leafed azalea, even technically being a rhododendron. In point of fact, rhododendrons distinguish from azaleas by having 10 stamens instead of 5 (plus from a number of secondary features such as evergreen and broader foliage). This is almost always true, apart when – of course – there are exceptions, consisting in a small group of 10-stamened azaleas, which seem to refuse to read botanical literature. Unfortunately for us pentaphyllum wasn’t in flower at that time of the year, but is said to be a very shy flowerer at any rate. At that point the group slowly started to walk back to the Arboretum. The last rhododendron we bumped in was R. lapponicum, with its unmissable sheer blue colour. Koen presented to us the fascinating hypothesis of crossing lapponicum with augustinii, so combining deep blue colour with good size and obtaining effective plants for the garden use. Koen then gave command to break ranks and we all started walking back to Wespelaar in loose formation for the final disbandment. Brushed by a gentle breeze, Magnolia ‘Petit Chicon’ was dropping its yellow petals on the floor, premonition of the botanical glories still to come over the seasons at Wespelaar and Herkenrode.
  • 7. Systematic planting of rhododendrons by section and subsection at Wespelaar Arboretum