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Rhododendron maximum

The second rhododendron to reach this country, the 'Rose Bay of the Carolinas', Rhododendron maximum, was discovered, collected, introduced and cultivated because of the conflict between James II and the Protestants and, in particular, the discrimination against the Quakers.

Peter Collinson was a Quaker haberdasher who had an establishment in Gracechurch Street from which he carried on trade with the American Colonies. Because they were prohibited from many occupations the Quakers took a great interest in gardening. This became for them a form of freemasonry, which enabled them to mix with people of all denominations and all classes. Through his contacts in America, Peter Collinson was put in touch with John Bartram, a farmer of Pennsylvania, who had developed an intense interest in botany. Peter financed John's expeditions and, later, was able to obtain for him the appointment of King's Botanist in America. Altogether, these two introduced 150 new species of plants, mostly trees and shrubs, to this country. As an example of the universality of gardening, one of the patrons of these two dissenters was Lord Petre, a Roman Catholic.

The 'Rose Bay of the Carolinas' did not become widely planted. It was grown by Peter Collinson at his garden at Mill Hill where the soil is not exactly perfect for rhododendrons and, shortly after his death, the garden was raided and many of the plants were stolen and others destroyed. It is not a handsome plant. The foliage is interesting because the young growth is much lighter in colour than the older leaves and there are bracts that hang down from the young shoots. But its chief disadvantage is that the flowers are not exciting, although they are responsible for the blotch which appears in many hybrids of today, and they are inclined to be hidden by the new growth because they are late to appear. Its influence can still be seen in many of the best hybrids that we grow today, although it is not cultivated as a species in its own right.

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