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Rhododendron ponticum

The next rhododendron to arrive in this country was the common mauve - Rhododendron ponticum - which, although it is so common, has never had a common name. It was first discovered by Joseph Pitton Tournefort, who had studied under Monsieur Magnol (remembered in the Magnolia) and he was another man who suffered from religious persecution - he was a Protestant in the austerely Catholic France of the seventeen century. In 1700 Tournefort was sent to Levant by the order of the King of France to follow up the work of the ancient writers - Dioscorides, Theophrastus and Mathiolus. There he discovered the common mauve rhododendron, which he described as CHAMAERHODODENDROS PONTICA MAXIMA folio laurocerasi, flore caerulea purpurecente, but he did not collect seeds or plants.

It was not until Claes Alstroemer, a pupil of Linnaeus, discovered the same plant in Spain, between Cadiz Rhododendrons and Gibraltar, about 1750, that it was taken into cultivation. It reached this country in 1763 from Gibraltar.

Rhododendrons ponticum is one of the most controversial of all the species. It is praised by some and reviled by many. It has become naturalized in some parts of the country where it is considered to be a weed. The best method of eradicating it became at one time the subject of research. And yet it was grown and sold as a pot plant, forced into flower for the London market in 1803.

Gertrude Jekyll who, at the turn of the century, revolutionised garden design with her approach to colour, used to go to nurseries to select special colour forms to create harmonies of near blue and white.

It has been used, and some people still use it , as a stock for grafting the better varieties, (Since the nursery start we use R.Cunningham's White as our main root stock) It has become popular now to condemn this method of propagation, although without it rhododendrons would not be so widely grown. The criticism is that the suckers appear and then they are difficult to distinguish from the varieties. It is strange that the rhododendron should be singled out for this particular attack when it is remembered that fruit trees, roses and lilacs are grafted and budded, and suckers appear and are removed and nobody worries.

The foliage of Rhododendron ponticum is lush and dark green, the growth is strong and vigorous - so strong and vigorous that an old stump of a rhododendron was used as a chopping block for two years and then thrown out into the garden where it started to grow again. The flowers are mauve, in varying shades. For some reason, which is hard to define, there has been a general antipathy towards this colour. My own theory is that it is partly sociological and is due to the fact that the first fast dye to be discovered was mauve which is a synthetic colour. The result was that at one time the only cheap coloured clothes for women were mauve. And this, I believe, is why the colour is disliked, not because it offends the eye in the garden.

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