Something Old Blooms Something New

For years now we’ve called it the Pinwheel Tree.


It’s a rhododendron that grows from a single trunk with large oblong leaves that flap in the breeze. The visual effect is like a pinwheel that, if it started to spin, could lift itself up and hover in the air. Actually, now that I think about it, calling it the Helicopter Tree would’ve made more sense.

Its real name is Rhododendron Auriculatum.  It was with luck that I was able to find the original plant tag from the Chimacum Woods Nursery in a drawer. As I reread their lovely description I was drawn in all over again. It had been brought to the west in 1901 from the forested slopes of China where, in the wild, it can reach a height of 33 feet! I can still remember how its large leaves were the first thing to catch my eye, then I was intrigued by the tree-like description, but when the flowers were said to be “deliciously fragrant” I knew I had to have it! That was about fifteen years ago and the only thing it has done in that time is grow from two to seven feet tall.

“Spin wheel, Spin! Big Flowers, no whammies!”

I accepted that it didn’t bloom the first few years. I had read that some rhododendrons needed to reach an age of maturity to bloom and this one was meant to be a tree! As the years went by, I gave up on the flowers and instead appreciated the way it fit in among the other plants: its foliage sitting above a bare trunk, occupying its own space. A question frequently asked was if I had pruned it that way. The truth is no, I’ve never cut it, not even once. It might be the only plant in my garden I can say that about!

When I got home from work this last Thursday the first thing David asked me was if I had noticed that my rhody was blooming. I think I said something to the effect of, “What? What do you mean?” David loves to speak in puns, so there are times when I’m not sure if I should be taking what he says literally. He repeated the question as he pointed to the backyard. I thought maybe my other rhody had decided to put out a few more flowers which would’ve been a little unusual since it blooms early in the spring. I wasn’t too excited until he said that there was a white flower on the pinwheel tree.

Finally my eyes saw it. A glow of white where there had only ever been green.

I was instantly animated, “Did you smell it yet? We have to go and smell it!”

Let me tell you, the plant label was right, the fragrance is delicious! I’ve been trying to identify what I’m smelling even though I’m not very good at describing something as complex as a flower’s fragrance. There is a warm sort of sweetness to it that is more like a beeswax candle than honey, but then a very clean melon and cucumber note comes through and somewhere in there is a bit of spice? It. Is. Wonderful.

Why no bloomin’ blooms?

I already mention that some rhododendrons may be too young to flower, but there could be other reasons why it doesn’t bloom. One issue is a lack of light. If planted in the deep shade it won’t be able to produce enough energy to flower and reproduce. Another mistake is fertilizing too much or for too long. Stop feeding your rhodies by June otherwise you’ll encourage too much vegetative growth and the plant won’t send out the signals to start setting buds for next year’s flowers. Also, failing to deadhead one year might cause a flowering plant to not bloom as well the following years. None of these scenarios matched my situation though, so what else was going on?

I do think my Auriculatum needed to age but, after looking up more information about it I think there could be a few other reasons as well. It’s a late season bloomer, usually in July or August. Because of this late blooming time, it sets flower buds for next year later than most rhododendrons. This could mean that the tender buds don’t always have enough time to harden off before the cold weather sets in. The other problem might be the location. I didn’t plant it in a very sheltered spot and cold winter temperatures and drying winds could’ve be killing off the flower buds.

What was different about this year? All I can figure is that this rhododendron may finally be receiving some protection from the plants that have grown up around it.  Plants helping plants.

As I finish this post, more flowers are beginning to open. I think it’s time to set up a table and chairs in the garden and enjoy this rare summertime treat! Bon appétit!


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7 thoughts on “Something Old Blooms Something New

  1. Glorious! I’ve had some strange bloom behavior with my little quince tree this year, too–for the first time ever, it’s got at least 5 fruits! I was chalking it up the amazing snowfall we had last winter?


  2. This happened to live in the arboretum with the other stock plants that provided cuttings, but we never produced it. We grew only a few odd plants for collectors, but none for the retail market. It was just too obscure.


      1. We started out with rhododendrons, and expanded into azaleas, pieris, camellias and a few other minor crops. Camellias became a major crop.


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