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Lepidotes, the Little Gems in the Rhododendron Garden

by Frank Arsen

After more years than we cared to recount, we had more or less settled on those little gems of the rhododendron world, the lepidotes. This was an about face for us, who at one time grew anything that would fill up space and was pleasing to the eye.

When we first moved to Lindenhurst in our first venture at home ownership, we had what we thought then was a huge backyard. It was a sandy wasteland, with tufts of grass here and there, shaded by three sassafrass and one huge wild cherry tree. After we filled the yard with shrubs & lawn, we then discovered the Rhododendron Society.

Needless to say, all of our former shrubs, such as butterfly bush, forsythia, rose of Sharon, etc. were very quickly replaced by, you guessed it, rhododendrons and azaleas. Between the Society’s plant sales, friends in the society and nurseries in the Society, we soon ran out of the allotted space and started looking at the lawn with a jaundiced eye.
When the lawn became nothing but pathways between beds, we decided our appetites were larger than our property and had to call a screeching halt to this madness. Putting our heads together, the logical solution was simple. Let’s start growing the dwarf varieties, both hybrids and species.

The hatchet started to fall about this time on some of our larger out-of-bound rhododendrons. For each of those we eliminated, it made room for five or six dwarf varieties. At this point in time, and with the discrimination borne of years in the brotherhood of rhododendron buffs, we now had a bare minimum of the elepidotes.

Our experience with the lepidotes started with two low growing forms of R.keiskei that we purchased from the Bovees in 1970. In 1980 one of these plants was one foot tall and three feet wide. Now, in 2001 it is only slightly higher and slightly wider even after taking many cuttings.

These original two plants have given us some wonderful progeny; some even more dwarf than their parents. In 1980, we wrote about some open pollinated seeds of these keiskei that resulted in four hybrids. We called them "Pink Keiskei #1,2,3, and 4 but one of them was later named ‘Arsen’s Pink’ by Jim Cross. We believed that either R. racemosum or R. glaucophyllum was the bashful pollen parent. At any rate, they are compact tight growing plants and very floriferous, differing only in variance of pink color and size of flower. Our affection for R.keiskei in the original form has suffered a bit since the advent of a more diminutive form R.keiskei ‘Yaku Fairy’, which the Capercies of Mt. Rainier Alpine Gardens reluctantly, after much correspondence, parted with. Seedlings of this little gem resulted in plants that are only 5" tall and 15" wide after 20 years.

We also bought seeds through the Society’s Seed Exchange. Some were submitted by Mrs. Baird of Washington under the name of R.keiskei cordifolium. These are all very tight little mounds. Each Spring we would wait in anticipation for the first blooms. Now we know why Guy Nearing, Joe Gable, and Charles Dexter were able to live so long. It was the anticipation of seeing new seedlings blooming each spring and, in some cases, fulfilling their expectations.

Next on our list come R. racemosum, which never fails us, year after year. Over the years we have had several forms of this plant, but only one now remains.

R.’Veesprite’ is, in our estimation, one of the best of the blue lepidotes, but then, with R.racemosum as one of its parents, why shouldn’t it be? Again, it is always very floriferous and a tight green mound.

R.’moerheim’ is another good performer for us and pleasant to look at all year round.

R. ‘Mary Fleming’, named by Guy Nearing for a former Secretary of the NY Chapter, puts on a beautiful show each year for us without fail. Its only drawback at times is being too eager to bloom with the first signs of warm weather, and being caught with its blooms down by a late frost. It sets such a multitude of buds, that it will still give a good account of itself.

R. ‘Anna Baldsiefen’ is another gem in our yard.

R.’Pioneer’ is a Gable hybrid which was popular with many of us. It has been eclipsed by Pioneer ‘Silvery Pink" in recent years.

Two other Gable hybrids, R.’Conewago’ and R.’Conemaugh’, while they may be "oldies" they’re still "goodies". R. ‘Conewago Improved’ is also up there with the best.

While Guy Nearing’s Guyencourt hybrids (Lenape, Brandywine, Montchanin, Chesapeak and Delaware) have a sameness about them, have been welcome additions in our collection, as are his ‘Windbeam’ and sister seedling, ‘Wyanokie’. Many of Nearing’s lesser known hybrids, such as ‘Ramsey Tinsel’, ‘April Blush’, and ‘Cliff Garland’ have done well for us over the years. Of the Guyencourt hybrids, three are still growing in our garden.

‘Rupicola’, ‘Micranthum’, ‘Hemitrichotum’, ‘Oreotrephes, ‘Glaucophyllum’, ‘Hippophoides’, brachyanthum, glomerulatum, lepidotum, trichostomum, lysolepsis, haemaleum, hanceanum nanum, and hirsutum were all grown in our garden. Some more than once, but all expired due to the hot summers here.

The Society’s Seed Exchange has supplied us with lepidotes we haven’t grown before. These were: R.dasypetalum, R. pallescens, R. drumonium, R.ravum, the dwarf creeping form of R.dauricum, R. pseudochrysanthum, some of which are true dwarfs with very small stiff leaves. Also R.ovatum, R.metternichii var. brevifolium, and R.mucronulatum var. Taguetti, a very dwarf and spreading form. To date, only R.pseudochrysanthum, R.metternichii var. brevifolium, and R.mucronulatum var. Taguetti have survived.

You may have surmised by now that our favorites are the dwarf species, from all those crazy names we’ve dropped on you, and it’s true, although we do have a great array of the lepidote hybrids. These are: ‘Maricee’, ‘Ernie Dee’, ‘Ptarmigan’, ‘Queen Esta’, ‘Star Sapphire’, ‘Blue Diamond’, ‘Chikor’, ‘Tom Koenig’, ‘Blue Bird’, ‘Russautinii’, ‘Cutie’, ‘Balta’, ‘P.J.M.’, ‘Praecox’, ‘Tiffany’, ‘Lavendula’, ‘Springsong’, ‘Racil’, ‘Racelina’, ‘Early Bird’, ‘Carolina Rose’, ‘Rochester Pink’, ‘Kathryn Reboul’, and ‘Donna Totten’. These have all done well for us and are still alive after all these years.

We didn’t start out to be "name droppers" but with so many beautiful plants to choose from, what rhododendron fancier can help but become a collector? This is a category we easily fell into and not with any reluctance on our part. No collection would be complete without including some of the low growers. While not considered dwarfs, they nevertheless have their niche, and are easily placed in our scheme of things. We must include R.yakusimanum, R.makinoi, R. metternichii, R. hyperythrum, R.degronianum, R.tsariense, R. recurvoides, and crosses in which R.aureum was one of the parents.

We manage to keep all of our plants fairly happy and content during their growing season with a heavy mulch of pine needles and, when available, pine bark chips. The extent of our feeding is to scatter some superphosphate by hand every other year around January or February. Otherwise, the rotting down of the mulch seems to fill the bill nicely, for all their needs. We generally steer clear of any use of chemicals in our garden but we do on occasion use Malathion for any heavy infestation of white fly and lace wing fly, which periodically seems to visit our neighborhood.

After all these years, I am still an avid collector of Lepidotes. My newest source is now Bill Steele’s Nursery, 1055 E. Niels Lane, Westchester PA, 19382 from whom, so far, I have purchased 35 "New to me" named hybrid Lepidotes. I was like a kid in a candy store! If we purchase any more, a few of my old Elepidotes may find their way to their plant heaven.

My once (what we thought) large property has shrunk considerably over the years. At age 87, I’ve got to slow down considering this order was given by my significant other!

Editor’s note: Frank & Gay Arsen have been members of the NY Chapter since the early sixties. Always helpful to the beginning rhodo enthusiast, their modesty belies the amount of knowledge they have amassed over the years. Two of Frank’s better known Lepidote hybrid’s are ‘Amber Lantern’ and ‘Ambrose Light’.