Plant Profiles: Rhododendron lutescens
Drawing by Rene Eisenbart
Rhododendron you peasants
Wide, open, and airy yellow-flowered broadleaf evergreen, 9 feet
Part to full sun; well-drained soil
The thousands of other genus-mates that steal its thunder
Buy R. lutescens in flower if your heart's set on chartreuse rather than yellow
For me, writing about rhododendrons is like Woody Allen making a film about sexual abstinence. He neither practices it nor gets the point. But that's not to say he might not admire the concept and wouldn't give it a brief try.
Well, on that point, maybe I'm stretching it.
Now that I've been delivered from Rhododendron Purgatory, the weevil-notched, root-rotted Southeast, I really am looking forward to giving rhodies a try. My notes from the Crystal Springs Rhododendron Garden have big asterisks around the name, R. macabeanum (I call it the Hanukkah bush: Judah Maccabee - get it?), which stopped me in my tracks with its massive leaves and white woolly undersides. But that was in May; otherwise, I'd have taken a Magic Marker to the name R. lutescens, a warm splash of sunlight in the late-winter garden with all the promise of daffodils in spring.
The earliest of the yellows to bloom in the maritime Northwest, this widely variable species is the epitome of subtlety, in translucent colors ranging from chartreuse through soft yellow.
The multiple bud trusses are made up of relatively small individual flowers, typical of other rhodies in this triflora subsection (which also boasts the too-blue-to-be-believed R. augustinii). Yet despite the quieter, ethereal quality of its flowers, R. lutescens in bloom emanates waves of light and energy, largely because the surrounding landscape has yet to emerge from its winter funk (admittedly, I could be projecting here).
Unlike the many dense, stiff, glossy-leaved rhodies, R. lutescens has an airy, billowing form, with light green leaves that emerge bronze and retain a red tint to their edges in ample sun. Though they are evergreen, a dark background - perhaps your existing rhodie hedge - will go a long way toward showing off the shrub in leaf and particularly in flower.
Lucie Sorensen, proprietor of The Bovees Nursery in Portland, Oregon (and a doyenne worthy of the name), has some unexpected advice about R. lutescens: Grow it in sun. Not how you'd expect to treat such a pale beauty, but Sorensen insists it will be more compact, will bloom more heavily, and - could it be? - once established, will not need supplemental summer water. I've also seen them growing happily in filtered light. So if you're looking out your window in late winter and notice that nothing is blooming, it's the time to renounce abstinence and bring home a precocious shrub.