There are countless species and cultivars of rhododendrons. Some have been in cultivation for centuries. Their big bold blooms are spectacular against a backdrop of their dark evergreen foliage. They prefer shelters spots, and some are happy to bloom in places that are too cool and too shaded for other flowers to bloom so well. They are so impressive that no one notices that they lack fragrance.
There is certainly a lot of variety among rhododendrons. Some are low mounding shrubs, while other can grow as small trees with open branch structure. Flowers can be white, pink, red, purple, blue or maybe even yellow or orange. Most flowers have some sort of pattern within the main color, but some are solid colors. Nonetheless, regardless of all the variety, we think that we can recognize a rhododendron when we see one.
Then there is Rhododendron occidentale, the Western azalea. The flowers are sort of recognizable as either big azalea flowers or lean rhododendron flowers, but are quite distinct from what we think of as familiar rhododendron flowers. The color range is very different too, with more white, marked with yellow, pink or orange. Even more surprising is that the bloom is quite sweetly fragrant!
Foliage is also very different from what is expected from a rhododendron. Not only is it deciduous, but if well exposed, it can actually develop soft yellow, orange or brownish red color in autumn. Individual leaves are rather narrow and papery.
We have only a few Rhododendron occidentale at work. They are not as tolerant of the partial shade from the redwoods as the more familiar rhododendrons are. However, they do happen to be blooming exceptionally well this year, while the bloom of the more familiar rhododendrons is less impressive than it has been in many years.