Tuesday, June 19, 2012
A Beautiful Menace
This colourful display of Rhododendrom ponticum fills a little valley between the high pastures and the moorland to the south of Wolsingham in Weardale. The plants almost certainly originated in the grounds of the nearby St. John's hall, once the home of the Backhouse family who were bankers, tree planters and horticulturists who became famous as producers of new daffodil cultivars. The progeny of their old daffodil varieties fill the grounds around the hall in spring and at this time of year Rhododendron blooms that were once merely decorations beside the long drive leading up to the house fill the woodlands and these little moorland edge valleys. There would probably be more of them, but for the incredibly high rabbit population hereabouts that must limit the establishment of seedlings.
R. ponticum was introduced into Britain from Spain in 1763 and soon became popular with owners of large houses with extensive grounds. Cragside, home of Lord Armstrong in Northumberland, is still famous for its Rhododendron display.
Unfortunately the plant is very invasive and has been colonising woodlands and sheltered valleys on acid soils ever since it first escaped into the wild in 1894, smothering all natural vegetation of lesser stature in its dense , evergreen shade. The genus is noted for its interspecific hybrids, many of great garden merit, and in some parts of Britain R.ponticum seems to have hybridised with the North American species R.catawbiense, producing offspring with even greater environmental tolerance.
Rhododendron ponticum floral displays are at their best at this time of year and their abundant nectar usually attracts large numbers of bumblebees, though not when these photographs were taken last week, when it was cold and pouring with rain. The dazzling display of flowers did brighten up a dismal day, though.