Alpine Garden Society

Ulster Group

Plant of the Month, October 2010
Rhododendron camtschaticum  Pallas- by David Ledsham
When not in flower this unique little Rhododendron might easily be mistaken for a dwarf species of arctic willow, especially since it hardly attains a height of 10-15 cm. Nevertheless, being gently stoloniferous, it is capable in time of creeping or suckering over a considerable area given optimum conditions. 
  It is completely deciduous and when the leaves eventually appear they are conspicuously setose (i.e. possessing small hairs) particularly on  their margins.  Towards the end of September and throughout Autumn the leaves take on beautiful shades of russet and gold so that the plant is worth growing simply for its late foliage. 
The flowers suddenly appear in May/June and are quite large when considering the diminutive nature of the the plant. They are held aloft on erect pedicels, presumably to attract pollinating insects and to receive every possible glimmer of sunlight during the short summer. 
R. camtschaticum is distributed along the Pacific seaboard from Japan to Alaska, also occurring on Sakhalin Island, the Kuril Archipelago and the Kamchatka Peninsula itself. It is essentially a tundra component, associating with dwarf species of Salix, Vaccinium, Phyllodoce, Dryas and Diapensia, together with many Mosses and Lichens.
 In cultivation it produces copious amounts of seed which matures very quickly in comparison with other members of the genus. It is said that the seed does not germinate very readily although I have yet to test it. 
 I have the plant growing in a sink along with other young Rhododendrons but I suspect that within a year or two it will completely dominate the other plants in the sink and will have to be moved on into open ground. I am already attempting  to propagate its 'stolons'. Despite the fact that every available image of R. camtschaticum growing in its native habitat invariably contains  plenty of snow, the Pacific influence also brings insulating mists, moist winds, and very few late frosts. In other words the species should feel at home in our part of the world. 
After all, Kamchataka is approximately at the same latitude as Northern Ireland, it's just that the ocean has a different name!  

 R. c. with R. quinquefolium (above)

Incidentally, in putting this short account together, I have become much more closely acquainted with the flora and fauna of the Kamchatka Peninsula, not to mention its 26 active volcanoes. Maybe one day the more intrepid members of the Ulster Group will venture into this forbidding but beautiful land, braving both its mosquitoes and its bears, in order to explore its botanical bounty.  

Rhododendron camtschaticum: by John Weagle  

The Illustrated Rhododendron : Pat Halliday p.252 Timber Press 2001