316. Elepidote Rhododendron

Elepidote Rhododendron

Rhododendron ‘Mrs. Charles S. Sargent’

Accession 16968*A

This rhododendron hybrid was named ‘Mrs. Charles S. Sargent’ after Mary Allen Robeson, wife of the Arboretum’s founding director. In spring, the rhododendron grows a profusion of pink flowers. An evergreen, the rhododendron retains its green leaves year-round.

In 2010, an act of vandalism inspired a curatorial review of the rhododendrons in Rhododendron Dell. Manager of Plant Records Kyle Port tells the story below.

My name is Kyle Port, and I’m the Manager of Plant Records.

My primary role here is running our inventory program, in which we go into the landscape, looking at individual plants, making sure that they’re mapped properly, that they’re labeled properly, and most importantly, that we do a write-up on those collections for their health and performance in our landscape. 

In our day-to-day work as we go and inventory our collections, making sure that labels are on the plants that we grow is very important for researchers, educators, and the general public. It’s our primary means of interpreting the collections for people that visit here. Oftentimes when we’re out inventorying the collections, we’ll notice that a label is missing. We’re open and free to the public, and sometimes these labels get taken by visitors, or they fall off because the wind has blown them off. Making sure that these plants are well labeled is something that we maintain in curation. 

In 2010, it was reported in Rhododendron Dell that there was a pile of labels on the ground, a stack of labels that weren’t attached to any plant. This, of course, is a red alert in our department. When I went down to Rhododendron Dell, I realized that the shenanigans that happened down there, the label removal was significant enough, and egregious enough, that it would take a long time to rectify, to make sure that the plants were then labeled correctly. 

After we found the labels were removed in Rhododendron Dell, we took pause and took stock of the situation and decided to expand the project beyond just relabeling. We thought this would be an opportunity for us to verify the collections and do more of an intense curatorial review. Curatorial reviews happen all the time across the landscape and it’s a way that we review plants, review their value, potentially remove or cull plants from the collections, add to the collections so the acquisition of new plants, and then along with that, just making sure that the resources, the maps that we have, and the labels that we have are correct. 

In 2010, we started a multiple-year review when the plants were flowering to use resources to make sure that we had the proper identity attached to each one. Of course, that goes along with good labeling.

We were also able to tackle in conjunction with the horticulturists to make sure that the plants were well cared for. Many of the plants in Rhododendron Dell are very old. They date to the mid-19th century, and so they had layered and they were quite large. Many of the flowers were held way above people’s heads, and it gave us an opportunity to work with horticulture to identify those plants that needed to be rejuvenated, where layers could be removed to bring the plant back into the proper form, to reinvigorate plants so they had blooms that were easy for people to see and enjoy. 

The hardest thing about the curatorial review that we conducted in Rhododendron Dell was the fleeting nature of rhododendron flowers. Depending on the weather, you can have a day or several weeks where you can look at those flowers and spend time and make the proper identification and do the proper observations. There were a few seasons where we did have heavy rain or it got very hot and the blooms wilted. Timing and the environment were very important in the process, or, was a challenge in this process.

One of the things I learned in doing the curatorial review in Rhododendron Dell is the rich history about the plants that we grow and the people that impacted the collections. There are many different personalities that were involved in the development of the collections from our first director, Charles Sprague Sargent, to our Keeper of the Living Collections today, Michael Dosmann. They all had different interests in developing the collections. Learning about the history of these collections and how they were received and how they were brought was very interesting. 

Another thing that excited me a lot was getting to know the cultivars that we grow and the subtleties and the differences that make each cultivar stand out, each named variety stand out, from one another. There’s incredible diversity in this collection that you’ll see when you walk through the collections from ruffled petal edges to fantastic banner petals with petal markings on them and a great variety of leaf shapes and leaf types. Rhododendrons flower for a very short period of time. If you are a lover of rhododendron, you really have to like the leaves that are presented before you. Not only are the flowers exciting to learn about and discover, but the leaf variety as well. 

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