Rhododendron History


The naming of “H.M.S. RHODODENDRON,” a British World War II battleship, illustrates the high regard for this impressive flower, particularly in Britain. Launched in 1940, the ship set a proud historic course in the English Channel, the Atlantic, and Normandy. The rhododendron flower has a much longer and more colorful history, established since ancient times and world-traveled.

Ancient Poisoning History

Ancient armies did not derive much joy from rhododendrons. A written account dating back to 4th century Greece describes how soldiers who consumed honey made from the poisonous nectar of Rhododendon luteum (Pontic azalea), a deciduous and hardy landscape shrub, became violently ill. In the nectar is a poisonous compound that triggers low blood pressure, shock and even death, according to the Henning’s website. Common names of this so called mad honey disease include rhododendron poisoning, mad honey intoxication or grayanotoxin poisoning.

First Cultivated Species

“Rhododendron” means “rose tree” in Greek. There are about 850 species of rhododendrons in a wide variety of colors, shapes and sizes. They are native to temperate areas of Asia, Australia, Europe and North America. The Alpine rose (R. hirsutum) was the first cultivated species, originating in the European Alps. Its introduction to Britain took place in 1656.

Voyages Of Discovery

Voyages of rhododendron discovery to China found species like R. fortunei in Chekiang, eastern China. In 1867 in Canton, Pere Jean Marie Delavay of the Missions Etrangeres named R. hanceanum for the British Consul, H.F. Hance. In Yunnan, he collected and named R. yunnanense, among other species. In 1899, a British botany student named Ernest Henry Wilson arrived in China with the mission to collect seeds. From Ichang, he secured 16 rhododendron species. A further feather in Wilson’s cap was the first introductions of rhododendrons from Japan, Korea and Taiwan on behalf of the Arnold Arboretum, including R. pseudochrysanthum and R. morii. Wilson undertook these missions between 1914 and 1919.

Rhododendrons At Kew

Rhododendron Dell in England's Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, displays over 700 specimens, some of which are unusual hybrids that grow only in the Dell. Specimens from Sikkim, India arrived in 1850, collected by Sir Joseph Hooker, who subsequently became a director of Kew. His work, “Rhododendrons of the Sikkim Himalaya,“ published in installments between 1849 and 1851, documented 43 species and included 30 color plates. Seed he collected in Sikkim eventually grew at Kew. Rhododendrons from China date back to 1911. According to the Kew website, a respected 19th century horticulturist and writer, Donald Beaton, pronounced Kew’s display of rhododendrons the finest in England.

Florence Rhododendron Festival

The Florence Rhododendron Festival, held in Oregon since 1908, was the brainchild of a local businessman, George Miller. Wild, white-pink rhododendrons color the hills and fields of Florence with their flowers, blooming in May, as they have for more than 1,000 years.

Keywords: history of rhododendrons, Kew's Rhododendron Dell, Florence Rhododendron Festival

About this Author

Based in Northern California, Maureen Katemopoulos has been a freelance writer for more than 25 years. Her articles on travel, the arts, cuisine and history have appeared in publications such as "Stanislaus Magazine," "Orientations," "The Asia Magazine" and "The Peninsula Group Magazine." She holds a Baccalaureate degree in journalism from Stanford University.