Variegated rhododendrons: A 'wow' factor in the landscape

Landscape design: Variegated rhododendrons are impressive, but what you plant with them can also help light up the garden. Here's a designer's advice.

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    Rhododendron 'President Roosevelt' has red stems and bright golden variegation on its leaves.
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    Rhododendron 'Goldflimmer' has a compact growth habit, golden variegated foliage, and purple flowers.
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    Rhododendron 'Superflimmer' has bold variegation that really stands out in the landscape.
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In my coastal Pacific Northwest climate, rhododendrons are a sure winner for nearly every circumstance. They enjoy the partial shade and acidic soil under our native redwoods, deer don't bother them, and they're very low-maintenance if given composty soil with a thick layer of mulch.

Showy foliage is the star of the show

I'm fortunate enough to have the rhododendron specialty nursery Singing Tree Gardens only 20 minutes away from my house, so I stopped by the other day to see what was blooming. While the blossoms were stunning, what really caught my attention were the variegated rhodies with cream or gold foliage color.

While a stand of carefully chosen rhodies can bloom successively from January through June in our area, the foliage is the star of the show for most of the year. Variegated rhododendrons show up beautifully in the partial shade conditions they prefer, lighting up a shady spot and bringing brightness and cheer to your planting bed.

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Four favorites and what to plant with them

Don Wallace, owner of Singing Tree Gardens, was kind enough to share photos of these rhodies in action, since they weren't all blooming when I visited. Here are some of my favorites:

Rhododendron 'Unique Variegated' has a lovely rounded form, cream-colored flowers, and reaches five feet or taller in time. While the normal 'Unique' is known for having even, oval-shaped leaves with a refined, shiny appearance, 'Unique Variegated' has leaves that vary in shape, giving it a more textured look. [See first photo at left.]

The new growth is variegated in cream, fading to a yellowy-gold as the leaves age. Plant 'Unique Variegated' with Pieris 'Little Heath' nearby, to set off the creamy-gold color in the leaves.

Rhododendron 'President Roosevelt' brings a circuslike festivity to the March garden with its vivid reddish-pink blooms with white centers. [See first photo at top.] Some call the flowers gaudy, but with our overcast, rainy winters, many people crave a bold burst of color to start the spring show right. [See second photo at left; click on arrow at right base of first photo.]

While 'President Roosevelt' has a leggier habit than other variegated rhododendrons, I generally forgive it this mild flaw because of the pretty red new stems and bright golden variegation.

Plant it among lush shrubs like the Pacific Northwest native red twig dogwood, Cornus sericea, and let it light up your woodland border. It will reach five to six feet in height at maturity, so give it room to grow.

Rhododendron 'Goldflimmer' is my favorite variegated rhody. [See second photo above; click on arrow at right base of first photo.] It has a compact habit to four to five feet high, and purple flowers in May which harmonize nicely with the golden lightning bolts running through the center of each leaf. It can take full sun on the coast, but should be in partial shade inland to prevent the foliage from burning.

'Goldflimmer' pairs beautifully with the evergreen golden sweet flag, Acorus gramineus 'Ogon' for a year-round foliage show. Golden sweet flag's foliage helps carry the color theme through the garden beds.

Lastly, Rhododendron 'Superflimmer' [third photo above] is a newer introduction that is reportedly like 'Goldflimmer' in every way, except for the increased golden variegation. While the markings of 'Goldflimmer' are subtle enough to be missed from afar, 'Superflimmer' makes a strong statement with bolder coloration. The warm purple blooms in May are stunning against the foliage.

I hope you're feeling encouraged to seek out some of these choice shrubs. Not only are they sturdy and easy to grow, but they harmonize easily with other woodland and shade garden plants.

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Genevieve Schmidt is a landscape designer and garden writer in the redwoods of northern California. She shares her professional tips for gardening in the Pacific Northwest at North Coast Gardening, and on Twitter. To read more by Genevieve Schmidt here at Diggin' It, click here.

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