Some people feel that February is a good time for a vacation, given the unreliability of Vancouver’s winter weather. Still, our shortest month actually has enormous potential when it comes to flowers and it’s always worth a trip to the Garden to see what’s in bloom. Of course in a particularly mild winter all kinds of spring flowers will emerge as early as February, but as already suggested, such moderate weather can never be depended upon. Regardless, there are examples of stalwart February flowers we can always look forward to in Vancouver—winter camellia (Camellia sasanqua), viburnum (Viburnum ´bodnantense), jasmine (Jasminum nudiflorum), witch hazel (Hamamelis mollis and its hybrids) and honeysuckle (Lonicera´purpusii) topping the list. Some, like the winter-flowering mahonias, are even spectacular—’Charity’ (Berberis ´media) and Thai mahonia (B. duclouxiana) being most evident of these, both visually and aromatically at this time of year. A variety of smaller bulbs, such as the dwarf daffodil, Narcissus ‘Sir Cedric Morris’, and common snowdrops (Galanthus nivalis) are also normally blooming in February, as are winter heathers, especially Erica carnea.
However, at UBC Botanical Garden, the poster-child for early flowers is the “great bell rhododendron,” Rhododendron ririei. Invariably the earliest to flower at the Garden, R. ririei nearly always shows colour through its buds in any but the coldest weather after the Winter Solstice, and usually starts producing a few flowers in January. Like a good number of plants whose blooms are tough enough to survive the midwinter chill, this rhododendron typically continues pumping out flowers until it peaks in late February or early March. The flowers are individually large, rose-pink to mauve-purple with crimson-black nectar pouches (popular with the hummingbirds), and held in showy trusses of five to ten flowers. They look superb perched above the handsome, glossy, 25-cm-long, white-backed leaves. Two distinct groups of these large rhododendrons can be seen up Farges Trail just above Upper Asian Way in the David C. Lam Asian Garden. The group closest to Upper Asian Way includes plants that are developing a definite tree-like habit. Their flowers are light rose-pink. These are plants grown from cuttings taken in 1982 at Caerhays Castle, a famous rhododendron, camellia and magnolia estate in Cornwall. The other group of great bell rhododendrons is located in the adjacent bed to the northeast. These are older plants, propagated in 1973 from specimens originally derived from Leonardslee Gardens in West Sussex—the home of famous rhododendron breeder Edmund Loder. They have smaller, deeper mauve-purple flowers and darker foliage. While similar in height to the Caerhays group plants (both now approaching 5 m in height), the Leonardslee group is somewhat shrubbier, all of the plants growing together as one great mass, densely and attractively clothed to the ground with leaves. Rhododendron ririei was introduced to cultivation by Ernest “Chinese” Wilson, who collected it in 1904 from Mt. Omei, Sichuan, China, and named it for his friend, the Reverend Benjamin Ririe.
Submitted by Douglas Justice, Associate Director of Horticulture & Collections, Jan 31, 2015.