Monstrous rhododendron is a late bloomer | Editor's Column

Finally, our flower is blooming. We have only one flower in our front yard, as it’s the one thing that grows naturally in our dark, damp surroundings. The rhododendron is native to the Northwest, but this one is the result of some mad hybridizer’s experiment years ago.

Back in the early ‘90s the Department of Ecology issued a three-page, single-spaced news release declaring it had discovered a hazardous chemical area on Whidbey Island. It sounded like big news, as if the DOE detectives had uncovered a hidden smelter or paper company operating on the island. The perpetrator was duly named, embarrassed and fined, and of course his story made the newspaper. As it turned out he was caught with a few piles of commercial fertilizer that weren’t properly registered or stored, according to DOE regulations. He used this fertilizer liberally on his rhododendrons, which explained why they were locally famous for growing fast and sprouting glorious blossoms.

Our house was new at the time and needed a bush beside the front steps, so we went to our friendly neighborhood lawbreaker who was surprisingly friendly and helpful. One would think that someone with unregistered and improperly stored fertilizer would be a madman, perhaps sprouting two heads and three arms due to fertilizer experiments gone horribly awry. But other than the stigma of being publicly flagellated by the DOE, he was one of the nicest guys around, other than being obsessed by rhododendron growth. We described our situation to him, he figured we might be happy with a rhododendron that would grow 10-feet high, and he dug up a baby about knee high and handed it over for $15.

We planted the little bush next to the steps and waited. It wasn’t long before we learned what 10-feet means in rhododendron terms. It’s not a straight line from the hoop to the basketball floor. It’s the tip of a bush that branches out at an alarming rate, with huge limbs lurching in every direction. We were afraid to prune it because it might fight back, so we let it grow and grow and grow. Neighborhood pets and children quit coming around our house, or perhaps they just disappeared when they got too close to the rhododendron. Annoyingly, Tarzan and his chimps would party in its branches. We started using only one side of the staircase as the monstrous rhodie had taken over the other side.

But every year all the hazards caused by our giant rhododendron were forgotten the week before Mother’s Day when it bloomed gloriously, with hundreds of burgundy blossoms bigger than Al Gore’s dinner plate. Our house could have made the cover of Better Homes & Gardens, as the plain abode  itself was entirely hidden by blossoms.

But this year the rhodie’s buds were tighter than a Republican budget committee well beyond Mother’s Day. The buds refused to burst open because of the wet, cold spring which was exactly like our wet, cold winter. We thought this was the end, that our mammoth rhodie was done for. We considered calling a logging company to cut it down.

Then, one night last week, the blossoms started opening, triggered no doubt by that day when the temperature soared to 61 degrees. This year, for the first time ever, we’ll have hundreds of blossoms for Memorial Day. It will be a fitting tribute to all those pets and children who have disappeared.

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