Rhododendron Nova Zembla - Upper Brookville, New York  by © Sophie W. Smith
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Kingdom: Plantae
(unranked): Angiosperms
(unranked): Eudicots
(unranked): Asterids
Order: Ericales
Family: Ericaceae
Genus: Rhododendron

Rhododendron (from Ancient Greek ῥόδον rhódon “rose” and δένδρον déndron “tree”)23 is a genus of over 1000 species of woody plants in the heath family, either evergreen or deciduous. Most species have showy flowers.

Azaleas make up two subgenera of Rhododendron. They are distinguished from “true” rhododendrons by having only five anthers per flower.

Rhododendron is a genus characterized by shrubs and small to (rarely) large trees, the smallest species growing to 10–100 cm (3.9–39 in) tall, and the largest, R. giganteum, reported to over 30 m (98 ft) tall.4 The leaves are spirally arranged; leaf size can range from 1–2 cm (0.39–0.79 in) to over 50 cm (20 in), exceptionally 100 cm (39 in) in R. sinogrande. They may be either evergreen or deciduous. In some species, the undersides of the leaves are covered with scales (lepidote) or hairs (indumentum). Some of the best known species are noted for their many clusters of large flowers. There are alpine species with small flowers and small leaves, and tropical species such as section Vireya that often grow as epiphytes. Species in this genus may be part of the heath complex in oak-heath forests in eastern North America.

Like other ericaceous plants, most rhododendrons prefer acid soils with a pH of roughly 4.5-5.5; some tropical Vireyas and a few other rhododendron species grow as epiphytes and require a planting mix similar to orchids. Rhododendrons have fibrous roots and prefer well-drained soils high in organic material. In areas with poorly drained or alkaline soils, rhododendrons are often grown in raised beds using media such as composted pine bark.24 Mulching and careful watering are important, especially before the plant is established.

A new calcium-tolerant stock of rhododendrons (patented as ‘Inkarho’) has been exhibited at the RHS Chelsea Flower Show in London (2011). Individual hybrids of rhododendrons have been grafted on to a rootstock on a single rhododendron plant that was found growing in a chalk quarry. The rootstock is able to grow in calcium-rich soil up to a pH of 7.5.

Some species of rhododendron are poisonous to grazing animals because of a toxin called grayanotoxin in their pollen and nectar. People have been known to become ill from eating honey made by bees feeding on rhododendron and azalea flowers. Xenophon described the odd behavior of Greek soldiers after having consumed honey in a village surrounded by Rhododendron ponticum during the march of the Ten Thousand in 401 BC. Pompey’s soldiers reportedly suffered lethal casualties following the consumption of honey made from Rhododendron deliberately left behind by Pontic forces in 67 BC during the Third Mithridatic War. Later, it was recognized that honey resulting from these plants has a slightly hallucinogenic and laxative effect.27 The suspect rhododendrons are Rhododendron ponticum and Rhododendron luteum (formerly Azalea pontica), both found in northern Asia Minor. Eleven similar cases have been documented in Istanbul, Turkey during the 1980s.28 Rhododendron is extremely toxic to horses, with some animals dying within a few hours of ingesting the plant, although most horses tend to avoid it if they have access to good forage. The effects of R. ponticum was mentioned in the 2009 film Sherlock Holmes as a proposed way to arrange a fake execution.29 It was also mentioned in the third episode of Season 2 of BBC’s Sherlock (TV series), and has been speculated to have been a part of Sherlock’s fake death scheme. Read more

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