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Choosing the Best Early Rhododendron
By R. Wayne Mezitt
One of the most familiar and popular shrubs now seen in countless New England landscapes is the Rhododendron ‘PJM’. Developed in the 1940’s by Ed Mezitt ri
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ght here in Hopkinton, this plant has become world renown, and rightfully so. Few woody plants thrive or even tolerate the harsh conditions it does, and not many offer such a stunning display of early spring color, as well as distinctive winter appeal. This rhododendron has truly set the performance standard for Zone 5 and colder landscapes.
Once Ed Mezitt realized how outstanding his PJM actually was, he used it as a basis for developing many new cultivars with an increasingly wide range of flower and foliage colors and different growth habits. Ed spent the last decades of his life hybridizing and selecting some of the exciting Early Rhododendrons we now enjoy.
To be termed an “Early Rhododendron”, the plant is expected to reliably display its blooms in early spring, at the latest by Mother’s Day here in Hopkinton. Very few of the large leaf rhododendrons open their flowers so early in the season, and most Early Rhododendrons are the small leaf kinds, like PJM. But these plants are not all PJM’s – in fact many have entirely separate parentage, and consequently offer many different flower color, foliage and forms for your garden enjoyment.
In addition to ‘PJM’, here are some of the best of the Early Rhododendrons, listed in order of their blooming times:
  • ‘Weston’s Pink Diamond’. Fluffy double-pink flowers opening a week or more earlier than ‘PJM’. Colorful autumn foliage (see photo)
  • ‘Midnight Ruby’. Red-purple flowers. Green summer foliage turns a unique shiny black-bronze for the winter
  • ‘April Snow’. Double-flowering white with pungently-fragrant green leaves all year, and yellow winter stems
  • ‘Checkmate’. Low growing and compact form of the lavender-pink flowering ‘PJM’
  • ‘Red Quest’. Nearly red flowers on a slow-growing low mound, bright green leaves become bronzy green all winter
  • ‘Blue Baron’. Brilliant near-blue flowers, tiny elongated green foliage turns bronzed for the winter. Best in a protected location
  • ‘Molly Fordham’. Near-white flowers, leathery dark green foliage
  • ‘Landmark’. Large trusses of dark pink flowers appear red from a distance. Large leathery green leaves change to bronze-mahogany for winter
  • ‘Olga Mezitt’. Clear pink flowers, shiny bright green aromatic leaves turn dark bronzy copper as winter approaches. Chosen as a Cary Award Winner for 2007 (see www.CaryAward.com)
  • ‘Little Olga’. A sport from its parent ‘Olga Mezitt’ offering smaller leaves and a more compact growing form, ideal for smaller gardens.

Unlike their large-leaf relatives, most of the Early Rhododendrons (excepting ‘Blue Baron’) thrive in open, exposed locations, even in colder parts of New England. Coming out of winter they rarely show more than minor winter leaf damage, even following our most challenging conditions. Although they produce smaller size flowers, their hardiness, profusion of bloom and their tendency for even young plants to produce impressive displays more than compensates. People sometimes mistake them for evergreen azaleas, few of which perform very well in our harsh New England winters.

Be sure to choose a sunny planting location with well drained acid soil, and a high organic content. None of the Early Rhododendrons will perform well with “wet feet”, and they can suffer in boggy conditions. All require minimal fertilizing, and they readily tolerate shearing to maintain their size and shape – it’s best to cut them back right after they finish flowering. Try placing them near a walkway or path where their aromatic leaves can add to your enjoyment any time of year as you brush by.
The Early Rhododendrons are becoming increasingly available at garden centers in this region. But shop early -- those who wait for warmer weather often miss seeing them because they’ve finished flowering by the time “real” spring begins. Few types of woody shrubs offer so much enjoyment for so little care. And what could be more welcome in your yard than a bright display of color every year as spring begins anew!
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