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Vireya rhododendrons

Known for their brilliant colour, vireyas are the star of the rhododendron family, often flowering all year round.

Vireya rhododendron Simbu SunsetImagine the surprise, and even delight, on the faces of English botanists and gardeners when expeditions returned from Malaya and Indonesia in the mid-nineteenth century with a new group of rhododendrons that flowered nearly all year round.

They were well familiar with "traditional" rhododendrons which fell mainly into two groups — those we know as the deciduous azalea, and the large, cold-hardy, spring-flowering evergreen types.

Vireya rhododendron ScentsationThese new "East Indian" rhododendrons were seemingly very different from the familiar types — they needed a heated greenhouse, they were frost tender, they knew no season and flowered all the year round. The only thing in common seemed to be their need for regular moisture and an acid soil.

We now know the "East Indian" types as Vireya rhododendrons after the French pharmacist and natural historian Julien Joseph Virey. They have their origins in the area that extends from Malaya to the Philippines and from Indonesia to Papua New Guinea.

Vireya rhododendron FireplumIn their natural habitat they thrive in dappled sunshine and high light conditions and moist surroundings. They're seldom found growing on the forest floor — it's too dark. Most often they're growing happily in the leaf litter that's collected in the bough of a larger tree high above the ground, or at ground level on the edge of a forest clearing, or along a road cutting.

Known for their brilliant colour, the flowers come in varying sizes, but are typically set in clusters and tube-shaped — some narrow and deep, others quite large and shallow. They'll flower at almost any time of year, up to three to four times a year for six to eight weeks at a time.

Vireya rhododendron Cordial OrangeMost grow to form open bushes with a distinctive 'twiggy' habit. Indeed when we first grew vireyas in the late 1980s, many gardeners were less than impressed with their habit. They are so different from the large, cold-hardy, spring-flowering evergreen types. This concern is now gone and a wide range of Vireya rhododendrons are enjoyed for their colour, freedom of flowering and open habits.

Use vireyas anywhere — in the garden, under eaves, in containers, patio pots and conservatories. Some of the scrambling varieties can even be used in a low basket.

In the garden, vireyas need similar conditions to evergreen azalea — good light levels and full sun to dappled shade (though some protection against summer's burning sun is beneficial). Strong wind will knock them around, and protection from all but the lightest frost is essential.


Vireya rhododendron Saxon BlushMany Vireya rhododendrons come in gorgeous reds, such as 'Fireplum', and bright oranges, such as 'Cordial Orange', but there are some, like 'Luraluense', which have white flowers. 'Luraluense' also possesses a noticeable perfume, which is another exciting characteristic of some vireyas. Catch of whiff of 'Great Scentsation' and you'll see what we mean!

Saxon Glow and Saxon Blush are two very novel Vireya rhododendrons. Saxon Glow, with its sensational red flowers, and Saxon Blush, with apricot flowers and a flare of coral red on petal margins, were bred by crossing a rare, compact — almost groundcover — species with the more familiar open forms.

Vireya rhododendron Saxon GlowThe resulting habit is how they differ from other vireyas. They're compact with very short internodes — the distance between leaves on the stem. This makes for a dense bush, avoiding the open, and sometimes leggy, look of other vireyas.

Saxon Blush grows just 40 cm high, while Saxon Glow is a little taller, 60cm. Both are easy-care evergreens, ideal for patio pots, garden beds and conservatories.

Using Vireya Rhododendrons

  • Use anywhere for a stunning burst of colour. Several different varieties planted in a clump will almost certainly produce all year round flowers.

  • In gardens and rockeries — remember they do best in a freely drained soil.

  • Patio pots and tub gardens. Don't overpot, though. They like a "lean" root zone.

  • In colder areas, pots offer an additional advantage — they can be moved to provide winter shelter.

  • If you've not got a conservatory, Vireya rhododendrons provide a great excuse — start building today!

Growing Vireya Rhododendrons

Vireyas are pretty tolerant plants, but here are a few tips that help plants thrive not just survive!

  • Plant in full sun to dappled shade — but it helps if there is some shelter from the harshest of summer sun.

  • An open soil is best; they need excellent drainage. Wet feet is often the main reason for poor growth, weak flowering and death. Heavier soils can be made more friable by incorporating compost and gypsum.

  • Having said the above, they do need adequate moisture. Try not to let them dry out. Mulch to help conserve moisture.

  • A feed with a slow release fertiliser (8-9 month) early spring will provide tucker for the spring and summer growing season. Avoid using lime; vireyas prefer acid soils.

  • Natural legginess can be discouraged by pinching out every second growth flush.

  • Like azalea, vireyas are subject to the odd insect attack. Keep an eye out for tell-tale signs — curled leaves, leaves with holes, etc, and seek advice from you local garden centre.

Liddle Wonder

Reproduced with permission from NZOOM Home and Garden content,
from the previous website of  TVNZ News

The views expressed here are not necessarily those of the RNZIH

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Last updated: March 1, 2021