Rhododendron 'Hill's Bright Red'
"Those falling blossoms
all return to the branch when
I watch butterflies."
Hill's Bright Red rhododendron is a Polly Hill or "North Tisbury" cultivar developed at the Polly Hill Aboretum. on the island of Martha's Vineyard in Massachussetts. Besides world-famed rhododendron cultivars, Polly Hill introductions include numerous dogwoods, stewartia, clematis & ilex, among others, but the azaleas & rhododendrons predominate.
The Polly Hill tendency to experiment is today both a tradition & part of the Mission Statement of the arboretum, which is now part of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts & a public treasure into perpetuity.
Some of the Polly Hill North Tisbury shrubs are individualistic peculiarly zigzag-branched flattened groundcovers best for rockeries, like our late-blooming Rhododendron nakaharae. But Hill's Bright Red has a classic, evenly mounding shape that is just naturally round & tidy. It reaches only three feet in ten years, so our specimen, which is over three feet tall & a wider still, is a fully mature plant.
We bought it in April of 2002 at the annual spring sale of the Rhododendron Species Foundation, where it was exceedingly cheap for such a mature plant, because it had not set buds that year & couldn't compete with fully budded shrubs for easy sale. The vendor was an elderly chap with a trustworthy face, who said not to worry about the lack of buds, it just needed fertilizing & more sun than it had had in his garden, & he promised it'd do great the following year.
Liking the compact form, we hauled it off home & gave it a position in our gardens at the foot of the front staircase where it got a mix of direct & dappled sunlight morning & afternoon. It was immediately beautiful just for its bright evergreen leafiness. Later in autumn & for winter the leaves developed of reddish sheen, becoming prettier still.
It did suffer a bit that first year from having formerly been planted in deep shade & now finding itself at the top of its sun tolerance, & had some slight fungal spottiness from heat stress. But by now the roots have settled, some surrounding bushes have gotten leafier with time to shelter it a little, so it is not apt to have heat problems ever again.
In early April 2003 it had gorgeous buds, which are shown in the first photo as puffy bright red pillows well before the trusses open into full flower. Azaleas & rhodies with fully colored buds generously lend an "extra week or two" of bright color to the garden.
At mid & late April, lasting into May, the large trusses are fully opened, shown radiating from an overhead-shot in the second photo.
An additional feature is spring's new leaves, which first appear as a brilliant rusty red that slowly mature to regular green. The third & fourth photos show the new leaves as they appear at April's end. Until these leaves harden to green, the shrub really looks like it has a second kind of flower.
'Hill's Bright Red" was hybridized from two former hybrids, 'Elizabeth' pollinated by 'Kilamanjaro,' which puts in its heritage at least R. forrestii , R. griersonianum & R. elliotti , all of which have crimson flowers. So it's hardly surprising that true to its cultivar name, 'Hill's Bright Red' has flowers which are among the most vibrantly red of all reds. The cultivar was once common but has competition from many red cultivars including others from Polly Hill, so it seems not to be a very common offering nowadays, which is too bad as other reds don't hold the roundish shape of the shrub so naturally.
Though liking more sun than the majority of rhodies, we learned the hard way it will get spotty leaves if stressed in high summer, & will need extra waterings during the hottest weaks. Beyond that it is totally trouble-free, rarely even needing a light pruning since it retains its rounded shape come what may.
For more photographs of this shrub, go to the:
'Hill's Bright Red' Page of the Rhododendron Gallery
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