"The haggard woman with a hacking cough & a deathless love whispers of white flowers in your poem you pour like a cup of coffee, Gabriel."
'Snow Lady' is a hybrid small-leafed evergreen rhododendron of semi-dwarf stature.
Half of its heritage is Rhododendron leucaspis, native of mountains of southeastern Tibet & Yunnan, China, the home of so many important rhododendron species. The species name means "with white shield," alluding to the cream-white flowers with rusty-chocolate anther tips.
The pollinator for this hybid is less absolutely certain, but generally accepted to have been R. ciliatum, the Fringed Rhododendron. It is native of mountains of Bhutan, southeast Tibet, & eastern Nepal. Its blooms range from pinkish white to pure white. Its species name alludes to the pealing bark's bristly hairs & the hairs along the edges of the leaves.
'Snow Lady,' registered in 1958, was hybridized right here in the Pacific Northwest by Ben Lancaster, who created several semi-dwarf cultivars in his Camas, Washington gardens in the 1950s & 1960s. Some of his creations have been the basis of later hybrids.
Although in recent years there seem not to have been a lot of 'Snow Lady' produced for local sale, many older Northwest gardens do have this cultivar because it originated here & was formerly one of our regional standards. It presently seems to be more accessible in Canada & in Europe.
The tips of the anthers are in our specimen a dark magenta, though in many other specimens the color is closer to mahogany or brown. Except for these anther-tips, the faintly fragrant flowers are otherwise pure white, funnel-shaped, singles, slightly ruffled, in loose trusses of two to five blooms.
When its green buds first open but the funnels are still closed, the closed funnels puffy wrinkled footballs of greenish-white. The greenish tinge fades entirely away as the funnels open.
In Northwest gardens it's in flower almost the moment Spring begins, the last half of March & much of April. Ours is planted right by our back gate, which is a prominent location for our comings & goings. It is so shapely in its branchings as to truly justify having such a prime spot, whether or not it is in flower.
Some specimens are compact & broader than they are tall, but ours is an airy shrub with upright posture, as in fact is R. leucaspis. Its ten-year height is less than three feet, but as we obtained ours through a re-landscaping job that required some shrubs be removed, ours is actually a rugged four-foot shrub, probably no less than fifteen or twenty years old.
'Snow Lady' is very hardy, very flowery, very undemanding, & can tolerate cold-snaps to five degrees F. As an understory shrub, it will bloom even in bright shade, though ours is a protected location that does get full sun part of the afternoon.
The bit of direct sun probably increases its floweriness, though if it were grown inland where sun is harsher, it might be more susceptible to burning & bright shade more essential.
In Japan, 'Snow Lady' is "Yukionna," the name of a mountain demoness who sucks out the breath of people lost in snowstorms, & freezes them to ice. A wonderful film called Kwaidan is available on DVD, an anthology-film of delicate, pretty ghost stories, including the story of Yukionna as fairy-wife of a woodcutter.
The story was collected, retold, & thereby preserved by Victorian Irish-American author Lafcadio Hearn, who spent his last years in Japan. Some have speculated that he made the story up, but chances are he did hear it from his Japanese wife, though no one earlier seems to have collected it for print. It is his version of the story that has inspired films, comic books, & plays.
Even though the 'Snow Lady' was not that I am aware named for the Japanese demoness, it's not entirely out of the question that Ben Lancaster knew the story. And I certainly think of that story when I see 'Snow Lady' in flower. So I've included a portrait of Yukionna on this page; you can see that she has ice hanging from her kimono.
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