Updated: Nov 24, 2022
"Roger didn't need to read it; he knew well enough the thoughts that were going through the other's mind. The same thoughts he'd wrestled with, during those weeks between Beltane and Midsummer's Eve, during the search for Brianna across the ocean, during his captivity - and at the last, in the circle in the rhododendron hell, hearing the song of the standing stones." -- DRUMS OF AUTUMN, by Diana Gabaldon, Chapter 71
Where I live, in Washington State, "rhododendron hell" is the experience of renovating giant specimens of this shrub, planted 50 0r 60 years ago, that now block the windows of the house. Rhododendron hybrids do very well in the Pacific Northwest and were popular landscape plants in Seattle in the 1940s and 50s. Today most of my landscape design clients tell me that they don't like rhodies - mostly because they have had it with the varieties planted back in the day. But there are many smaller species to choose from, many with interesting foliage or unusual flowers. So I suggest that clients either visit a nursery or The Rhododendron Species Botanical Garden and take another look before crossing them off their list forever.
On the other side of the US, in Georgia and North Carolina, "rhododendron hell" means something quite different. Something that Roger could definitely relate to. There, rhododendrons grow wild in the woods, forming large, dense, tangled masses. Their impenetrable canopies hide steep terrain and cause unwitting hikers to lose their footing, thus making their descent into "rhododendron hell."
Species: There are over 1,000 species of this plant, most of them hybrids
People often ask, "What is the difference between rhododendrons and azaleas?" Azaleas are a type of rhododendron, with certain botanical differences, such as the number of stamens, from the main category. You can read more about the differences on this page from the New York Chapter of the American Rhododendron Society.
Rhododendrons are found on every continent except Antarctica. The Rhododendron Species Botanical Garden in Federal Way, Washington, in the US, and Emu Valley Rhododendron Garden in Tasmania, Australia feature plantings of rhododendrons collected from their natural habitats around the world.
Rhododendrons and azaleas along Azalea Way at the
Washington Park Arboretum, Seattle. Peak bloom is April - May.
Rhododendron varieties have adapted to a wide range of environments, from the extreme conditions of the Himalayas to the tropical forests of Borneo. In tropical jungles, they may be epiphytes, living in the tree canopy. In open areas, they are shrubs or small trees. They tend to like acidic soil and sharp drainage.
Exbury azaleas are deciduous and their sherbet colored
flowers are wonderfully fragrant.
Food or Poison?
In Nepal, where the rhododendron is the national flower, the flowers are eaten fresh, dried or pickled.
However, no one should think that it is safe to eat any part of this plant. Rhododendrons are highly toxic to horses and other grazing animals. In humans, effects ranging from hallucinations to death have been reported.
Wikipedia has this to say about eating honey from bees that consume nectar from rhododendrons and azaleas:
"Xenophon described the odd behaviour of Greek soldiers after having consumed honey in a village surrounded by Rhododendron ponticum during the march of theTen 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."
And that is yet another version of what is called "rhododendron hell."