KP Gardens

The Rhythm of Rhododendrons and Their Annual Call for Pruning


Mid-spring marks the starting line for the crucial race against nature’s clock. It’s the second installment of the pruning season when spring flowering shrubs become the object of my garden fixations and make late winter’s occupation with fruiting wood and shrubberies feel like amateur hour.

As the moment approaches, I twitch with anticipation, clippers in hand, and a vision that I’ve been ruminating on since last year. Pruning any shrub can take me a few seasons to get just right. I will sit and stare at them periodically, looking at the shape and noting where new cuts can be made to improve the structure and exposure to sunlight.

Between the spring blooms fading and the mid-summer bud setting, this is when the bulk of alterations should take place. While the camellia, forsythia, and lilac equally vie for my attention, no flowering shrub calls to me like a block of marble to a sculptor more than the rhododendron.

People seem to have a love/hate relationship with the rhododendron. To me, anything but total adoration seems blasphemous since their presence in any Pacific Northwest scene is as given as Mount Rainier or Bigfoot.

It is the state flower, after all. The native Pacific rhododendrons stand out strikingly among great stands of Douglas fir and cedar throughout our national forests. Take a drive on a spring day through the Olympics or Cascades and you will see blushing clouds of flowers floating among the deep greenery.

If it’s the flower that some find dreadful, I can see how perhaps the more common colors like shades of box-store purple and parking-lot pink don’t quite tickle people’s fancy. But surely those can never compare to varieties on the other end of the breeding pool spectrum. The ones that produce fairy-like, maroon-speckled lavender funnels, or masses of cheerfully vibrant yellows that fade to peach, reminiscent of a tropical cocktail. Not to mention the seizure-inducing oranges and reds which are truly spectacular and must be seen in person, as a camera will never be able to capture how incredibly vicious they are to the cornea.

Even beyond the allegiance I feel to the rhododendron as a symbol of regional pride, rhodies have provided the structural backdrop, if not the focal point, to all the familial gardens of my childhood. They’re specifically a unique part of my life as my great-grandfather was an accomplished rhododendron and azalea hybridizer and a modest selection of 112 out of his thousands of plants now reside in our yard.

Perhaps my partiality to the rhododendron may be more a symptom of Stockholm syndrome, blinding me to the reality of the plant others have been able to adequately observe; they can be a real pain in the you-know-what.

I’ve never carved marble before, but I have dusted my eyeball with the rhodie’s flaky bark as I pruned away the dead, tangled branches on the interior of a plant that has characteristically outgrown its space. I’ve also mistaken live wood for dead and created awkward holes in the shape of the shrub, hoping new growth would fill it in without anyone noticing. And who can forget the endless number of gluey pistils that have been tangled in my hair at the end of a long day of yard work?

Despite the list of frustrations that can be encountered with managing rhododendrons, I have found on my garden journey that they have been the best teachers when it comes to developing my pruning skills and I can’t help but indulge in the challenge they present in any garden.

Some sources will say rhodies are difficult to prune if you really need to prune them at all. While that is certainly the case if you want to keep them at a certain size or get them to grow in a particular manner or direction, I have found they have a fairly forgiving nature. Small mistakes can be remedied within a few seasons. Even large rejuvenation projects prove that certain rhododendron varieties just don’t want to quit.

The first time I saw a rhodie undergo a hard pruning I was horrified to see nearly all branches had been removed and what remained was a few barren trunks. I thought surely it was a goner. But give or take a few weeks, the dormant bud sites, which look like little green or brown nodes in the bark, about the size of a ballpoint pen, started sprouting new growth. To me, it was miraculous and demonstrated how I can allow myself to be a little more bold in the pruning process.

I do think hard pruning like that should be more of an exception than the rule. While I might make some big cuts here and there, I do generally take my sweet time to decide on exactly what I want to take out, as rhododendrons require some imaginative foresight into how they might end up growing.

Where I’m likely to do the most immediate pruning around the yard this time of year is along the garden edges and pathways. I primarily focus on snipping back protruding branches to a dormant bud where I can imagine new leaves and blooms forming next season. My favorite way to keep a rhodie tidy is one that I learned from my dad who learned from his grandpa, which is to pinch back the bright green stems originating from this season’s flower clusters. The same satisfying action can be taken with the spent flower heads.

If by some crazy chance, you don’t have a rhododendron in your yard, or you do and would like to explore more of what the species has to offer, a great place to see a wide variety in a formal garden setting is Whitney Gardens in Brinnon on Hood Canal. Or to view them against a more wild backdrop, visit Point Defiance Park in Tacoma.