#78 Rhododendron





Rhododendrons at Sheffield Place-- Photo by E.K. Sparks



            Members of the heather family, Ericaceae, the more than 800 species of rhododendrons are flowering, mostly evergreen, shrubs, growing primarily in the northern hemisphere. Ranging in size from dwarf varieties of only a foot or so to giant specimen trees as tall as 20 to 30 feet (the Gelndoick Gardens website says rhododendrons “have no ultimate size” and “ and carry on growing indefinitely”), [1] rhododendrons bear their flowers in “’terminal racemes’ or clustered bunches of as many as two dozen flowers on the end of stems” in a wide range of colors from whites and pale yellows, through every imaginable shade of pink, red, and orange into mauves and fairly dark purples (Hogan 1143); many varieties have dots or stripes of contrasting color.

Linnaean classification initially differentiated rhododendrons from azaleas as separate species based on the criterion that azalea flowers had five stamens while rhododendrons had ten; other differences included the fact that azaleas tend to be deciduous, smaller, and bloom earlier (both in terms of plant maturity and in terms of season of the year) while rhododendrons are mostly evergreen, can grow to quite prodigious heights, and take many years before they begin setting blossoms (Milne 34). Generally speaking, azaleas are said to have “tubular or funnel shaped flowers” while rhododendrons “are more bell shaped.” [2] Subsequent taxonomical skirmishes plus modern DNA evidence have resulted in azaleas now being classified as a sub-species of rhododendron (Milne 39).


Although rhododendrons are quite ancient plants -- in his book on their history Richard Milne says that the fossil record shows them to be considerably older than the Himalayan mountains which became their native range (103) -- they did not reach the British Isles until fairly recently.  Growing for a brief period in Ireland during the interglacial period some 400,000 years ago, they died out in the little ice age (Milne 157) and did not return until they were re-introduced from Asia and North America in the eighteenth century (Milne 159).  First classified by Linnaeus in 1753, rhododendrons required a long investment of time and care and thus, initially, were mostly denizens of greenhouses and botanical gardens until new hybrids began to grace the horticultural landscapes of great estates. R. ponticum, now the purple plague of the Lakes District, was introduced in 1763. In 1767, a poem by Howard Jones about “Kew Gardens” mentions “rododendron” as the first plant in a list of new introductions to the imperial collections (Garrard 148-9). Milne asserts that by 1800, rhododendrons were being grown in many European gardens (48), and Hobhouse notes the growing popularity of “American Gardens” including azaleas and rhododendrons, at the end of the eighteenth century (203).


The mid-nineteenth-century saw a new flush of interest as Joseph Hooker, the son of .William Hooker then director of Kew, began bringing back brilliant new specimens from his travels in the Himalayan kingdom of Sikkim (Milne 57). Eventually totaling 28 in number, many a vivid red in color, these previously unknown varieties began to be planted at Kew in 1850, in an area in the north central part of the garden near the river which quickly became known as The Rhododendron Dell ( Desmond 208).




        Soon rhododendrons were so pervasive that they were no longer seen as exotic. As Greg Garrard discusses in his thought-provoking article on the treatment of rhododendrons during the Romantic period,  “by the second half of the nineteenth-century . . . the rhododendron had become naturalized to the extent that to some it seemed ‘native’” (152). This assumption of nativity led a number of poets anachronistically to project rhododendrons back into a romanticized past.  Milne notes an 1881 poem by John Todhunter which in which Keats imagines “Dim rhododendron thickets” long before species such as R. pontium had been widely naturalized, as well as a contemporaneous poem by William Allingham, “Garlands,” in which Dryden is gifted with a rhododendron wreath, a half century before the shrub was introduced to Britain (153).


Eventually some darker sides to rhododendrons were made apparent by their ubiquity.  For one thing, the plants are quite toxic. Milne notes that in China, the plant has several common names  which are variants of ‘goat staggers’ or ‘sheep staggering plant’” because ingestion often causes partial paralysis in livestock (7). In addition, the collapse of the indigenous timber market and a sudden fashion for evergreen ground cover to facilitate bird hunting combined with the relative cheapness of R. ponticum and its hardiness in cold weather led to widespread plantings which began to naturalize very quickly.  By the beginning of the twentieth century R. ponticum had begun to spread invasively in Scotland and Northern Wales.[3]


By 1887, when William Robinson was planting them at Gravetye Manor, rhododendrons  had become fixtures of the English Garden (Hobhouse 254), but their popularity had begun to breed a certain contempt.  In his classic The English Flower Garden, Robinson warned of over-plating rhododendrons “in large and often lumpy masses” where their over-use crowds out other plantings and creates “monotonous effects”(605).  Milne comments that literary rhododendrons “tend to lurk at the fringes, playing the role of the often sinister outsider,” citing the fifty-foot high, red rhododendrons which surround Manderley in Daphne DuMaruerier’s 1935 gothic best-seller, Rebecca (Milnes 143-4). By the fifties they had taken on the bourgeois patina of the middle class; Harold Nicolson banned them from the garden at Sissinghurst , calling them “fat stock brokers we do not want to have to dinner” (Brown, Vita’s Other World, 219).[4]


Because of their relatively recent introduction, rhododendrons have little presence in classical mythology or British literature other than those already mentioned. In his A Contemplation Upon Flowers, Ward notes that the name is Greek, a combination of  rhodos or rose and dendron or tree, but speculates that it referred to oleander rather than the contemporary plant (307). The only literary allusions he can conjure up are a poem by American Ralph Waldo Emerson and a mention of the “crimson bloom” in “The Rhododendron on the Alps,” by William and Mary Howitt where the speaker seems surprised to find the plant in its native alpine habitat (Ward 312; also mentioned by Garrad 151)[5]


The twenty-seven references to rhododendrons in Woolf’s writing fall into three basic clusters. The majority are observations of bushes at various locales, but rhododendrons also seem to share a bit of the sinister camouflaging properties of azaleas. In addition, Woolf repeats the anachronistic error of thinking that rhododendrons are native to the British isles by  inaccurately associating them with the landscape of prehistoric Britain. Although not all of Woolf’s rhododendrons are red, they often provide dramatic punches of color in either real or imagined landscapes.


Woolf’s earliest mentions of the flower simply catalogue various appearances. In her 1906 review of two books on the Lakes District, she contrasts Wordsworth’s detailed understanding of the area’s rocks and flora as “living parts of a vast and exquisitely ordered system” (E1 107) to the overly colorful evocations by the Canon of Carlisle, Rev. H.D. Rawnsley, whose description of the sun striking a rhododendron bush as if  “a coloured fire was spring in a fountain from the ground” obscures the actual details of the plant’s features (E1 108).  Her own personal encounters were less flamboyant.  In April of 1913, she writes her sister Vanessa that she and Marjorie Strachey are going to buy “ a rhododendron hedge to put against the fence,” (L2 22) showing that she sees the plant as a kind of blocking shrub. Once she and Leonard move to Hogarth House, there are several mentions of rhododendrons in the local parks. In February of 1916, she suggests a visit to what sounds like the Rhododendron Dell in a note to Saxon Sydney-Turner: “We would take you along the river, and into Kew Gardens, where the rhododendrons are all in flower” (L2  79). Another visit to Kew is recorded in January of 1918, when only “some miniature rhododendrons” were in bloom (D1 114).  In May of that same year, she tells of a nighttime visit to Richmond Park with Desmond MacCarthy where they “jumped a palisade” into a grove with ”dark green mounds pointed with red rosettes” causing her to reflect that “The rhododendron is a lovely flower for the moonlight.”(150).


In the 1920’s when rhododendrons begin to make their appearance in Woolf’s fiction, their dramatic red color is often coupled with a screening function. In their triple first appearance in the 1920 short story “An Unwritten Novel,” rhododendrons are figments of the imagination. First conjured as a substitute for aspidistra fronds to more fully conceal “the commercial travellers” who might evolve into an Aristotelian chorus, the narrator delights in the “fling of red and white” that the flowers would provide for the design of her story, but almost immediately rejects them as both impossible and improbable given the season and the class setting: “rhododendrons in Eastbourne—in December—on the Marshes’ table—no, no, I dare not; it’s all a matter of crusts and cruets, frills and ferns” (CSF 118). The rhododendrons are then compared to a character who remains nameless, one of the “unborn children of the mind, illicit, none the less loved, like my rhododendrons” (CSF 118). In the essay “Thunder at Wembly” published a few years later in 1924, the rhododendron bushes shelter another avatar of the imagination, the thrush, the voice of nature asserting itself whose singing announces “a whole chestnut tree with its blossoms standing” above the mechanical contrivances of Empire (E3 412).[6]


Although rhododendrons appear only once in Mrs Dalloway, the bushes again provide a screen associated with an imaginative jolt.  When Rezia and Septimus gather his papers before the arrival of Dr. Holmes which precipitates his suicide, their contents are itemized:  “Now for his writings; how the dead sing behind rhododendron bushes; odes to Time; conversations with Shakespeare; Evans, Evans, Evans—his messages from the dead” (MD 144). Now the rhododendrons shield another chorus, the voices of the dead, sending messages: “do not cut down trees. . . Universal love; the meaning of the world” (MD 144). In July of 1926, Robert Bridges amusingly acted out in real life the emergence of the poet from the bushes; Woolf records in her diary how he sprang “from a rhododendron bush” when she went to visit him and was shown the manuscripts of Gerard Manley Hopkins’ poetry which Bridges had been collecting for posthumous publication (D3 92-3).


            After a couple of brief sightings in Cornwall and in Janet Case’s garden near the New Forest (L3 309, 510) in the late twenties, during the thirties rhododendrons shift from screening edges to being decorative mounds. Returning to Nessa’s in June of 1932, Woolf recounts driving home “through vapours, tunnels, caverns of green: with pink & yellow glass mounds in gardens—rhododendrons” (D4 109).  A year later she repeats the image while meditating on “the synthesis of my being,” “how only writing composes it: how nothing makes a whole unless I am writing.”  Regretting that “now I have forgotten what seemed so profound,” all she can recall is “The rhododendron like coloured glass mounds at Kew” (D4 161).


            During these years, Woolf does occasionally refer slightingly to rhododendrons in terms that echo with their dismissal as “monotonous.” Just a few days after associating the colored mounds at Kew with the synthetic wholeness of writing in her diary, Woolf writes a letter to Lady Nelly Cecil describing an overheated trip to Loders garden in Sussex with her mother-in-law and “500 other old ladies” in which she proclaims her dislike for “that sort of garden—too many glades and rhododendrons and masses of fir trees” (L5 190).  Two days later she repeats the account to Ethel Smyth, again pairing the rhododendrons with excessive heat, too many old ladies, and the company of her mother-in-law: “I had to go round a summer garden with my mother in law, admiring rhododendrons with 500 old Sussex country ladies” (L5 192).


In 1937, Woolf showed an unusual understanding of the place of rhododendrons in the history of landscape gardening in her description of the pools and gardens at Sheffield Place, an eighteenth -century estate not far from Lewes where the historian of the Roman Empire, Gibbon, sometimes stayed.  The gardens at Sheffield place had been laid out in part by Lancelot “Capability” Brown, who also designed the bones of the area which became the Rhododendron Dell at Kew and was known for just the kind of arrangement of glades and forests interspersed with grassy spaces and rhododendron clusters which Woolf had criticized three years earlier.  Now freed from the irritations of heat and crowds of old ladies including her mother-in-law, Woolf returns to admiring the artistic effect of rhododendrons.  As in the earlier short story, “An Unwritten Novel,” these flowers are red and white and appear three times. Woolf begins the essay by emphasizing the doubling effect of seeing the rhododendrons reflected in the water: “The great ponds at Sheffield Place at the right season of the year are bordered with red, white and purple reflections, for rhododendrons are massed upon the banks and when the wind passes over the real flowers the water flowers shake and break into each other” (E6 102). As the photo I took at Sheffield Place shows, the rhododendrons are planted in great mounds which make perfect circles when mirrored in the water, producing an image of wholeness which faintly recalls her earlier musings on writing.  But just as in “An Unwritten Novel,” the imaginative vision of the rhododendrons gives way to a more probable reality.  As Woolf attempts to conjure what Gibbon would have said about the mirrored flowers, the wind of time breaks up her vision because there were as yet no rhododendrons planted in the late eighteenth century:  “to consider what Gibbon would have said had he seen the rhododendrons reflected in the water is an idle exercise, for in his day, late in the eighteenth century, a girl who looked out of the window of Sheffield Place saw not rhododendrons 'but four young swans . . . now entirely grey' floating upon the water” (E6 103).


This chronologically accurate realization of when rhododendrons began to be used in British landscape gardening is rather uncomfortably juxtaposed to Woolf’s more anachronistic treatment of imaginary prehistoric rhododendrons. As early as her 1928 essay “Flying Over London,” she had entertained the notion that paleolithic man in Britain lived in a world overrun with tangled groves of rhododendrons.  In her never-taken flight over the city, she imagines “the River Thames was as the Romans saw it, as paleolithic man saw it, at dawn from a hill shaggy with wood, with the rhinoceros digging his horn into the roots of rhododendrons” (E6 446) -- perhaps a rather displaced version of the “acid scimitar of the male” that plunges so relentlessly into the “rosy flowered fruit tree” that is Mrs. Ramsey in To the Lighthouse (TTL 41).


The last cluster of rhododendrons -- they appear at least three more times in Between the Acts -- reiterates this anachronism, with tusked mammoths and mastadons replacing the rhinoceros. Lucy Swithen’s favorite reading, the Outline of History, provokes repeated references to the prehistoric landscape of London during the time when England was still connected to the European continent. At the beginning of the novel she spends several hours “thinking of rhododendron forests in Piccadilly; when the entire continent, not then, she understood, divided by a channel, was all one; populated, she understood, by elephant-bodied, seal-necked, heaving, surging, slowly writhing, and, she supposed, barking monsters; the iguanodon, the mammoth, and the mastodon; from whom presumably, she thought, jerking the window open, we descend” (BTA 6). A few pages later, a remark about the apparently endless extent of the landscape, causes Mrs. Swithin to remark, “Once there was no sea. . . . No sea at all between us and the continent. I was reading that in a book this morning. There were rhododendrons in the Strand; and mammoths in Piccadilly” (BTA 21). Completing the tripartite rhythm is a meditation on the eternal return of the swallows that comes in the middle of the book, literally between the acts of the play, when Lucy Swithin notices birds fluttering in the rafters of the old barn: “Year after year they came. Before there was a channel, when the earth, upon which the Windsor chair was planted, was a riot of rhododendrons, and humming birds quivered at the mouths of scarlet trumpets, as she had read that morning in her Outline of History, they had come” (75).  Finally, there is a last echo of this prehistoric context at the very end of the novel, after the flowers and roses have faded in the twilight, when Mrs. Swithin goes back to looking at her book with the pictures of “mammoths, mastodons, prehistoric birds” and reads “England. . . was then a swamp. Thick forests covered the land. On the top of their matted branches birds sang.” (BTA 148.)[7]


Although attributed to the Outline of History, as various scholars beginning with Brenda Silver have noted, these last evocations of rhododendrons have no direct source in H.G. Wells’s text and owe more to a passage in Trevelyan’s History of England: “For many centuries after Britain became an island the untamed forest was king. Its moist and mossy floor was hidden from heaven’s eye by a close-drawn curtain of innumerable tree tops which shivered in the breezes of summer dawn and broke into wild music of millions upon millions of wakening birds” (qtd. by Silver, “Anon” 401).  Rhododendrons are present in neither source-text and thus Woolf’s insertion of them is invented for her own purposes, the reiteration of the claim that rhododendrons grew in London during a time when England was not separated from the continent making the flowers into a wishful evocation of a time of pre-civilized unity.



Also present in the first sentences of “Anon” (Silver, “Anon” 82), Woolf’s long, unfinished essay on the continuum of English literature, this evocation of a primitive, wooded landscape out of which the bird-song of inspiration emerges has some similarities with previous uses of rhododendrons. While there is only one dramatic fling of color -- the “scarlet trumpets” at whose mouths the humming birds quiver --  the plants are seen in a mass, from which is heard the voice of imagination-- first in the form of “barking monsters” and later on in the singing of prehistoric birds -- recalling the thrush in “Thunder at Wembly” as well as the voices of the dead singing messages of universal love to Septimus. As in “An Unwritten Novel” and “Sheffield Place,” the rhododendrons exist as a design element, repeated three times as part of a consciously patterned literary scaffolding, both present as figments of the imagination and absent in the sober, chronological reality of a Windsor chair.


Both present and absent, Woolf’s last rhododendrons appear at the end of her diary: “L. is doing the rhododendrons. . .” is its last sentence.



[2] See the Plant Addict webite:  https://plantaddicts.com/the-difference-between-azaleas-and-rhododendrons/  (Accessed 7/13/2021)


[3] Milne speculates that the widespread popularity of the synthetic dye mauvine among the middle classes also contributed to a general loss of popularity and cachet for the color purple.


[4] In his Portrait of his parents’ Marriage, Nigel Nicolson discusses Vita’s rejection of “violent colour or anything too tame or orderly” and confirms her banishment of rhododendrons from Sissinghurst “in favour of their tenderer cousin, the azalea” (204).


[5] The poem is available on Google Books:  https://www.google.com/books/edition/The_Desolation_of_Eyam/Zbc_AAAAYAAJ?hl=en&gbpv=1&printsec=frontcover   pp. 285-8. (Accessed 7/27/21.)


[6] Unfortunately for those in search of literary precedents, Yeats’ “Among School Children” was written two years later.


[7] Rhododendrons actually do appear at this point in the Earlier Typescript of the book, just before the flowers outside begin to fade (PH 184).  Interestingly, in the Earlier Typescript, rhododendrons appear only twice, once in the passage at the beginning, which is quite similar to the final draft and then again at the end.  In the Later Typescript, they appear three times, in the same passages as in the published text with their final appearance at the end after the flowers fade having being edited out of the final reference to the Outline (PH 254, 280, 344, 439).

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Welcome to the Virginia Woolf Herbarium.  For many years I have been researching and writing about Virginia Woolf and parks, gardens, and fl...