Rhododendrons on the rampage

by James Alexander-Sinclair

I've just returned from a week on the wonderful Isle of Colonsay, which is a two-hour ferry ride from Oban into the Atlantic.

Rhododendron ponticum flowersI've just returned from a week on the wonderful Isle of Colonsay, which is a two-hour ferry ride from Oban into the Atlantic. I wrote about it last year as well, so you'll realise that, when it comes to holiday destinations, I'm not overly blessed with imagination. I do have exceptionally good taste, though: when the sun shines, Colonsay is paradise on earth. (It's not too bad even when, like much of west Scotland, conditions are extremely wet and windy.)

The main house on the island, Colonsay House, is surrounded by a thick belt of trees that some far-sighted and very sensible forebear planted. This gives the gardens enough shelter from the Atlantic gales to allow all sorts of interesting things to thrive. So far, so good. However, one of the problems is that part of the shelter belt was planted with Rhododendron ponticum.

The wildest rhododendron of all, R. ponticum was first introduced into cultivation in the 1760s. It's sometimes used as a rootstock for other, more distinguished, rhododendrons, although its vigorous suckers (and copious amounts of seed) can easily become a problem. Each plant can cover many square metres of ground and on Colonsay (and other areas of west Scotland) it thrives on the acid soil and is taking over great swathes of woodland, choking out more delicate native flora.

What can be done about this? Basically, it requires somebody to cut the things into small pieces and chuck them on a bonfire. Much of this work is organised by the British Trust for Conservation Volunteers (BTVC), which supplies hearty crews of people wanting an energetic working holiday in a beautiful place.

The BTVC is a hugely worthwhile organisation. It was begun in the 1950s when 42 volunteers (including David Bellamy) cleared tracts of Box Hill in Surrey to prevent dogwood from taking over. Since then they've got bigger and bigger and do sterling work tree planting and clearing vegetation all over the country. It's a great way to give something back, get outside, meet interesting people and come home pleasantly glowing with worthy exhaustion.

So, if you feel like dealing death to rhododendrons in Scotland or planting trees in your local area, you could do worse than contacting either Colonsay Estates or the BTCV.

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Gardeners' World Web User 29/09/2008 at 19:57

Hi Rhododendron Chop - you can prune them straight after they've flowered. But if it's one of the really tough ponticum hybrids you can cut it almost to the ground, almost any time of year cos they're impossible to kill... Better be a bit more gentle though, if you're fond of it.

Gardeners' World Web User 28/11/2011 at 18:36

I don't want to destroy my rhodo but would like to know when it's safe to give them a good prune?