Growing Australian Rhododendrons

By Jeff Howes

Vireya lochiae, image Jeff Howes

While rhododendrons are very popular plants in Australian gardens, there are only two species that we can truly call our own.

They are both Vireya Rhododendrons – rainforest species found in mountainous tropical areas of SE Asia, New Guinea and North Queensland. These species are members of the Erica family, which has a fairly small representation in Australia.

Rhododendron lochiae was long thought to be the only Australian member of the genus, but in 1995 it was realised that there was a second and separate species which was named Rhododendron notiale.

Rhododendron lochiae grows naturally in north-eastern Queensland. Growing to 1.2m, this shrub has stiff foliage and reddish young stems. The flowers are spectacular, rosy-red bells which are borne in summer and autumn. It is slow-growing.

Rhododendron notiale is different from R. lochiae in that the shape of the flower tube is curved rather than straight. See a picture. Stems of Rhododendron notiale are not red like those of Rhododendron lochiae. R. notiale is indigenous to north Queensland.

Vireyas are popular garden plants and will grow as far south as Melbourne provided they are protected from frost. Rhododendron lochiae has been hybridised with various other species to produce a number of garden plants such as ‘Tropic Fanfare’ and ‘Arthur’s Choice’.

Both these native rhododendrons and the cultivars, require a sheltered position in a shaded location. They require acid soil, high in organic matter. In their rainforest homes they often grow as epiphytes wherever they can find sufficient light. They can be grown successfully in pots in an orchid-growing medium. Pruning lightly after flowering and pinching out young plants will help to produce compact specimens.

Propagation is relatively easy from cuttings.