Rhododendron rhapsody

Peter Norris has a wealth of knowledge on this unique and vastly diverse plant species.


The leathery-leafed, bright-bloomed rhododendron has been ever-present in the hearts and nurseries of the Martha’s Vineyard garden community — and the love just keeps growing.

Veteran Island grower Peter Norris has more than 50 years of experience with this fascinating plant.

For Norris, part of his passion for the species stems from the incredible variety of rhododendrons, which boast blooms of all different colors and patterns.

In the 1980s, Norris began volunteering at Polly Hill Arboretum, where he realized his affinity for these plants, and gained a wealth of knowledge from Polly Hill, who also adored rhododendrons.

Over 1,000 species of rhododendron are known to exist, and with more than 1,500 of the plants and two nurseries filled with hundreds of seedlings on his property, Norris has a very large number of varieties, and can use these to make brand-new cultivars through a hybridization process.

One fact Hill taught Norris during his years of volunteering was that while some rhododendrons are grown from cuttings, it is preferable to grow them from seeds.

“Cuttings are the quick way,” Norris said, but he prefers to grow them from seed in his nursery.

After sowing seed, the plants stay indoors under fluorescent lights for around a year, until they are several inches tall.

When the plants are big enough to be transplanted, they are moved to nurseries, where they stay for another two years in order to adapt to the Vineyard climate and grow, Norris said.

According to Norris, he grows both hybrid rhododendrons and individual species.

By taking pollen from one species and placing it on the pistil of another, Norris can create new hybrids with the combined traits of both parents.

Norris is also a member of the Massachusetts chapter of the American Rhododendron Society (ARS). Founded in 1970, the Massachusetts chapter is one of the largest in the society, and has members in all the New England states and associate members all over the world.

One great resource the society has is something called Plants for Members — members contribute plant cuttings from their own gardens, and can then choose from cuttings sent in from the gardens of other members.

The society also offers a seed exchange, where anyone who contributes seed to the exchange can choose from a massive library of different rhododendron seeds, some of which are very rare, and others that are for more common plants.

“Some are quite unusual, and come from places like China, Tibet, and Vietnam,” Norris said, and added that “most rhododendrons you find commonly in the trade can trace their roots back to either China or Tibet. That is kind of the epicenter for wild rhododendron species.”

In the United States, Norris said, there are only a few rhododendron species that are native to the East and West Coasts.

Having spent centuries being grown in the Himalayas and areas of South and East Asia, the species has spread its influence across entire continents before arriving in the United States.

Although Norris is the only member of the ARS Massachusetts chapter who lives on Martha’s Vineyard, he said, the chapter has about 75 members, and membership is quite widespread geographically.

Norris said he grows some other plants besides rhododendrons, such as hydrangeas, Japanese maples, mountain laurels, and plants that are normally associated with rock gardens — when mineral stones are used as essential, visible decorations and paired with small plants to beautify or decorate a space.

But Norris will always have his heart and soul in rhododendrons. With their endless variety and possibilities for different combinations of colors and patterns, it’s no wonder the plant is so popular on Martha’s Vineyard, and across America.

The ARS offers ways for people to learn more about growing rhododendrons, and with events like the Plants for Members trade and the seed exchange, the society is always looking to encourage newcomers and veterans alike to learn about rhododendrons and contribute.

Norris is in contact with fellow growers in the Massachusetts chapter of the ARS, and he says members are always willing to help out.

He added that getting involved with the society opens up all sorts of opportunities for acquiring the highest-quality seeds and cuttings that you won’t find at your local garden center.

“The local nurseries basically carry whatever is the most popular brand and what is produced in huge quantities by the major growers,” Norris said. “But there is a tremendous area of very interesting and attractive plants — called collector’s plants — that are only available through things like the seed exchange. The American Rhododendron Society is just an incredible resource.”