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Has a group of plants ever inspired such love in some, and hatred in others, as rhododendrons? Their propensity towards sexual infidelity makes them popular with horticultural breeders, and early plant collectors faced mortal peril to bring stunning new species back to life. They can clothe whole hillsides or gardens with colour. But there is a darker side to these plants. Numerous Chinese folk tales link them with tragedy and death. They can poison livestock and intoxicate humans, and their narcotic honey has been used as a weapon of war. Rhododendron ponticum has run riot across the British countryside, but the full story of this implacable invader contains many surprises. Richard Milne explores the many ways in which rhododendrons have influenced human societies, relating this to the extraordinary story of the plants' evolution. Tales are told of mythical figures, intrepid collectors and eccentric plant breeders. Over a thousand species exist, ranging from rugged trees on Himalayan slopes to rock-hugging alpines. However much you know about rhododendrons, this book will tell you something new.
Richard Milne is a senior lecturer in the school of Biology at the University of Edinburgh. He is a keen field botanist with an interest in creative writing.
"An enlightening and accessible account of a sometimes maligned genus, covering its evolution, cultural significance and social impact [...] filled with engaging anecdotes about the exploits of early plant collectors and the motley group of plant breeders who fed the public appetite for rhododendrons [...] Milne has the skill to communicate his knowledge clearly. He writes with a light touch and with a passion that makes the book accessible to gardeners who do not share his botanical background."
– Gardens Illustrated
"Milne celebrates a diverse and much-loved genus with a history as colourful as the flowers themselves, even if their full splendour, because of size and expense, remains the preserve of large country estates."
"For most of their existence, rhododendrons (and azaleas – their better-known brethren) have been the botanical equivalent of wallpaper. Milne provides 235 colour photographs; yet so seductive are the money shots that not one shows a plant not in bloom. The urgency of the demand for such images is driven home by two facing pages that show 40 different blossoms. After a slow but necessary explanation of hybridization and taxonomic protocols, Milne methodically takes the reader through the plant's history in Britain; the creation of cultivars ("he crossed everything with rhododendrons except the chickens"); the story of weary collectors battling ocean-going pirates, recalcitrant bureaucrats, spies, armies, and monsters (although Milne cheekily admits that "true monsters are, and always have been, human"); and the literary and artistic legacy of these plants in Asia and Europe."