Rhododendron polyanthemum

The History of Vireya Rhododendron Culture

R. malayanum
Rhododendron malayanum
The first published description of a vireya, Rhododendron malayanum (pictured right), appeared in 1822 based on material collected by the author, William Jack, on Mt. Bunko (now Bengkoh) in Sumatra, while working for the East India Company. In 1826 a further five species were described by Carl Blume, the director of what is now the Bogor Botanic Garden, who also proposed a new genus Vireya, in honour of his friend Julian Joseph Virey. The rank of genus was rejected by Blume's peers however the name continued to be used for this Section (now Subgenus) of the genus Rhododendron.

It was not until 1845 that the first live vireyas were introduced into cultivation in Britain by Thomas Lobb, working for the famous Veitch Nurseries. Lobb successfully brought home five species and these were supplemented shortly after by a further two species introduced by Charles Curtis, also working for Messrs. Veitch, bringing the total to seven - Rr. javanicum, jasminiflorum, brookeanum, longiflorum, malayanum, multicolor and teysmannii, although R. brookeanum and R. teysmannii are now considered to be subspecies of R. javanicum.

From this group of species, more than 500 hybrids were raised by the nursery including a number of double-flowered 'balsamaeflorum' cultivars, the latter unfortunately since lost. Of the rest, only a handful remain in cultivation today - Rr. 'Ne Plus Ultra', 'Clorinda', 'Triumphans', 'Princess Alexandra', 'Princess Royal', 'Pink Delight' (pictured below) and 'Souvenir de J.H. Mangles'.

The latter half of the 19th century saw vireyas at the peak of their popularity as more species were collected, notably by the Italian, Odoardo Beccari, but for many growers their place in the glasshouse became second to that of the new orchid introductions. Their fall from favour was later hastened by the influx of new hardy rhododendron species from China and the Himalayas. With the advent of World War One few people continued to grow vireyas - a heated glasshouse a luxury afforded by only botanic institutions and a few large estate owners. Ironically, despite this decline in cultivation, the number of new species being decribed at this time increased markedly.

R. Pink Delight
Rhododendron 'Pink Delight'
The discovery of gold in New Guinea in 1929 led to the previously uncharted interior of the country being opened up by prospectors and mining companies. This in turn paved the way for enterprising botanists to follow in their footsteps and so the number of known vireya species continued to increase, albeit more slowly than before.

By the 1950s interest in vireyas was again increasing with occasional articles appearing, led by C. R. Stonor's 'Rhododendrons in New Guinea', published in the RHS Rhododendron Year Book 1951-52, outlining some of the vireyas encountered by the author during a visit to the country. (A copy of the article is available in the Archive).

Around the same time, Professor Hermann Sleumer, working at the Rijksherbarium in Leiden, Holland, commenced a revision of Rhododendron for 'Flora Malesiana', having a few years earlier published a new classification of the genus organised into subgenera and sections, including Section Vireya. Sleumer received large quantities of material collected by several expeditions to New Guinea and in 1961 published descriptions of 122 new species of Vireya.

Sleumer's revision was published in 'Flora Malesiana' in 1966 and an extract of this work entitled 'An Account of Rhododendron in Malesia' appeared shortly thereafter, detailing a total of 288 species of Rhododendron within the region, the vast majority belonging to Section Vireya. This account was to remain the standard reference work on Vireya for the next 40 years until the publication in 2006 of a further revision by Dr. George Argent of the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh, 'Rhododendrons of Subgenus Vireya'. This was the first full account of Vireya to be produced, including not only all the Malesian species covered by Sleumer but also all the outlying mainland species, a total of 313 taxa. Dr. Argent also raised the taxonomic rank of Vireya from Section to Subgenus, thereby marking the importance of this group, representing as it does around a third of all species within the genus Rhododendron.

By the early 1970s, interest in vireyas was once again growing, particularly in Australia, New Zealand and the USA and several dedicated collectors distributed seed freely to enthusiasts as well as botanic gardens, thereby firmly establishing the plants in cultivation. This rapid increase in the number of available species duly led to the production of many new hybrids, often growing with great vigour and displaying many of the desirable characteristics of both parents.

Breeding programmes by both enthusiasts and specialist nurseries continue to this day and have resulted in many excellent second- and even third-generation hybrids bearing flowers of great beauty on quite compact plants, making them attractive additions to modern greenhouse and conservatory culture as well as for garden display in areas with a suitably mild climate.

R. mendumiae
Rhododendron mendumiae
The renaissance in vireya cultivation seems set to continue for the foreseeable future, fired by a growing number of enthusiasts exchanging ideas, information and plant material around the world, backed up by the large plant collections of several botanic institutions. Exploration of some of the more remote regions continues, resulting in the introduction of species not previously seen in cultivation and occasional new species still being discovered, such as Rhododendron mendumiae (right), first found in the Philippines in 1998.

An excellent, more detailed, account of the history of vireya culture by Dr. George Argent entitled 'The Vireya Story' can be found in 'The Rhododendron Story', edited by Cynthia Postan (Royal Horticultural Society, London, 1996, pp.86-92).