Rhododendron • Rhododendron / Azalea • シャクナゲ / ツツジ • 石楠花 / 躑躅 • shakunage / tsutsuji
Edited 4/6/17 Re: confusion between Rododendron/azalea Sappho and Rododendron/rododendron ‘Sappho’. Our plant does not look like depicted in most available photographs, so I asked a fellow guide Corinne Kennedy to clarify. Below the location photograph is her answer – thank you, Corinne!
Four of purplish-red Rhododendron ‘Sappho’ / Azalea grow in Area Q (west side of the pond) in a long clump between viburnum and two-tone azalea ‘Quakeress’ (corolla white with pink sectors) along the W path.
Due to changes in botanical classification, there are two different plants with the botanical name Rhododendron ‘Sappho.’ The one most commonly planted is a large-growing Rhododendron with white flowers, blotched purple — which was never planted in the Seattle Japanese Garden. The ‘Sappho’ in our garden is a lesser-known Evergreen Azalea with purplish-red flowers. Azaleas were originally categorized in the genus, Azalea, so when these two plants were originally named, one was named Rhododendron and the other named Azalea. Later, taxonomists eliminated the genus Azalea — and re-named all azaleas Rhododendron. The result was two different ‘Sappho’ plants with the exact same botanical name.
There’s not a lot of information on the ‘Sappho’ azalea. It’s one of 454 Glenn Dale Hybrids, which were developed in the 1930’s at the U.S. Arboretum Plant Introduction Station (in Glenn Dale, Maryland). In the years following, they were released throughout the U.S., notably to arboretums and botanic gardens, including our own Washington Park Arboretum (WPA). The WPA’s card (which can be found online by going to the WPA website) shows that the original plants were received in 1952, but I’m fairly sure that the Seattle Japanese Garden’s plants were grown from cuttings from the plants originally received. I’ve seen 2 different “acquisition” dates listed for the SJG plants (1957 and 1961).
The main authority on azaleas is Azaleas, by Fred C. Galle (Revised & Enlarged Edition, 1987). His description (p. 251) is:
“‘Sappho’ (PI 160042; ‘Mrs Carmichael’ x ‘Willy’): vivid purplish red, blotch darker, 2 – 2 1/2″ across, 3-5 in head, early; upright with spreading crown, to 6 ft. high.” [Note: heights for rhodies & azaleas are usually given for a 10-year size].
Galle doesn’t mention that ‘Sappho’ is a Glenn Dale Hybrid, but I found that reference in Rhododendron and Azaleas: their origins, cultivation and development, by Clement Gray Bowers (1960). He lists it under the heading Glenn Dale Hybrid Azaleas (p. 434) and gives this short description:
“Sappho, rose-purple with purplish blotch.”
“PI 160042” may be a number given to ‘Sappho’ before it was named. There were hundreds of crosses made, many of which never received a name. In fact, our garden has some numbered but unnamed Glenn Dale Hybrids. However, the numbers given them have a different format: Bxxxxx, (the letter B, followed by 5 numerals).
There were so many Glenn Dale Hybrids produced that many never went into commercial production by wholesale nurseries. I think that’s probably the case for ‘Sappho’ — or if it was produced, availability didn’t continue into more recent times. I worked in the rhododendron & azalea section of a large retail nursery in the 1990s — and, as far as I know, it never carried ‘Sappho’ azalea. Later, I was a tree and shrub buyer for two other retail nurseries, and I don’t remember ever seeing it offered by growers. Perhaps growers didn’t grow it — and/or retail nurseries didn’t buy it — because of the name confusion, and the popularity of the white-flowered rhododendron.
Here is the description and pic from Royal Horticultural Society: that had us confused: […] ‘Sappho’ is a large, evergreen shrub with dark foliage and compact trusses of white flower in early summer, each with a bold blackish-purple flare. […]