An evergreen shrub from 4 to 10 ft high, of bushy habit, but sometimes up to 25 ft high in the wild; shoots hairy the first and second years, scaly the first. Leaves oblong-lanceolate, 11⁄2 to 4 in. long, 1⁄2 to 1 in. wide, tapering to a fine point, tapered or rounded at the base, upper surface dark green, minutely wrinkled, and covered with fine down, undersurface scaly, and with pale bristle-like hairs on the midrib; stalk up to 1⁄4 in. long, hairy like the midrib. Flowers in May in clusters of three or four. Calyx usually very small. Corolla 21⁄2 in. across, broadly funnel-shaped, wavy at the margins, varying in colour from white to pink, purplish pink, and bluish, with yellow, olive-green, or brownish spots on the uppermost lobes. Stamens ten, reddish brown, hairy near but not at the base. Ovary scaly; style downy at the base or glabrous. Bot. Mag., t. 8497 and n.s., t. 79. (s. Triflorum ss. Augustinii)
Native of Central and W. China; discovered by Augustine Henry near Patung, Hupeh, in 1886. It first flowered in Europe in Maurice de Vilmorin’s collection at Les Barres, raised from seed sent by the missionary Farges; the plants had pale purple to white flowers. To Britain it was introduced by Wilson, who in 1900 collected a large quantity of seed near Changyang, Hupeh. More was sent by him from other parts of the province and from Szechwan during his expeditions for the Arnold Arboretum. For the Forrest introduction see below under var. chasmanthum.
According to Wilson, R. augustinii is a very common species in Hupeh and ranges far into Szechwan. ‘It is’, he wrote, ‘partial to the margins of woods but is happiest in open rocky situations where it is fully exposed to the sun.’ It is exceedingly variable in the colouring of the flowers. According to Wilson, the most common shades in the wild are pale purple to rose-purple. But near-blue forms also occur and by selection, and by crossing the best-coloured plants, these forms have come to predominate in the great rhododendron gardens, of which they are now one of the chief glories. But these near-blue plants are really a race of cultivars and are not representative of the species as a whole. It has been said that the bluer the flower the more tender the plant, but this may not be true of garden-raised seedlings. Some of the paler shades are just as beautiful, though they may not look so impressive on the show-bench. R. augustinii is not a species for gardens subject to spring frosts and is inclined to be shy-flowering in cool gardens.
Plants originally grown under the name R. chasmanthum, now included in R. augustinii, were raised from seeds collected by Forrest and by Rock in various parts of N.W. Yunnan. There is really no significant botanical difference between these southern forms and the type, but Davidian has pointed out that they usually have more flowers per truss (up to six), and the lobes of the corollas tend to be reflexed. These can still be distinguished as var. chasmanthum (Diels) Davidian. Some at least of the Forrest introductions flower somewhat later than the Wilson forms. This is true, for example, of the batch raised at Exbury from F.21470. A selection from these received an Award of Merit when shown by Lionel de Rothschild on June 3, 1930, and a First Class Certificate on June 7, 1932, so the flowering time of this form is about three weeks later than is normal for R. augustinii.
There is a form of R. augustinii with red flowers, raised from Forrest 25914, collected near Wei-hsi, which has been named var. rubrum Davidian. It flowers earlier than normal, in late March or early April.
cv. ‘Electra’. – Flowers 21⁄2 in. wide, violet-blue, with a yellow-green flare, in trusses of up to seven. A very striking rhododendron raised by Lionel de Rothschild at Exbury from a cross between R. augustinii and its var. chasmanthum. A.M. April 30, 1940.