A stout, evergreen shrub eventually 10 ft high; young shoots very thick (1⁄2 in. or rather more in diameter), covered with a greyish floss. Leaves 6 to 10 in. long, 11⁄2 to 21⁄2 in. wide, tapering at both ends, more gradually towards the base, dark green and glabrous above, paler and also glabrous beneath except for the sometimes downy midrib; stalk 1 in. long, stout, yellowish, and wrinkled. Flowers produced in March in terminal clusters 6 to 8 in. across, up to ten in each; pedicels about 1 in. long. Calyx very small glabrous, with five broad, abruptly pointed lobes. Corolla five-lobed, open bell-shaped, about 3 in. across, rosy lilac with purple spots on the upper side, and sometimes blotched at the base (commonly so in wild plants). Stamens twelve to fifteen, downy near the base; anthers very dark. Ovary and style glabrous. Bot. Mag., t. 8362. (s. Fortunei ss. Davidii)
Native of W. Hupeh and E. Szechwan; described from specimens collected by Père Farges 1891-4. It was introduced to Britain by Wilson, who sent seeds to Messrs Veitch in 1900 and 1901, and it first flowered in their nursery in 1919, when 2 ft high. In 1907 Wilson sent a further supply of seed to the Arnold Arboretum, which was widely distributed.
According to Wilson, R. sutchuenense is common in western Hupeh at 4,500 to 7,000 ft, always found in mixed woods, often in the shade of evergreen oaks or in the company of thin-stemmed bamboos. It is one of the most striking of the Chinese rhododendrons and, like so many of Wilson’s introductions, is well adapted to our average climate, needing only moderate shade and shelter. Plants from the original seed have made massive bushes wider than high and still make annual growths almost 1 ft long in a good season. The flowers are often destroyed by frost, but on a large bush the buds expand over such a long period, and are borne so profusely, that there is nearly always some display.
R. sutchuenense varies somewhat in the marking of the corollas, though no more so than in many other species. According to Wilson, plants with a wine-coloured blotch at the base are commoner in the wild than those in which it is merely spotted. A plant with blotched flowers was exhibited by Gerald Loder of Wakehurst Place on February 24, 1920, and was given botanical status by Hutchinson as var. geraldii, on the grounds that the type had unblotched flowers. A similar form received an Award of Merit when exhibited by the Misses Godman, South Lodge, Sussex, in 1945. A rather more distinct variant, raised from Wilson seeds and cultivated at Kew, was given specific rank by Hutchinson as R. praevernum. In this the leaves are rather narrower than in the type, more tapered at the base, and glabrous on the midrib beneath (not downy as in the type); the flowers are blotched. At the time, rhododendron growers were sceptical about this species, remarking that some of their plants from the original seed were intermediate between typical R. sutchuenense and R. praevernum. It is here regarded as part of the normal variation of the species.