I say “fuchsia,” you say “mauve.” I say “cotton candy,” you say “pink.” Little can leave a horticulturist scrounging in the glossary of color terms as desperately (and as fruitlessly) as a collection of ten or fifteen rhododendrons (Rhododendron spp.) in full flower, not to mention a collection with almost one hundred unique selections like the Arboretum’s Rhododendron Dell.
Our venerable specimen of Rhododendron ‘Duke of York’ (accession 22616*A) is a suitable case in point. It towers above its neighbors on three twisting stems, its flower-laden boughs swooping across the path that encircles its base. The flowers are pink, yes, but a dainty and delicate shade. If the color were a drink, it would be an afternoon spritz, topped with a healthy splash of rosé. At first this descriptions seems sufficient—at least to me—but when I check this against the description provided in Donald Wyman’s systematic conspectus of the cultivars growing in the Arboretum circa 1949, I see that he opted for a gradient between “amaranth rose” and “whitish.” Interesting. What exactly is “amaranth rose”? Then again, who’s pouring that rosé? Another source in our library calls the flowers “soft rose pink,” which sounds about right.
Turning around—my back towards the old ‘Duke’—another specimen confounds matters further: Rhododendron × watereri (accession 21747*A). Compared to its esteemed neighbor, the flowers are different—noticeably so—yet the distinction is subtle. If ‘Duke of York’ is dainty and delicate, then the pink of the second is even more precious. The softness is a touch softer. The slider is pushed closer to “whitish” than “amaranth pink.” Does an appropriate word exist for this distinction? Or is this something that can only be perceived side by side, one truss of flowers beside another?
This problem, of course, has stubbed linguistic toes before—the problem of translating waves of light into words on a page. Wyman’s term “amaranth rose,” in fact, was appended with a numerical value (“530/1”) corresponding to color charts produced by the Royal Horticultural Society. But Wyman used these numbers with dutiful caveats, admitting the charts were rather unsatisfactory. Flower colors varied depending on whether the plants were growing in shade or sun, and presumably, the colors might even differ from season to season—a hot scorcher one spring, a continuous mister the next. More recently, Kyle Port, our manager of plant records, researched the history of Rhododendron Dell and conducted a comprehensive review of its specimens, ensuring that after decades of layering and inadvertent label mismatching, everything was as writ in the inventory. To do this, he systematically photographed flowers of each accession and double checked the colors with published sources. Color charts are useful for such verification, yet you won’t find a poem describing ‘Duke of York’ with a compound numeral.
This domain of colors is not unique to the garden. Crayola has been in the naming game for well over a century. According to their terms, which I field referenced, the flowers of ‘Parsons’ Grandiflorum’ (accession 6137*C) are somewhere between Wild Strawberry and Cerise, while those of ‘Atrosanguineum’ (accession 22617*A) emerge Razzle Dazzle Rose and turn to Razzmatazz. Yet, unless you were one of the lucky children with a ninety-six-count box of crayons—or unless you are a teacher or parent who currently stocks such a supply—those names are almost as abstract as the numbers on the color chart.
At their best, words are a magic act—a trompe l’oeil—yet still an imperfect illusion. A plant reproduced in text is never the same as a plant that catches wind on its leaves, no matter how poetic or scientifically rigorous the attempt. That’s why, in the case of Rhododendron Dell, you simply must go now. See the riot of flamboyant nuance, and attempt, if you will, to name the shades yourself.