Our Exotic Vireyas

Mar 14, 2024 | Whats On

The original ‘Rhododendron Park’, or the area now called the Lower Gardens of The Illawarra Rhododendron and Rainforest Gardens, was established in 1969. The pioneering volunteers were diligent in not only growing rhododendrons, but also in documenting their progress through a regular newsletter. In the ‘Australian Rhododendron Society (Illawarra Branch) – Newsletter No. 130 Jul 1981‘ they proudly noted:

Some very fine blooms have shown up this year in the vireya hybrid beds, where some of our plants have flowered for the first time. More plants are being grown on to extend this area, as conditions obviously suit the vireyas; the one snag is the attraction of new plantings for Lyre Birds, who dig them out in a search for worms and some unidentified browsing animals who sample the leaves.”

This first blooming was wonderfully positive for the Gardens, but what exactly are these vireyas that brought such ‘good news’ to the volunteers?

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Vireyas are a subgroup of the genus Rhododendron and number over three hundred species.  Even more interestingly, this rhododendron subgroup comes from tropical and subtropical lands! In the wild, they predominantly grow throughout a botanical region known as ‘Malesia‘. This is an area of South East Asia, which stretches from Burma to Northern Australia and includes Malaysia, the Philippines, Borneo and Sulawesi & Sumatra in Indonesia. The largest number of vireya species come from West Papua and Papua New Guinea. Some species do grow outside this region: as far north as Taiwan; down into Queensland, Australia; from India in the West, to the Solomon Islands in the East.

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Even though vireyas grow in tropical regions, their preferred habitat is on the cooler, more temperate heights of mountains. They can occupy crevices on steep cuttings, or even grow as shrubberies on more open ground. They are epiphytes, so are mostly found on the branches and trunks of tall trees.  They access water from the surrounding misty air of  mountain cloud forests and their food comes from falling plant debris. Their roots are covered with the barest layer of mosses and humus. Excellent drainage is essential for vireyas to thrive.

In such conditions, vireyas can provide dramatic displays throughout the year. The blooms are eye-catching, showing off a range of vibrant colours.  Uniquely, vireyas have no blue pigments, so there are no mauve, blue, purple or violet flowers. However, they can be sented!

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This excerpt from http://www.vireya.net/gallery-hybD.htm , ‘The History of Vireya Rhododendron Culture‘ is a fascinating story.

“The first published description of a vireya, (Rhododendron malayanum), appeared in 1822. Its author, William Jack, who worked for the East India Company, based his description on material collected on Mt. Bunko (now Bengkoh) in Sumatra,. In 1826, a further five species were described by Carl Blume, the Director of what is now the Bogor Botanic Garden in Indonesia. Blume 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 subgenus of the genus Rhododendron.

“It was not until 1845 that the first live vireyas were introduced into cultivation in Britain by Thomas Lobb. He successfully brought home five species and these were supplemented shortly after by a further two species introduced by Charles Curtis.

“From this group of species, more than 500 hybrids were raised, 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’ and ‘Souvenir de J.H. Mangles’.

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“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. For many growers however, their place in the glasshouse became secondary to that of new orchid introductions. The fall from favour of vireyas 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 was 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 described at this time increased markedly.

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.

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“The 1950’s saw more interest in vireyas. Occasional articles appeared, led by C. R. Stonor’s Rhododendrons in New Guinea, published in the RHS Rhododendron Year Book 1951-52.

“By the early 1970s, interest in vireyas once again grew, particularly in Australia, New Zealand and the USA.  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.”

Forty-five years ago, an Australian botanical collecting trip to Papua New Guinea was led by Dr. John Womersly, the lead botanist from South Australia’s Botanic Gardens. Many species were collected and brought back to Melbourne.  They were used extensively for the breeding of vireyas available in Australia today.

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Within The Illawarra Rhododendron and Rainforest Gardens, specialty beds have been dedicated to cultivating vireya rhododendrons. These beds hold a unique collection of the tropical species that Donald Stanton, one of the founders of the IRRG, collected during journeys to Papua New Guinea. Throughout the 1970’s and 1980’s and with great care and devotion, Don hybridised these vireyas in his own backyard.

 Now the Gardens boast a huge display of these unique, colourful tropical Rhododendrons all year round!

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