I Hate Rhododendron ‘Blue Baron’

May 12, 2017 | Gardens

Imagine: Yes indeed. Imagine a plant that looks fantastic in the garden center when it’s fresh from the grower. But that plant is out for just one thing: to break your heart.

Normally I post a “I Love This Plant!” every Saturday. Today, I’m not in love. After eight years of heartbreak, I’m talking about the ‘Blue Baron’ honestly…a few days before I rip it out of my garden and toss it into the compost pile.

Name: Rhododendron ‘Blue Baron’ aka Rhododendron prettypathetica 

Type of Plant:  A blue flowering Rhododendron, said to be compact in habit. Wow! Why don’t we see this plant in every foundation planting? The flower color is amazing, and the photos we find online make the plant look like a low, full shrub filled with blue-purple flowers in the spring.

Why I hate this: The only time this plant will flower well for you is when it’s fresh from the nursery. So be sure to buy one that’s in bud not full bloom, so you can enjoy it in flower for at least three weeks. Even when it lives through the winter, it often doesn’t flower because in cold winters the buds get zapped. The foliage is often killed off as well, so that over time these plants get asymmetrical, thin and sad.

A Word to the Wise:  If you don’t see a plant doing well in other people’s yards, yet it looks good in the nursery, you have to ask yourself why. “Why does this look great in the garden center every year but I never see it looking great in other’s gardens?”

This is the first time in EIGHT YEARS that my Rhododendron 'Blue Baron' bloomed. And this is as good as it gets.

This is the first time in EIGHT YEARS that my Rhododendron ‘Blue Baron’ bloomed. And this is as good as it gets. Yup…Rhododendron prettypathetica 

37 Comments

  1. judy vaz

    Thank you, I had the same experience but I pulled it out after 4 years of disappointment. I thought it was me…you are right they look gorgeous in the nursery… Instead I am buying more Virginia bluebells…they don’t disappoint!

    Reply
    • CL Fornari

      Thanks, Judy! It’s been my experience that the ONLY people who love this plant are those who see it in the nurseries but never grow it themselves. This is like deciding you love a plant based on a description in a book, but no personal experience.

      Reply
  2. Sarah T

    Same. I just bought my third one. I buy them every couple of years because I love the flower color so much. They always die. Well, people buy cut flowers all the time, and they’re technically already dead, so I look at this sort of plant purchase as the same kind of thing. To be enjoyed while flowering.

    Though, I will plant it and hope, without much hope, that this one will survive and bloom again. I actually would be thrilled if any of mine had bloomed as much as the one in your pic. It looks light and airy. Very pretty, really.

    Reply
    • CL Fornari

      I’m in complete favor of buying a plant just for the enjoyment you’ll get from it in one year. Many times we spend far more on a dinner out that only lasts two or three hours, right? So by all means, enjoy Blue Baron on a one-shot basis. I love seeing it in bloom at the garden center – what a color! What a disappointment! Even people who live where it’s warmer say that this plant isn’t reliable for them. Bad genetics. Sigh.

      Reply
    • mindy arbo

      sarah, your attitude is exactly mine for other plants that, after gardening for 40 years in z.5, i have continued to fail with but i love them so, w/hope that they succeed 20% of the time:.
      daphne carol mackie, var. aralia, , peucedanum, ajuga crispa [var.],, echinacea,………

      Reply
      • CL Fornari

        There are many plants that just don’t thrive in most regions. Agreed on Daphne ‘Carol Mackie’ (note: Daphne ‘Summer Ice’ lasted far longer in my garden and is a superior plant. Why is THAT one not grown widely???) To be a garden geek is to walk the line between going with what you know works and will live, and trying new plants in case they might succeed. Because every gardener knows that occasionally plants thrive against all odds and advice.

        Reply
    • Julie McAfoos

      That is a WONDERFUL and HEALTHY (even if the plant isn’t) way to look at it!

      Reply
  3. Joy Dellas

    I’ll take it. LOL

    Reply
    • CL Fornari

      So you’ll take it as a non-flowering, sparse disappointment that adds nothing to your garden? You’re welcome to it!

      Reply
  4. Ron Sutton

    I concur regarding this plant. I tried growing it in southern Ontario, zone 6. I killed two of them and I am an experienced rhodo grower. I talked to a friend, who ran a rhododendron nursery and he agreed that it does poorly in zone 6,
    He too had little success with it. Well I moved to Vancouver Island, and am again trying this plant, but in a much warmer zone. It is a beautiful plant for those who can grow it, wish me luck.

    Reply
  5. pruner

    I think the real name is badness gardnerii. This variety requires care and placement that it is obviously no getting.

    Reply
    • CL Fornari

      That’s right, Pruner, it requires placement in a garden that’s not in the Northeast. It does not live here – and why are you being so snotty about this?

      Reply
  6. David Goldenberg

    Thank for the post, I was going to buy one… it looks too good to be true
    any recomendations for a hardier blue/puprle Rhodie?

    Thanks

    David

    Reply
    • CL Fornari

      David,
      I don’t know of any hardy variety that has such blue flowers. There are many hardy purple varieties, such as Lee’s Dark Purple. The world is still waiting for a blue rhody that is a strong, hardy plant, especially in the Northeast.

      Reply
  7. John W

    It does fine in coastal Nova Scotia. Given the parentage it does not do well in hot summer areas and should not be sold there. A fine & spectacular plant! Noi blue like it in adwarf rhododendron.

    Reply
    • CL Fornari

      John,
      Glad it does well for you. We do not have hot summers where we are and these do not live very long. Yes, no blue like it…but not dependable long term for us.

      Reply
  8. wendy murphy

    can the bush be covered in winter?

    Reply
  9. SuzBuerch

    Ours just arrived, having been ordered by my husband specially for the perfect spot in our yard. I read your post, then told him “keep the receipt” ….. I guess we’ll see how it goes. Very very glad for the advanced notice that this one likely will underperform and truly appreciative of your sense of humor (“Rhododendron prettypathetica” is hilarious!)

    Reply
    • CL Fornari

      Let me know in two years what you think! May The Force be with you!

      Reply
  10. Lyndon Ellenburg

    OK….So It’s A REALLY Bad Choice It Seems 🙁
    Are There Any Other “Rhododendron Varieties” Which Are Same Beautiful “Blue” Color??

    Reply
    • CL Fornari

      Lyndon,
      Unfortunately, no. There’s a reason that when you drive around in the spring you don’t see Rhododendrons in bloom with this beautiful blue color. Sigh.

      Reply
  11. Tanya

    In New Jersey & 1 year old. Lots of new green growth but no flowers. Guess I’m doomed.

    Reply
    • CL Fornari

      Tanya,
      Stick with it for another year or two…this plant must do well somewhere! Or not. I’ve never seen a photo of a planting that is blooming well after being in the landscape for more than 4 years. But we can remain optimistic…until we yank them out and plant something else.

      Reply
  12. JAN Jellison

    I just bought 3 of them to put around my stump garden and 2 sappho to put in the center Im in a zone 5 up here in the pacific north west property surrounded by tall cedars , so sun exposure is no problem .
    But am I going to face trouble keepinv this plant hardy and blooming ?

    Reply
    • CL Fornari

      You might have problems, especially if you’re in Zone 5. We can’t get them to bloom reliably in a warm Zone 6!

      Reply
  13. Karen McCarthy

    Have you tried pruning the dang thing? Sometimes a ‘Come to Jesus’ pruning, (or even yank it out and put it on the dump pile – worked for me with a ‘Sangu Kaku Japnese maple!) does the trick. You know the growers meatball rhodies, right? That and hopping them up on fert….

    Reply
    • CL Fornari

      Hey, Karen! I love this comment – you’re a plant geek with attitude, and I appreciate that. In fact, if this is your normal personal voice, you should consider being a professional garden communicator. I kid you not. If you want to chat about this, contact me by email. We can talk.

      Reply
  14. Debby Denke

    I’m glad to not be alone on this! I’m ripping mine out this year too. I had such high hopes but it only looked good the very first year.

    Reply
  15. alla Koren

    Thank you all. Im on my second one, and this year it is going to compost(((

    Reply
  16. Tammy

    After reading all the comments and your article…I think this is what I’ll do… I’ll keep it in the same pot and rest it right by my patio, enjoy the flower and foliage. And bring it in when the weather gets cold, and out in spring again. What do you think of that? Treat it like a tropical plant.

    Reply
    • CL Fornari

      I’ve never done it but it’s worth a shot. But instead of treating it like a tropical, treat it like a marginally hardy shrub…meaning that you’ll wait until into the fall to bring it in. Let it go through light frosts but bring it in before below-freezing temps last through the day.

      Reply
  17. Kris

    I got one from Sky Nursery in Seattle Area in late May of 2020 after it bloomed and was on sale, like for half the price. I basically ignored it, left it in the original pot, and even didn’t water it much, because I was kinda busy and lazy and just set up sprinkler. It survived several snow storms and frost here in Woodinville, WA, It bloomed fully this year (2021 May) in the same pot, though lacking water, the flowers were small. Yesterday, I just planted it along with other well-grown rhododendrons, in hope it would enjoy a better environment.

    Reply
  18. Chris

    Purchase a beautiful specimen from our high end nursery this spring . By this summer the entire plant was dead as a door knob, lol. I live in Zone 8 , have numerous Rhododendrons in my gardens and hybridize Japanese Maples have Patented,” King’s Blood”. That said I grow over hundreds varies of plants, shrubs and trees. Blue Baron is by far the most difficult , lousy Rhododendron I have ever tried to grow . It is a premadonna heart breaker , not worthy of the obvious diva care it demands to flourish outside greenhouse care.

    Reply
  19. Laura Biondi Sommers

    It’s not the plant,judging by the two pictures above it is planted too deep that is why it is not thriving. And yes a good prunning is key to keep nice & full ,but it has to be planted properly to achieve the goal. Needs to be slightly elevated above the ground level then taper the soil down & taper the mulch also like a pitchers mound. Water deeply ,but infrequently just the first 2 weeks or depending on rainfall

    Reply
    • CL Fornari

      Thanks for your opinion, Laura, but I still think it’s the plant. Mine was not planted too deeply (all times I’ve tried growing it!). I have worked at a garden center for 25 years and am well aware of how to keep a plant alive. This plant doesn’t live in my area.

      Reply
  20. Jack Looye

    A Friend brought Me a Nice looking plant in the Spring.
    I was Happy with it and used the pollen to put on one of our Blue seedlings and the crosses took well.
    After I used it I wanted to put it in the Garden only to find it had no roots to speak off and died there a week later.
    I had the Plant in a different Region before moving to N.S. where it was not Happy either

    Reply

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