In The Garden
Friday, September 7, 2001

By Suzanne Tswei

The fragrant Cecilia is a large flowered variety. It will be
a couple of years before this variety is readily available
as it is slower to root. There is already a waiting list
for this one.

Big Isle pair
specializes in Vireya

The semitropical flowers
thrive in Hawaii's climate

Most island gardeners know rhododendrons as something they'll have to do without in the garden. Those big, leather-leafed shrubs that produce a profusion of stunning translucent flowers don't like the heat. Sherla Bertelmann and her husband, Richard Marques, are hoping to change that.

The couple runs Pacific Island Nursery in Keaau on the Big Island and specializes in Vireya rhododendrons, or semi-tropical rhododendrons that thrive in Hawaii's warm climate.

Temperate rhododendrons need the cold, and in the spring they send out great trusses of blooms in many shades of white, pink, red and purple. Vireya rhododendrons, native to warm climates, can become as showy as their cool-weather cousins with a wide range of vibrantly colored blossoms year round.

"The bicolors are the ones that get everybody's attention. They have the most striking colors," Bertelmann said. She used a orange-and-yellow variety to string up a wedding lei for her husband when they were married last New Year's Eve. She used a smaller, creamy yellow variety for a lei for herself.

Lucie Sorensen is a miniature orange flower
on a compact, small-leaved upright plant.

"Vireyas can have the most unusual colors. Some of them have this neon, fluorescent look to them, and the flowers come in a very big variety of colors and sizes. Some of the flowers can be 7 inches across -- each -- or be as small as a thimble," Bertelmann said.

Some flowers also have fragrance. Some are soft and sweet, like jasmine; some are spicy, like carnation, she said.

The couple sold 300 plants when they participated in the May sale at Foster Botanical Garden. They will return for the garden's fall sale Sept. 29. The plants cost about $15 each in a 6-inch pot. Most will flower within the year, Bertelmann said.

The sale also will include a variety of other plants, such as orchids, cactuses, ornamental plants and tis by other growers. Call Friends of Foster Botanical Garden, 537-1708, for more information.

There are more than 800 varieties of Vireya rhododendrons, and new plants are being collected from Papua New Guinea and Borneo, Bertelmann said. The newest plants also are coming from California, New Zealand and Australia. The couple grows about 300 varieties at the nursery, but only about 40 are ready for market.

For mail orders or seed distribution, contact
Sherla Bertelmann
Pacific Island Nursery
HCR-1 Box 4641
Keaau, HI 96749
Call: (808) 966-9225
Web site: email:

Bertelmann and her husband also participate in Vireya rhododendron seed distributions. They've begun hybridizing in effort to produce new types of blooms.

"Recently we got one that is pure white with pink dots; and there's one that's star-shaped, orange with yellow center. We couldn't believe both of them came from the same parents," Bertelmann said.

Vireya rhododendrons have been gaining popularity since the 1950s, but they have been slow to catch on in Hawaii until recently. The Hawaii chapter of the American Rhododendron Society was formed four years ago, and its members have grown to more than 100, Bertelmann said.

Vireya rhododendrons, which range from large shrubs to dwarf epiphytes, are easy to grow, she said. Unlike the cool-weather types that are best in the ground, the Vireyas do well in pots and are perfect on the lanai.

"They are the ideal potted plants. They don't mind being root-bound at all. They have very fine surface roots, vs. tap roots (that require more space and soil). This means the roots won't break through your pots," Bertelmann said.

Although Vireya rhododendrons like warm weather, they must be protected from the sun. They need plenty of light to flower, but it's best to keep them in dappled light when the sun is the strongest.

The plants do not like to have wet feet, so proper potting mixture and watering are important. "It's not how much to water; it's how much it goes through. Think of them like orchids; that's how you should water them, and that's how you should grow them," Bertelmann said.

Prune the plant or pinch off new growth to keep it compact. The peak flower season begins in the fall and lasts through the spring.

Foster Botanical
Garden Fall Plant Sale

Place: 50 N. Vineyard Boulevard
Time: 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. Sept. 29
Admission: Free
Call: 537-1708

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Suzanne Tswei's gardening column runs Saturdays in Today.
You can write her at the Star-Bulletin,
500 Ala Moana, Suite 7-210, Honolulu, HI, 96813
or email

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