An evergreen shrub, ultimately 10 to 12 ft high, usually less in this country and of wide-spreading habit; branches stout, soon glabrous. Leaves oblong, with a tapering, rounded, or heart-shaped base, abruptly pointed; 4 to 8 in. long, 2 to 31⁄2 in. wide, quite glabrous on both surfaces, pale green above, slightly glaucous beneath; stalk stout, purplish, 1⁄2 to 1 in. long. Flowers fragrant, produced in May, somewhat loosely arranged in terminal clusters of eight to twelve; each blossom is 21⁄2 to 3 in. across, of a lovely blush tint on opening, becoming paler afterwards. Calyx so small as to be scarcely discernible. Corolla seven- (or rarely eight-) lobed, flattish; stamens fourteen to sixteen, much shorter than the corolla, glabrous; ovary and base of style glandular. Bot. Mag., t. 5596. (s. and ss. Fortunei)
Native of eastern China; discovered by Fortune in Chekiang province in 1855 and introduced to Glendinning's nursery by means of seeds he collected the same autumn. Plants raised from these seeds were auctioned in 1859 and the species was named in that year by Lindley, but it was first properly described in 1866, in the Botanical Magazine, from a flowering specimen received from Mr Luscombe of Coombe Royal, Devon. The plate is a poor one and does not show the glands on the pedicels, style, and outer surface of the corolla characteristic of the species, though they are shown on the type specimen at Kew from which the original painting was made.
R. fortunei is a beautiful rhododendron, and is of interest as the first hardy species of 'true' rhododendron (as distinct from azalea) received from China.
Of the first-generation hybrids of R. fortunei the best known are those with R. griffithianum (the famous Loderi grex), R. thomsonii (Luscombei grex), and R. campylocarpum (grexes Gladys and Letty Edwards). These and others are described in the section on hybrids. In that section see also 'Lavender Girl' and 'Duke of York'.
From the Supplement (Vol. V)
subsp. discolor (Franch.); Chamberlain R. discolor Franch.; R. mandarinorum Diels; R. kirkii Hort.; R. houlstonii Hemsl. & Wils.; R. fortunei var. houlstonii (Hemsl. & Wils.) Rehd. & Wils. – Differing from the typical subspecies only in its relatively narrower, oblanceolate leaves and not clearly demarcated from it either in this respect or geographically (Rev. 2, pp. 234-5 and Map 65). A distinguishing character given in Species of Rhododendron is the later flowering season of R. discolor. However, this applies only to the Wilson introduction from western Hupeh, and with the inclusion of R. houlstonii in subsp. discolor it is no longer true constantly if it ever was, since, as represented in British gardens by the Wilson introduction, R. houlstonii flowers even earlier than typical R. fortunei. These plants could be distinguished as R. fortunei subsp. discolor Houlstonii group.