An evergreen shrub 4 to 5 ft high, of erect growth when young, making long slender shoots with half a dozen or more leaves to the inch, scurfy. Leaves mostly oblong or narrowly oval, apex often bluntish or rounded, more tapered at the base; 3⁄4 to 11⁄2 in. long, 1⁄3 to 1⁄2 in. wide; dark dullish green above, greyish beneath, both surfaces scaly but the lower one more copiously so; stalk 1⁄8 to 1⁄/6 in. long. When crushed, the leaf emits a slightly acrid odour. Flowers four to eight together, crowded in a roundish umbel about 11⁄2 in. wide, opening normally in March and April. Calyx 1⁄10 in. long, five-lobed, with a few hairs at the rounded end of each lobe. Corolla flattish, saucer-shaped, 3⁄4 to 1 in. wide, five-lobed (the lobes roundish), the short tube hairy. Forrest describes the flowers as deep purplish blue, blue-purple, pale bluish rose, and blue. One plant at Kew gave rosy-pink flowers. Stamens normally ten, purple, about 1⁄/6 in. long, downy at the base; anthers dark reddish brown. Ovary very scaly, green; style red, glabrous; flower-stalk 1⁄/6 to 1⁄4 in. long, scaly. Bot. Mag., t. 9156. (s. Lapponicum)
Native of N.W. Yunnan east of the Mekong and of S.W. Szechwan. It was first collected by Kingdon Ward (in flower) in May 1913 in the upper valley of the Chung river, a tributary of the Yangtse, at 10,500 ft. He described it as a dwarf shrub forming carpets or separate tufts 9 in. to 1 ft high in open pine forest. In July of the same year Forrest found it in flower on the mountains north-east of the Yangtse Bend at 11,000 to 12,000 ft, as a shrub 4 to 5 ft high with blue flowers, growing in alpine scrub, and introduced it by means of seeds collected the same autumn (F.10333, in flower, and F.11487, in fruit). Other Forrest collections cited in the original description are: F. 12461, from the Lichiang range, a shrub of 2 ft with pale bluish-rose flowers, from open marshy meadows; F. 12562, mountains west of the Fengkow valley, at 12,000 ft, a shrub of 3 to 4 ft with lavender-blue flowers, growing in boggy, peaty meadows; and F.12633, from the Chungtien plateau, from open, moist, stony pasture. Forrest later sent seed from the Lichiang range under four numbers, one from plants with flowers of a 'bright rose' and Dr Rock's 59241 and 59615 were also from this area. Forrest's 15450 and 15459, collected in 1917, are from the Haba Shan, the continuation of the Lichiang range north of the Yangtse.
R. hippophaeoides is one of the best and most widely planted of the Lapponicum series. It first flowered in gardens in 1917 and received an Award of Garden Merit eight years later. It is perfectly hardy, and its flowers, produced in March and April, are rarely damaged by frost. As will be seen from Forrest's field notes, it often occurs in the wild in wet ground. In cultivation it does not need such conditions, but Lionel de Rothschild found that it would survive in ground lying wet in winter where other members of the series died out.
cv. 'Sunningdale'. – Flowers deep lavender-blue, about 3⁄4 in. wide, up to eleven or so in a dense truss, opening over a long period. This is a selection from a batch of plants raised at the Sunningdale Nurseries and known collectively as the Haba Shan form, so probably raised from Forrest's 15450 or 15459 (see above). In another clone from this batch the flowers are larger but fewer in each truss.
R. fimbriatum Hutch. – Judging from the type-material at Kew, this seems to be very close to R. hippophaeoides. It was described from a plant raised at Headfort from Forrest's 22197, to which the corresponding field-specimen is R. ravum, quite a different species now included in R. cuneatum.
From the Supplement (Vol. V)
R. fimbriatum (page 682) is now included in this species (Rev. Lapp., p. 19), but is recognised by Mr Davidian, who gives as the distinguishing characters the unusually long style and stamens and the purple rather than lavender flowers (Rhododendron Species, Vol. I, pp. 184-6 and plate 37). The plant at Headfort from which Dr Hutchinson described this species was probably raised from F.23149.
var. occidentale Philipson & Philipson – According to its authors, the leading characters of this variety are the long and tenuous style, the smaller number of flowers in the inflorescence and the darker, more widely spaced scales on the undersides of the leaves (Rev. Lapp., p. 20 and Rev. 1, p. 97). It is confined to parts of the Mekong-Salween divide, in the westernmost part of the range of R. hippophaeoides. Presumably the name var. occidentale is applicable only to plants which show the above-mentioned characters in combination. The style is also very long in R. fimbriatum (see above), but the Philipsons consider this to be typical R. hippophaeoides. The var. occidentale was introduced by Forrest under F.21462 and F.21476 but may not be in cultivation.