Shrub, to 5 m; bark of older branches smooth, purplish; young shoots glabrous. Leaves 6.5-12 x 2.5-4 cm, narrowly elliptic to narrowly elliptic-oblanceolate, apex abruptly acuminate; lower surface with a white papillate epidermis, the scales distant, equal, golden-yellow to brown. Pedicels thin. Flowers c.12, in a lax raceme; calyx to 2 mm; corolla fleshy, reddish purple, pruinose, campanulate, 12-17 mm; stamens (8-)10, regular; ovary scaly, style sharply deflexed, glabrous. Flowering April-May.
It is generally tender in cultivation and is only suitable for relatively frost-free sites. Royal Horticultural Society (1997)
Distribution Myanmar NE China NW Yunnan, SE Tibet
Habitat 2,450-4,250 m
RHS Hardiness Rating H3
Conservation status Near threatened (NT)
Taxonomic note This is a distinctive species that is probably distantly allied to R. campylogynum. Royal Horticultural Society (1997)
An evergreen shrub described by Forrest as being found by him from 4 to 12 ft high in the wild; young shoots glabrous, glaucous. Leaves aggregated about the end of the twig, of thin texture, lanceolate or oblanceolate, slenderly pointed, wedge-shaped at the base; 2 to 4 (sometimes 6) in. long, 1⁄4 to 11⁄2 in. wide, bright green above, very glaucous beneath, glabrous on both sides except for a few scales beneath; stalk 1⁄4 to 3⁄4 in. long. Flowers in a distinctly racemose cluster of twelve or more, opening in April. Calyx small, shallowly or not at all lobed, glabrous. Corolla narrowly bell-shaped, about 1⁄2 in. long, of fleshy texture and plum-purple covered with a bloom, the five lobes erect. Stamens ten, glabrous, both they and the anthers purple-red to bright crimson; ovary purplish, scaly; style glabrous, bent over. Bot. Mag., t. 9310. (s. Glaucophyllum ss. Genestierianum)
Native mainly of upper Burma and S.E. Tibet (Tsarong); discovered by Forrest on the Salween-Irrawaddy divide in 1919 and introduced by him. He called it ‘altogether a distinct species much to be desired for our gardens’. But Farrer, who saw it near the type-locality in the following year, remarked: ‘Most curious and almost ugly, hardly to be known at first glance for a Rhododendron.’ Kingdon Ward wrote of it: ‘This is a slim shrub … with willow-like leaves snow-white beneath, as though powdered with talcum. The flowers, borne on long pedicels in loose heads of twenty, thirty or more, are tiny, plum-purple, and in bud look like large black currants. It is not a beautiful plant, having a solemn, rather funereal look; but like so many departures from the normal in this immense genus, is undeniably interesting’ (Return to the Irrawaddy, p. 161).
Gardeners seem to have agreed with Farrer and Kingdon Ward, for the species is very rare in cultivation. Nor is it altogether hardy.