Rhododendron ‘Princess Alexandra’ is a vireya (tropical rhododendron) cultivar, the result of a backcross between the very first vireya hybrid, Rhododendron ‘Princess Royal’ (R. jasminiflorum x R. javanicum), and its parent R. jasminiflorum. It was registered by the famous nursery of J. Veitch & Sons in 1865, from which we can deduce that it was named in honor of Princess Alexandra of Denmark who had married Prince Albert Edward, the future King Edward VII, two years earlier.
Some plants remain consistently popular, while others go in and out of style. Vireyas definitely fall in the latter category. R. jasminiflorum flowered in England for the first time in 1849, and over the next fifty years or so, several hundred vireya hybrids were registered, mostly by the Veitch nurseries. Along with orchids and other tropical plants, vireyas graced the conservatories of the Victorian upper class, but their popularity was eventually eclipsed by hardier Rhododendron species which didn’t need an expensive heated greenhouse. It wasn’t until the second half of the twentieth century that an influx of newly discovered species made vireyas and their hybridization popular again. This second wave of cultivation occurred in places where vireyas could be grown outside–New Zealand, Australia, coastal California, Hawaii–and hybridizers focused on species from the mountains of Malesia (the biogeographic region encompassing Peninsular Malaysia, the Malay Archipelago, and New Guinea) that thrived in cool, but not freezing, weather.
In the the years between the first and second periods of vireya popularity, two world wars and a great depression wiped out many of the old collections of tropical plants, and fewer than ten of the Victorian hybrids survive today. I find it amazing that the R. ‘Princess Alexandra’ in my greenhouse is essentially the same plant that grew in the Veitch nurseries. It has been propagated by cuttings and traded among enthusiasts for more than 150 years.
I love to grow vireyas, but unfortunately most vireyas don’t love North Carolina. Although vireyas come from the tropics, most species grow at high altitude, up to and even above the tree line. The montane species–and hybrids dominated by those species–are weakened by our long, hot summers and tend to die suddenly after a few years. I have the best long-term success with the relatively few species that grow naturally a lower altitudes, and it is exactly those species, plants like R. jasminiflorum and R. javanicum, that are the parents of the Veitch hybrids. I’d love to grow more of the old survivors, if only I could find them.
So, if anyone knows where I can obtain cuttings of Rhododendron ‘Ne Plus Ultra’ or R. ‘Triumphans’ in the United States, please let me know.