Smirnow’s rhododendron is native to the Caucasus, where it grows in the mountains at 800-2000m asl, close to and above the tree-line. This is one of the hardiest of the wild rhododendrons and its foliage alone makes it a magnificent shrub. The new leaves and shoots are covered in silvery-white felt. On the undersides of the leaves this velvety indumentum, which feels warm to the touch, remains from year to year. This felty surface is common to many mountain species of rhododendron, helping them to endure occasional drought periods. In the second week of June the large flowers bloom pale violet or red, with frill-edged sepals.
The species arrived at Mustila not later than the 1920s among the first rhododendrons, and it has proved one of the hardiest and showiest of the wild species. At Mustila, as in the wild, it has shown itself variable. In some individuals the indumentum is white, in others reddish brown or greyish. The biggest flowers are to be found on shrubs growing in Tuijalaakso (White-cedar Valley), but the best-shaped shrub, beautifully rounded and dense, is to be found on the Terassi (Terrace).
Smirnow’s rhododendron has been used in breeding winter-hardy rhododendrons for over a century. The best-known are the Seidel hybrids, produced in Germany. Smirnow’s rhododendron and the Seidel group have also been used in the Helsinki University breeding programme, whose new varieties have been on the market since 1990.