The Rothschild Rhododendrons - Review
by David G. Leach
A recent article in The New York Times noted that "Everything connected with the Rothschilds must bear the stamp of le grand seigneur, elegance, refinement and lavishness matched by uncanny attention to detail." Their new book, The Rothschild Rhododendrons, is in the family tradition an opulent tribute to the legendary hybridizer, Lionel de Rothschild. It is in every sense a luxuriant, beautiful volume, large in size, large in type face, large in its sixty-seven perfect full-page photographic reproductions in color of the best known Rothschild clones.
The history of Exbury Estate, which became world famous as a garden and as a source of the new and beautiful, is recounted by co-authors Peter Barber, Managing Director of Exbury, and C. E. Lucas Phillips, historical and horticultural author. There are fascinating anecdotes about British royalty, about the great and near-great who came to see the magnificent estate and the hybridizing triumphs in Rhododendrons, in Azaleas, in orchids, in nerines and in other genera, created through the taste and discrimination of Mr. Rothschild. There are sharp insights into the personality and character of the famous breeder, his opinions on selecting parents for his hybrids and the methods he employed. It is altogether an engrossing account of the remarkable development of a great horticultural showplace by a remarkable man, written with grace and style by the authors.
The Rothschild Rhododendrons is not intended as a comprehensive work on the genus, nor is its approach technical. It is devoted solely to the hybrids and to the award-winning species forms which have been produced at Exbury, both prior to Lionel de Rothschild's death in 1942 and under the subsequent ownership of his son, Edmund.
The second section of the book describes all 356 of the Exbury Rhododendron hybrids created to date, and evaluates each of them in the authors' comments, in both British and American quality and hardiness ratings, and in the Exbury personnel's own ratings. There is no bland praise of every Rothschild Rhododendron; where the facts justify it, the authors are critical. Previous Royal Horticultural Society descriptions are corrected, and the authors have not hesitated to differ from R. H. S. ratings for hardiness and quality in cases where they believe them to be in error. The candid treatment adds greatly to the value of this section. It is, perhaps, even more remarkable that the authors have somehow managed to describe each of these hundreds of hybrids in an interesting, non-technical fashion so that all have been given individuality. If there is repetition at all, the reader is not aware of it, and the whole emerges as an impressive accomplishment in varied and lucid composition.
The development of the Exbury deciduous Azalea hybrids is described in the Exbury history. A listing of all 104 clones following the Rhododendron Register describes these Azaleas, gives their current British and American ratings and, in addition, Exbury's own preferences. There are some surprises in the assessments by their source of some of the hybrids.
The fifteen persistent-leaved Azalea hybrids produced by Lionel de Rothschild are described in a separate register. The forty-nine species forms from Exbury which have won A.M. or F.C.C. awards are listed, without description.
The book concludes with a chapter on the cultivation of Rhododendrons in the British Isles, perhaps stressing the methods used at Exbury. This fifteen-page treatment is not intended to be exhaustive and not all of the advice can be applied literally to American cultural conditions. Still, our country has no monopoly on the only perfect way of growing Rhododendrons, and there are numerous comments, both direct and by implication, which will be useful for American growers.
Any conscientious reviewer, and particularly a specialist pecking peevishly at another's work should theoretically be able to find fault or deficiency. If any exists in this book, it lies in the photographs from which the color plates were produced. They are technically perfect, the reproduction of them is outstandingly fine, but to this eye the photographer too frequently used front lighting so that the subjects may lack the sparkle and animation which more imaginative lighting might have provided. But this is a niggling criticism, which would probably go unnoticed by any reader without a special interest in flower photography, and it is certainly inconsequential in relation to the otherwise uniform excellence which marks The Rothschild Rhododendrons.
The fact is that the book accomplishes its purpose so well that it seemed faultless to this reviewer. It is a fitting memorial for the master hybridizer of the Rhododendron to whom we owe so much. Any reader with the slightest interest in the genus will find this volume absorbing, informative and a joy to read in its prose style.
The Rothschild Rhododendrons, by C. E. Lucas Phillips and Peter Barber. 12¼ x 9⅝". 133 pages of text; introduction, bibliography and index. 67 color plates. 20 line drawings. American edition published by Dodd, Mead & Co., Inc. $40.00.