Rhododendrons in Australia
by A. W. Headlam, Bentleigh, Australia
Fig. 20. Ripley, a well known garden at Olinda
in the Dandenong Ranges, is noted for its
rhododendrons and choice trees and shrubs, many
of which have been planted as lawn specimens.
In the picture is 'Blue Peter' and in the distance a
large plant of 'White Pearl' against a background
of flowering cherries, maples and conifers.
Fig. 21. R. veitchianum - from a plant growing in
the author's garden at Bentleigh, an indication that
some species can be grown successfully in
suburban gardens in Melbourne, although
difficulties are more with the large leafed species.
Whilst Australia is a vast continent covering an area of over three million square miles, only a relatively small area is suitable for the growing of rhododendrons and their allied species this is in the temperate areas in and near the eastern and south eastern coastal mountains. Further inland are rolling grasslands where climatic conditions are unfavorable, and further inland again are vast areas of semi-arid and desert country. In the somewhat sparsely populated Western Australia, whose coastline is washed by waters of the Indian Ocean, high temperatures, low rainfall and low relatively humidity preclude the growing of all but the hardiest trees and shrubs. Tasmania, an island which lies some 200 miles south of the mainland is mountainous, and has a very mild climate, particularly suitable for the growing of rhododendrons, or for that matter, all garden shrubs and plants.
It is thought that the first rhododendrons introduced to Australia were grown at Mt. Macedon, some 35 miles north of Melbourne, from where they were eventually distributed to the other areas. There are some very fine gardens on the slopes of Mt. Macedon, altitude 3325 feet, where rhododendrons and choice trees and shrubs from many parts of the world grow under very favorable climatic conditions. There is little doubt however, that the greatest concentration of rhododendrons in Australia is to be found in the Dandenong Ranges, some 25 miles east of Melbourne. The altitude of 2000 feet, and the volcanic moisture retentive soil, combined with an annual rainfall of 50 inches, produce almost ideal conditions for growing rhododendrons.
Summer temperatures on very few occasions exceed 90° F., whilst on the other end of the scale, winters are relatively mild; occasional snowfalls do occur, but rarely last more than a day, and temperatures in mid-winter only on very isolated occasions record more than a few degrees of frost, as a consequence it is not unusual to see early flowering varieties such as 'Christmas Cheer', 'Marion', (Cheals) and 'Nobleanum' flowering on June 22nd., our shortest day in mid-winter, and these are followed in July and August by 'Cornubia', 'Red Admiral', 'John Waterer', 'Pink Delight' and 'Chrysomanicum' which carry through to September, our first month of spring, which brings a rapid increase in the number of rhododendrons in flower, and eventually in October the peak of the flowering season is reached. Late spring and early summer, usually our period of highest rainfall, occasionally produce temperatures of 80/90° F., and the heat and high relative humidity can be quite devastating to flowers, causing them to noticeably wilt, and in extreme cases complete collapse of the flowers occur.
Over the years, most of our rhododendrons have been imported from England and Holland where the emphasis is on late flowering varieties to miss the frosts; despite the transition to a different hemisphere and totally changed climatic conditions, the late flowering characteristics still persist, and it is only of recent years that nurserymen and amateur hybridists have been successful in breeding a race of earlier flowering rhododendrons which have proved to be much better suited to our climatic conditions.
Melbourne, an ever expanding city with a population rapidly approaching 2½ million inhabitants, is noted for its parks and gardens, and most homes in its spreading suburban areas are surrounded by lawns and gardens where camellias, azaleas, magnolias, roses and rhododendrons are widely grown, however, Melbourne's climate, as far as rhododendrons are concerned, can be difficult in summer months when temperatures sometimes exceed 100°F., and on one extreme occasion, three successive days of 108°, 109° and 110° were recorded. Fortunately these hot spells rarely last more than a few days, and relief comes when a cool change blows in from the south.
Generally, it is the hardy hybrids which do best in Melbourne; in our suburban garden at Bentleigh, 'Alice', 'Jan Dekens', 'Kluis Sensation', 'Damozel', 'Sappho', 'Blue Peter' and 'Van Nes Sensation' always make a good show, however, the large leafed species are rarely seen growing in the suburbs where the higher summer temperatures, low relative humidity, industrial smog and lack of air circulation in gardens due to buildings and dividing fences seem just too much for them to cope with, but in the areas near to, and extending into the foothills of the Dandenongs, these species can be grown quite successfully.
Fig. 23. The large leafed species
grow particularly well in the
Dandenongs - R. falconeri with
26 flowers was grown in V. J.
Boulter & Sons Nursery at Olinda.
They are seen at their best, however, in the Dandenongs, and even there, those in the most sheltered positions and growing in fern gullies produce the largest leaves, R. grande, R. fictolacteum, R. falconeri, R. nuttallii, R. macabeanum and R. eximium to mention a few, whilst R. williamsianum and its hybrids as well as many of the griersonianum progeny are quite sensitive to summer sun, and are difficult to grow successfully in Melbourne, 'Damozel' being the exception, which seems to stand Melbourne's summer almost as well as any of the hybrids previously mentioned. Mollis and Kurume azaleas are little troubled by the heat, but Indica azaleas require some protection from summer sun and hot winds.
There are many interesting gardens in the Dandenongs, some are quite formal with sweeping lawns, and have rhododendrons, trees and shrubs planted as lawn specimens, and as hedges along the borders, whilst others are quite informal with rhododendrons planted among the eucalypts, blackwoods and acacias, and in the deep gullies amongst large tree ferns (Dicksonia antarctica) where the large-leafed species are particularly appreciative of these ideal sheltered conditions, growing deep in leaf mould and humus.
Some nurseries have selling depots by the roadside where balled plants and plants in containers are displayed, and attract many people who come to admire and buy; in fact, in the flowering season, these are in themselves a miniature rhododendron show, whilst other nurseries are open for people to walk through and see rhododendrons growing in their natural surroundings, and make their selection from the great variety available. Some nurseries in the Dandenongs have been established for several generations, and rhododendrons up to 70 and 80 years of age may be seen growing in bushland surroundings.
There are very few deciduous trees indigenous to Australia, and many have been imported from widely separated parts of the world; in the Fall they produce a magnificent display of color, rivaling in some ways the rhododendron show in the spring, Liquidambars, Tulip Trees, Cornus, Nyssa sylvatica, Sugar Maples, Enkianthus, Rhus succedanea, Pistacia, American Red Oak, Crimson King Maples, Acer palmatum, Acer davidii and Acer palmatum 'Osakazuki' to mention a few.
It was in 1954 that several members of the Ferny Creek Horticultural Society requested and were granted permission to form a Rhododendron Study Group, and its success was reflected in the Australian Rhododendron Festival held at Ferny Creek for several years.
In 1958, in an endeavor to further the interest in rhododendrons, The Australian Rhododendron Society was formed, its aims being to extend the interest of the Society to other parts of Australia, communicate with Rhododendron Societies in other parts of the world, and encourage the production of Australian raised hybrids.
The Society held its first show in the hall in the recreation reserve at Olinda from October 29th, to November 1st., 1960, that date being chosen to coincide with the peak of the flowering season, and having in mind the Public Holiday on the first Tuesday of November (Melbourne Cup Day), when many visitors converge on Melbourne for the horse racing season. During this period numerous people visit the Dandenongs to see the gardens and nurseries with their colorful displays, not forgetting of course, The Australian Rhododendron Society's Annual Show which is becoming one of the well known events of the year. Competitive and non-competitive displays are exhibited in the hall, and the Trade displays housed in marquees in the reserve form a large and colorful section of the Show.
The Australian Rhododendron Society, after its first successful show at Olinda, decided that a National Garden in the Dandenongs would be an acquisition, both to the Society and the State, and eventually become a tourist attraction.
Representations were made to the Government, and after lengthy negotiations, a permissive occupancy lease of 100 acres of Forest land at Olinda was approved, to be maintained by the Society without cost to the State, a quite formidable undertaking. A considerable amount of work was carried out by Members clearing scrub to make way for the planting of rhododendrons, and at the same time leaving native trees and eucalypts to provide some shelter. The first job was to fence an area of 15 acres adjoining the recreation reserve, and after many week ends of hard work the fencing was completed, and planting of rhododendrons and other shrubs carried out. Unfortunately, in October 1961, bush fires swept through the area, destroying many of the plants and damaging some of the shelter belts of mountain ash and eucalypts. After the fires the Forests Commission agreed to clear way the damaged trees, and members were again faced with the task of replanting; rhododendrons were brought along by members from their gardens and many of the nurseries in the Dandenongs generously donated plants; and the lost ground was steadily regained.
The small hall in the recreation reserve was now unable to cope with the competitive and Society's exhibits, and it was decided to build a hall in the garden. This was not a decision to be taken lightly, and after considerable discussion it was decided to go ahead with the project. Finance was one of the main problems, the Society's only revenue being from Membership Fees and admission charges to the annual Shows, however, members were not deterred and the erection of the building with a show hall 64 feet x 48 feet, adjoining a meeting room 30 feet x 30 feet, and kitchen and toilet facilities went ahead. Much of the work was done by members, and contracts were let for some of the more difficult construction. Considerable assistance was given by generous donations by members, and after many week ends of hard work, the hall was eventually ready for the first show in Oct./Nov., 1966, which was a great success - again the nurserymen's exhibits were staged in marquees. The completion of the building was a milestone in the Society's history, making it possible for much work to be carried out in the garden.
Each year the annual Show has attracted more interest, and with the many earlier flowering locally raised hybrids, it became necessary to stage an early Show, some four weeks before the main Show.
The Australian Lilium Society, closely associated with the Rhododendron Society, many members being in both Societies, has used the Hall as a venue for its annual Shows, the spacious hall providing ample space to display the exhibits to best advantage. The 1969 Rhododendron Show was staged from 1st., to 4th., November, and in the hall the competitive section and the Society's exhibits attracted considerable attention; a wide range of hybrids and species was exhibited, amongst some of the outstanding being 'Naomi Astarte', 'Sarita Loder', 'llam Orange', 'Elizabeth Hobbie', 'Biskra', 'Gill's Gloriosa', 'Tyermanni', 'Jean Mary Montague', 'Coronation Day' and many of the well known hybrids, 'Alice', 'Sappho', 'Mrs. G. W. Leak', 'Furnival's Daughter', 'Topsvoort Pearl', 'Jan Dekens', 'Britannia' and 'Lamplighter' to mention a few, and amongst the species R. dalhousiae, R. nuttallii, R. orbiculare, R. lindleyi, R. cinnabarinum, R. aberconwayi and R. augustinii were to be seen amongst the exhibits.
The Trade displays, housed in a 200 foot long marquee in the garden, as usual were of a very high standard, and made an attractive splash of color. The first display, set up as a rock garden and containing many rock garden plants, created considerable interest by the inclusion of several plants of the prostrate low growing 'Carmen' with large campanulate blood red flowers, whilst R. trichostomum var. ledoides looked quite at home amongst the rocks, and lastly, R. radicans, another prostrate shrub only seven or eight inches high, and covered with purple blue flowers completed the picture.
Then followed the other displays consisting mainly of balled plants, the larger ones in the background and graduating to the smaller and more compact growing ones in the front, considerable thought having been given to the careful blending of colors. Here could be seen 'Naomi', 'Royal Flush' and 'Rosabel', and in the reds, 'Armistice Day', 'Gaul', 'Langley Park', 'Lamplighter', 'Earl of Athlone', 'Jean Mary Montague', 'Humming Bird' and R. haematodes, to mention a few. Blues and lavenders were represented by 'Susan', 'Susette', 'Blue Peter', 'Blue Diamond', 'Anica Bricogne', 'Everestianum', 'Lucidium', 'Van Nes Sensation' and the pinks by 'Coronation Day', 'Alice', 'Antoon van Welie', 'Gillii', 'Gill's Gloriosa', 'Jan Dekens', 'Mrs. G. W. Leak', 'Pink Perfection' and 'Topsvoort Pearl'. In the whites, 'Dr. Stocker', R. aberconwayi, 'Loderi King George', 'Loder's White', R. nuttallii, 'Sappho', 'White Pearl' and 'Helene Schiffner' were well represented, whilst in the yellow and orange shades were 'Mrs. Betty Robertson', 'Alice Street', 'Carita' 'Goldsworth Yellow', 'Unique', 'Naomi', 'Fabia', 'Margaret Dunn', 'Broughtonii Aureum' and R. johnstoneanum to mention a few.
Exbury and Mollis azaleas were usually arranged in separate areas of the Nurserymen's displays, and a wide range of colors from red, scarlet, orange, yellow, pink and white was represented, making a particularly brilliant section of the show, and finally, an exhibit devoted entirely to the new Japanese Satsuki Azaleas. This fascinating new breed of azaleas has many appealing features, the main being a wonderful flower size and the ability to produce such a variety of colored blooms from an individual plant, and finally, their hardiness, enabling them to grow and flower in full sun.
Fig. 22. Another picture at Ripley, with 'C.B.
Van Nes' growing as a lawn specimen near a
large silver birch. (Next - 'Unknown Warrior'.)
Fig. 24. A trade exhibit by V.J. Boulter & Sons at
the Australian Rhododendron Society's Early Show.
Left: 'Kalmina' ('Unknown Warrior' x 'Edith Boulter').
Right: 'Edith Boulter' ('Marion'-Cheals x 'Unique')
Another successful Show with an attendance of more than ten thousand visitors over the four days almost brings 1969 to a close, only the November meeting remains to conclude the year.
During 1969 our first two branches have been formed, at Illawarra on the central coast of New South Wales, south of Sydney, where enthusiastic members have already begun the planting of a rhododendron garden, and secondly, the Blue Mountains Branch, planned by a group of enthusiasts in the Blue Mountains District of New South Wales, in which area there are a number of well established rhododendron gardens. Already the membership of this Branch is approaching 50, and plans are in hand to plant a rhododendron garden in this area. Members of both branches visited our 1969 Show and took the opportunity of meeting friends and discussing rhododendrons generally, and went home full of ideas for their own garden, and eventually the staging an annual Show at their respective branches.
A description of Rhododendrons in Australia would not be complete without mention of the Malesian species which have been grown with a considerable degree of success since their first introduction in 1961, when plants of R. christianae raised from seed collected in New Guinea by Rev. Canon Cruttwell were distributed to Members, however I will not elaborate as I wrote on these colorful tropical rhododendrons in some detail in the April 1969 Bulletin. Seed of these species is continually being received, and more hybridizing is being done, but crossing them with members of the genus from the Asian Mainland has still eluded the hybridists. Exhibits of flowers of Malesians was somewhat disappointing at the 1969 Show, as several severe and quite unexpected frosts occurred very early in the winter, damaging foliage and flower buds of these rhododendrons sufficiently to upset the flowering season, however, there were very few losses and nearly all recovered and grew quite vigorously in the following spring. A few Malesians are grown in glass houses, but most are grown in gardens in semi-sheltered aspects in Australia.
It will be seen that a considerable amount of work has been done by Members since the Australian Rhododendron Society was first formed in 1958, and there remains still very much to be done in the future, the staging of Shows, planting and maintaining the National Garden at Olinda, convening meetings, production of the Quarterly Journal The Rhododendron, the work of the Technical Sub-committee, Show Committee and general running of the Society is quite a considerable undertaking, and Members have all in some way contributed to the effort.
One hesitates to mention any particular section of the Society, but I do not think anyone will take exception to a word of praise for the Ladies' Auxiliary. Whenever some project is held up for the lack of finance, a refrigerator for the kitchen, urns, electric fry pans, kitchen sinks and the numerous items required to provide means and afternoon teas for visitors and Members working in the garden, a word to the Ladies' Auxiliary, and very soon finance is forthcoming.
The Society's monthly meetings are usually held in a theater adjoining a suburban City Hall, and occasional meetings are held at Olinda to enable residents in the Dandenongs to attend meetings without making the journey to Melbourne. The Meeting room adjoining the main hall seemed little improved by several electric radiators in the winter, and it was suggested that folding doors should be installed to divide it from the main hall when meetings were held - a word to the Ladies Auxiliary and a magnificent effort, $800 was raised and the doors duly installed, providing much more comfort when holding meetings at Olinda in the winter months.
It is hoped that the foregoing has at least given some idea of the rhododendrons which may be seen growing in Australia, and some of the problems which are quite often encountered as compared with those in the Northern Hemisphere, as well as the formation and progress of The Australian Rhododendron Society, and finally to those contemplating attending the Pacific Rhododendron Conference in October/ November 1969, some idea of what they may expect to see as far as the Australian part of the Conference is concerned.
All visitors to Australia are assured of a warm welcome, and plans are already well in hand to make the 1970 Australian Rhododendron Society's Show the best yet staged by the Society.