Arduaine: A Great Scottish Rhododendron Garden
George F. Smith
The horticultural consequences of the fabled mildness and abundant summer rain of the west coast of Scotland are epitomized in the marvelous garden on the tiny peninsula of Arduaine on one of the many sea lochs of the Argyll coast. Some 20 miles south of Oban, this 1,000 yard long spit of land jutting westwards into loch Melfort, with high ground on its northern and western sides, was just a treeless headland at the turn of the century. James Arthur Campbell bought Arduaine in 1898, and around 1910, with plantings in the lower area, the creation of today's wonderful garden began.
Mr. Campbell, a retired tea planter, must have seen Rhododendron zeylanicum on the central plateau in Ceylon. This species was the first to be planted at Arduaine, raised from wild collected seed: six thriving specimens of this tender species, now over 70 years old, are among the glories of the collection. Over a period of 60 years, three generations of the Campbell family added a great many other rare and tender plants to the garden, a high proportion of which, including many from the original plantings, are still thriving, notably R. griffithianum, three very large specimens of which in most seasons cover themselves with their huge white scented wide trumpets, R. nilagiricum from peninsular India (a close relative of R. zeylanicum), several Davidia vilmoriniana, the handkerchief tree, several magnolia species, Magnolia campbellii, M. denudata, M. sieboldii, and M. obovata, all huge; several climbing plants have also survived - such as Berberidopsis corallina, now more than 50 feet high, and Mitraria coccinea, usually described as a low spreading evergreen, climbing to 40 feet on a lime tree.
By 1970, Major Ian Campbell and his wife were finding this very large garden too great a burden, and decided to sell. By then the garden had become almost a wilderness, overgrown with wild scrub, the woodland littered with trees blown over in the 1968 hurricane. In this wet and mild part of Scotland, even just a few years' neglect leads to accelerating deterioration. To the great good fortune of all of us, nurserymen brothers from Essex, Edmund and Harry Wright, bought the then wild garden. Their dedication, skill, and incredible stamina and strength with no extra help over a period of 20 years have transformed Arduaine into one of the foremost large privately owned gardens in Britain, wonderful for its wide range of trees and shrub genera, but perhaps unique in its collection of tender species of Rhododendron thriving in the open, so many of them well over 40 years old.
It is difficult to overestimate the physical effort which has transformed this garden into its present form: hundreds of huge conifers have been felled, sawn up and carried away, and vast amounts of brambles and shrubbery cut away without disturbing the established collection. This has provided enough light in the woodland to enable the venerable specimens there to start flowering again. Since Ed and Harry took over, the collection has been added to continuously by purchases, numerous gifts, and from cuttings and grafts gleaned from the rich collections elsewhere in the British Isles, notably from the Royal Botanic Gardens at Edinburgh and from friends, like Peter Cox of Glendoick. There is strong emphasis on the species, making Arduaine especially attractive to the beginner rhododendron enthusiast - it must be hastily added that the garden is also visually a delight and full of character.
The accompanying sketch map shows the layout and main paths. The garden may be divided into two areas: one, the woodland area, the western half, which slopes up to the high ground of the shelter belt and contains most of the surviving original plantings and very many newer ones in a marvelously mossy setting, somewhat reminiscent of the Sino-Himalayan forests; two, the eastern half, which is largely open ground containing a series of beds, shrubberies, pools, and lawns, and is bordered to the north by steep ground, richly planted, known as the cliff area, since a volcanic rock face traverses it.
The woodland area is made up of an outer wind shelter belt of mature conifers and Griselinia littoralis, facing the shore to the south and west, and reaching to just below the crest of the high ground to the north. The steep and quite high shore area at the tip of the peninsula and the high crest to the north perform the valuable task of diverting the full force of the westerly gales over the top of the planted part of the upper woodland. This core of the woodland is a rhododendron paradise, with several clearings letting in plenty of light and at the same time retaining almost total shelter from gales and the occasional light frosts. These clearings have been slowly and very skillfully created over many years by the Wrights by judicious felling of large trees. The eastern half of the garden, being much more open and flat, is more exposed to the frosts, and thus contain a lower proportion of tender plants.
| Mr. Harry Wright and R. fastigiatum
Photo by George F. Smith
Let's take a walk round the woodland part of the garden, starting from the mammoth specimen of Rhododendron fastigiatum overflowing onto the main path some 50 yards from the main entrance gate: it measures 10 by 7 feet, is about 2½ feet high, and still covers itself with bloom every year. Notable plants in the vicinity are one of the original, now massive R. zeylanicum, a tall R. lanigerum with lovely cherry red trusses, a large R. barbatum, and R. eriogynum. One now enters the edge of the woodland on an uphill path, the carriageway. On the bank to the right is a choice group of small to medium shrubs, including R. auritum, R. xanthostephanum, a particularly nice form of R. tephropeplum with larger than average pink flowers, a Kingdon-Ward collection from the Triangle in Burma, the rare R. longistylum, R. hanceanum, R. charitopes, R. moupinense, and others. Further on, on the right, one passes a magnificent specimen of Magnolia obovata, and on the bank behind is R. sutchuenense var. geraldii and the first of many R. johnstoneanum, R. formosum, and R. edgeworthii. On the left are the less common R. semibarbatum and R. martinianum, also a Picea smithiana, a towering Magnolia campbellii, at least 70 feet high, one of two in the vicinity, and an enormous Trochodendron aralioides from Japan, the only species in a genus of uncertain affinities but, like Magnolia, primitive. Also in this section of the garden are a R. macabeanum, a group of R. praestans, and the incomparable R. augustinii. Just where the path bends to the left, if you are there in early May, you become aware of a glorious fragrance emanating from a group of the old (1877) hybrid 'Countess of Sefton' [R. edgeworthii x (R. ciliatum x R. virgatum)] smothered in white flushed pink flowers. To the right, as the path curves back, is one of the largest specimens of R. griffithianum, 25 feet tall, it's worth travelling a long way just to see this species when ifs in full flower! And not far away stands an equally tall R. sinogrande. These splendid specimens are surrounded by an array of smaller, younger plants, such as R. fulgens, R. cinnabarinum, R. maculiferum ssp. anwheiense, R. argipeplum, and R. pudorosum; a row of R. lindleyi is growing casually along a mossy ditch, and nearby is another ancient R. zeylanicum.
| R. sinogrande in the woodland garden
Photo by George F. Smith
| R. griffithianum, a native of Sikkim,
is parent to many great hybrids.
Photo by George F. Smith
At this point the carriageway turns sharp right to reach the old bungalow, but we shall continue straight on. We are now well within the really unique part of Arduaine Garden, a green mossy woodland with a very uneven floor of rotting tree stumps and crisscrossing ditches beneath a tall and fairly open canopy. As in the wild, there are thousands of self sown seedlings scattered about, especially along the banks of ditches. As we walk on, we pass a large specimen of R. macabeanum with particularly fine inflorescences, quite accustomed to winning First Prizes, and then we approach R. protistum (R. giganteum, in the Grande Series) which when it flowered in 1936 was the first to flower in cultivation, and indeed is among the earliest to flower in the garden, opening its large rosy crimson trusses in February. A bit further on, on the right, is the largest plant in the collection, a venerable R. sinogrande. with its 2' 6" long shiny leaves totally undamaged by wind, and which every other year covers itself with its magnificent creamy trusses: this region is frequently whipped by gales in winter, and the presence of this thriving old plant is testimony to the wind and frost protection provided by the outer shelter belt.
In a journal article one can give but a selection of the more notable species to be seen, and the reader must realize that in this woodland, the more one looks, the more one finds. It would take several days to find and savour everything. As we walk along the western path, we see a R. sperabile in full crimson flower, and several large R. habrotrichum with their characteristic reddish glandular bristles and elegantly poised pink bells; an old bushy plant of R. hardingii (close to R. annae in the Irroratum Series) still produces an abundance of its wide, white flushed pink corollas. Genuine R. fortunei is not all that frequent in cultivation, and when Ed heard from Mr. Davidian of the location of an old original, he was quick to obtain scions, and produced several successful grafts, one of which can be found in the vicinity.
| View down Gully Path
Photo by George F. Smith
Marking the top end of the gully path, at which we have now arrived, is a 10 foot tall R. meddianum var. atrokermesinum (a Chinese thomsonii) its trunks beautiful with orangey buff peeling bark in various pastel shades. Downhill from here, in one of the clearings to the right, is a wonderful area in which several very large specimens of R. lindleyi wave their unbelievable heads of silky white tinged pink 4 to 5 inch fragrant trumpets, with up to nine or ten flowers in horizontal disc shaped trusses! Add to these three or four sprawling R. edgeworthii, some with pure white, others with white stained red bowl shaped, sweet scented crinkled corollas, plus a couple of 4 to 5 foot wide mounds of deep yellow R. burmanicum flowers, with hardly a leaf in sight (early May), and you have a quite unforgettable picture, set in velvety moss and framed in licheny woodland. Also close by are R. taggianum, R. cubittii, R. manipurense, R. formosum, R. ludwigianum, R. scopulorum, and other Maddeniis. As we proceed down the gully path, on the right is R. nilagiricum, a tropical species, growing close to a huge Eucalyptus urnigera, and not far away is found R. xanthocodon, a variant of R. cinnabarinum with waxy yellow bells and seemingly unaffected by the recent plague of powdery mildew. At the bottom of the path there is a tall R. delavayi var. albotomentosum from Mt. Victoria in Burma, which in early spring bears tight trusses of glowing, intensely crimson flowers.
Above the top end of the gully path one may admire a large and rare member of the Irroratum Series, R. araiophyllum, and along the uppermost woodland path, as we walk down toward the bungalow, we find a scattering of R. megeratum, most attractively planted in moss on rotting tree stumps: this mode of planting has been used here and there throughout the woodland with R. valentinianum, R. leucaspis, R. lindleyi, R. edgeworthii, etc. As we reach the carriageway again, we have to admire the multiple trunks, 2 to 3 inch thick, of R. triflorum, with their silky smooth reddish brown peeling bark! Other plants in this area are a towering Nothofagus obliqua from Chile, and a Styrax japonicus, with its elegant pendulous white flowers.
| R. sperabile
Photo by George F. Smith
Passing the old bungalow on the left, we take the cliff path and immediately come to another, probably the tallest of the R. zeylanicum, with three massive rough barked trunks and a dense canopy of thick, stubby, dark green, very wrinkled convex leaves, so unlike those of R. arboreum. As we walk on, we pass the white flowered R. parmulatum and a R. sperabile var. weihsiense with its deep red corollas, both species in the Neriiflorum Series; on the other side is a particularly fine form of that popular plant with hybridisers, R. griersonianum, a parent of the so beautiful 'Elizabeth': the species itself stands on its own, unrelated to any other, and in early June produces an abundance of elegant trumpets, with a very slim tube and of a bright soft pale scarlet with a white indumentum of sticky hairs on the outer surface - quite special. Round a bend, we see two large R. rubiginosum, just a solid mass of blossom in mid April. From the cliff path there is a wide panorama which includes a general view of the open part of the garden and, to the right, of the edge of the woodland; most exciting however is the distant view down the Sound of Jura to the Islands - glorious! From this viewpoint one can also look down on a large R. diaprepes (regarded by some as a subspecies of R. decorum) which in early May has long since shed its lovely scarlet leaf bud scales which so enhance its very early growth, and still has weeks to go before flowering in early June; this particular plant is thought to have been grown from seed brought back in 1919 by Ewan Cox from the ill fated expedition to the Burma Yunnan border region during which Reginald Farrer died.
Where the cliff path zigzags down, one walks past new plantings of lots of R. moupinense, R. leucaspis, R. tsariense, etc., and one reaches a delightful comer of the garden where, on and under a cliff face of volcanic rock, a thriving group of wonderful plants may be enjoyed: on the cliff itself R. cubittii and R. lindleyi are in full flower, and R. formosum is in bud, and below on steep ground are perfect plants of R. edgeworthii, R. maddenii, R. iteophyllum, R. burmanicum, R. lacteum, R. catacosmum, R sanguineum, R. wiltonii, R. hemidartum, R. strigillosum, R. recurvoides, among others. As one reaches level ground there is still much to be seen, such as a very large and floriferous R. neriiflorum var. euchaites with a lovely buff bark, and R. anthosphaerum (in the Irroratum Series) covered with lilac flowers in early May. There is much yet to be said about the more open part of the garden, but the allotted journal space has been consumed, and in any case, the above description of the woodland will have given you some idea of the beauty and riches to be found at Arduaine.
George Smith, now retired, was a Reader in Chemistry at the University of Manchester, England. He is deeply interested in alpine plants and has travelled widely in mountain regions of Europe and Nepal. He has been interested in rhododendrons since 1986.
Oban, Scotland, 20 miles north of Arduaine, is the site of the 1996 ARS Annual Convention.