Rhododendron Species in the Great Garden at Crarae
The first impression one gets of Crarae Glen Garden is one of a wild and very rich mountain woodland: the word "garden" does not immediately come to mind. Having been to Crarae four times in the months of March, April, and May, I am filled with wonderment and admiration of its natural beauty! I will certainly return to it time and again in the future.
The article by Dr. Herbert Spady in the Journal of Fall 1988 gives the basic facts of the history, nature, and content of the garden, which leaves me free to describe my personal impressions of the various parts of the garden, and of the more outstanding of its many Rhododendron species.
First of all, in an attempt to orientate the reader, I will give a brief sketch of its topography: the centerpiece of the steep hillside garden is the torrential Crarae Burn, which in part of its course rushes through a small and picturesque cliffy gorge; there are many paths, but the main ones of interest run parallel to the stream, two on each side, one near the stream, and the other well above it; then there are four bridges - a lower one, a middle one, the gorge bridge, and an upper one. When you start from the Visitor Centre and go towards the stream, you find yourself on the west bank by the lower bridge. Here, to your right, is a grove of mature large leaved rhododendrons, such as R. falconeri and R. macabeanum, and many unnamed chance hybrids. On the bank behind them is a huge R. strigillosum which in March is a mass of rich red bloom, which completely hides the leaves. Sir George Campbell reaped young plants wherever he could, mostly self regenerated seedlings from various gardens, such as Arduaine and Inverewe; his philosophy seemed to be that if a plant was beautiful it did not matter what it was, thus in the lower west side of the garden there is an area in which there is a collection of chance hybrids, mostly with R. strigillosum as one of the parents, which is a gorgeous sight at flowering time; however, many plants were grown from wild collected seed - Reginald Farrer was a relative who contributed much to the richness of the collection. The result is a mix of hybrids, species, and undetermined plants. The bulk of the hybrids and the species are labeled, though sometimes when there is a group, only one of it is: finding the label is sometimes frustrating; however, one is soon bewitched by the beauty of it all, and names don't seem to matter so much. One of the glories of Crarae is in the placing and grouping of the many different trees and shrubs, creating such beautiful contrasts and combinations of leaf and flower! Sir George Campbell really had a genius for creating picturesque effects. I don't doubt that over the decades many changes of the position of plants were made to make the garden of today. Sir Ilay Campbell is very enthusiastically making new plantings, improving the labeling, and taking a lot of trouble in passing information to interested visitors: I have several times seen him guiding big groups round the garden, which, incidentally, is now the property of the Crarae Garden Charitable Trust.
| Crarae Glen Garden in May
Photo by George Smith
Back at the lower bridge, we look upstream towards the east bank, and there a very tall Magnolia campbellii dominates the garden: in April this is a real show, with its huge pure white cupped flowers. Up the torrent path on the east bank we reach a set of steep steps from which, across the burn, two R. barbatum are to be seen: one on the lip of the gorge, the other in a wonderfully wild setting, just by the torrent - in March and April they are ablaze with glowing deep red tight spherical trusses, which makes this species one of the stunningly beautiful of the early flowerers. At the top of the garden, in the northeast corner, in the early part of the season, a couple of mature R. fulvum are in full flower, with elegant trusses of large pink and white blooms; a particular favourite of Sir Hay's, this is a really fine form of the species.
Throughout the garden, the Triflorum Series1 is well represented: planted in groups and embedded in the greenery, the yellow of R. lutescens shines in patches here and there, as does the delicate blue of R. augustinii; big domes of R. oreotrephes grow on the upper east bank, scattered occurrences of R. yunnanense, ambiguum, davidsonianum, triflorum are everywhere, as are the gorgeously deep purple concinnum, and a most splendid form of zaleucum, with large vivid rosy purple flowers. Many species in the Neriiflorum Series2 are to be seen: most spectacular is a row of six or so tall R. neriiflorum var. euchaites3 fairly high above the stream on the east bank - in full flower in April, the effect of the large mass of the deep red blooms is quite overpowering.
| R. neriiflorum var. euchaites
Photo by George Smith
We are now not far from the upper bridge: here the valley forms a wide shallow basin - it's an ideal place to sit and drink in the richness around you and enjoy the tranquility and serenity of the scene, punctuated in May by the warbles and whistles of the songbirds. Nearby is a mature R. cerasinum, a form with elegant pendent trusses of deep red bells with flaring lobes, not typical of the Thomsonii Series4 to which it belongs; R. thomsonii itself is everywhere. Along the top of the east bank are many R. griersonianum, that unique, late flowering species, producing its wonderful pale scarlet trumpets very late in the season, in June; it is of course one of the parents of that very successful hybrid 'Elizabeth'. Rhododendron cinnabarinum is a beautiful and quite variable species, of which there are many in the garden; a large plant of the Roylei Group is to be found by the steep steps on the west bank, and in May produces an abundance of its waxy purpley red elongated hanging bells; also to be found are the bi-colour form blanfordiiflorum5, and the various yellows, all in excellent health in spite of the dreaded powdery mildew. A big leaved chance hybrid, of which Sir Hay is very fond, is R. lacteum x R. macabeanum, specimens of which are to be found at the top end of the garden: it is very floriferous, with tight creamy yellow trusses in April-May.
| R. cerasinum
Photo by George Smith
At the other end of the scale there are of course many lapponicums, pogonanthums, glaucophyllums, tephropeplums, forms of R. calostrotum, and even a R. leucaspis - but you have to search for these. I have mentioned only a selection of the Rhododendron species to be found, and I could go on for a long time mentioning many others, but I must stop - however, I cannot resist the mention of a last and very familiar species, R. yakushimanum: by the gorge bridge there is a most remarkable plant of it, with a 4-foot tall trunk! In May it was covered with its incomparably beautiful pink and white trusses, which were carried well above ground level, as you can see in the photograph. I hope that these notes give you some notion of the wonders of Crarae Glen Garden, and will make you want to see and enjoy them.
George Smith is a frequent Journal contributor on articles about Scottish gardens.
The Crarae Glen Garden will be visited by members attending the ARS Convention in Oban, Scotland, in 1996.
Editor's notes: Cullen and Chamberlain classification is as follows:
1 Subsection Triflora
2 Subsection Neriiflora
3 neriiflorum Euchaites Group
4 Subsection Thomsonia
5 R. cinnabarinum Blandfordiiflorum Group