A Visit to the Royal Botanical Gardens, Edinburgh, Scotland
By George Grace
A year ago last April and May it was my privilege, along with several other Americans, to visit a number of outstanding gardens in Great Britain in conjunction with the great Rhododendron Show and Conference at the Royal Horticultural Society Hall in London. Since returning home I have been asked many questions as to what impressed me most, how do the plants in England compare with our plants, what the Rhododendron Show at Greycoat Hall in London was like, how the judging of plants and trusses was done, were the British people very flower conscious, did I enjoy my visit to Kew Gardens and the Royal Horticultural Society trial gardens at Wisley, and many other questions which time and space will not permit me to mention.
The rhododendron has been a popular plant in British gardens for perhaps a hundred years, when the first Hooker rhododendrons and seeds were sent to England. It was our pleasure to see many of these original plants, some of them in bloom.
It would take considerable space and time to adequately describe our visit and answer all these questions. The story of the R. H. S. show and conference is a story in itself as well as were the visits to the different gardens, and last the great flower show at Chelsea in the latter part of May which was a fitting climax to a most interesting and inspiring trip.
Each garden visited was worth every effort put forth to see it. Each one had different individual characteristics and outstanding features, historic atmosphere and a background of its own. The owners of the gardens and the personnel of the Royal Horticultural Society and those who acted as guides were kindly and gracious. Long will our memories go back to the interesting places, the beauty of the flowers, the stately specimen trees, and the perpetual singing of the birds in the British gardens and surrounding countryside, and the kindliness of those people who were our hosts.
While at the Rhododendron conference it was our privilege to meet famous people in the rhododendron world. Among them were Dr. Sir William Wright Smith, Regis Keeper; Dr. J. MacQueen Cowan, Curator of the Royal Botanical Gardens of Edinburgh, Scotland; also the Earl of Stair and Lord Strathcona who suggested that a trip to the English gardens would not be complete without also a visit to Scotland. Several of the American visitors accepted the invitation for a short visit to Edinburgh and the Royal Botanical Gardens there.
After the rhododendron conference we made visits to the R. H. S. gardens at Wisley, the great garden of Mr. J. B. Stevenson at Tower Court, the famous gardens at Leonardslee, Wakehurst, Exbury, the famous estate and garden of the late Sir Lionel de Rothschild, the gardens of Lord Digby, Penjerrick, G. H. Johnstone, Col. Bolitho, Count Falmouth, Caerhays Castle, the garden of A. T. Johnson in the North of Wales, author of many books and articles on plants, and not the least the great garden of Lord Aberconway at Bodnant in North Wales.
Along with Dr. and Mrs. Clarke of Long Beach, Washington, and Dr. Clement G. Bowers, famous American botanist and author from Cornell University, New York, we took the Royal Scot for Edinburgh. After an eight-hour ride through the countryside of the eastern part of England, we arrived at the historic city of old Edinburgh in the early evening. After getting settled in our quarters, we then set out for a walk down Princess Street, considered one of the great streets of the world, with the mighty Edinburgh Castle looking down, as it were, on so many ants beside a great mountain. On one side of the street one could not help but notice the artistic planting of many thousands of flowering plants on the hillside toward the castle.
The next morning we were met at the Royal Botanical Gardens by Dr. Cowan, curator, and his assistant Mr. Wilkes who escorted us through the grandeur of one of the great gardens of the world. We spent the whole day viewing the wonderland of plants with its ponds, rose gardens, peat terraces, many plant houses, rhododendron walk, herbaceous border to City View Point and woodland garden and lastly the great rock gardens, altogether a total of about sixty acres of plant wonderland.
According to Dr. Cowan, this garden was started in the year 1670 as a medical herb garden, which was 100 years before our country became a nation. Later it became a place where rare species of plants from different parts of the world were planted. Many famous people were connected with the garden. Some of them were Dan Rutherford, Regis Keeper under Sir Walter Scott. In 1888 Sir Isaac Balfour became Regis Keeper, and it was during his reign that the immense garden was planted and started and many of its policies were formed. It was also during this time that the garden fostered many of the great plant hunting expeditions. George Forest, in his thirty years of plant collecting, alone brought back some 30,000 plants which were tested and studied at the garden.
The collection of plants in the Rock Garden, I am told, is the most complete collection in the world. Here are plants gathered from all the continents of the world, growing side by side. The Rock Garden enthusiast could well spend days studying and enjoying these gems.
There are a great number of Rhododendron, Primula, Meconopsis, Gentiana and Lillies, growing in the gardens from the Forrest expeditions. Some of the rhododendrons which I thought were the finest I had seen were R. chartophyllum, a plant probably twelve feet high just smothered in blooms. The R. croceum or commonly called R. wardii was especially fine. I was fortunate in getting some good colored slides even though the skies were gray. A trip through the rhododendron house was one to be remembered. There was a large R. arboreum, raised from seed, sent by Wallich from Nepal in 1818. Fine specimens of R. argenteum, R. hodgsonii, R. diaprepes, R. decorum and a large R. griersonianum bearing over one hundred glamorous red trusses which bloomed in one season. The Maddenii Series was a very interesting collection. A specimen plant of R. nuttallii with its large creamy yellow trumpets, was in full bloom.
There was a fine specimen of that colorful red species R. kyawii. It is on the tender side but crossed with hardier types is producing some very fine new hybrids. I had the opportunity to compare the plant to a plant which bloomed in my garden in 1948.
Another interesting group but to me disappointing were the Javanese rhododendrons, some of them in bloom, the first that I had seen. The blooms were mostly long tubular bells, a cinnamon red in color. None of the plants had especially nice foliage. In short, I would say that I believe they do not compare with the Chinese and Himalayan species.
Something new in providing shade for the greenhouses: The roofs were covered with creepers, the giant yellow Honeysuckle and Bignonia buccinatoria being used extensively. This idea could probably be carried out in some of our greenhouses.
The Rhododendron Walk, a group of rhododendrons planted in the shelter of yew hedges, were at their best during our visit. Dr. Cowan pointed out Himalayan species introduced by Sir Joseph Hooker one hundred years ago. Among them were R. falconeri, R. hodgsonii and many others which were in fine fettle, and some of them blooming. Mingling with the old veterans were many of the newer species sent in later years by E. H. Wilson, Farrer, Rock and F. Kingdon Ward. One plant I fell in love with was R. argyrophyllum, a Chinese species with shell pink flowers. It was a great delight to me and I think it should be in every collector's garden.
Among other species I should mention as very fine were R. strigillosum, R. neriiflorum (with which most of us are familiar), R. hippophaeoides and R. bureavii, of which our own Mr. John Bacher has supplied many fine plants in this northwest area. Here also was an interesting hybrid called 'Apple Blossom', one of the oldest hybrids known. Its parentage, however, is lost.
The Royal Botanical Gardens, Edinburgh, contain perhaps the best equipped laboratories in the world for scientific study of the Genus Rhododendron. It is here that the species are classified in their proper order. The Herbarium collection of rhododendrons is also perhaps the finest in the world. When the Herbarium specimens sent from Dr. Rock's last expedition (1948) arrived, it was my privilege to send them on to Dr. J. M. Cowan for classification. His report was received in due time and published in a recent Quarterly Bulletin of the American Rhododendron Society.
It was my pleasure to present Dr. Cowan with a collection of seeds from the Dr. Rock expedition (1948), also to take with me to England a number of plants of the R. macrophyllum x R. occidentale which were sent to Dr. Cowan at Edinburgh as well as the King of England, Lord Aberconway and several others, who nursed them along for several months, later by Mr. Francis Hanger of the Royal Horticultural Society Gardens at Wisley. I also sent a number of R. macrophyllum plants to the Royal Botanical Gardens collection.
One could write a great deal about many other features of this great Garden but time and space will not permit further details. In closing I would say that if one has the opportunity to visit the Gardens of the British Isles, put on the must list the great Royal Botanical Gardens, Edinburgh, Scotland.