Tower Court: A Personal Account - Part I
North Vancouver, British Columbia Canada
Reprinted from the RSC Atlantic Chapter newsletter in May 1996 as the first of two parts.
The following is an account written by Sir Eric Savill and published in an early R.H.S. Rhododendron Year Book on the origins of this, the greatest rhododendron species collection. Confined to 2½ acres, Stevenson [J.B. Stevenson] had not only grown every possible species but the same species from several collections. At the conclusion of my working for Sunningdale Nurseries and after the multitude of visits to Tower Court, I think there were probably only three other people who knew the entire 50-acre estate better than myself. My knowledge came from hard work.
It was very fortunate that His Majesty King George VI was a keen gardener, for when the collection of rhododendron species at Tower Court, Ascot, was offered for sale, after the death of Mr. J.B. Stevenson, the king immediately took a keen interest in its acquisition and it was with his personal encouragement that negotiations were successfully carried through.
The original collection was first started by Mr. J.B. Stevenson at Tower Court, Ascot, in 1918. I have asked Mrs. Stevenson to give me an account of its initiation and she has kindly replied to me as follows:
"Because of the great muddle and lack of general knowledge upon this genus Rhododendron, my husband conceived the idea of grouping the species and planting them in one piece of ground in order to solve the problems and through this grew the idea of producing a document. My husband then worked along with his living plants upon the series and for the Rhododendron Society he edited 'The Species of Rhododendrons' which was produced in 1930. The Introduction by my husband explains the reasons for producing such a work. So it will be seen that this book grew out of the idea of 'The Species Collection' and after 'The Species of Rhododendrons' was produced, the Tower Court collection became 'the book in being'.
"It will be readily understood, with such a large genus, what a task and undertaking this work in general became. I can well remember, for years before the book was eventually produced, the amount of checking and cross-checking upon names, numbers, series, etc., we did between us at Tower Court, for my husband was determined to have the whole subject in one book in order to form a basis from which further work could be carried on in the future, as it is now proving to be, under Dr. MacQueen Cowan's careful guidance at Edinburgh Botanic Garden."
It is probably safe to say that there is no other collection of Rhododendron species in the world so large and so comprehensive. Represented in the collection are plants raised from seed sent back by Fortune, Wilson, Farrer, Forrest, Kingdon Ward, Dr. Yu, Ludlow and Sherriff and by recent Nepal expeditions. There are just over 2,000 plants in 21 series and 460 species. Of the 21 series represented in the genus, 12 are complete. At Tower Court they occupied an area of 2½ acres. At Windsor it is expected that 30 acres will be required to house them all.
During most of my time at Sunningdale Nurseries, the staff of Windsor Great Park were laboriously lifting this huge collection. Great care was taken to dig large rootballs and so the rate of progress was slow. As well, Sunningdale purchased specimens on an ongoing basis from Mrs. Stevenson to use either in their own landscaping projects or on consignment to other firms. As I remember it, we were the only firm engaged to do this moving.
Alleyne Cook to His Daughter
This is the story of the garden at Tower Court, which was in its time, the greatest of all rhododendron gardens. The years were 1950 to 1954. I don't know what your impressions were when you first arrived in England. I found the contrast between New Zealand and England quite extraordinary. New Zealand with its evergreen native bush and millions of acres of dark brooding Pinus radiata. England's deciduous trees were decked out in russets and gold.
You departed British Columbia, the land of the conifers, and even if you never noticed them, you must have been aware of their presence. Do you remember the day when Nigel was playing soccer and you and I drove to look at the stump of the tallest ever Douglas fir? It was 417 feet high. I showed the stump that remains to Robert last week. One hundred years later, it is being held together by three large silver birches.
You arrived in England in late summer to a land of runty trees and hedges and narrow roads. When I arrived it was mid-autumn on the 10th of November. It was an odd sensation. The old S.S. Rangitata had taken 30 days to cross the Pacific and the Atlantic. The company of passengers had formed groups, one of whom some 11 years later became your mother, and the associations were ones of pleasure.
Then suddenly that was over. We came off the ship, went through customs, and everyone went their own way. I was getting off the train at Woking so I went shopping for an overcoat. I tried to pay for it with a £5 note, worth 20 dollars in 1950, and the shopkeeper would not accept it. I was a foreigner, £5 notes were rare and not common with working class and easily forged. It was white and as big as a sheet of paper.
The trees had turned colour, it was a new world. A taxi from Woking to Sunningdale, then we found the location of the nursery, then to the hotel. That night I took the train to Waterloo Station to fill in the evening. I walked off the platform and thought that I was on the main road, trucks, tractors pulling carts, messengers riding bicycles, and people. Then looking up there was the ceiling - it was the concourse of the station.
You have been to my home town of Murchison. A village of two grocery stores, two hotels, two gas stations and a number of small shops. The entire high school was contained in one room with one teacher. Probably about 25 students. Our main shopping centre was Nelson, 65 miles of gravel roads away. Being in a valley where three rivers join, it was foggy and frosty in winter, hot in summer.
In my day there was a small sawmill, a dairy factory, a public works yard, a two man electrical department (Uncle Bert was one man), a post office and a movie once a week. All these have gone. Even though I had lived in Wellington for two years, New Plymouth for three, and been stationed in Japan for a year, I was not prepared for that first evening in London. The hordes of people, the workings of the underground, the noise, all in a misty autumn atmosphere. I crept from Piccadily to Leicester Square and then returned to Sunningdale.
The first time I met the manager of Sunningdale Nursery, Jim Russell, at the nursery, he asked me if I had sufficient money and would I like a loan. It was a very thoughtful gesture and one repeated many times in many ways. But it was the leaves of the trees that I remember. The ones attached to the trees - a dull yellow, for colour in the fall in England is not very sharp. The masses on the ground were brown. Never before had it been possible to walk kicking up leaves. Never did I grow tired of doing it as I went around the nursery. Chestnuts, maples, oaks and silver birch would be the main trees. I chewed chestnuts all day, with certain adverse effects.
Also, you must understand that in the 1940s rhododendrons were not an important horticultural subject in New Zealand. It was a camellia country. At Duncan & Davies Nursery, we rooted about 20,000 camellias outside as hardwood cuttings. No watering, a burlap cover in summer. I can't remember seeing a rhododendron specimen anywhere in New Zealand.
So when, shortly after starting at Sunningdale, Jim Russell took me to Tower Court, I think I was rather stunned. Acres of species. Blocks as large as our lot in Vancouver of a single species. All had been grown from wild collected seed. There were paths so long they seemed to go out of sight. Lining and encroaching on all the paths were masses of the healthiest plants.
Stevenson used a very distinctive label. It measured about 3 inches x 2 inches and was made out of white porcelain. On it was etched the species name, the series and the collector's number. Every group had this label and care had to be taken to ensure they remained after digging.
The house stood on the highest ground between Ascot and Bagshot, the one famous for its horse racing, the other for the nursery of Waterer Sons and Crisp and Rhododendron 'Pink Pearl'. Again, we run into the difference between the two countries. Contrasted with Murchison, New Zealand in a hole surrounded by 5,000-foot and higher mountains and New Plymouth with Mount Egmont looking down on it, the altitude of Tower Court, at 450 feet, would hardly be worth noticing. It was, however, very important. Cold air flows downhill and in inclement weather the air movement created by the ridges and gullies allows for good air circulation and few pockets of freezing air.
Throughout England, late frosts into May are the curse that destroys much in early spring gardens. In winter, the air movement aided the establishment of less hardy species which were planted at the higher elevations. Even so, Rhododendron sinogrande was not hardy at Tower Court but it is at the tops of a valley in Windsor Great Park.
Actually, looking back, every tree collected in the wild in China must have been used to provide shade at Tower Court. My knowledge was not great enough to appreciate them. Before I went to England I had never seen a forsythia. But I knew a lot about Australian and South American shrubs and could recognize about 30 different Cape heathers. These grew at Duncan & Davies Nursery.
The Tower Court garden covered about 50 acres, maybe a little more. High cover was provided by Scots pines which with their beautiful red bark are a feature of any area. Chestnuts and Acer pseudoplatanus form the next layer. It is of interest that the common name of this maple is sycamore which in America is a Platanus species and in the Bible it is a fig. There were, however, a large collection of other trees. There was as complete a collection of Sorbus as it was possible to find or grow from collected seed. For the first time I recognized Nyssa sylvatica, a tree impossible to purchase in New Zealand, but whose fall colour was spoken about in hushed tones by those who had seen it. I remember this because the Nyssas were inter-planted with Rhododendron diaprepes. One of these was the largest rhododendron we were ever required to dig and drag up onto the truck.
R. diaprepes is a very late flowering shrub or small tree. The flowers are just scented, white and in a large truss. It comes from well south in that very wet land to the west of Salween. This makes its hardiness a question. Collected by Forrest in 1913, this avenue of Nyssas was grown from the earliest collections. More importantly, R. diaprepes was one of the parents of R. 'Polar Bear', the other parent being the latest flowering species, R. auriculatum. This species becomes a large flat-topped bush. The big one, moved from the Royston Nursery on Vancouver Island, measured 15 feet high and 50 feet in circumference, and carried 8,000 flowers. The result of the cross between the two bushes were several hundred very upright "trees." All the same shape and height with flowers exactly alike. They were, in 1951, 22 feet high. That is about one foot a year. It received a First Class Certificate (F.C.C.) in 1946 but no one ever knew which bush the truss came from.
One evening I walked up to the Tower Court house with Jock Keir. A gent bounced out of the house, exploded into a description of his garden, then dashed inside for colour photographs (a rarity in those days). "Who is that character?" I said to Jock. "Lord Strathcona," said Jock. Back bounced His Lordship and I was duly impressed.
Estimating height is a strange thing. Lord Strathcona wrote that R. 'Polar Bear's were 30 feet high. Patrick Synge estimated 22 feet. I figured 26 feet. So from now on they were 22 feet! No matter, they were all beautiful plants. Two of these were dug for the Festival of Britain, numerous others were dug for other customers. The digging was done with spades, the shafts of which were encased in steel. They weighed a ton, but that weight would drive them through four inch roots. The soil was sand, double dug before planted. It always puzzled me that even though the entire garden had been neglected since 1939, some 15 years, there were no weeds. We would dig a trench around the plants and under so far as the spades would go and then, with five men pulling and rocking, we'd slice under the rootball and drag it out. Then it was heaved onto a two-wheeled cart and trundled down the slope to the truck at the lower service road.
The R. 'Polar Bear's were a windbreak along the north ridge and considering that Stevenson bought the property in 1919, these were a late addition. It is very likely that many of the sheltered gullies running from this ridge to the service road were planted first. Everyone thinks of R. 'Polar Bear' as a beautiful scented, late flowering hybrid. I remember it as a back-breaking, gut-wrenching, hard-slogging brute. Most of the work at Tower Court was just that, mostly to a lesser degree.
The house was built on the highest area with a generous motor turnaround in front. The view on one side was an avenue of Kurume azaleas, another leading toward R. 'Polar Bear' was lined with Lapponicum, Saluenense, Virgatum and Anthopogon Series. Those I remember for two reasons. The first, I had never heard of most of them. The New Zealanders did not grow rhododendron species. The Kurume azaleas were so brilliant that such dowdy dwarfs would not be considered. Also New Zealand is too warm for dwarfs. The second reason was the number of deaths among these groups and nowhere else. The cause was a dry summer in either 1949 or 1950. English gardens, even with 25-30 inches of rain, do not get watered!
Directly in front and beyond the wide entrance driveway, a ridge led off to the west. Towards the end, covering maybe an acre, were the 'Wilson Fifty', the most famous collection of Kurume azaleas in England. Selected by Wilson on his 1917 journey to Japan, these gorgeous shrubs have never been popular on the West Coast. Their individual beauty far exceeds any dwarf rhododendron in the red, pink and white shades. The flower power is so great that when in full bloom no leaves are visible. Their habit is neat, close and tidy.
Wilson first saw these azaleas in 1914 in the Tokyo area of Japan growing in the different nurseries. He was at that time visiting Japan on behalf of the Arnold Arboretum. In 1917, he journeyed south to Kurume where he selected the best fifty. This group at Tower Court was one of the only ones in existence. Not all of the varieties are hardy, 16 rated at not hardy and another 20 as fairly hardy. Another reason, I believe for their lack of popularity in America was the retention of Japanese names by the English. Somewhere, I saw the list translated into English, but the sad fact remains that they are not popular.
The most famous collection of Kurumes today, and probably the most complete, is the Punch Bowl in Windsor Great Park. In 1950, this sweeping curve had been partly planted. Along with the small plants still growing in the Windsor Great Park nursery, some 60,000 were planted around that great curve. By 1980 they had grown into banks of head-high bushes which would have overgrown the paths if these had not been kept open. In 1986, the entire area was cut to ground level, all to break into immediate vigorous growth. They need open space and lots of sun to do their best and not much watering if their English growth is any indication. Tower Court would receive about 30 inches of rain per year and nothing was watered in later years.
To the south of the Kurume ridge, the land ran down a gully that became the hybrid collection. The most glorious specimen in this collection was R. 'Penjerrick', the hybrid between R. campylocarpum v. elatum and R. griffithianum, a tree reaching 20 feet. It is a very English hybrid. The flowers are exquisitely formed, the trusses are flat and uncrowded, each flower a deep pink bud opening to a cream flower. It has great grace. There are three different forms of this hybrid, pink, white, and cream when open. Only once have I ever seen the fine pink form of R. griffithianum. It was growing against a wall at Bodnant with a glass frame above it to shelter it from frosts. On first sight, I thought it was a form of R. 'Loderi'.
At Tower Court, there was a specimen of nearly all the members of the great R. 'Loderi' clan. The impression I have of them is that they were overwhelming in flower and they were all alike except for minor differences. I now believe they are a nurseryman's dream. He can substitute to his heart's content. Ours was bought as R. 'Loderi Venus'. It is R. 'Loderi Pink Diamond'. How many people would recognize the difference. Undoubtedly, R. 'Loderi King George' had the largest flower and R. 'Loderi Titan', the largest foliage. But who cares? The flowers, their main feature, open minor shades of pink, and fade at various speeds to white. They all grow into large bushes with excellent foliage. There are a ridiculous 30 varieties to choose from, all of them magnificent.
The hybrid area went back to the early 1920s and the hybrids reflected this. Great bushes of R. 'Earl of Athlone', R. 'Unique', R. 'Mrs. W.C. Slocock', R. 'David', R.' Mrs. A.T. de la Mare', R.'Gomer Waterer' and a grand tree of R. 'Luscombei'. This latter hybrid is still one of the best even though made 120 years ago.
In 1947, we in New Zealand read the description of the R. cinnabarinum hybrid R. 'Lady Chamberlain', in Hilliers' first post-war catalogue. It flowered for us when our plant arrived in Murchison. Different from all the other rhododendrons, this was the only time I saw it bloom until the Tower Court specimen. With it grew R. 'Lady Roseberry' F.C.C. and R. 'Lady Berry'. Poor R. 'Lady Berry', for years Lionel Rothschild put her up for an award and I don't think she ever made it. Without exception, this group of hybrids are the most beautiful and graceful of the entire genus.
Then there were oddities such as the large bush of R. spinuliferum with red tubular flowers. The reds were a feature starting with R. 'Shilsonii', the hybrid between R. barbatum and R. thomsonii. R. 'Cornubia' was another early red. But the most gorgeous red hybrids are the R. 'Barclayi' group. In New Zealand, where conditions are near perfect for half hardy rhododendrons, their flower size, truss size, shape and colour of foliage are absolute perfection. They don't grow in British Columbia.
Stevenson did very little hybridizing and only two are well known - R. 'Polar Bear' and R. 'Azor'. The latter is a hybrid between R. discolor and R. griersonianum, both late flowering species. There was also a variety of R. 'Fabia' which was sold as Tower Court' form.
Between the hybrid and species collection was the driveway with 20-foot high R. ponticum hedges.
Part Two of "Tower Court: A Personal Account" is published in JARS v51 n3.
The author grew up in New Zealand and travelled to England in the early 1950s and was present at the time of the dissolution of the Tower Court collection. He then moved to British Columbia where he was most recently head gardener at the Ted and Mary Greig Rhododendron Garden in Stanley Park, Vancouver, B.C. Following the Introduction, the article is in the form of a letter written by Mr. Cook to his daughter Briar who lived for a time in Great Britain and now resides in New Zealand.