Our Visit to some British Gardens
Del and Ray James
A few years ago, when the growing of rhododendrons along the West Coast was still in its beginning, except, perhaps, for the few large arboretums financed by educational funds, information concerning them was chiefly confined to books, and most of it described the great collections of species and hybrid rhododendrons to be found in the British Isles. Reading and re-reading of these accounts developed a tremendous interest in the subject, and as time went on, our hobbies grew and began to spread out, with the resultant meeting of many other enthusiasts, and a fascinating correspondence with others all over the world. During this time, it was our good fortune to contact Mr. C. P. Rafill, V. M. H., Asst. Curator at Kew Gardens, who immediately took us under his wing, sending seeds, plants, and information freely and sharing his wide experience most generously. As a result of all this, we had a dream, that one day it would be possible to meet Mr. Raffill, and visit the gardens which he described so glowingly. In April, 1951, this dream came true, thanks to the many friends who sponsored our trip to Great Britain. It was on May 1, 1951, that we first set foot on English soil at Plymouth, saddened at the news that Mr. Raffill had suddenly passed away while we were enroute, but thrilled at the thought of the month before us.
A day of exploration at Plymouth, where we found the very steps from which the Pilgrims boarded their ship in 1620, set the tempo for the rest of our visit as regards the cordial welcome given us by the people of Britain, and the many courtesies and acts of assistance which were to be ours. The next stop was at Coventry, where the family of Mr. George C. Raffill, a brother of Mr. C. P. Raffill, entertained us with their charming hospitality. It was with them, that we saw our first real castle at Kenilworth, visited Stratford-on-Avon to see the birthplace of Shakespeare, and had our first introduction to a British "Pub," where their friends made us feel at home and as if we "belonged."
On May 5th, we arrived in Edinburgh, Scotland, to begin our visits to gardens, and the Famous Royal Botanic Garden of Edinburgh, founded at the close of the 17th century is a fitting place to start such a tour. The Garden comprises some sixty acres, with plantings arranged in a convenient sequence so that the visitor may easily find his way to the many points of interest. Dr. J. MacQueen Cowan greeted us most cordially, taking his valuable time to show us about the gardens, explain the laboratory work where identification and naming of many plant forms is done, and gave us a very good summary of the fine work in horticulture that is being accomplished here.
A tour of the rhododendron green houses in the company of Mr. D. Wilkie, Senior Experimental Officer, is an experience we shall long remember. First to catch the eye when entering this house was a magnificent specimen of R. griffithianum, the huge flowers of rich white satin texture forming a regal truss, and next was an imposing tree of R. arboreum, blood red, in full bloom. The trunk of this tree was some eighteen inches in diameter, resembling that of an incense cedar. The tree is one grown from seed sent by Wallich from Nepal in 1818.
There is an excellent collection of rhododendron of the Maddenii Series including R. cubittii, R. parryae, R. taronense, a lovely form of R. ciliicalyx with its red bark and delicate pink flowers, R. nuttallii, and R. mackenzianum, a new species with colorful new growth. Among the tender hybrids growing here is an outstanding form of R. 'Victorianum' (dalhousiae x nuttallii) with huge ruffled flowers of a creamy shade, tinted with orange and pink, R. 'Tyermanii' (nuttallii x formosum), R. 'Lady Chamberlain' and R. 'Lady Roseberry' in excellent forms. Many of these plants are espaliered along the sides and top of the glass houses, making it impossible to get close enough for photography, but Mr. Wilkie solved the problem neatly by supplying a step ladder and waiting patiently as we oh'd and ah'd and snapped pictures like crazy.
The Rock Garden, one of the largest in the world, was constructed in 1908 under the supervision of Sir Isaac Bayley Balfour, and the plants here are mainly those from the alpine regions of both hemispheres. The rhododendron display consists of many dwarf forms introduced in recent years from the mountains of Tibet and Yunnan, which like an open position and have proved extremely useful when crowded together to form a dense carpet in a pocket of the Rock Garden just as they do on their natural hillsides. Among the most noticeable are R. calostrotum, R. intricatum, R. impeditum, R. imperator, and a huge plant of that old but very lovely hybrid R. 'Rosybell' (ciliatum x glaucum).
Along the rhododendron walk may be seen many plants of the Himalayan species, introduced by Sir Joseph Hooker in the middle of the last century, along with those from the expeditions made by Forrest, Kingdon Ward and others in more recent times. Here we saw for the first time, the beautiful Chinese Species R. argyrophyllum with its mass of shell pink flowers; R. horaeum, copper colored and R. catacosmum, large red flowers, both of the Neriiflorum series; R. telopeum, a fine yellow; R. wightii with excellent foliage and tall trusses of deep yellow, and a fine specimen plant of R. campylocarpum.
Three enjoyable days were spent in looking; absorbing and photographing, but even so it was not possible to see near all of the Royal Botanic Garden, so after trying to express our appreciation to Dr. Cowan and Mr. Wilkie for their many courtesies, we took a regretful leave. One could not be in Edinburgh however, without taking time to visit the splendid Castle of Edinburgh which tells so much of Scotland's history; the celebrated Prince's Street, bordered on one side by shops and houses, and on the other by lovely Waverly Garden; the Palace of Holyroodhouse and the King's Park with the half-mountain of Arthur's Seat and Salisbury Crags, where it was our privilege to spend a day as guest of the Scotch Miners on their annual Gala Day, and what an experience that was!
After leaving Edinburgh, we traveled into the North of Wales to the colorful resort town of Colwyn Bay, stretching for five miles along the Irish Sea shore, where it is possible to obtain good accommodations and to hire a car for the short journey to Bodnant, the estate of The Rt. Hon. Lord Aberconway, situated near Taly-Cafn, in the lovely Conway Valley. To the enthusiast, this fabulous garden is most surely a Rhododendron Heaven, as there are some sixty or more acres lying within sight of the Snowdon Range and along the valley formed by the Hiraethyln River, the whole area being planted to fine trees and shrubs, some dating as far back as 1792.
Through the friendly courtesy and generosity of Lord Aberconway, many hours were spent in the breath taking beauty of Bodnant. Here again was seen the regal R. griffithianum, this form retaining considerable more pink in the flowers, an exotic hybrid of R. cinnabarinum x crassum, somewhat resembling the R. 'Royalmadd' but different in coloring, and the F. C. C. form of R. 'Lady Chamberlain', var. 'Bodnant Yellow'. It would be an endless job to mention all the fine species and hybrids to be seen at Bodnant, but to name a few, one would call attention to the rare R. thomsonii K. W. 9561, an excellent yellow form; a huge tree of R. thomsonii completely covered with waxy red bloom; the bright pink and excellent growing form of R. orbiculare, the extraordinary blue of R. augustinii, and the effective use of the various members of the Triflorum series, with particular mention of the F.C.C. form of R. cerulean album, It was at Bodnant that we saw plants which appeared to be identical with those many of us have acquired from the Barto collection, and which have long been unidentified, growing under the collectors number K. W. 5659. They have been tentatively placed in the Souliei series.
Of the many fine hybrids to be seen at Bodnant, the beauty of the famous R. 'Penjerrick', both pink and yellow forms, cannot be excelled and a leisurely stroll along the Penjerrick Walk, where many large plants of R. 'Cornish Cross' and others are inter planted, is an experience never to be forgotten. Other outstanding hybrids in flower at this time were the beautiful F. C. C. form of R. 'Elizabeth' (griersonianum x repens), R. Yunncinn Group (yunnanense x cinnabarinum), R. 'Aspansia' ('Astarte' x haematodes); R. 'Peace' (cerulean album x concatenans); and R. 'Laura Aberconway' (griersonianum x 'Barclayi'). One could spend days and weeks at Bodnant, with something new to see every day, and we feel a debt of gratitude to the Rt. Hon. Lord Aberconway, and to Mr. C. E. Puddle, head gardener, for the pleasures and privileges which they allowed us.
Before leaving North Wales, one should not overlook the opportunity to visit nearby Conway Castle, whose medieval wall still encloses the town of Old Conway, shaped like a Welsh Harp. The ancient, irregular wall pierces the sky with its many round turrets, and at the eastern angle, the great castle dominates the harbor. Within easy traveling time too, are some of the legendary Druid Stones; the slate quarries of Bethesda; picturesque Bettws-y-Coed said to be the most beautiful village in Wales, famous Swallow Falls, and more castles at every turn. A short train ride through lovely countryside, where dainty yellow primroses grow right along the track, and stone fences wander for miles in every direction, brought us to London, where our first day was spent on a tour by bus under the sponsorship of the Royal Horticultural Society.
The early part of the day was spent in Sussex at Hy-Beeches, the estate of Lt. Col. Giles Loder, where there are many large plantings of huge rhododendron, especially various seedling forms of R. 'Loderi'. Among outstanding plants seen was one called R. 'Tip the Wink', a pale yellow seedling of the Loderi type; also one of its hybrids, a fine yellow, now named 'Wardi Wink', made from crossing R. 'Tip the Wink' with R. wardii. Another group of seedling plants, probably fifteen feet in height and a mass of bloom were hybrids of 'Loder's White' x 'Loderi', in many fine forms varying in color from pale pink to a deep rose. Here too, was seen an excellent plant of R. fictolacteum macrophylla.
The afternoon, took us to Sheffield Park, the home of Capt. A. Granville Soames O. B. E., famed for its fine collection of trees especially the conifers, and for the elegant rhododendrons known as the Sheffield Park hybrids. There are many of these hybrids bordering along grassy paths and each is as lovely as the other, having a delicacy of color and a delicious fragrance. They, resemble quite closely the 'Loderi' hybrids, and are now recognized as being seedlings made by crossing 'Loderi' with R. griffithianum. Several have been given awards by the Royal Horticultural Society, and others have been exhibited.
A most interesting sight at both Hy-Beeches and Sheffield Park, is the profusion of azalea and rhododendron seedlings growing everywhere under foot. Apparently the temperature and humidity in this locality is perfect for self sowing and germinating the seeds. We Oregonians would be strongly tempted to take our little trowel and save every one!
No doubt one of the greatest experiences that could happen to anyone interested in horticulture is the opportunity of seeing a Chelsea Show, so on May 22nd, we journeyed to historical Royal Hospital, built by Christopher Wren as a home for old and disabled soldiers, supposedly at the insistence of Nell Gwynne. The grounds here had been converted into one huge Flower Show, for the benefit of the Royal Hospital, with hundreds of exhibits displayed under a single Marquee covering three and one half acres. One would actually have to see it to believe it, for it is almost beyond comprehension that nearly every flower and fruit from every season of the year, could be made to reach perfection at a given date! There are tulips and dahlias, roses and chrysanthemums, string beans and ripe peaches all at once, and all most beautifully arranged. Two days time was only enough to glance at most things but really look at the azaleas and rhododendrons.
The display exhibited by Lord Aberconway and the National Trust consisted chiefly of Rhododendron, Primulas, and less common plants, and here R. 'Welkin', an excellent hybrid of 'Eros' x haematodes received a First Class Certificate. This plant is a compact, low growing shrub, heavily laden with large, vivid scarlet flowers with an exceptionally large calyx, giving the appearance of a hose in hose floret. Also outstanding was R. 'Radiant Morn', A. M. 1951, with a porcelain rose 'Fabia' like bloom, R. 'Thais' (Euryalus Loderi) in two forms, R. 'Voltaire', ('Eros' x 'Loderi') a soft pink, R. 'Dainty' ('May Day' x 'Elizabeth'), R. 'Lodabia' ('Fabia' x 'Loderi') soft orange; and fine forms of R. 'Elizabeth'.
R. 'Coronation Day', shown by Hillier and Sons is an excellent rhododendron, as was R. 'The Master', a new hybrid with very large pale pink bloom in a well formed truss, from Walter C. Slocock, Ltd. There was an abundance of azaleas of every shade and variety, those of the Knaphill strain being exquisite, and the newer forms of the 'Malvatica' x kaempferi hybrids were lovely. A. 'Eddy', red, and A. 'Willy', salmon, were covered with bloom and would be of merit wherever grown.
Since the Chelsea Show is so big and covers everything almost, that is in horticulture, it would be impossible to more than touch upon the highlights, and try to impress upon everyone the magnificence that is there to be seen. There also, it is possible to meet in one place, growers and gardeners from all over the British Isles, which limited time would not otherwise permit. Due to the great courtesy of Lord Aberconway who asked us to his tea at Chelsea Show, it was our privilege to meet many well known people in the rhododendron World, - and it was especially thrilling to meet and talk briefly with Capt. Kingdon Ward and his charming wife, since our gardens and books are full of his contributions.
The day following the great Show was stormy, but even so, our schedule was kept, so we were off by train from London to Windlesham, where Mr. J. P. C. Russell of Sunningdale Nurseries met us and took us for a tour of his very interesting garden, which was originally the nursery started by Messrs. Standish and Noble and later the estate of the late Mr. Harry White. Here can be seen the original plant of R. yunnanense, brought in a pot by Wilson to Veitch and Sons in 1851, as well as a plant of R. thomsonii received from Sir Joseph Hooker; and an enormous plant of R. 'Cynthia' which had been exhibited at Chelsea Show in 1861,. Many of the rhododendrons at Sunningdale were planted from 1853 to 1864 and present a gorgeous sight in bloom. Mr. Russell is working hard at restoring this very old garden and is adding much in the way of new rare species and hybrids.
The generous hospitality of Mr. Russell included a visit to Windsor Great Park where the area is so large that one gets only a fleeting glimpse of many fine things, but particularly impressive is the so called Punch Bowl, the end of a small valley which is planted with some forty thousand specimens of Kurume Azaleas to give the effect of a huge Persian carpet. Also noted was a peculiar form of R. 'Elizabeth' which had kept the creeping habit of its parent R. repens, and crept along a bank of peat.
May 25th, saw us off by bus to famous Kew Gardens where our good correspondent, the late Mr. C. P. Raffill, had been occupied for over fifty years, and despite the deep disappointment at not having the privilege of meeting him, somehow Kew seemed almost familiar, since we had heard so much about it in letters and pictures. The Garden is an immense place, beautifully kept, with probably every known tree, shrub or plant growing somewhere about. In the great temperate house were growing many rhododendrons of the Maddenii series, along with a large tree of R. macabeanum with flowers measuring two and one half inches long by two and one half inches wide, and a fine yellow color. The foliage of this member of the Grande series is beautiful, and it is too bad that the species is difficult to propagate since it does not freely set seed. Another Barto plant found in many Northwest gardens was recognized at Kew and identified as R. 'Rosemary Chip', (orbiculare x fortunei). London and Kew have grown up together, and through the years Kew has given much to the pleasure and instruction, even their means of existence, to generations of Englishmen. It is the Mecca of the botanic world, with its famous libraries, its centuries old flower paintings, its contributions to scientific and medical lore, and the importance of its effect on the commerce of the world.
To the rhododendron enthusiast who is interested in species, a visit to Tower Court, near Ascot, is a "must," for it is here that the late Mr. J. B. Stevenson assembled what is probably the finest collection of rhododendron species in the world, and though it was a sad loss to horticulture when Mr. Stevenson passed away, the world can be cheered to know that Mrs. Stevenson is also a very able and competent authority on the subject. It was at Tower Court that the "Species Book," the Bible for rhododendron growers, was written, and all the notes and references used in compiling that excellent publication are there. It is quite amusing to start out through the garden, with Mrs. Stevenson as a charming guide carrying a reference book under her arm, for she can no doubt quote it backwards or upside down, and tell one why it is so! Her garden comprises some fifty eight acres under cultivation and the various rhododendron species are arranged in series, giving one the opportunity to compare and study each type. Also planted together are the various forms of a certain species as collected by different explorers in the field; for example, the forms of R. decorum as found by Capt. Kingdon-Ward, Forrest, Farrer, Rock and others in various geographical locations. The collection is of great value to botanical knowledge, and has recently been acknowledged as such by its being the first genus to be constituted as of National Importance. It would take weeks of study to absorb even a part of the rhododendron knowledge available to Tower Court, and as long to give a complete story of it, but one cannot forget the great plantings of R. 'Polar Bear', used as wind breaks; the lovely R. 'Lady Berry', looking for all the world good enough to eat; the dainty yet stately, lemon yellow R. 'Roza Marie', to be mentioned in the new Year Book; the beautiful R. 'Dido'. Here too, is to be found an excellent form of R. dichroanthum, the rare red R. fortunei, the unusual R. repens var. album (K. W. 6935), and the delicate white flowers edged in cherry red of R. cerasinum. The many azaleas growing among specimen trees presents an incomparable picture. What a pity it is that no one has ever invented a "day stretcher" so that one could have unlimited time to enjoy such wonders. One of our most pleasant memories will always be the day spent at Tower Court and the charming and gracious lady who is Mrs. J. B. Stevenson.>
No tour of the gardens of Great Britain would be complete without a visit to Wisley, which was established in the 1870's when a part of the present area was purchased by the late Mr. George F. Wilson, a former Treasurer of the Royal Horticultural Society. After Wilson's death the estate was purchased by the late Sir Thomas Hanbury, and in 1903 was given by him in trust for the perpetual use of the Society, "for the purpose of an Experimental Garden and the Encouragement and Improvement of Scientific and Practical Horticulture in all its branches." By subsequent purchases the total area of the Society's property at Wisley is now 306 acres, comprising the Gardens, National Fruit Trials, the Vegetable trials, and farm and Woodland. The present curator is Mr. Francis Hangar, A.H., R. H. S., well known for his skill and experience as a horticulturist, who has carried out many improvements in the Gardens, including the development of Battleston Hill, which has now been extensively planted with many choice Rhododendrons and Azaleas, as well as other flowering shrubs and woodland plants. Of particular interest in the Rhododendron Trial Garden, where varieties which have received the Society's First Class Certificate or the Award of Merit, together with other promising finds awaiting the final judgment of the Rhododendron Committee are grown. A fine specimen of R. 'Norman Gill' ('Beauty of Tremough' x griffithianum) is to be seen here, along with R. 'Queen Mary', R. 'Blue Ensign', and the shrimp colored R. 'Vanessa' F.C.C. ('Soulbut' x griersonianum). In that part of the Garden designated as the Dell, many of the best rhododendron species and modern hybrids flower during the season. In this area, we found the beautiful R. 'Jalisco' ('Lady Bessborough' x 'Dido'), very different in color being near a majolica yellow with red in the throat; and R. 'Break of Day' ('Dawn's Delight' x dichroanthum) similar in shade to R. 'Dido'. Azaleas planted in a more open spot were a blaze of color and one could go dizzy trying to select one over another. One called A. 'Marconi' (Koster) was quite the reddest we had seen. In the Rock Garden many varieties of alpine rhododendrons are well adapted to their surroundings and provide considerable color but one's Attention is immediately attracted to R. repens planted in a crevice of the rock in what Mr. Hangar calls his "repens River" In the Wild Garden, rhododendron, both deciduous and evergreen are represented and it is interesting to note the use of Primulas, chiefly of the Candelabra section, and Lily of the Valley used as ground cover with these larger plants
In the short time remaining to us, we decided to visit the nursery of Walter Slocock Ltd., to see the fine azaleas that are the product of some twenty six years of hybridization done, by Mr. F. Brown, rhododendron foreman at the nursery. The sight was well worth the effort, for there we saw the most beautiful azaleas one could imagine. There are so many excellent forms than an effort to name individuals is a hopeless task, for each is outstanding. Since we are impressed by pink azaleas, the one called A. 'Homebush' was of especial interest, with its tight round truss as big as a Turner chrysanthemum. Another fine specimen plant was A. 'Persil', snow white with yellow blotch, and named for the soap which is the British equivalent of America's "Duz does Everything!" Mr. Brown and our genial host, Mr. John Slocock may be justly proud of the results of their years of work.
As was inevitable, our month in Great Britain had come to an end, with many gardens not yet seen, certainly not from choice but only from a regrettable lack of time, and it should be remembered that in visiting so many gardens in so short a time, only the plants that are in bloom on a particular day can be seen, so that a true picture of a garden may be somewhat distorted, for as any keen gardener knows, not a day goes by without something new or noteworthy putting in its appearance.
No one could ever visit London without "doing" at least some of the sights, such as Westminster Abbey, the Houses of Parliament, or the Tower of London, so of course we did our best to fit in visits to many points of interest. The pageant of Changing the Guard at Buckingham Palace is a most impressive one, and the Mounting of the Horse Guards at Whitehall is a colorful spectacle. Everywhere there is history and antiquity, beauty and culture, tradition and hospitality to welcome a visitor.
In remembering back, there can only be kind thoughts for the people we met, everyone of whom showed us every courtesy and consideration; making it possible to see and learn so much in the allotted time. Several persons offered their assistance and mentioned to us that it would be up to America to carry on the work in hybridization of Rhododendrons since so many of the great estates are being broken up after the Great War, and with such expert advice to be had, it may be hoped that in time, growers in the United States will be able to attain a degree of success equal to that of Great Britain.