QBARS - v13n2 The Making of a Rhododendron Garden in Australia

The Making of a Rhododendron Garden in Australia
By C. Heilig, Melbourne, Australia

Thirty-six miles east of Melbourne are the Dandenong Ranges, Australia's rhododendron paradise. We had a small garden up there but realized as we planted out yearly that it was too small for extensive gardening purposes, so after the war years, we acquired a large property at Olinda, 1700 feet above sea level. Sadly neglected, the bush had reclaimed it for the lack of care; the vines of the blackberries twined all around the bushes and trees in places as high as twenty feet. Parts of the house garden were impassable because of fallen trees; new luscious growth of the bush and everything were bound together with virile blackberries which had the upper hand everywhere.

Cleaning up of the place was a big and tiring undertaking, but we knew that we had great possibilities, by viewing the tops of the trees. The work commenced with the use of secateurs to make sure that no plant, small or large, should be destroyed. As we went along with the cleaning, we were richly rewarded, finding a very extensive range of varieties of all sorts of trees and shrubs.

It took five of us the week ends of eighteen months duration until the house garden was cleaned and all debris burnt. Now it was possible to survey the position carefully.

Among the wealth of shrubs and trees there were twenty-seven large rhododendron bushes; the biggest was a R. 'White Pearl' twelve feet high and about the same across.

Portion of the House Garden R. 'White Pearl'
Fig. 28.  Portion of the House Garden
Helig photo
Fig. 29.  A twelve foot specimen
of R. 'White Pearl'
Helig photo

The house garden is mostly terraced or on slopes. When the place was cleaned we gave names to certain parts so that my wife would know where we were working and find us with the welcome refreshments.

The top terrace is protected by a hedge of Pittosporum undulatum about fifteen feet high. It was. like. most parts of the garden; overcrowded now with too many trees, like Picea endtzi , Crataegus , Oxyacantha rosea , Lucadendron argenteum , quite a few Malus 'Eleyi,' Populus canadensis aurea about sixty feet high it throws out suckers more than a hundred feet away, Quercus cerris and many others.

Here we found ten rhododendrons sadly neglected all in dense shade. The first one to shift was a R. 'Roman Despot' about seven feet high and six feet wide. The next two large R. 'Sir John Waterer', R. 'Sappho', R. 'Pierre Moser', R. 'Mme. Cashet' and R. 'Caractacus'. All except the R. 'Roman Despot' suffered little ill effect by the moving. The R. 'Roman Despot' was placed in the open protected only from afar, its leaves turned yellow, but three years after shifting it was covered with blooms and recovered rapidly. We left on the top terrace an 8 feet high R. 'Beauty of Littleworth' which is our pride and joy. Next is an R. arboreum (about 15 years old but has not flowered as yet) an R. 'Alarme', and a lovely bush of Kalmia augustifolia about 4 feet high. From the top terrace we stroll down the drive which is lined with Betula alba pendulas , Larix decidua , Weigela styriaca , Betula pubescens , and Cryptomeria japonica elegans . In the front half of the drive under the Betulas we planted the whole length with all sorts of azaleas. The pride of the drive is an Ilex malagmite varigatum .

On the left end of the drive is a wide terrace which is used more or less as a wind break-it contains only a R. 'Caractacus', and a R. 'Fastuosum Flora Pleno', among the Eucalyptus ficifolia , Macrocarpa , Abies veitchii and 3 different varieties of Proteas and many others. Half way through "Lovers' Lane" we arrive at the house terrace. Here protected by a hedge of Ceanothus and Weigela styaraca finely shaped and dotted between Cupresses lambertiana aurea , C. lawsoniana and a few others, we planted a young R. johnstoneanum , 10 years old R. 'Unknown Warrior', a R. 'Goethe', R. 'Ajax', R. 'Chevalier Felix De Sauvage' and a nice 'Anthony Koster' mollis. Going through "Lovers' Lane" and downwards on the left is "Dodoneseyre" where as yet there are no rhododendron, but filled with Dodonea , Banksia , Hakeas , Telopea speciasissima , Fraximus taspidea , Picea kosteri and others. To the left are the lower house terraces. The first is a slope covered with about 60 different varieties of azaleas. Between them are Magnolia Var. 'Alexandrina', M. 'Alba Superba', M. 'Soulangeana'. Here we planted a R. 'Rodeo' (now 4½ feet which flowered the first time this year), R. 'Mars', R. 'Warrior', R. 'Hollandia', R. 'Princes Hortense', R. 'Countess of Haddington', R. 'Mrs. F. Hankey', R. 'Lovers White', R. 'Peter Koster', R. 'China'.

Taking the steps on to the second terrace we find R. 'W. C. Slocock', R. 'Dr. Stocker', R. 'Mrs. E. C. Stirling', R. 'Graff Zeppelin', R. 'Ascot Brilliant', a large R. 'Broughtonii', R. 'General Eisenhower', R. 'Annie E. Endtz', R. 'Pink Beauty', R. 'Lamp-Lighter', R. 'Carita', R. 'Fragrantissimum', R. 'Edith Carey', R. 'Goldsworth Orange', R. 'Goldsworth Yellow', R. 'Mrs. R. Gill', R. 'Gills Crimson', R. 'Gills Triumph' and a small R. 'Gills Gloriosa'.

On the next terrace are only a few, R. fictolacteum , R. 'Fastuosum Flora Pleno', R. 'Mrs. H. Agnew', R. 'Sappho', R. 'C. B. Van Ness', R. 'J. H. Van Ness'. We have planted out about a little over 700 rhododendrons on this property from 2 to 10 years old, amazingly only lost 5 plants.

Victoria is practically free of rhododendron diseases; the strict quarantine regulations help to keep it so. The soil of our land is acid and everywhere very fertile and looks like peat, because for thousands of years trees and leaves have rotted into the soil together with bracken and ferns. The yearly rainfall is about 51 inches, the frost not extra severe; light snow falls a few times a year, but never lasts longer than a few hours or at the most a few days. Our biggest trouble is in the summer, December, January and February. The scorching north winds at times with soaring temperatures 105°- 108° F. When the temperature goes up to 105°-108°, the rhododendrons are under a real trial, even those in the shelter of the trees look wilted and lanky - some of the leaves are scorched, but others in the open and in the full blazing sun stand erect and beautiful. The first good downpour of rain restores them almost to their old splendor (we hope). It is for this reason that the hedges and shade trees are so necessary for shelter. The property is rich in water - a gay little creek runs through it noisily with crystal clear cold water forking out 3 ways; then from both sides of the slopes more water from the playful springs. A billabong pumps up the water to approximately 150 feet high where the tanks are situated at about a distance of 500 feet. A fairly extensive water system is laid out in the house garden which renders a good service at times of the summer dryness.

This year - 1958 - was an unusually long rainy season. Most of the flowering time table was upset but every shrub was extremely colorful while in bloom and all of them are making a good growth.

Strolling further downwards below the cold frames (where we keep the cuttings and newly grafted rhododendrons) we arrive to a short terrace where a R. 'Nobleanum', a R. 'Mrs. John Waterer', a R. 'Napoleon Third' (it was sold under that name) which is an 8 year old bush but has not flowered as yet. Next an R. 'Antoon van Welie' distinguishes itself with its profuse and large flowers, an R. arboreum campbellii pink, it only flowered this year for the first time. When in the centre top, a borer got in and made a ring round the stem, we filled it with ordinary kitchen soap and the whole top was covered with flowers so profusely that we had to take off some of the buds. The centre stem healed nicely and threw out new shoots too. The last bush on this terrace is a 10 year old R. 'Cornubia' - it does not do very well and we are going to transplant it next year.

The new terrace is a fairly large one 30 rhododendrons nestling on it, some very old varieties and some new ones like R. 'Baron Schroder', R. 'Maggi Haywood', R. 'Etoile Jardine', R. 'Pictum', R. 'Boule De Neige', R. 'Chancellor', R. 'Mrs. Y. Clutton', R. 'Concessum', R. 'Meteor', and R. 'Le Grenadier'.

Four of the above terraces are planted with camelias on the edges, about 40 bushes in all. Some of them will have to be transplanted next winter as the nearby trees have grown too large and they are in too much shade.

Now we have to walk back on a path through the central lawn to the right side of the cottage - here a Fagus sylvatica tricolor about 22 feet has the position of honor; here is some 20 azaleas, among them a 'Homebush' and an R. occidentale . Further on a R. 'Gomer Waterer', a R. luetescens , on the edges, R. 'Blue Bird', R. 'Blue Diamond', R. impeditum and a R. 'Blue Tit'. In the middle of the terrace is a Camelia reticulata 'Captain Rawes', five different varieties of Syringia give a further protection from the East together with a hedge of Abelias .

While we are near the cottage I would like to mention that inside it is my wife's prize possession - the only Australian rhododendron species the R. lochae . It flourishes in Queensland and in Victoria it does not seem to do so well in the open, but inside the cottage it grows all year round.

Now we will walk over to the central lawn which is studded with some large old R. 'Sappho', 2 R. 'Alarm', a large unknown variety, not as yet identified, its flowers cover the bush every year-you can hardly see the leaves. In the centre of the lawn is a barbecue and ringed round it further on are Cedrus atlantica aurea , C. atlantica , Glauca , Deodora , Dodora aurea ; little higher protected by a bush is a R. dalhousiae - it is doing really well. Going further from the drive to the end of the house garden this large slope contains countless shrubs and trees to save space to mention only a few Enkianthus cernus rubens , E. japonicus , Magnolia var. 'Rubra,' M. 'Alba Superba,' Soulangeana , Acer palmatum atropurpureum , Acer palmatum atropurpureum dissectum , Betula joungil , Eesculus hippocastarum , Corpus capitota , Garrya elliptica , Ginko biloba , Ilex aquifolium , Magnolia grandiflora , Malus alden hamensis , M. floribunda , M. prunifolia-rinki , Prunus serrulata 'Cheal's Weeping,' Mt. Fuji, kanzan (Sekiyama) and many others. Here we planted about 50 rhododendrons, R. 'Carry Koster', R. 'Dr. Arnold W. Endtz', R. 'Friesland', R. 'Jan Dekens', R. 'Marion', (this year it flowered from end of May till September), R. 'Betty Wormald', R. 'Mme. Ida Rubenstein', R. 'Marinus Koster', R. 'Countess of Athlone', R. 'Van Nes Sensation', R. 'Blue Peter', R. 'Purple Splendour', R. 'Susan', R. 'Adrian Koster', R. Zuider Zee', R. decorum , R. 'Maxe Sye', R. 'Red Eagle', R. 'El Alamein', R. 'Earl of Donoghmore', and R. 'Romany Chai'. It is here that we have a rhododendron which is supposed to be R. 'Mme. Moser' a very pretty double red.

We are at the end of the house garden; below that we carried out one of the most charming rhododendron cultivation in a truly Australian setting. Here are 4 clearings among the beautiful silver Wattles, Ashes about 100200 feet high without destroying even one single live tree. It was made possible by felling all the ringbarked trees which the previous owners wished to destroy for some reason or other.

The first we named "Stump Patch." Here we have about 60 young bushes from 4-8 years, R. 'Symphony', R. 'Unique', R. 'Butterfly', R. 'Canary', R. 'Dairymaid', R. 'Albatross', R. 'Polar Bear', R. 'Ernest Gill', R. 'Fabia'. Some species: R. grande , R. wardii , R. xanthocodon , R. orbiculare , R. yunnanense , R. lutescens , R. bullatum , etc. Here we also have R. 'Loderi', R. 'Loderi White', R. 'Loderi King George'.

The next rhododendron patch is "Halfway" which spreads in front of the end of the house garden down to the Hydrangea belt; here we have about 70 Rhododendron including R. nuttallii , R. grande , R. sidereum , R. callimorphum , R. calophyllum , R. cerasinum , R. diaprepes , R. eriogynum , etc. From here we shall walk through "Island Avenue" to find "Sunny Side"; even in the cool of the valley it is always sunny here. This slope is very well banked up with logs to make sure that the winter rains won't wash the fertile soil away. Here a R. fortunei grows with leaves just about a foot long; next to it is a R. barbatum , a R. falconeri , R. iteophyllum , R. maddenii , R. niveum , R. supranubium , R. thomsonii , R. virgatum , R. yunnanense , R. 'Luscombei', R. 'Temple Belle', R. 'Goldfort', R. 'Lady Primrose' and others. Now we arrive at the near extremity of the garden where here again we find lots of older varieties which are not so fashionable today but I like them just the same.

Below in the cool valley we planted some 5,000 Hydrangeas of many varieties but the Lyre Birds scratched up about 1,500.

We have experimented with the rhododendrons by putting on every bush a name tag made of polished aluminum. It seems very effective as the sun shining on them gives a mirror-like reflection and the Lyre birds keep away. Have some trouble with an occasional stray wallaby which likes to nip the top off the new shoots. On both sides of the creek spread hundreds of large ferns of all varieties making it like a real fairyland and all our visitors say it is the most beautiful fern gully they have ever seen.

Fern Gully Rhododendron garden
Fig. 26.  The Fern Gully at the edge of the
Helig photo
Fig. 27.  A portion of the rhododendron
Helig photo

I wish to express my thanks to my patient and long suffering wife whom I have partly converted to being a rhododendron enthusiast, and to our gardener and friend, Mr. Harry Van Der Ven, who spent many tiring hours creating and looking after the gardens. Also to Mr. Ted Woolrich who helped me by exchanging about 200 varieties enabling me to build up my collection of rhododendrons.