A Day at Exbury
Martha Prince, Locust Valley, New York
Rewritten and expanded from an article in American Horticulturist
photo by Martha Prince
The very word "Exbury" has a magical ring to it. For me, the name has long been synonymous with a fairy-tale daydream of mine. I grew up loving the deciduous azaleas of our southern mountains, but I first met the glorious Rothschild hybrids when we joined ARS (some seventeen years ago). Ever since, I have longed to see for myself from whence such dazzling blossoms came. As they are hybrid "cousins" of my azaleas, it seemed somehow inevitable that I would one day visit them, at home in their rather remote corner of Hampshire. And although here in our Long Island garden only the Exbury azaleas are reliably hardy, I wanted to see, too, the rhododendrons. True rhododendron buffs seem almost always to care about the whole genus, whether a particular species or hybrid is practical for our use or not.
Exbury Gardens is the "child" of Lionel de Rothschild, and now of his eldest son, Edmund. As it first intrigued me for the elegance of the deciduous azalea confections, and as our natives (in the Luteum Sub-series only) were so prominent in their heritage, I will introduce my tale with a bit of botanic history.
We must return to colonial America (eighteenth century). The early plant explorers on our shores were usually commissioned by interested connoisseurs in Europe to find "new" treasures to adorn foreign gardens. Among the early plants and seeds crossing the Atlantic, eastward, were our flame azalea ( R. calendulaceum ) and our pinxterbloom ( R. nudiflorum , now R. periclymenoides ). Some years ago I wrote an article (for another publication) on the flame azalea, alone, as its story is so romantic and drama-filled. Although probably discovered and collected in Georgia by the Bartrams of Philadelphia and sent to England, it vanished, traceless, from English collections. The reintroduction to Europe was, rather accidentally, to the Botanic Gardens in Ghent, Belgium. Andre Michaux, Botanist to the King of France (Louis XVI) sailed from Charleston in 1796. Our tough, though lovely R. calendulaceum first survived a shipwreck off the coast of Holland. Next, as the French Revolution was engulfing Europe, the plants somehow reached Ghent, instead of Paris. I had a most enjoyable, if confusing, correspondence with the Hortulanus of the Botanic Garden. I understood the name to be "Director of Horticulture" in Flemish-Latin, and our letters were in three languages (or at least his were; I could make neither head nor tails of the Flemish words). He had record books dating back to the beginning of the nineteenth century. Evidently Napoleon, enraged at the attitude of the people, once threatened to burn the Gardens in retaliation. Poor innocent plants! The next chapter of the azalea story began in 1825; a Ghent baker named Mortier began the hybridization of our deciduous azaleas. His horticultural successors added other pollen to the "recipe", and the exciting transformations progressed. Our spice-scented R. viscosum and our R. speciosum (now R. flammeum ) were mingled with the bright yellow azalea from the Caucasus which gave its name to the whole subseries, R. luteum . The Ghent azaleas still exist as a distinct class, with many named clones. They are smaller in flower than later hybrids, more delicate in appearance, and fragrant. I especially noticed one delicate salmon-pink Ghent here at Exbury, labeled 'Prince Frederick'. I do not find it listed in Lee.
Anthony Waterer, owner of England's famed Knap Hill Nursery carried the project onward. It was from Waterer's son, Anthony, junior, that Lionel de Rothschild obtained his first collection of deciduous azaleas. In many books Exbury azaleas are listed as a strain of Knap Hill azaleas. This is correct, I suppose, but Rothschild added the Chinese luteum, R. molle - the true one, grown from seed collected in Yunnan in 1924 (R 59226) by Dr. Joseph Rock. Waterer had supposedly added R. molle , too, but at a time when the species, the name, and hybrids of it were quite confused. Older botanical listings, (and some current ones, I'm afraid) may have R. japonicum listed as R. molle , incorrectly. Plants of the true species are rare, although it was introduced by the USDA Plant Introduction Section in '24, '47 and '54. There is a beautiful close-up photograph of it in a new Japanese book on the rhododendrons of Yunnan, but as I don't read Japanese I cannot tell you the book's name, author, or publisher. I obtained my copy from the Rhododendron Species Foundation. The azalea pictured bears an obvious family resemblance to some of Rothschild's, and is spectacularly handsome.
Now that I have explained my first interest in Exbury ("my" azaleas leaving America so long ago and coming back in gorgeous new dresses), let us return to England in May. My husband and I were lucky indeed that Edmund de Rothschild shares my interest in American azaleas. In the garden, he even has a charming grouping of our R. vaseyi , a non-luteum which refuses to hybridize with anything! He had read my article, "Our Native Treasures - Eastern American Azaleas", in American Horticulturist (April 1978) and wrote, with an invitation to visit. The public is admitted to Exbury Gardens during the blooming season, - but not until 2:00 P.M. In my enthusiasm I wanted to arrive at sun-up!
"Mr. Edmund", as he seems to be called by his staff (his father was always "Mr. Lionel"), suggested we stay at the Montagu Arms, an inn in Beaulieu (pronounce it Bewley, please) and arranged for our room. I think we had the most delightful room there, - an eyrie with views across the rooftops of the tiny village to green hills and sheep and placid water (I am not sure if our view was the Beaulieu River or a pond). English inns don't have "lifts", and I counted forty-one red-carpeted steps to climb. The view was the reward. This is the New Forest of England - new at the time it became the private hunting preserve of William the Conqueror. Wild ponies roam among the yellow-flowering gorse, and even meander down village streets. We seemed to have arrived in another century - or a fairy tale - before we even glimpsed Exbury.
Of course we read up on the Rothschilds and Exbury - garden and plants - before we went to England. There is a fine book, The Rothschild Rhododendrons , by Phillips and Barber (Dodd, Mead, New York). We also met the Managing Director of Exbury, Douglas Harris, for an after-dinner drink in a sitting room at the inn, and talked of what we most wanted to see and do, on our one very special day in the gardens.
Lionel de Rothschild bought Exbury in 1919, and spent three years repairing and restoring the house and grounds. It is not an old house, by English standards (early nineteenth century), but there were some fine old trees amid the underbrush. Cedars of Lebanon swoop their black-laced branches near the house, massive New Forest oaks shade many of the azaleas, and Wellingtonias (the English name for our giant redwood, Sequoiadendron gigantium ) reach skyward. Lionel planted many magnolia species, our pink dogwood ( Cornus florida rubra ), and other choice trees. The garden he laid out slopes gently to the quiet Beaulieu River on the west side of the house, with three little ponds meandering downward in tiers.
Exbury is, of course, a very large garden, but suggests, rather, a series of intimate ones. It is a plantsman's garden, not a landscape architect's. There are no fountains, no alles, no walls, no steps. "Mr. Lionel" was a banker in London during the week, and when in his garden he wanted to visit every corner. The paths (all but one) are of green velvet grass, - but wide enough for his motor car! He was personally involved in all his gardening projects. He might have a pollen-parent plant loaded in the car and then dash-about, doing his own pollinating. It is astounding that Exbury - a private garden with a weekend owner - could have registered more rhododendrons (including azaleas) than any other grower, professional or commercial, but it's true. There are more than 450 registered plants, - and those only the cream of the seedlings raised. Rothschild was no dilettante. He was knowledgeable, serious, energetic, selective and dedicated. One charming little story perhaps reveals best his appreciation of the genus Rhododendron . In the garden of his friend, Lord Wakehurst, one of the first plants of R. calophytum in England finally bloomed; Wakehurst, the future Lord Aberconway, and Lionel walked round and round the plant, doffing their hats to the new blossoms.
Lionel died in 1942, and did not live to see and select many of Exbury's finest hybrids, but his son, Edmund, inherited his discerning eye. Lionel never saw 'Crest', perhaps the finest yellow broad-leaved rhododendron in the world. Edmund's is now the guiding hand. World War II took its toll on the garden, in enforced neglect, and in the loss of Lionel's prized orchids. The British Navy took over the house as H.M.S. Hawk, and Normandy invasion plans were laid here. Today's quiet garden seems such an unlikely place to have known war!
After the War, Edmund and his wife did not move into the big house, but into the smaller home of Edmund's early childhood. It is part of the estate, and opens onto the gardens at the lower end. Edmund, too, is a banker in London, and Exbury is a weekend retreat. Many large gardens succumbed to the exigencies of the post-war world, or were given over to the National Trust. Exbury Gardens, however, are still private, - reclaimed and cared for as though the terrible years of crisis never existed. Today, a nursery - one of the largest - is the mainstay of the Garden's upkeep. In no way, however, does the commercial aspect of Exbury intrude on the Garden itself. I want to repeat that. I have heard people say they won't bother to include Exbury in an itinerary, because it is "too commercial". It is not. A visitor may be quite unaware that the nursery exists. It is true that the Gardens were larger before the War; an arboretum has reverted to farmland. In recompense, Lionel's plantings are more sumptuous in maturity, and new plantings were in progress even as we were there. It is most obviously a much-loved garden, as well as a beautiful one.
On our long-awaited "Day at Exbury", we rushed breakfast to join the friendly and smiling Mr. Harris. We had our first taste of the Garden as "Mr. Lionel" often saw it, - from automobile windows, as we were driven over the damp grass paths. This overall view of what-was-where was most helpful. Camera in hand, we then explored on foot. I am an ambler in a garden, and a very slow one; each lovely flower deserves a close look. I wanted to photograph everything! There are many fine species (a hybridizer would need them), and the very best of the hybrids produced by his rhododendron friends in Sussex, Cornwall and Scotland. There are also many of the early "standbys" Lionel had first set out, such as 'Ivery's Scarlet'. Here in New York, we can grow few of Rothschild's own rhododendron hybrids - 'Bow Bells', 'Idealist', 'Naomi' and 'Damozel' comprise almost the whole list, and they are not always bud-hardy. Our 'Bow Bells' is perhaps three feet tall, after fifteen years. It was exciting to see the mountainous piles of blossoms it has at Exbury!
I can only give you a taste of our day at Exbury, and cannot even attempt to be encyclopedic about the gardens. To an American, the profusion of bloom seemed impossible. So many plants were in glorious array that we "dashed about", like children in a toy shop. I photographed the garden in no orderly system. Actually, the Gardens could make one quite giddy, turning and whirling from one beckoning flower to the next. I present them to you in the order in which I photographed them. A careful (I think) list is kept of name, exposure, et cetera, - and here are one day's special treasures. On another day - or just with more time - the list might be quite different. As it was, we had no time to explore the masses of evergreen azaleas (which are mostly R. kaempferi hybrids).
First to have its picture snapped was R. 'Ayesha'. Not far from the house, it stood posing, clothed in pink, framed by two old cedars. A seedling of a different shade was mounded beside it. In America, we seldom use the word "grex"; we usually say just "group", or "of the same parentage". I will be consistent and follow the British usage; it seems more precise, and simpler. A grex is a group, - all the seedlings from a particular cross, even from the same cross made at a separate time or by another person. We, here, have been subjected to the word "clone" in so many even non-botanic ways, that I need give no definition. This cross, or grex, is R. discolor x R. arboreum .
The Jalisco grex ('Lady Bessborough' x 'Dido') produced some of Lionel's truly great rhododendrons, at least eight with clonal names. One took the FCC, and three have the AM. The one I stopped to photograph first was 'Jalisco Jubilant' (AM), and is one of the fine yellows.
R. 'Jalisco Jubilant'
photo by Martha Prince
The bright, eye-opening red of 'Exbury May Day' (
) was a stop light for us, and for the camera. I think most rhododendron people stop a long time before a good red. This certainly is one.
We were next waylaid by a gentle pink, with deep rosy buds, which Lionel used for hybridizing, but which (to my disappointment) was not his. This delicate beauty was 'Rosy Morn'. I found out later that it is R. souliei x R. 'Loderi', from Sunningdale. The listing in Rhododendrons of the World seems to be an error. Near it was one of its Exbury "children", 'Zelia Plumcocq', ('Rosy Morn' 'Crest'). The very large, creamy, wide-open blossoms had a tint of pink.
R. 'Zelia Plumcocq'
photo by Martha Prince
'Crest' most New Yorkers have tried to grow, - and failed. At least we have all seen it and have been envious. Good yellows really don't exist for us. The glorious Hawk grex (
x 'Lady Bessborough') has produced not only the golden 'Crest' (FCC), but 'Exbury Hawk' (which was posing for the camera before some marvelous lavender-blue
, in beautiful contrast), 'Jervis Bay' with a startling attractive red blotch, and several others. 'Exbury Hawk' and 'Jervis Bay' both have the AM.
The Yvonne grex ('Aurora' x R. griffithianum ) has four named clones, with two AMs to share. The one that was most photogenic, to me, was 'Yvonne Opaline'; this is the palest rose on the outside, almost white inside, with lovely deeper buds. The newest ones are quite dark. A blur of another plant of yellow 'Hawk', beyond, gave me a "pretty" picture. I can't resist what I call apple-blossom effects. I like the soft colors of a subdued French Impressionism. (I'm an artist, - but perhaps of the wrong period).
R. 'Yvonne Opaline'
photo by Martha Prince
I have an idea we zig-zagged all over the garden. In my memory the next rhododendron on my photo list stands nearer the house. But on the list, next to be photographed was a creamy yellow with waxen petals ('Hotei'
) which just may be named for the new Princess of Wales, Diana. No decision had been made, even at last letter writing. If it is so named, Princess Diana should be both honored and pleased. Incidentally, this is the only rhododendron I spotted with an American parent. 'Hotei' is 'Goldsworth Orange' x (
The 'Queen of Hearts' stood nearby, an aloof red treasure, darkly spotted. It won the AM, and I would have named it for an emperor or a king, instead! The cross is R. meddian x 'Moser's Maroon', good parents for reds. Also; 'David Rockefeller' was honored with a fine red, but I do not have that parentage.* Mail across the Atlantic, even by air, is painfully slow and seems to get lost. I sent an S.O.S. to Douglas Harris, but the deadline is here for the ARS Journal.
R. 'Exbury Naomi'
photo by Martha Prince
'Naomi' seems to mean only 'Exbury Naomi' here in America, but the grex ('Aurora'
) has eleven named clones, with great variations in color. Palest pink goes to crimson, or oppositely to buff (biscuit), and shadings are vastly different. 'Exbury Naomi' is a pale gem - but 'Naomi Glow' is a warm, deep match for its name.
Perhaps the most familiar, to me, of all the hybrids in the garden is 'Bow Bells' ('Corona' R. williamsianum ). Once upon a time I would have used the word "endearing", - but only for the prettily-belled small plants I know at home. The majestic mounds at Exbury command respect! Our plants bloom every two or three years, for the flower buds often succumb to our winters; the attractive, glossy rounded foliage makes it worthwhile to keep, and the blooms are a bonus when we have them.
As mere Easterners, we met our first R. cinnabarinum hybrids with real astonishment. The long, slender tubular bells, hanging gracefully, are so different from anything we can grow outdoors. I'm tempted to try, in some very protected spot. Lionel's FCC 'Lady Chamberlain' (grex and clone) is R. cinnabarinum var. roylei x 'Royal Flush'. If you have even spied someone's copy of The Rothschild Rhododendrons , you have seen 'Lady Chamberlain's striking portrait on the dust-jacket. The American rating for hardiness is only H4 (out of the question for us), but I looked up R. cinnabarinum and find our touch-and-go H3. By the way, English "H" ratings are in the reverse order, - H4 is their hardiest, and H1 is greenhouse-tender.
A last non-Exbury hybrid I found irresistible was 'Touchstone', a R. griffithianum hybrid seedling. The perky, frilled pink trusses were jauntily expressive. They practically smiled and said a cheerful "Good morning!" It was as photogenic a truss as I've ever seen, - a consideration for the photographer in me.
photo by Martha Prince
Of course I must not leave unmentioned the most famous species plant in the Gardens, Wada's
. Mr. Wada sent the two original plants to Lionel, and he in turn sent one of them to Wisley. We stood, almost reverently, in front of the beautifully-budded plant. It was not in bloom - nary a truss had even a touch of bud color - but I photographed it anyway. It is, perhaps, no longer the largest plant, - but think of the many, many cuttings taken from it! (We have two Exbury-form plants in our own garden). That one
has made a tremendous imprint on international horticulture. Only one small hybrid at Exbury - an unnamed one - had a truss open; we had to wait for our visit to the trial beds at Wisley (later in the month) to see a display of the work being done with hybridizing. By the way, did you realize that years ago the Rhododendron Trials were held at Exbury?
Next we were turned loose among the deciduous azaleas. For me, the feeling was deliriously joyful! Here was the reason, the special reason, for the journey.
R. 'Sunte Nectarine'
photo by Martha Prince
Some of the azaleas are as bright as stained glass, while others are as delicious-looking as ice cream. Some have translucent petals, although the "substance" of other flowers is such that light could not actually shine through at all. 'Sunte Nectarine' is so deep an orange on the outside of the petals that the sun-bright inside is almost unbelievable. This was one azalea I repeatedly inspected to make sure it was real! The day we were there was dreary and grey, with the changeable English sky looking ominous, but the garden was in a fiesta mood. Many of the azaleas have buds of one color - a darker one - and flowers of quite another. One such is 'Surprise', - deeply corrugated orange buds and wide, flat yellow petals. My one real complaint is about the naming of one clone; can you imagine a really fine white azalea (with a touch of yellow on the upper petal) being called 'Oxydol'? A laundry powder, for an azalea? 'Edwina Mountbatten' seemed the essence of sunshine, and 'Kathleen' is a watercolorist's flower, shading gently from pale apricot, through salmon, deep pink, orange, and even to an almost-red at the tips of buds.
Many of the azaleas are unnamed, but all were chosen to remain. Destruction of inferior plants is absolute. The most interesting set of nameless hybrids is the Solent ball-truss group. (The Solent is that narrow bit of the English Channel between Exbury and the Isle of Wight.) One I photographed is a real fire-ball in deepest orange, all frilled and ruffled. I'm sure if I crushed it I would hear the crackle of starched organdy.
Unnamed Solent hybrid
photo by Martha Prince
We paused briefly on a small wooden bridge crossing the stream between ponds. On the far side is a magnificent specimen of Pieris forrestii 'Wakehurst', its new leaf rosettes blazing above the white blossoms. Further along, a waterfall drops from a pond to the one below. The rocky edge is softened by a clump of bamboo. The English use of companion plants is quite different from ours! The largest pond is partially edged with a single file of primulas ( Primula pulverulenta , 'Bartley Strain'). The only real structure in the garden is a handsome classic bridge with a stone balustrade and piles of rhododendrons peering over the arching span (the bridge connects two parts of the garden bisected by a little road). This bridge is almost a "trademark" for Exbury.
Bridge at Exbury: Far left, deep pink and pale pink
forms of 'Bow Bells'. Right side 'Mrs. J.G. Millais'
and in background the deep red 'J.G. Millais'.
photo by Martha Prince
The atmosphere of the whole garden is quiet and peaceful. Whenever we spied a bench we stopped. Each new surprise of color or arrangement was a memory-picture to absorb and keep, gay and bright, to light up some gloomy future day.
Douglas Harris or his pleasant young assistant, Terry Drew, were with us all day. Many of the plants are not labeled, so knowledgeable guides were a valuable asset. Mr. Harris was even kind enough to take us to his home for lunch, - and a rest for weary feet. Edmund de Rothschild was not in England on the day we were at Exbury, although we met some of his family enjoying the comparative privacy of morning. We did meet the gracious owner later, in London.
Since returning to America, I have been asked which of the "great gardens" of England I would choose to own, if I could. I've thought and thought. It's Exbury. It is a great garden, but not a "grand" one. The plantings are breathtakingly perfect, but informal. Edmund de Rothschild had written me before we came to England that he could not be sure what I would find in bloom on May 9, but "I do not think you will be disappointed." Indeed not! Exbury was wearing the festive colors of some mammoth parade, and our day was perfect, in spite of a bit of rain. In England, people who visit gardens automatically carry raincoats and umbrella, and wear boots, - and we had been properly warned ahead of time.
Speaking of rain, I would like to know and understand more about the English climate, and why rhododendrons are so marvelously well-suited to it. (Acid areas only, - parts of the country are pure chalk.) Exbury gets only 28 or so inches of rain a year! We get about 40 inches. Somehow, I'd expected a rain forest! How else can the gigantic plants exist? The answer is, I suppose, that it rains a little almost every day in spring (we spent May in England, and it rained every day; there was also sunshine.) No hot sun, such as ours, bakes out the ground, - and the air. The air seems much more moist than ours, and is cool. Exbury is in one of the drier of the rhododendron areas, but Lionel tapped underground springs (feeding the Beaulieu River), and ran literally miles of water-pipe. The Gardens are certainly lush.
Another weather-related phenomenon we noticed in English gardens (including Exbury) was that everything seems to be in bloom at once, and for a long time. There is not the rushed feeling of a Long Island spring. Daffodils (and in "our" genus, R. vaseyi for example) were still in bloom with the large-leaved rhododendron hybrids. In the lovely, gentle spring, all England is, indeed a garden. Exbury is as fine a one as a "rhododendron person" could dream of finding.
As I finished typing this article for the Journal , the same phone call from England that gave me my last-minute information on 'David Rockefeller' gave me Douglas Harris' change of plan. As of this July, 1982, he is leaving Exbury to establish his own garden consulting firm elsewhere in Hampshire. The Gardens will certainly miss him.
If you have the newest little ARS book, you know that the Society recently polled Chapters on which rhododendrons and azaleas perform best in each area. Essentially the hardiness of all Exbury azaleas is about the same, and if you can grow American natives, you can grow Exburys. These lovely hybrids do not like the intense summer heat of the Kansas plains, nor the cold of some of our middle states. The Chapters reporting some Exbury azaleas on their lists include Connecticut, New York, Princeton, Potomac Valley (northern Virginia, Maryland, southeastern Pennsylvania, Delaware), Middle Atlantic, Piedmont (North Carolina from the Smokies eastward, but not to the coast). Azalea (Atlanta), Gray's Harbor (Olympic Peninsula), Tualatin Valley (west of Portland to the Coast Range), California (San Francisco), San Mateo, and Monterey Bay. Some Chapters sent no reports.
The most popular seem to be 'Gibraltar' (orange), 'Strawberry Ice' (coral-pink), 'Cecile' (pink-salmon), 'Klondyke' (gold), and 'Balzac' (red-orange). I photographed none of these, as you have probably seen them already, or can find photos in catalogues.
* Footnote: A phone call from Exbury brought me the cross. 'David Rockefeller' is 'Karkov' x 'Gipsy King'; 'Karkov' is R. griersonianum x 'Red Admiral', and 'Gipsy King' is 'King George' R. haematodes .