JARS v37n4 - Some British Rhododendron Gardens - 1982

Some British Rhododendron Gardens - 1982
Herbert, Betty and Kimberly Spady

In the spring of 1982 we visited thirty-six gardens in Great Britain. The visits were primarily to gardens that have significant collections of species rhododendrons. Several stops were made at gardens where extensive species collections of former years have suffered decline recently. One of the outcomes of the visit is that we can now relate to the various gardens when they identify plants or are used in other contexts. It was always difficult to feel comfortable with these references without viewing the vast scope and quantity of plant materials contained in the gardens.
The world is fortunate that the British had an early interest in plant exploration and gardening at a time when our countrymen looked upon most non-crop plants as weeds to be removed from their fields. We are also fortunate that vast quantities of plants were started and have been grown in the varied climates of the islands. From these plants it has been possible for late-comers to this activity to select rhododendron plants of proven garden merit for planting in relatively small collections such as the Rhododendron Species Foundation.
For land lying so very far north the islands have an amazingly mild climate. Land's End in Cornwall is as far north as Vancouver B.C. and the famous temperate garden at Inverewe is almost as far north as Sitka, Alaska. The climate is a maritime climate that is warmed by the sunny waters of the Caribbean Gulf Stream. Although the weather is salubrious for rhododendrons, problems do exist. Chalk soils exist in many regions and prevent the growing of ericaceous plants. However, even in those regions there may be outcroppings of acid soils. Fortunately the various parts of the islands usually receive adequate or abundant summer rainfall. Irrigation usually does not exist, not only because of the expense, but because ground water is often alkaline.
The closer to the Atlantic the more mild the climate. Two regional climates can be identified, but there is considerable local variability. The peninsula of Cornwall and the West Coast of Scotland experience cool summers and mild winters with temperature ranging from about 15°F to 80°F. There is abundant rainfall in these areas. The large leaved species seem to enjoy the somewhat cooler and constantly moist environment of the West Coast of Scotland. On the other hand the Maddenia and similar plants enjoy the slightly warmer temperatures and greater sunlight in Cornwall. The area about London and south at the famous gardens near Leonard's Forest experiences hotter summers, colder winters, less rainfall and frequent spring frosts. This climate more closely approximates several local areas in the Pacific Northwest.

UK map showing major rhododendron gardens

There are two gardens convenient to London. Kew Gardens is easily reached by subway or bus. Once in the suburban village of Richmond, Kew is now a three-hundred acre garden surrounded by city. It grew by the rather haphazard coalescence of various royal properties. In the mid-nineteenth century the influences of William Dalton Hooker and his son, Joseph Hooker, established Kew as major gardens for science and pleasure. There is a major collection of hardy rhododendron species. The Rhododendron Dell is a large planting for garden effect. Many early hybrids are featured in very large size.
The second major rhododendron collection reasonably convenient to London is at Windsor Great Park and Savill Garden. These gardens are a very comfortable one day excursion by train. The famous species collection at Tower Court was transplanted to Windsor when Tower Court fell to the pressure of development. In the Tower Court collection Stevenson attempted to collect several plants of each species. Savill Garden is a small formal display garden. It contains a few selected rhododendrons and in the small glass house blooming plants of subsection Maddenia. The public gardens in Britain are among the best maintained and most pleasant to visit.

R. globigerum  Windsor Great Park
R. globigerum Windsor Great Park
photo by Herbert Spady

R. bainbridgeanum  Windsor Great Park
R. bainbridgeanum Windsor Great Park
photo by Herbert Spady

Occasionally in a limestone area there will be an outcrop of what the British refer to as greensand. This is a non-alkaline soil in which rhododendrons will grow. Just such a site occurs at Sandling Park near the chalk cliffs of Dover. Although R. ponticum existed in this garden prior to 1899, it is really at the turn of the century that the garden had its beginning. There are fine stands of large rhododendrons. The garden does show some bad effects of recent gales that have damaged or destroyed many large rhododendrons from falling trees.
South of London is the amazing concentration of gardens characterized by the three Loder gardens. All lie adjacent to ancient St. Leonard's Forest, hence the name of the garden, Leonardslee, established by Edmund Loder in 1887. The Loder story begins at a twenty-six acre garden. The High Beeches, now owned by Edward and Ann Boscawen. Sir Robert Loder purchased The High Beeches in 1847. His son, Wilfred, and primarily his grandson, Major Giles Loder, developed the garden at that site from 1906 to 1966. The garden contains species rhododendrons in abundance without overcrowding. The twenty-six acre garden as a consequence is spacious for its size. Some thirty-six series are represented.

R. degronianum 'Gerald Loder' AM  Wakehurst
R. degronianum 'Gerald Loder' AM Wakehurst
photo by Herbert Spady

Much more spectacular in scale are the gardens developed by the other two sons. The most imposing is the garden established by Gerald Loder at Wakehurst. The ownership of this garden passed to the National Trust which in turn has passed it on to the Kew Gardens. The moister, cooler atmosphere of Wakehurst makes it an ideal complement to Kew. The terrain is highly variable throughout this five hundred acre garden. The maintenance at Wakehurst is superior.

Garden View  Wakehurst
Garden View Wakehurst
photo by Herbert Spady

The other Loder garden at Leonardslee is perhaps the most famous. Here can be seen the large magnificent plants of the original Loderi cross. The garden has now passed from the third generation, Sir Giles Loder, to his son, Robin Loder. Robin Loder is very anxious to maintain the garden, but faces an imposing task in face of the present social changes in Great Britain.
This local concentration of gardens also includes the famous gardens at Borde Hill and Nymans. Borde Hill contains a large collection of verified species. Robert Stephenson-Clarke has expended a lot of effort and time documenting the plants in this garden. Documentation in all the gardens has proven difficult in recent years due to lost labels and records. The Borde Hill collection includes over four hundred thirty species and subspecies of rhododendrons. There are eighty plants of R. arboreum , sixty of R. decorum , thirty of R. arizelum and thirty of R. hylaeum . Although they may be similar, each plant represents a different clone from wild collected seed. The garden was started by the grandfather of the present owner in 1893. It contains plants from expeditions by Hooker, Wilson, Forrest, Kingdon-Ward, Rock, Ludlow and Sherriff, and Hu. There are over two thousand separate rhododendron plants planted over several areas totaling about sixty acres.

R. pendulum  Borde Hill
R. pendulum Borde Hill
photo by Herbert Spady

Nymans also contains a large collection of species rhododendrons, both in the formal garden and in the woodland garden. Nymans is a National Trust Garden. The grounds and plants are well kept. Nymans on our visit seemed to be somewhat more frost-free than some of the other gardens in this local area.
In a rather isolated site on the mid south coast of England is the famous garden at Exbury. It is so well-known and documented that there seems to be little need of a discussion of its background. It is still maintained in the Rothschild family by Edmund de Rothschild. The fact that the garden is operated as a retail nursery does not detract from its beauty. The primary emphasis is on hybrid rhododendrons. That might be expected considering the huge volume of excellent hybrids developed by Lionel de Rothschild.
The garden at Minterne, although not neglected, seems to have suffered more in its rhododendron collection from the disasters of gales and drought than many that we visited.
The gardens of Cornwall seem to be the most favored for growing tender rhododendrons, especially the Maddenia, Boothia and other groups of similar constitution. They seem to appreciate the greater warmth here, whereas the large leaved tender species seem to prefer the moist coolness of the west coast of Scotland. It is only a short distance from one Cornish garden to another, but there does seem to be a great difference in style, emphasis, and microclimate.
Major E.W.M. Magor returned to the garden at Lamellen in 1961. This garden was left by his father in 1914 and suffered considerable neglect over the intervening years. To restore it to a sense of order has required considerable clearing and thinning. In the process some highly desirable plants were rescued from oblivion. Major Magor is the editor of the RHS Rhododendron Yearbook.

Caerthays Lawrence  Tremeer
Caerthays Lawrence Tremeer
photo by Herbert Spady

Tremeer is a small but intense garden of great beauty with very strong emphasis on rhododendrons. In front of the house is a vibrant collection of some of the Wilson fifty azaleas. The garden seems to represent a matured interest in rhododendrons as might be expected as it is the culmination of activities of Roza Stevenson after her marriage to General Harrison. Their combined efforts prospered well in the ideal climate of Cornwall after her move from Tower Court. The present owner, Mrs. Hopmere, maintains the garden with great care.
Trewithen had early plantings of rhododendrons beginning in 1905. Introductions from the collections of Wilson and Geroge Forrest are plentiful in this garden. Several well-known hybrids originated in the garden. They include 'Trewithen Orange', 'Alison Johnstone' and 'Jack Skilton'.
The owner of Chyverton, Nigel Holman, is one of the most knowledgeable of the present generation of owners of eminent Cornish gardens. He took over the garden at Chyverton from his father in 1959. Once again it is a garden with an impressive collection of species rhododendrons, famous hybrids and Mr. Holman's own hybrids. His most outstanding hybrid at the time of our visit was R. anwheiense x R. aberconwayi.
The most exciting garden that we visited in Cornwall from the viewpoint of a visitor from a more severe climate was the one at Trengwainton. It seems to have the ideal environment for the tender plants. The older plants in the garden derive primarily from the Kingdon-Ward expedition of 1927-28 into N.E. Assam and the Mishmi Hills of Upper Burma. The rather tender R. macabeanum , R. elliottii , R. taggianum , R. concatenans and others have done well at Trengwainton. Older plants from 1904 of R. falconeri and R. griffithianum also prosper there.

Ding-Dong (lacteum  discolor)  Trengwainton
Ding-Dong  ( lacteum x discolor )
photo by Herbert Spady

Killerton Park is a National Trust property. The garden was started by Thomas Acland under the early guidance of Robert Veitch before he started his famous family nursery. The garden is on a hill of acid volcanic soil ideal for rhododendrons. It contains several fine old species plants and large hybrids.
At Hergest Croft considerable distance away from the formal garden and rather hidden from the usual public view is a truly woodland garden. It is not too structured but on the other hand not overgrown. It contains many rhododendron surprises. The woodland garden is devoted primarily to rhododendrons with the wood itself simply providing the cover.
Bodnant is rather like Exbury in being a world famous garden and requiring little in the way of routine discussion. It is a large garden with several formal features. It contains a remarkable beautiful valley the sides of which are planted largely to rhododendrons. Bodnant seemed to suffer more from the recent cold than any other garden that we visited. We are sorry to say that many of the rhododendrons appeared to be dead. Perhaps they will sprout from the plant base and grow on. One advantage of such severe weather is that it may turn up some hardier clones of usually tender species.
Three sites worth visiting in southwest Scotland are Barnhourie, Roughhills, and Corsock. The garden of King and Paton at Barnhourie is a young garden emphasizing the more dwarf and small growing rhododendrons. They have collected many fine species in the garden. Nearby is Roughhills with an interesting collection, but above all, there is an outstanding plant of R. bathyphyllum . At Corsock a wonderful gentleman, Peter Ingalls, maintains, with apparently little difficulty keeping them alive, an outstanding collection of R. lacteum . There are of course many other species and hybrids.
The Isle of Arran in many ways has a rather ferocious climate, but sheltered on the lee side of the island just above the bay is the temperate Brodick Castle Garden. Now a Scottish National Trust property, the garden is largely the creation of the Duchess of Montrose. After her was named the species found in this garden, R. mollyanum , now known as R. montroseanum . There is no garden in Great Britain which seems more salubrious to the large leaved rhododendrons than that at Brodick.
In 1971 Ed and Harry Wright acquired an embryo garden at Arduaine. The site is surrounded on three sides by water with rather abrupt hills rising on the fourth side. The garden was started by James Campbell about 1900. It contains many original species plants and additional choice plants recently added by the Wrights. It has in the past suffered from gales and too close planting with too much shade. The plants are responding well to the clearing and improvements carried out by the Wrights.
Ed Wright was kind enough to introduce us to the little known Kenneth Garden and the probably doomed garden at Glen Arn. The Glen Arn site with the recent death of Mr. Gibson will likely be developed rather than preserved since it is in a heavily populated area. Fortunately many of the choice species plants at Glen Arn are being propagated and distributed.
Another Campbell garden of great beauty is that at Crarae. It is situated on the banks of a glen traversed by a clear water bourn adjacent to Lock Fyne. Pathways through this woodland garden create many intimate vistas studded with happy plants of species and hybrid rhododendrons. The garden still is managed by the Campbell family in the persons of Sir May Campbell and his gracious wife, Lady Campbell.
The weather was not kind to us at all times and that is certainly true when we were at the very large woodland garden of Mr. Christie's at Blackhills. One would not expect to see such tender plants growing so far north on the east coast of Scotland, but this particular site does prove to be a mild climate that allows the growing of many large leaved species and hybrids. The plantings are spacious and give the specimens much room. The collection contains some very rare items such as R. vialii and R. nakotiltum .
Peter Cox in his nursery at Glendoick has managed to collect and grow some of the most unusual variations of species rhododendrons. Many of these plants would be highly desirable for any collector. He has probably the largest collection of American hybrids available in the British Isles.
The culmination of any garden visit in Scotland must be the Royal Botanic Garden at Edinburgh. One can not say that it is the best because each garden seems to be best in some way. The rock garden is magnificent. The collection is perfectly labeled and documented. The glass houses contain many tender species. They are not as ideally displayed in glass houses as they are in a natural setting as in Cornwall, but some, such as the Vireyas, would not survive even in Cornwall. The collection includes plants of most genera and is unsurpassed in our experience. It is a delight for both the amateur and the professional.
The RBG like Kew is augmented by a large satellite garden in a different climate. The garden at Benmore provides the RBG with a site on a grander scale and with more diverse microclimates for both species and hybrid rhododendrons. Young plantings are still being added in several areas.
Our visit did not include all the well-known rhododendron gardens. There were limitations both on our time and the convenience of our schedule to the owners of the various gardens. It was a busy time for everyone that we visited. We greatly appreciate the time and special consideration that was frequently given to our enjoyment and learning from these gardens. We think that there can be no more concentrated learning experience in rhododendron species, rhododendron hybrids and rhododendron tradition than a visit to British rhododendron gardens.