JARS v43n4 - The Living Garden

The Living Garden
Edmund L. de Rothschild
Exbury, England

Article adapted from the speech given by Edmund de Rothschild at the
American Rhododendron Society Convention, April 29th, 1989, Victoria, British Columbia, Canada

My first visit to the United States to see your beautiful gardens was in 1947 when I met the late Mr. John Henny and Mr. Jock Brydon who drove me from San Francisco, in whose botanical gardens I saw some of the Exbury azaleas, up through the redwoods through Oregon and Washington, where I was shown a number of magnificent gardens, eventually to British Columbia where I met Mr. Layritz. He was a wonderful old man having come out to Vancouver around the 1870's and ran an excellent nursery garden. I also visited the Buchardt Gardens for the first time. On the East Coast of the United States I have seen Winterthur, the Dupont Gardens, where Mr. Harry Dupont himself showed me round with great enthusiasm, the New York Botanical Gardens, and in Canada the Lilac Garden in Montreal and an exceptional garden in Ontario where Dr. Joseph Brueckner has created a remarkable collection of hardy hybrid rhododendrons. Also on the East Coast I have contributed to the Southern Appalachian Highlands Conservancy in Tennessee. I am proud to be associated on this side of your continent with the Cecil and Molly Smith Garden, sadly I have not had a chance to visit it on this occasion.

The British gardeners were not the only people to collect and hybridise rhododendrons and azaleas, and here in Canada and the United States there are such household names who have contributed so much to all our gardens as the Dexter rhododendrons, the Gable azaleas, the remarkable 'Lem's Cameo', and B.Y. Morrison in his work on the Glenn Dale azaleas at the National Arboretum in Washington. There are many others I would like to mention but this might be invidious.

All of us have so much in common, we are all servants of the elements and very often they are hostile - wind, rain, hail, frost, snow, flood, and drought. Yet even when the bad events overtake us we soldier on and every spring are hopeful that our gardens will smile in the sunshine that from time to time filters through the trees.

What problems we have with naming plants, after all we like to name them after our family or friends. My father, Lionel, when he took people round the garden, used to call some of his hybrids after them. He was very friendly with the Earl and Countess of Bessborough, so he named a cross after Lady Bessborough - R. discolor x R. campylocarpum . He also formed that remarkable group of R. cinnabarinum hybrids and called his First Class Certificate hybrid which was R. cinnabarinum 'Roylei' x 'Royal Flush' after Lady Chamberlain, the wife of Sir Austin Chamberlain, who was a distinguished Englishman at the League of Nations in Geneva. My elder sister, Rosemary, married into the Berry family so, therefore, my father named another R. cinnabarinum hybrid after Lady Berry, the cross being 'Rosy Bell' x 'Royal Flush' - most apt.

My mother, after the death of my father in 1942, kept things going with the greatest difficulty until I returned from overseas service in 1946. Many of you may have met her when you came to visit Exbury. There is a lovely R. lacteum hybrid named after her, 'Mariloo'. Its parentage is R. lacteum x 'Dr. Stocker'. There is another one called after my father, 'Lionel's Triumph', R. lacteum x 'Naomi', and the parentage of 'Naomi' is 'Aurora' x R. fortunei . After World War II our first VIP visitor was the then Princess Royal. Her Royal Highness Princess Mary was going round the garden with my mother and Lady Bessborough and we came to the most beautiful small tree covered profusely in pale rosy opal flowers. I said, "Ah here is the pride of the garden 'Lady Berry'." Lady Bessborough looked at it quizzically and turned her head from side to side and finally said, "I am not jealous, she droops." There were many other visitors including the explorers Joseph Rock, and Frank Kingdon Ward and those who identified the species and put them into their series, including Balfour and Tagg.

Many books have been written on trees and shrubs and perhaps the two outstanding ones on this side of the Atlantic are Mr. David Leach's immense and complete work on rhododendrons, Rhododendrons of the World , which must rank as one of the most comprehensive books on rhododendrons in publication, and Homer E. Salley and Harold Greer's Rhododendron Hybrids, a guide to their origins . In the United Kingdom we have Mr. W.J. Bean's series on all the flowering trees and shrubs hardy in the British Isles. Mr. Bean used to go round Exbury Gardens with my father with his group of gardening friends and my father would suddenly say, "Bean, what is that tree over there?" Mr. Bean would not reply, but in the middle of dinner or when the port was being passed round he would suddenly say, "Mr. Lionel, Cercidiphyllum Japonicum Magnificum Nakai." "Good God Bean, what are you talking about?" "Mr. Lionel, you asked me the name of that tree and I have been looking it up and it is rather a rare tree and comes from Japan." "Oh, thank you Bean, thank you." And that was the end of that conversation.

Now I would like to take you on a tour of Exbury Gardens. The house was built probably late in the 18th Century and was of red brick which my father rebuilt using Portland stone. It used to be owned by the Mitford family, the head of whose family is Lord Redesdale. When my father first came to Exbury, after World War I, there was a small planting round the house. My mother and father walked down what is now known as the Glade. The magnificent cedars of Lebanon and the redwoods, Sequoiadendron giganteum , were the outstanding trees amongst oak and brambles.

At the bottom of the garden there were two Cupressus sempervirens . There is a story attached to these trees. As I told you Exbury House and the Estate used to belong to the Mitfords. At the time of the Duke of Wellington's funeral, as the cortege was passing by one of the young scions of the Mitford family saw a wreath fall off the gun carriage carrying the coffin, dashing out he picked it up, took two seeds and put the wreath back on the coffin, planted these two seeds and they grew into the trees my parents found. We have taken seeds from them but sadly those two trees, particularly the ones from the coffin, were blown down in the great storm of October 1987, as was the tree identified by Mr. Bean.

When the present Duke of Wellington visited the gardens he gave me an oak tree from an acorn picked off the oak tree which was planted on Copenhagen's grave which is at Stratfield Saye. Copenhagen was the horse which Wellington rode at the Battle of Waterloo.

There is another rather amusing anecdote on the Glade. When Walter Annenberg was US Ambassador to the United Kingdom he came down to Exbury with his charming wife Lee and David Rockefeller. They came to the Glade, Mr. Annenberg gasped and said to my late wife, "Oh, Elizabeth, how beautiful, I rename this Memory Lane," to which Elizabeth replied somewhat acidly, "No, Mr. Annenberg, it is called the Glade."

Now we come to the Bridal Path. Here Rhododendron 'Ivery's Scarlet', a hardy hybrid, has at its base the white evergreen azaleas 'Palestrina' the whole forming a stunning sight. In this area is one of our finest hybrids which I have named after my younger daughter, Charlotte, R. discolor x 'St. Keverne' ( R. griffithianum x R. zeylanicum ).

As we progress down the path we come to the main cross-roads just before the ponds - here is where there is a bank of 'Hawk Crests'. Just before World War II my father had a tray of seedlings of 'Lady Bessborough' x R. wardii , he showed it to his friends and invited them to please take as many of these as you want, and they helped themselves and only a few small ones remained which were left to take their chance during the war. The very smallest one became 'Hawk Crest' which only goes to show that sometimes it is the weakling that surprises one and sometimes turns out to be the best.

Incidentally, the house became a naval establishment, His Majesty's ship Mastodon, during the war and was used by the Royal Navy as one of their land ships for the planning of "D Day". After the war a training college, H.M.S. Hawk took over, so this plant was called after it.

Also on the cross-roads is the plant R. yakushimanum . That great Japanese nurseryman Mr. Koichiro Wada sent two plants back from the island of Yakushima off the southern tip of Japan. My father's then Head Gardener was Mr. Francis Hanger and just before I was demobilized the Royal Horticultural Society not thinking that Exbury Gardens would be carried on, invited Mr. Hanger to become Curator at Wisley. Mysteriously one of the R. yakushimanums found its way to Wisley and that plant was granted the FCC but the Exbury R. yakushimanum is far superior.

Going past the bank of Hawks one comes to a small stream, the outflow of one of the two springs in the garden. One is called St. Mary's and is planted round with Pieris forrestii . Forrest was an intrepid explorer who made seven expeditions to Yunnan in China. On one of these visits the Tibetan Lamas of the Yellow Sect were very hostile and terrorised the local inhabitants. Forrest was at a Mission Station under Father Dubernard at a place called Tzeki. One evening news came that the Lamas had massacred the Chinese garrison at Atunze, a small Chinese-Tibetan trading post two and a half day's journey from Tzeki and were concentrating their forces to attack the mission. That night two aged priests and their small band of Christian natives with Forrest and his men set out for safety but next morning they were overtaken by the Lamas and all but 14 out of 80 persons were killed or captured. Forrest and one of his 17 men escaped. One of the fathers was among those killed at once but the other, Father Dubernard, survived for two days before being captured and tortured to death. Forrest without food and barefooted, for he had had to discard his boots to avoid tracks as he crossed the streams and rivers to throw off the scent of the Lamas' large and ferocious dogs, was hunted for 9 days. On the ninth day when he was at the end of his tether he was in a small bamboo thicket. He had his rifle with him and was determined to sell his life dearly when the monks came down to the stream opposite. Suddenly he saw Father Dubenard amongst them waving to him to go further down the stream - which he did and the Monks called off the chase and gave him up for dead. He was then guided by friendly natives over a 17,000 ft. range of mountains, finally reaching safety three weeks later. It was only then that he found out that Father Dubenard had met a horrible death several days before he thought he saw him with that band of Tibetans.

Forrest died in China in 1932, his loyal native plant hunter walked for a great number of days until he came to a station where there was a British presence. My father not only arranged for Forrest to be buried in the small burial ground overlooking the great mountains on the Salween Divide, but managed to have his last collection brought back to England. Incidentally the Salween Divide is where Kingdon Ward's description is so apt, and I quote: "That immense reservoir of hardy plants which, including the Himalaya mountains, Southern Tibet, the North-East Frontier of India, and Western China, comprises the most stupendous elevated region in the world. Here, where great rivers batter their way along cracks in the earth's crust three miles deep, where the wind sobs and raves over the high passes, where the rain mist smokes over forest and moor and snow blankets the landscape for months on end, you will see flowers growing in the most reckless profusion."

Next we come to the ponds - there are three of them. The top pond has a very magnificent swamp cypress, Taxodium distichum . It is the home of a variety of duck and carp and golden orf fish, and is surrounded by deciduous azaleas and maples. A small series of cascading water leads to the second pond where we have formed the Wynniatt Bowl of evergreen azaleas. The late Mr. Wynniatt was my first true Head Gardener. Freddie Wynniatt had been a prisoner of war and had worked in the salt mines never seeing daylight for two years. He died sadly very prematurely. In this pond there is a plant which I have collected myself from the Adirondack Mountains of New York State, the skunk lily, Lysichitum americanum . Another small waterfall leads to the third pond where there are more evergreen azaleas.

We then come to the banks of Rhododendron 'Fortune', R. falconeri x R. sinogrande . These form huge trusses. It is not often that they all flower together but during the time I have been in charge at Exbury, which is really since 1947, they have only flowered superbly twice. The first time there was a frost and the second time it was a magnificent sight. Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother has been many times to Exbury, so on May 1st, 1987 she came to lunch with us on a private visit as she was told about the fantastic flowering of these splendid rhododendrons. As she arrived she said, "Am I too early?" I was able to say "No, Your Majesty, they are perfect;" and on May 10th Her Majesty the Queen came on a similar visit and said "Am I too late?" I was able to say "No, Your Majesty, they are as perfect as when Her Majesty your mother came 10 days ago!" She remarked that the public also in the garden on that day seemed so surprised at seeing her doing the same as them, namely sightseeing.

One then goes to the Camellia Walk. There are many varieties of camellias which make a fine show during April. My favourite, and I fear I am biased is 'Inspiration' as it was bred at Exbury, but I also find that the camellia 'Debbie', a fastigiate plant, is delightful. Below the banks of the Rhododendron 'Fortune' is the Winter Garden. This is where the very first flowers come out in any quantity to start the season. Rhododendron 'Androcles', R. arboreum x R. calophytum , has large trusses a most beautiful rhodamine pink or even white up to 30 ft. in height. It is flanked by yellow R. macabeanum , the large leafed R. sinogrande and other early flowering species including the better R. calophytum hybrids. We have now made a walk down to the Beaulieu River at the bottom of the Winter Garden. Incidentally the marshes which belong to me are the home of many varieties of duck and wading birds.

Coming back to the cross-roads at the top pond we turn left and come to the Daffodil Meadow. Here "a crowd, a host of golden daffodils flutter and dance in the breeze" and withstand the early frost forming a brave sight on some of the cold March and early April days. This meadow abuts onto the Beaulieu River across which can be seen Bucklers Hard. Battle ships that were built here during the Napoleonic Wars used the oaks from Exbury and Beaulieu which, because they were grown on rather poor soil, made the wood very hard and therefore suitable for the sailing ships of those days. The Agammemnon and other Nelson war ships were launched just across the river from the Daffodil Meadow from this thriving boat-building yard at the end of the 18th Century.

We then come to Witcher's Wood, named after a band of gypsies who used to live in the New Forest. Its entrance is guarded by a magnificent specimen of Brewers spruce, Picea breweriana , from the Siskiyou mountains of California. Here there is Lover's Lane, this walk is flanked by the new range of Solent deciduous azaleas, these are tighter trussed, less prone to droop and more sun tolerant. When HRH Princess Margaret came to Exbury, she graciously allowed me to name a butter yellow fragrant azalea 'Princess Margaret of Windsor'. Witcher's Wood was probably the worst damaged during the hurricane force gale of 1987. Large areas have been completely replanted but locally there are still many mature rhododendrons, the tallest being at least 60 ft. high (a Lowinsky hybrid).

We then take the path to the bridge and note on our way Magnolia veitchii which flowers in April. This lovely flowering magnolia is called after a nurseryman of the last century, Mr. Veitch. Mr. Veitch employed a Mr. David Douglas who was termed a journeyman, a grade of superior gardener in the Victorian era. Mr. Douglas was a really tough Scot and he undertook a series of expeditions to the West Coast of the United States in the early part of the last century. He brought back the fir tree called after him, the Douglas fir. He had a pathological fear of bulls and bears. One day he was walking down an Indian trail when he fell into a bear trap, alas there was a bear in the trap, so that was the end of poor Mr. Douglas.

We now come to the Bridge over Gilbury Lane, a public highway, which divides the garden. In front of this white balustraded bridge is a large bank of different varieties of Rhododendron 'Naomi' called after my younger sister. From the top of this bridge looking over, one sees the planting of hardy hybrids that form a colourful sight as they flank the small road that leads to Gilbury Hard by the Beaulieu River. This bridge leads to the third wood, Yard Wood. This wood is called Yard Wood because it used to contain a number of yew trees and the wood from the yew was used for the yardsticks of the bows and cross bows that were in force in the medieval armies. In fact there is still one yew tree standing which is mentioned in the Domesday Book which was an inventory of all the lands under the domination of William the Conqueror in the 11th century. Incidentally, one often wonders why so many yew trees stand beside grave yards near to churches and the reason was that in the Middle Ages archery was compulsory after the morning service.

In Yard Wood there is the azalea drive, the water garden, and the rock garden. The latter was created in the mid 1930s. My father had a small train which brought the huge stones from the Estate Yard several hundred yards away. The Rock Garden covers just over two acres and is probably one of the largest of its kind in the United Kingdom. Incidentally the stones came by rail from Sussex to Beaulieu Road station and so heavy were they that the bridge over the Beaulieu River at Beaulieu was broken, much to the fury of John Montagu, the lord of the manor of Beaulieu, who was also a great friend of my father. On my return from overseas after the war the Rock Garden was completely overgrown, it has only been reinstated since 1982.

When the gardens were first opened to the public the cars used to have to park on the lawn in front of Exbury House but when the numbers of visitors reached more than 90,000 we made a new entrance, a car park, plant centre and cafeterias on the site of the Estate Yard. In fact, visitors now enter the gardens through Yard Wood. HRH The Prince of Wales honoured us by opening the car park. He said that he thought it was probably the first time a Prince of Wales had ever been asked to open a car park, though there was indeed a garden centre there. On his way to plant a commemorative tree a voice from the crowd shouted "where's your wife, where's Di?" Quick as a flash His Royal Highness replied "She's in Newcastle do you want your money back?"

Exbury Gardens are very varied, there are also many beautiful trees and berried shrubs including Cotoneaster 'Cornubia' and the yellow berried Cotoneaster 'Exburiensis'. It also has a number of other varieties of berried shrubs one of which is Pernettya mucronata . There were two plant hunters during the turn of the 18th Century, Pernetti and Bougainville. Pernetti was Italian and Bougainville French. They came to Chile and on the slopes of the volcanic mountains in the south of that country there was this magnificent low growing shrub covered in pink, white and purple berries. Signor Pernetti was most taken by this shrub and is reported to have said, "I would like to have this named after myself." Monsieur Bougainville who knew a thing or two said "mais certainment mon ami," but when they came to Hawaii and saw that fantastic cascading flower, Monsieur Bougainville said "maintenant ca c'est apres moi" and, Ladies and Gentlemen, "maintenant ca c'est apres moi" - 'Edmund de Rothschild'. Tall, upstanding, fresh complexion, not droopy. This hybrid is 'Fusilier' x 'Kilimanjaro' one of the best of the R. elliottii hybrids which however, are sadly not always hardy. We have all seen a splendid showing of plants in different gardens with many fine specimens some of which have been exhibited and won awards. It so happened that I was asked to represent Great Britain in the Valenciennes International Flower Show in 1962. Freddie Wynniatt was my head gardener and Peter Barber was the Agent at Exbury in those days, and one of the authors of The Rothschild Rhododendrons . They had spent hours cutting out the last of the dead wood. Peter Barber was on his hands and knees as Freddie Wynniatt had fallen out of a tree and hurt his back when during the formation of the Exhibition a lorry backed up, struck a water pipe, drenched Peter and flooded the entire area the day before; we used towels, handkerchiefs, etc. to mop it up. To our surprise we were awarded first prize and the Gold Medal, known as The Premier Grand Prix D'honneur. Another competitor lodged a protest, and claimed that the Exbury stand did not have two separate groups, his group had shown both azaleas and cymbidiums. Now the President of the show was a lady called Madame Zelia Plumecocq. Peter Barber came up to me and told me what had happened and then said there is a new rhododendron flowering for the first time - it is a R. souliei hybrid, 'Rosy Morn' x 'Crest', it is very marked in the large open saucer-like flowers of yellow tinted with pink which are held up in a big, well-built truss, while 'Crest' is evident in the foliage and upright carriage - do you think you could go and see Madame Plumecocq and name this plant after her. So I went to the President's suite and saw Madame Plumecocq and told her I had a most unusual plant and as she had been very kind to us and invited us to participate in her flower show, would she do the honour of letting me call this plant after her. She came down to look at it, and was highly delighted. The award stood and thus we kept the 1st prize and the Gold Medal. Rhododendron 'Zelia Plumecocq' has a worthy place at Exbury, but it has never really proved the great promise it showed on that afternoon. I feel I must end with another quotation from one of Kingdon Ward's books. "Rhododendrons in the wild, lashed by the mountain gales, harassed by the sun or stung by the driven rain, in winter buried under 10 or 20 feet of snow, are unforgettable. Man can assemble in close embrace a far greater range of rhododendrons than nature ever knew; but never can he reproduce the drama of living plants on the high and lonely passes of Sino-Himalaya." So, I have taken you from these wild passes to a garden in England and back to your gardens where you, the members of the American Rhododendron Society, have collected, hybridised and embraced the beauty of the living garden.

Edmund de Rothschild carries on the work his father, Lionel, began at Exbury Gardens. Exbury, a garden in the grand tradition of British estates, has a fine collection of species and hybrid rhododendrons. A visit to Exbury is a long remembered event.