JARS v45n3 - Garden Gems of Western Europe

Garden Gems of Western Europe
Donald W. Paden
Urbana, Illinois

Although the gardens of England and Scotland lure many American rhododendron lovers, often on repeated visits, Western European gardens generally are perhaps not as well known to them nor as frequently visited. In May, 1990, a group of 39 plant enthusiasts, most of them members of the American Rhododendron Society, set out to explore some of these somewhat less familiar gardens. Organized by Ruth Brenne, a group tour professional as well as an ARS member, the expedition was hosted by Harold and Nancy Greer. About 3,600 miles were travelled by bus in a rather long oval route from Hamburg to Nice via the Netherlands, Germany, Switzerland and Italy and back up through France to Paris, from which the last leg of the trip to Copenhagen was by plane. (The area covered is shown in the accompanying map.) Usual tourist attractions were not overlooked, of course, and there was ample opportunity to experience the scenic and architectural atmosphere of the countries visited.

The following descriptions of gardens that the group found especially interesting are the joint effort of several tour members, and the accompanying photographs were taken by them, as acknowledged. Locations of the gardens can be found on the map.

Map of garden tour
Gardens of Western Europe visited by
Don Paden and group.

Hobbie Garden
Near Oldenburg, Germany, is a 26-acre garden begun by Dietrich G. Hobbie in 1937. Inspired by a visit to Exbury, Mr. Hobbie realized that his property with naturally mulch-rich soil, about ph 4, at almost sea level, with a damp, foggy climate had good possibilities for rhododendron culture. Starting with Rhododendron catawbiense and R. ponticum seeds, he built up a collection that today numbers thousands of plants, including many of his own hybrids developed with the goal of tolerance to cold winters. He became especially interested in R. yakushimanum crosses, and there are dozens of these plants being tested in the nursery. Elizabeth Hobbie, daughter of the founder who worked with him since childhood, now manages the garden and the continuing research with the same enthusiasm as her father.

R. dichroantham x 'Francis Hanger'
R. dichroanthum x 'Francis Hanger' and other genes,
Hobbie Garden, Germany
Photo by Gwen Bell

No gardener's visit to Western Europe would be complete without a stop in Lisse, Holland, renowned as the center of tulip bulb production. Unfortunately, this tour was a bit too late for the tulip show, but the Keukenhof gardens were featuring a display of lilies seldom, if ever, surpassed. Massed arrangements in its huge display hall showed the great variety and beauty of this flower.

Keukenhof Garden
Keukenhof Garden, Holland
Photo by Elaine Paden

Aalsmeer Flower Market
Another "must visit" is Aalsmeer Market in Holland where thousands of blossoms pass through each day on their way from growers in Holland and Germany to worldwide retail outlets. The display floor covers several acres and bidding takes place in four amphitheatres simultaneously. The sheer magnitude and efficiency of the operation is mind boggling.

R. 'Seville'
'Seville', deciduous azalea, Mainau Island, Lake Constance
Photo by Harold Greer

Mainau Island
This small island in Lake Constance, between Germany and Switzerland, was purchased by Grand Duke Frederick of Baden in the 19th century with plans to develop it as an arboretum. He had it planted with many varieties of exotic trees imported from all over the world. The duke's great grandson, Count Bernadotte, acquired the land in 1930, after it had been long neglected, and cleared the underbrush to reveal these fine plantings. He added numerous displays of flowers and shrubs, many in elaborate and exotic arrangements, in order to attract paying tourists. There are many rhododendrons among the array, although they tend to be somewhat overshadowed among the unusual displays of plants.

Mainau Island, Lake Constance
Mainau Island, Lake Constance
Photo by Nancy Greer

Seleger Moor
Mr. Robert Seleger in 1953 became aware that soil and moisture conditions in his area of northwest Switzerland were ideal for rhododendron culture and began development of a garden. When he later discovered that the winter months were too cold for many varieties he began searching for those that would withstand this element and became a hybridizer. The results of his work are arranged in a setting with meandering paths opening on ever-new vistas of display. His 30 acres also feature brooks and ponds which have drained a moor and have attracted a variety of water wildlife. They are planted with moor and water plants, including many varieties of water lilies.

Deciduous azaleas, Seleger Moor
Deciduous azaleas, Seleger Moor, Switzerland
Photo by Nancy Greer

Rudolf Meier Garden
Mr. Meier is a nurseryman/landscaper who has with considerable effort and expense developed the three lots around his home in Neiderglatt, Switzerland, into a magnificent rhododendron garden. Since the original soil was totally inhospitable to these plants, he imported huge quantities of peat from Germany and literally created an area in which the plants could thrive. Because of its limited size the garden is intensively planted with many varieties he has imported as a result of his trips to various parts of the rhododendron world. Our group was especially fortunate in that one of the tour members was a longstanding friend of Mr. Meier. We were hosted not only by the Meier family but by several neighbors who had made assorted snack goodies and helped serve them in the garden. As tour member Lloyd Vickers said, with his poetic flair, the rhododendrons sang and our hearts were warmed by the hospitality extended.

Rudolf Meier Garden
Rudolf Meier Garden, Switzerland
Photo by Lloyd Vickers

Jardin Exotique
On a seaside cliff in Monaco is a jewel of a garden of tropical plants and cacti, small in area but containing more than 6,000 species imported from places such as South America and Mexico. Plants range from a few inches tall to over 20 feet. The steep cliff side setting invites focus on only a few plants at a time, so that one is not conscious of their number and it is possible to concentrate on the exquisite flowers.

Monet's Garden
Rose trellis, Monet's Garden, France
Photo by Don Paden

Monet's Garden
Many of the best known works of impressionist painter Claude Monet are scenes in his own garden in Giverney, northwest of Paris. Monet bought a home there and planned and supervised the development and planting of the gardens himself. As the space around the house was filled, he purchased more land and extended the gardens for a large distance around the house. There was even a large vegetable garden which supplied the household. His interest in flowers was eclectic and the gardens are essentially informal, with many varieties of plants in close proximity. A number of rhododendron plantings are to be found among the profusion. He created the famous lily pond which became the subject of several of his best known paintings, but he also painted many scenes from other parts of the garden. The casual arrangement of plants results in a peaceful atmosphere throughout, as can be sensed in his paintings. The gardens have been carefully preserved and flourish as in Monets day.

Obviously, in the short time our group spent in Europe many interesting gardens had to be bypassed. As the preceding description indicates, however, there is much to attract the garden lover, including rhododendron enthusiast, in Western Europe.

Don Paden, Ph.D., is a member of the Midwest Chapter.