JARS v50n2 - The Gardens of Exbury

The Gardens of Exbury
Paul Martin
Head Gardener, Exbury Gardens
Southampton, England

A Brief History
The world famous Exbury Gardens in the New Forest in Hampshire, England, continue to be improved and built upon their heritage begun many years ago. When Mr. Lionel de Rothschild purchased the property in 1919, the garden area was small in comparison with today. It finished just beyond the cupressus trees which had been raised from seed taken from a cone that had fallen from a wreath placed on the Duke of Wellington's coffin as it moved through the streets of London on its funeral procession to Westminster Abbey.

From 1922 the Gardens began to expand with a massive planting programme; areas cleared and dug with many tons of humus added to the soil ready to receive the many plants from around the world brought to our shores via the efforts of the great plant hunters. Also during this time, Mr. Lionel made over 1,200 crosses of rhododendrons and azaleas many of which can still be found in the 200-acre garden today.

As with many gardens, there was a period of neglect during World War II. However, the good news was that unlike other gardens that never recovered, Exbury, under the guiding hand of Edmund de Rothschild (Mr. Lionel's son), has gone from strength to strength adapting to meet the new and various demands which the second half of the 20th century has placed upon it. In 1955 the Gardens opened to the public allowing us all to enjoy the atmosphere and beauty of Exbury.

Some features to look for include the Azalea Bowl, Home Wood Walk, Witcher's Wood and the Rock Garden.

The Azalea Bowl
The Azalea Bowl is an area some two acres in size with over 500 evergreen azaleas. It was first planted in 1930 and again in 1964; this now presents a colourful display throughout the month of May. The bowl surrounds the lowest of three ponds containing a collection of water lilies. Mixed on the outer fringes of the bowl are some interesting plants including Notelaea excelsa , Ligustrum lucidurn , Trochodendron aralioides , two very large specimens of Manglietia insignis (R.F. 903) and species rhododendrons R. macabeanum , R. fictolacteum and R. praestans , to mention but a few. Hybrid rhododendrons abound with good examples of 'Red Admiral', 'Queen of Hearts' and 'Fortune' F.C.C.

On the way to the Azalea Bowl one passes through an area known as Home Wood; this is the oldest part of the Garden and includes the cupressus mentioned earlier.

Top Pond, Home Wood, Exbury Gardens
Top Pond, Home Wood, Exbury Gardens.
Photo courtesy of Exbury Gardens

Home Wood
At the top of Home Wood near Exbury House hangs the large Burmese Temple Bell once used to summon Mr. Lionel from the gardens. Here one wanders through the Bridal Walk (azalea 'Palestrina') under glades of magnolias, past borders and beds holding a vast array of trees and shrubs, eventually reaching Mrs. Lionel's seat, which gives a view over the gunnera towards the 70-foot taxodium growing on an island in the first of the three ponds mentioned earlier. Surrounding the seat are her "family" in the form of rhododendrons 'Edmund de Rothschild', 'Leo', 'Naomi' and 'Rosemary',* a pleasant reminder of the continuity and commitment of the de Rothschild family to the Gardens.

Witcher's Wood

Another woodland area is Witcher's Wood, named after a family of gypsies who lived there many years ago. Amidst this less formal planting a number of original collectors numbers can be found including R. elliottii , R. rex ssp. fictolacteum , R. griersonianum and R. rex ssp. arizelum . The only known example of Picea farreri in the U.K. is found here. Other plants of note include Stewartia sinensis , Quercus myrsinifolia , Paulownia tomentosa , Lithocarpus densiflorus , a large specimen of Magnolia macrophylla and various viburnums.

Yard Wood
Although Exbury is primarily a spring garden with an abundance of rhododendrons, azaleas, camellias and magnolias to see, a real effort is being made to extend the season into the summer months. From the middle of July to the middle of September both Home Wood and Witcher's Wood are closed. This gives them a chance to recover from the large number of visitors during the spring and makes the task of watering to encourage shoot and flower bud production a lot easier. Most of the effort of extending the season has gone into the third area of the Gardens known as Yard Wood. Here can be seen new plantings of camellias, large-leafed rhododendrons, eucryphias and an increasing range of herbaceous plants of which more will be said later. All this is set amongst a wide variety of mature plantings including Acer rufinerve , A. japonicum and A. davidii , Cercidiphyllum japonicum , Pinus radiata and Torreya californica .

In the Yard Wood two new ponds have been built, one surrounded with hydrangeas and a collection of bamboo. The other has a wide range of water marginals and herbaceous material such as Gunnera chilensis , Digitalis ferruginea , various Lythrum sp., Filipendula sp., Rheum sp. and Rodgersia sp. Over 40 different types of plants in all. Last year was their first season; this year should see them increasing and making their presence felt. Although these are both new they are already settling down and attracting many different types of dragon fly and damsel fly, etc.

Rock Garden
The Rock Garden, two acres in size, was built over a two year period during 1932-33, requiring a narrow gauge railway to be constructed enabling the stone to be transported to the site. During the war it became neglected, and it was not until 1979 work began removing the briars, brambles, birch and 40-year-old oak trees that had grown up.

Ninety percent has been replanted with alpine rhododendrons of which half are species and half hybrids. During the spring it is a picture of blues and violets with the occasional larger rhododendron, such as R. yakushimanum , or various ornamental conifers creating a change of height, leaf shape and colour.

Exbury is not closed in a time warp but continues to change and expand. A number of new gardens and features have been developed and planted and more continue to be planned. In 1994 Nicholas de Rothschild (Edmund de Rothschild's son) redesigned the Rose Garden using such diverse plants as Dicksonia antarctica , Chamaecyparis lawsoniana 'Wisselii', Santolina , Wisteria and the new range of patio roses. Although fairly small, the effect during the summer is stunning.

Finally, a sign of the commitment shown by the Board of Exbury Gardens is the taxonomic programme and computerisation of the plant records. Although expensive and time consuming it is revealing many plants thought lost and enabling a more logical planning for the future.

As the ARS has its conference at Oban, Scotland, this year, we hope many of the visitors will find time to visit us. Ring or write to us and we will try to arrange a meeting with the Head Gardener.

* Name not registered.