JARS v50n3 - Gertrude Jekyll's Use of Rhododendrons

Gertrude Jekyll's Use of Rhododendrons
Louise Forrest
Jamaica Plain, Massachusetts

Reprinted from the Rosebay, Fall/Winter 1995-1996, a publication of the Massachusetts Chapter

In the last year I have become very interested in rhododendrons for a variety of reasons. The first is the land behind my own home, which is shady and has acid soil. Secondly, I had learned in a course, "Naturalistic Landscapes and Their design Implications," that it was possible to design for a woodland setting. With their characteristics, rhododendrons are excellent for this kind of use. In the course of Gertrude Jekyll's gardens I learned that her approach to designing "wild gardens" had foreshadowed today's naturalistic design concepts. I joined the ARS last July and attended a number of meetings. Anticipating the arrival of 30 small rhododendrons from the Van Veen Nursery, I wanted to know how a great designer would use rhododendrons.

Richard Bisgrove in The Gardens of Gertrude Jekyll suggested that Jekyll used leaves as a design element. Examples included dark green on a hedge, or shiny leaves such as holly. Since rhododendrons are mainly leaves for 50 out of 52 weeks of the year, I wondered whether Jekyll used them. If she could design such extraordinary formal gardens and beds, I was really interested to see what she would do with rhododendrons.

As I explored the question, I discovered that Jekyll did indeed make use of rhododendrons, and in a variety of ways - never mind that this is far from the best known aspect of her work. To me, her most interesting use of rhododendrons was as a tool in marking the transition from a designed "formal garden" around a residence to a "wild garden" area.

It was necessary to consult a variety of sources to learn about Jekyll's use of rhododendrons, beginning with indexes of several of her books ( Wood and Garden , Colour Schemes in the Flower Garden , and Wall and Gardens ) looking for the word "rhododendron". I also consulted the Country Life index hoping to find an article Jekyll might have written about rhododendrons because I knew that she had written entire books about roses and lilies. There were no articles listed. The Royal Rhododendron Society Notes (found at the Arnold Arboretum) did not have entries on Gertrude Jekyll.

An ARS member, Tim Craig, had recommended I look for the author Street, a well-known nurseryman and journalist, who mentioned Jekyll in his writings. The Streets (Frederick and John) were great admirers of Jekyll. Frederick Street in Hardy Rhododendrons made many forceful references to Gertrude Jekyll and her superior design ideas that he had modeled for years. I took that as an acclamation of her ability, for he was writing in 1954, 40 years after the height of her career. The Streets noted that Rhododendron 'Bianchi' (named after an Italian sports car!) was Jekyll's favorite. There is a long story of how he tried to grow 'Bianchi' and after several attempts saw the beauty that Jekyll must have known. Fenja Gunn's The Lost Gardens of Gertrude Jekyll had at least 12 rhododendron references, which I followed up in sources on rhododendrons.

At this point I was becoming familiar with Miss Jekyll's favorite rhododendrons. I decided to focus on actual sites in which she used rhododendrons in order to understand in detail which rhododendrons she used, and how she used them in conjunction with other plants. I began with Munstead Wood, at Jekyll's home, which she wrote about extensively. Then I began searching for plans which called for rhododendrons. I concentrated on three gardens: Frank Court, Kent; Drayton Woods; and Resor House in the United States. All three were well illustrated by Bisgrove. He took Jekyll's original drawings from microfiche and water-colored them to ease the understanding of Jekyll's color choices. The Gertrude Jekyll Collection on microfiche provided plans on Drayton Woods and Resor. It was exciting to be able to examine Jekyll's original plans.

Lastly, another member of the ARS, Betty Carihian, has opened up her library to me. She has an excellent collection of books on Gertrude Jekyll and on rhododendrons. I used her resources to generate the table describing the rhododendrons frequently used by Gertrude Jekyll.

"We met at a tea-table, the silver kettle and the conversations reflecting rhododendrons." This is how Sir Edwin Lutyens describes meeting Miss Jekyll (1934). Oh, how I would like to know more about what they said!

Gertrude Jekyll was one of the most famous gardeners of her day. She was born in 1843 and died in 1932. In her forties she was well known for her horticultural knowledge and drew many artistic and intellectual friends to Munstead Wood. It is during this time that she met the young architect, Edwin Lutyens. They became friends and started a dynamic partnership of designing houses and gardens. Munstead Woods is in Godalming, Surrey. Between 1883-1896 she designed this 16-acre property and invited young Lutyens to build her cottage in 1896.

Gertrude Jekyll worked for years on her home, Munstead Wood, where she developed a nursery and experimented with plant combinations, color combination, vines, woods, and specialized gardens. Many came to see her work and then hired her to design their estates. Two of her most famous designs at Munstead Wood are the michelmas daisy border and the artistic herbaceous long border. It is at Munstead Wood that she used some of William Robinson's ideas captured in The Wild Garden (1871).

To investigate the use of rhododendrons, it is always important to note the soil conditions and location. Munstead Wood is in plant hardiness Zone 8, while the Boston area is Zone 5-6. Zone 8 is +10°F, while Zone 5-6 is -20°F to 0°F. The land was quite shady, and heath grew easily. She also brought in much manure and compost to add to the poor soil. Lastly, the climate is much more moist than here and less hot in the summers. These are important factors in using rhododendrons. Jekyll describes the land as sloping down to the north where young seedlings of oak, holly, birch, beech and mountain ash came together as a close thicket. A north slope happens to be perfect for growing rhododendrons. She cut five woodland paths. "At the beginning of all three paths I took some pains to make the garden melt imperceptibly into the wood, and in each case to do it a different way" Colour Schemes for the Flower Garden , p. 43).

Transition From Formal To Wild Garden
In order to understand more about how Jekyll managed to make the "garden melt imperceptibly into the wood," I looked at Frank Court at Kent, in part because the drawing was so highly developed. A long, serpentine series of steps organized into flights of a dozen or so descend from the formal gardens around the house and through a small dell to meet other paths of the wild garden. It is here that Jekyll used existing rhododendrons and other dark greens to separate the formal garden from the more naturalistic wild garden. Obviously, rhododendrons are well suited to this transitional role because of their attractive leaf, shape of the plant, and flower or truss in the spring.

Here is a list of rhododendrons that can be seen on the watercolor drawing of Frank Court: R. ferrugineum , R. x myrtifolium , R. ponticum , R. 'Album Elegans', R. 'Bianchi', R. 'Cunningham's White' and R. 'Mrs. John Clutton'.

On the plans it is clear that she repeated some plants to create a massing, for instance, R. 'Bianchi' is repeated three times, each time in a group of three. 'Bianchi' is one of her favorite pure pinks. The first three plants in the list are used over and over again by Jekyll in other gardens as well. Rhododendron ferrugineum , a species also known as the alpine rose, is a dwarf rhododendron found in the Alps and Pyrenees on mountain slopes. It is mostly deeply pink or red. Rhododendron myrtifolium is only 0.5 meters high, and is pink. Otherwise, it is very hard to distinguish between the two plants. Jekyll used these two dwarf rhododendrons near the steps where they could be appreciated. Also note that of the seven rhododendrons specified, at least two are white. I could not find any details on R. 'Mrs. John Clutton', but Bisgrove rendered it as white also. Please, see the table of rhododendrons used by Jekyll for more details on all of these rhododendrons.

Of great interest to a rhododendron lover (especially one who wants to design with rhododendrons) is the variety of companion plants, especially ones which are shade tolerant. Bisgrove describes what was on either side of the descending steps at Frank Court: "On the inner side of the curve the planting is simple and restrained, with large groups of R. 'Cunningham's White', pernettya and R. x myrtifolium forming the backbone. These support the curve, and their decreasing height accentuates the slope of the ground. Skimmia , Daphne pontica and R. ferrugineum form a lower middle ground of solid evergreens, while long groups of Solomon's seal, male fern, hellebores, columbines and smilacina are used as brush strokes of woodland freshness to leaven the evergreen frame. Pale, frothy myrrhis is used as a filler among the slow-growing rhododendrons, with woodrush to the front, and grassy tufts of the latter repeated in the dark foliage of Iris foetidissma nearer the path" (Bisgrove, p. 147).

Another technique Jekyll used in the transition from formal gardens to wooded areas is "incidents." She created "incidents" along the way by using combinations such as dramatic fern fronds and clear white lilies against the dark green leaves of the rhododendrons. In the original edition of Wood and Garden , there were two photographs which make clear her use of rhododendrons in "incidents." One is titled "Rhododendrons where the copse and garden meet" and the other is "Rhododendrons at the edge of the copse."

Jekyll's Use Of Color
In the later edition of Wood and Garden there is a color photograph of a woodland path with rhododendrons on either side. I doubt that this picture illustrates her work, as the plants are not in her typical range of colors. I concluded this because the photograph shows bright red azaleas with a PJM-type purple rhododendron, as well as pale yellows. In her writings she was adamantly against planting rhododendrons with azaleas because they had such different leaves and blooms. I also was suspicious of this photograph because, in analyzing her favorite rhododendrons, I saw a much smaller palette of pinks and white. In the first edition she lists the colors that group themselves into six classes of easy harmonies:

1.  Crimsons. R. 'Nigrescens' (dark-claret color), 'John Waterer' and 'James Marshall Brook' (both fine crimsons), 'Alexander Adie', and 'Alarm' (rosy-scarlet), 'Bianchi' (pure pink).

2.  Light scarlet rose colour inclining to salmon, a most desirable range of color but of which the only ones I know well are 'Mrs. R.S. Holford' and a much older kind, 'Lady Eleanor Cathcart'. These I put by themselves, only allowing rather near them the good pink 'Bianchi'.

3.  Rose colours inclining to amaranth.

4.  Amaranths or magenta-crimsons.

5.  Crimson or amaranth-purples.

6.  Cool clear purples of the typical ponticum class, both dark and light, group with lilac-whites, such as 'Album Elegans' and 'Album Grandiflorum'. The beautiful partly-double 'Everestianum' comes into this group, but nothing redder among purples. 'Fastuosum Flore Pleno' is also admitted, and 'Ludiferum' and 'Reine Hortense'*, both good lilac-whites. But the purples that are most effective are merely ponticum seedlings, chosen when in bloom in the nursery for their depth and richness of cool purple colour" (pp. 101-102).

Afterwards she does mention whites: "The two that I most admire are 'Madame Carvalho' and 'Sappho'. She also names 'Minnie', a very large growing one with fine white trusses, and a dwarf growing white that comes early into bloom, 'Cunningham's White', also useful for forcing". (p. 104).

Jekyll's use of ponticum seedlings is surprising to the modern rhododendron fancier. She lists them as if they were a species. If she chose species seedlings, then she inadvertently helped to create a great problem in England: the thickets of escaped ponticum . As a species they are terribly invasive and people are so overrun by them that there has even been a publication on how to eradicate the ponticum weed (Tabbush, 1987). I wonder whether Jekyll was planting ponticum species or hybrids? Betty Carlhian, ARS member, explained to me that in a nursery setting cross pollination can occur with the assistance of the bee as well as intentionally putting pollen on a seed. Therefore, it would be easy to have a hybrid without knowing it. My guess is that she chose ponticum seedlings on color criteria and did not worry about invasiveness. In fact, the invasive nature of ponticum may not even have been known at the time.

Although Jekyll has carefully listed her color theory for planting rhododendrons, she did not use all of these possible colors. This is of note to those who may want every pretty hybrid available. I quote from Wood and Garden : "My own space being limited (at Munstead), I chose three of the above groups only, leaving out, as of colouring less pleasing to my personal liking, groups 3, 4 and 5. The remaining ones gave me examples of colouring the most widely different, and at the same time the most agreeable to my individual taste" (p. 102).

Azaleas are also rhododendrons. I have not investigated Jekyll's use of them. However, I do like her description of the color arrangements for azaleas (also in Wood and Garden ) which reminds me of the hot center of the long border at Munstead Wood.

I want to finish this section on color with Jekyll's description of hunting for good rhododendrons in a rhododendron nursery; it is pure Jekyll. She describes the process as perplexing - too many colours all mixed together. She particularly was looking for a true pink colour, "...I chose 'Kate Waterer' and 'Sylph', both splendid varieties, but when grown next to the true pink 'Bianchi' they would not do, the colour having the suspicion of rank quality that I wished to keep out of that group" (p. 104). For the record, Cox and Cox (1988) describe 'Kate Waterer' as carmine rose, shading to clear rose and white in the center.

Other Gardens With A Strong Use Of Rhododendrons
The first property I want to consider is Drayton Wood, Drayton, Norfolk. The building dates from 1906 and was built for Lt. Col. O'Meara, a retired Indian army officer, by W & J Dunham. (The building is now a small country hotel.) In 1921 O'Meara commissioned Jekyll to produce a scheme for the 1½-acre garden set among nine acres of woodland. This was similar in size and topography to Munstead Wood.

Eighteen plans remain of her original scheme. The first is interesting to me because of the grid system she has imposed on the property. I think it shows how carefully she planned for the entire property. The second drawing, which I think has magnificently curved paths, shows plant groupings that include rhododendrons. I also have a color print of Bisgrove's watercolor of this same drawing to compare the two.

As I compared the plans done in watercolors by Bisgrove with these originals, it became evident that there were discrepancies. There was much more information about rhododendrons on the Reef Point plans than on Bisgrove's. She provided specific names for the rhododendrons, while Bisgrove did not. On Jekyll's original, she has at least 18 groups of rhododendrons near mountain ash, hollies, and birches. All of the rhododendrons on this plan are white or pink - a much smaller palette than Bisgrove's rendering with red, pink, white, and purple. For example, in one place where Jekyll's plan has 'Pink Pearl' (a very soft pink which fades to near white), Bisgrove has rendered it as an orange-red.

The second garden I want to consider here is at the Resor House (Cotswold Cottage) in Greenwich, Conn., (1925). The design is unusual in that so little of it is a formal garden. Jekyll never saw the property. Its owners, Helen and Stanley Resor, were introduced to Jekyll by Edward Hudson. They visited Munstead Wood in 1924.

The Resors traveled every summer; therefore, they never were available to enjoy any efforts which might have been put into summer gardening. Instead of formal gardens, Jekyll designed a beautiful set of gently curved paths with naturalistic plantings surrounding the house.

I was able to copy several of her plans from the Reef Point collection. One is an analysis of the site with views and streams noted. Another is her plan for the installation of rhododendrons, azaleas, viburnums, and so forth. Again, I have also included Bisgrove's color rendered plan. (In this case, both the original plans and Bisgrove's rendering have a number of rhododendrons which are not named.) Perhaps Jekyll let someone else specify the rhododendrons, given that this site was in a climate that was quite different from that of her home in Surrey. I would be interested to know how the Resor design eventually fared in Connecticut. Judith Tankard (in class lectures at the Radcliff Seminars) has pointed out that Jekyll's knowledge of Surrey was excellent, but sometimes her designs did not carry well in different climates. Jekyll designed three American sites, and I know that the Glebe House Museum in Connecticut has worked to preserve one of her designs.

It is interesting to note that, according to these plans, Jekyll broke her own rule of never planting azaleas and rhododendrons next to each other. As a designer interested in naturalistic spaces, I am very impressed with the Resor design. I would thoroughly enjoy walking on its paths and would find great peace in the simplicity and elegance of such a well designed space.

New Learning And Conclusions
The artful, skillful design of large landscapes has been done before this modern era and done brilliantly by Jekyll. I think that people in her day felt compelled to collect the latest plant from the Orient, and that would have included rhododendron hybrids. But Jekyll's designs were not merely collections of plants laid out as if they were on a hillside at the Arnold Arboretum. She beautifully incorporated rhododendrons with other evergreen shrubs as well as lighter textured plants.

I'm sure Jekyll was on the cutting edge of hybridizing. The first hybridizing was being done in 1810. By 1850, ironclad rhododendrons had been established. Doing this paper let me know about this burst of energy in England with new plants brought back from plant explorations. It is no accident that many of Jekyll's specified rhododendrons came from Waterer of Knap Hill, Woking, England, a very famous nursery. Waterer was an expert hybridizer, and some of Jekyll's specified rhododendrons won awards.

I had not previously known about the alpine rose or other small/dwarf rhododendrons. Jekyll introduced me to that dimension of plants. Lastly, she gave me ideas on how to compensate for the dark mass of shrub that rhododendrons can be. For instance, she often placed rhododendrons near birches with their light-colored vertical lines.

Although Jekyll was known for the borders of herbaceous plants and vines, she spent a great deal of effort on wild gardens and rock gardens where rhododendrons are most likely to be found. I think that serious rhododendron gardeners could learn much by studying Jekyll's planting plans.

Jekyll, well-recognized for her designs in her own day, has continued to be admired. I would like to quote directly from Frederick Street's book Hardy Rhododendrons , written in the 1950s. "I cannot claim that the rule of 3, 5, and 7 is original. In Chapter Eight I have described her book Wood and Garden as the Beckford of modern gardening. There is little that has been written since that book was published that can be said to be an outstanding advance. Miss Jekyll had some particularly sound methods of arranging rhododendrons and one that is again coming into favour in this country is the combination of mauve and white. These two colours form an effect that is calm, cool, and restful" (p. 149).

The present day landscape designer had much to learn from Jekyll as well. Her ideas concerning color, her artful use of rhododendrons as transitions or as "incidents" and her combination of rhododendron clumps with strong vertical lines, all provide creative solutions to current design issues.

Table 1. Some Rhododendrons Used by Gertrude Jekyll 1
Name Parentage Height Hardiness Bloom & Color Breeder
R. ferrugineum . Known as the alpine rose. Described by Linnaeus in 1753, it is easily recognized by oblong leaves up to 4.3 cm long densely scaly on the lower surface, by dark brown or reddish brown scales and tubular corolla with spreading lobes. It shows considerable resemblance to R. hirsutum (first rhododendron introduced into cultivation in 1656). The plant is free flowering, easy to grow and well suited for the rock garden. species 1-4' -30°F rosy pink - deep rose to crimson purple tiny blossoms in June & July
R. myrtifolium leaves like Myrtus . Very similar to R. ferrugineum . Leaves are quite small oblong or lance-shaped with very tiny rounded teeth, shiny dark green and glabrous on top, the underside dense with reddish brown scales. Flowers are tubular spreading to ½" long, held in trusses of 8. Previously known as R. kotschyi . Extremely good for heat and sun tolerance. Beautiful deep bronze-red foliage all winter. species 2' -10°F rose pink, pinkish-purple, or white (rarely)
M - L
R. ponticum . Habit upright and open, the leaves 9" long, oblong or lance-shaped. Smooth dark glossy green on topside, the reverse paler, widely funnel-shaped flowers. This species is naturalized in many parts of the British Isles. species 4' -15°F deep reddish purple to white
Received the Royal Horticultural Society Award of Merit in 1910, doesn't like to be pruned.
R. griffithianum hybrid 6' -5°F pink open two-toned with darker edges J. Waterer
'Album Elegans'
Pre-1876, not as good as other similar hybrids such as 'Catawbiense Album' and 'Belle Heller'.
R. catawbiense hybrid or selection medium-tall -20°F white, tinged lilac fading to white with green yellow blotch and darker spotting
J. Waterer
'Album Grandifolium' R. catawbiense hybrid ? ? lilac J. Waterer, pre-1851
'Baroness Schroeder'
Foliage with pink/red purple petioles on an open plant. There is a well-known clump of this hybrid in Kew Gardens.
R. catawbiense hybrid medium -10°F white, flushed magenta pink with deep-crimson flare G. Waterer, pre-1900
G. Jekyll's favorite; hard to find in larger nurseries at the time of Woodland Garden publishing. She found it from Messrs. Maurice Young of Milford Nurseries near Godalming.
some R. catawbiense ? ? pure pink ?
'Cunningham's White'
Renowned for its tremendous adaptability; pollution tolerant, grows in neutral or even slightly alkaline soils.
R. caucasicum x R. ponticum var. album low medium -15°F mauve buds open to white flowers with yellow/green/ brown markings
J. Cunningham & F. Fraser int. 1850
'John Waterer' R. catawbiense x unknown ? ? red crimson J. Waterer, pre-1860
'Lady Eleanor Cathcart'
Easily grown and long-lived. Heat resistant, very early hybrid.
R. maximum x arboreum 4' -10°F clear pale pink flowers (with no blue) with a narrow, dark-maroon fare
J. Waterer, pre-1854
'Lady Longman'
Heat resistant, with distinctively veined leaves.
'Cynthia' x 'Lady Eleanor Cathcart' 5' -15°F clear pale pink with a conspicuous chocolate eye in large trusses
H. White, Sunningdale, pre-1930
'Mrs. Furnival'
Excellent plant with highest ratings. Without question this is a plant you should have in your garden. Award of Merit, 1933; First Class Certificate in 1948.
R. griffithianum hybrid x R. caucasicum 4' -15°F light pink with striking blotch
A. Waterer
'Mrs. John Clutton' ? ? ? ? ?
'Mrs. R.S. Holford'
Habit is upright unknown and rounded, with medium-large, medium green leaves, 2½"flowers.
parentage unknown 5' -15°F rosy salmon color, truss tight
A. Waterer 1866
R. ponticum hybrid, though called a species by Jekyll; also known as 'Tondelayo'. R. ponticum x R. brachycarpum ssp. brachycarpum 5' -25°F white flowers with red spots; deeply cut 5-lobed corolla; lax truss
A. or G. Waterer, pre-1860
'Pink Pearl'
The standard by which all pinks must be judged. received an award of Merit in 1897, a First Class Certificate in 1900 and an Award of Garden Merit as late as 1952.
'George Harcy' x 'Broughtonii' 6' -5°F soft pink and fades to near white with brown speckling; bluish shade in the pink
J. or G. Waterer
Habit is open-growing, sturdy, with a tendency to legginess. Leaves medium sized, somewhat narrow olive green. 'Calsap' used today instead of this.
unknown, perhaps a hybrid of 'Smithii Album' 6' -15°F flowers white with conspicuous very dark purplish-black blotch
A. Waterer, pre-1867
1 Information for Table 1 from the following sources: Peter A. Cox and Kenneth N.E. Cox, Encyclopedia of Rhododendron Hybrids , Portland, Oregon, Timber Press, 1988; and Harold E. Greer, Greer's Guidebook to Available Rhododendrons: Species and Hybrids , Second Edition, Beaverton, Oregon, Sterling Press, 1988.
Note: In the Table a "?" denotes information not available in either of the two major sources or in such older sources familiar to rhododendron aficionados such as F. Street or Van Gelderen.
* Name is not registered.

Louise Forrest is a member of the Massachusetts Chapter and a landscape designer.