JARS v50n4 - Crosshills Garden

Crosshills Garden
A Jewel in a Tour of New Zealand Gardens
Christopher Fairweather
Bealieu, England

Late in the year 1992, my wife and I arrived in New Zealand for a four-week trip with plans to visit the many gardens and nurseries about which we had heard so much. We had left home on a dull November day and arrived in Auckland many flying hours later to spring weather. Everything appeared to be flowering at the same time, offering an absolute feast of colour. And there were plenty more horticultural surprises to come as we explored both North Island and South Island.
We spent a wonderful day at the world renowned Pukeiti gardens, owned and administered by Pukeiti Rhododendron Trust. This 400-acre park has the largest collection of both species and hybrid rhododendrons in New Zealand, plus primulas, lilies, hostas and many other plants.
Driving back to New Plymouth we passed through some remarkable New Zealand bush country where all the plants in sight were completely strange to us. High in the tree tops we spotted flashes of white that I was able to identify through my binoculars as the green and white flowers of Clematis paniculata . It seemed too high to photograph, until we luckily found a bit trailing over a bank and managed to get a close-up shot.
New Plymouth, which was our base for the night, is a fair sized town situated on the west coast of the North Island about the same latitude south of the equator as Lisbon, Portugal, is north of it. Warm sun and high rainfall must make this one of the most favourable growing areas in the world, a definite mecca for all plant lovers. Here we saw splendid roses, a huge range of irises, daylilies, lush primulas, unusual camellias and rhododendrons. Also we found the best hostas we ever saw, apparently untouched by slugs. One wonders whether those dreadful creatures do not exist in this favoured land.
After a quiet night in one of the better camper parks, we set off early for our next port of call, Crosshills garden at Kimbolton. The route took us through typical North Island countryside, a landscape of gentle grassy hills and well tended farms, grazed by thousands of sheep and the odd herd of domesticated deer. One tree really stood out from the green sea of this regular farmland. It was the brilliant foliage of the golden elm ( Ulmus wredei aurea ), and we noted many fine specimens often planted very effectively to make a golden avenue.
With the snow covered Ruahine hills as a background, we dropped down to a small valley and arrived in the early afternoon at Crosshills. We were greeted by the most colourful hedge of Clematis montana 'Tetrarose' I have ever seen, where the enormous deep pink flowers created a wall of colour. As if to whet our appetite, as we parked the car we were confronted with the most amazing group of embothriums in full flower, about 40-50 feet high, a really thrilling sight. This introduction showed us that we had a real treat in store.
But first let me tell you something about this lovely corner of the North Island. Development of this area from virgin bush began in approximately 1886. The first settlers on this site built a modest house and planted Cupressus macrocarpa around the property to give shelter. As you arrive at the garden you see two massive trees from the original planting, which are almost 100 years old. Every building on the nursery has been built with timber from those macrocarpas. For instance, the timber in the coffee shop was milled from trees planted in 1939, which had been grown from seed from one of the original specimens. Many of the plants in Crosshills were planted only 20 years ago and yet appear quite mature. It is obvious that growing conditions are outstanding.
The altitude is 1,800 feet above sea level, the soil is acid and free draining and there is a fairly reliable annual rainfall of 45 inches. The situation is ideally suited to growing rhododendrons and azaleas. Winters are quite cold, with snow not unusual, creating a climate very similar to the Himalayan foothills, the original home of so many rhododendron species.
The majority of shrub planting started in 1969 when Eric Wilson at the tender ago of 60 embarked on this ambitious garden project with his son. Sadly 18 months ago, Eric died, having worked in the garden up to his last days. This exceptional 15-acre layout - with an extensive collection of more than 2,000 different rhododendrons and azaleas, plus many interesting trees and shrubs - is now left in the capable hands of Eric's son and daughter-in-law, Rodney and Faith Wilson.
We picked the perfect week for rhododendrons. They were at their best. The bushes that were covered in flowers included familiar names like the sweet scented 'Loderi King George', 'Mrs. G.W. Leak', and 'Mrs. John Millais'. There was also an unusual biscuit yellow hybrid I had not seen before called 'Ambergris'. Originating from Edmund de Rothschild's garden in Hampshire were many Exbury hybrids obviously enjoying their new home. I recognised 'May Day', 'Golden Dream', 'Angelo', 'Repose', 'Fred Wynniatt' and, still one of the best yellows, 'Crest' (syn. 'Hawk Crest'). The American hybrids were also well represented: here were huge red flowers of 'Halfdan Lem', the largest group of 'Lem's Cameo' I have seen, and the excellent bright red hybrid 'Markeeta's Prize'. The dwarf 'Lori Eichelser', with waxy red flowers and attractive foliage, was also doing well, as were pink 'Ruby Bowman', 'Virginia Richards' and the even bigger flowers of 'Trude Webster'.
A small part of the garden had been planted with various Rhododendron yakushimanum hybrids, among which was a plant that really caught my eye, the German hybrid 'Fantastica' with attractive frilled pink flowers with deep pink edging - one of the best.

R. maddenii ssp. maddenii 
with Ajuga.
R. maddenii ssp. maddenii (formerly R. polyandrum ) with Ajuga .
Photo by Christopher Fairweather

Among the joys of visiting New Zealand, with its mild climate, is seeing what, for us, are tender rhododendrons growing to perfection out of doors. Here at Crosshills the large bells of R. nuttallii were quite magnificent as was the fragrant white R. lindleyi , and we found the richly perfumed creamy-yellow R. maddenii ssp. maddenii under planted with a deep blue flowering ajuga. Also, sweetly scented, the hybrid 'Floral Dance' ( R. nuttallii x R. edgeworthii ) was quite stunning with enormous frilled pink and white flowers. Another rhododendron that really thrilled me was 'Stead's Best'* ( R. nuttallii x R. lindleyi ), with waxy pristine white bells and a yellow throat.

R. 'Stead's Best'
'Stead's Best' ( R. nuttallii x R. lindleyi )
Photo by Christopher Fairweather

Groups of deciduous azaleas, including many named Exbury varieties created blocks of rich colour, and behind them, in groups, were tall specimens of Abutilon vitifolium covered in blue single flowers. The deciduous azalea that particularly impressed me was one raised in this garden and called "Crosshills no. 16." It is a sturdy plant with excellent foliage and large bright yellow flowers, a really outstanding new introduction.

Azaleas and Abutilon vitifolium.
Azaleas and Abutilon vitifolium .
Photo by Christopher Fairweather

Growing R. yakushimanum as a standard was a Crosshills specialty, judging by the number of mature specimens in that form around the coffee house. It is certainly a novel way to grow this lovely species: grafted on stems of 'Roseum Elegans', these plants took three or four years to produce and were available at the nursery for a quite modest sum equivalent to 20.

R. yakushimanum standards in front 
of the Crosshills coffee house.
R. yakushimanum standards in front of the Crosshills coffee house.
Photo by Christopher Fairweather

There were many outstanding shrubs and trees apart from rhododendrons and azaleas. In the main garden, a wide bank had been planted with varieties of Clematis montana , creating an amazing waterfall of pink and white. Magnolias were also flourishing, and I was especially taken with the creamy yellow flowers of hybrid 'Yellow Bird' and, from the same family, the lovely white flowered 'Michelia'. Some very successful forms of Drimys put on a fine show, and there were huge bushes of Abutilon vitifolium covered in big blue flowers. Embothriums appeared to grow with happy abandon, and in one corner of the garden we were faced with the wonderful sight of a large bush of it smothered with the flowers of a white Clematis montana , growing through so that the orange and white were seen together to lovely effect.
Rodney and Faith Wilson were hard at work in the sales area, seeing to the plant demands of the visitors. They draw in around 10,000 visitors to the garden each year, which is quite an achievement in a country with a small population like New Zealand. We found our visit was all too short. We hope to one day return for another walk around this really outstanding collection of plants.

* Name is not registered.

Christopher Fairweather, a member of the Scottish Chapter, is a director of Fairweather's Garden Centre at Beaulieu, England.