JARS v51n3 - Tower Court: A Personal Account - Part II

Tower Court: A Personal Account - Part II
Alleyne Cook
North Vancouver, British Columbia Canada

Reprinted from the October 1996 RSC Atlantic Chapter newsletter

The species collection at Tower Court consisted of over 2,000 plants in 21 series and 460 species. There was no other such collection anywhere in the world. A single plant of each species from every collector's gathering was represented. That was the reason there appeared to be four times the number of plants than there were species. Not represented in the collection were any tender species. It was a garden of hardy plants.

J.B. Stevenson was an engineer. He liked order and correct records. In no way could he be considered even slightly interested in landscaping! He appears to be an oddity among the other members of the original Rhododendron Society. The others were interested in utilizing their rhododendrons to increase the value and visual aspect of their country estates. Stevenson seemed intent on creating a rhododendron museum.

It would seem to me that the greatest weakness in this creation was the scattered information concerning the species. Herbarium specimens and the descriptions of the plant material were in the Edinburgh Botanic Garden, the Museum of Science in London (to which all Ward's material was sent), St. Petersburg, Paris, the Arnold Arboretum and probably other scientific institutions. On the other hand, most collectors made duplicates of each pressed specimen and these were distributed to other herbaria.

Stevenson chaired the group that was to combine all this information into a single book, with each species occupying a single page. This book was The Species of Rhododendron . The three authors - H.G. Tagg at Edinburgh, J. Hutchinson at Kew and Alfred Rehder at the Arnold Arboretum, each doing elepidotes, lepidotes and azaleas respectively - created the 36 series and placed in each the species then known.

This book became the accepted text book. It was also the only book of note to be published concerning species until Dr. Cowan and Mr. Davidian started reviewing the series in the Royal Horticultural Society Rhododendron Yearbooks. When I first went to Tower Court I probably had never seen 95 percent of what grew there even though I knew most of the names of the better known species.

What Stevenson did was to group plants of each series together. Some of these series, such as the Grande and Falconeri, grew rather large and were rather overwhelming. Some, such as the Thomsonii series, were very numerous and took a great deal of ground space. The dwarfs were in keeping with their size.

Author beside an order from
Tower Court
The author beside an "order" from Tower Court.
Photo courtesy of Alleyne Cook

To me the whole rhododendron world was incredibly exciting. Throughout England there were gardens to explore and, with letters of introduction from Mr. Russell, I made the most of these years. So it came about that most of my time at Tower Court was spent working but I was rarely there in the main flowering season.

Only once have I seen Rhododendron lacteum in full bloom. It is not only a very rare species but is also a very difficult one to keep alive. The Tower Court plant was over 20 feet tall and covered with rounded trusses of fine yellow flowers. I had a slide once, taken on a dull day, with those footballs of yellow standing forth from the dull background.

I only saw R. hodgsonii flowering once. Back about 1895, the English were told that any flower with blue-pink flowers was VULGAR and they have never recovered. Rhododendron hodgsonii has flowers described as magenta-purple. Beyond the pale, not fit for a quality garden even though the foliage was as good as R. falconeri and it came from a higher elevation and was considerably hardier. I just happen to enjoy all these forbidden shades.

Windsor Great Park moved their valuable specimens from Tower Court with great care. Using lots of labour, they dug huge root balls and, with a small trolley, pulled these balls from the holes. While they were moving their 2,000 species, I, with a maximum of five men, moved far more and ours contained no dwarfs. We were always forgetting to fill our holes which irked Mrs. Stevenson. We improved with time.

There is nothing neat or tidy about mature 12-foot specimens of R. yunnanense . It is a member of that wonderful Triflorum series. Their small flowers are carried in such profusion that the proportionately small leaves are barely seen. The habit is loose with several stems breaking from the base, always lots to hold on to when dragging them to the cart. The problem was a row of R. apodectum , a member of the Neriiflorum group. Those bushes were about 3 feet wide, spreading sideways to create a flat topped barrier. In flower it is a dull species, an unattractive shade of orange. To remove the specimens of R. yunnanense from the centre of the bed we dug and put to one side two plants of R. apodectum . This created a gap and through this we dragged those awkward plants. I can only assume that Mrs. Stevenson thought that we would bust a gut lifting them over, for she departed from her usual pleasant self and was most unhappy! Sunningdale never purchased another R. yunnanense . The R. apodectum , which were well planted, came to no harm.

In September 1939, twelve R. fictolacteum were dug and stood beside the service road. Their root balls were about 12 inches square. The war started, all the staff were laid off. In 1953, now quite large plants, they still stood there waiting to be planted. The roots had penetrated to the damp soil under the root balls and had kept on growing. Their luck was to be moved in the fall when rains were expected. It is likely that Tower Court rainfall is no more than 25 inches so the summers were quite dry.

The Grande and Falconeri series had their own area. There was only one valley where Stevenson must have considered the air drainage sufficient to attempt to grow those species in these series. The result could not be considered a success. Rhododendron fictolacteum , R. rex , R. hodgsonii , and R. falconeri were healthy; any others were rather pathetic. There is a point when the cold allows the species to just survive but not to flourish. This condition is obvious from the foliage size which shrinks to a very small area.

If there is one species that should be grown from seed it is R. stewartianum . No species that I have seen has the incredible range of colours and shades that a group of these seedlings can give. They range from strong yellow through cream, salmon, pale rose, pink, red and white and every shade in between. The Forrest discovery of it in 1904 would have been too early for Tower Court. Their plants would have been from later collections. Also, the plants at Van Dusen that came from the Greigs in 1965 are now 40 years old and are much taller than those at Tower Court. On the other hand, the dry Tower Court climate would not encourage growth as happens at Van Dusen.

Mrs. Stevenson said that only twice had she ever seen a display. Every other year the flowers, which open between March and April, are killed by spring frost. It was Farrer who wrote that no two bushes on a hillside were the same colour and that's how they were at Tower Court. Presumably one plant from each wild collection of seed went with the species collection to Windsor Great Park. What colours they have I don't know but one thing is certain, unless there were 20 or 30 they could not do the specimen justice with its wonderful range of colours.

It has to be understood that Stevenson grew all the seed sent to him. One was chosen, the remainder went in the outer area and these latter were subsequently sold and removed by Sunningdale.

Being a member of the Thomsonii series, R. stewartianum has all the characteristics of good breeding associated with that group. Good habit, neat foliage. Some species varied a lot, some were consistent. Rhododendron fulvum was the only species where every specimen had a tap root. They were all small trees, 10 to 12 feet high. Whereas, at other times, we could fell the root ball away from the sandy soil, with this species we would have to work underneath and cut the tap root and then peel it out. Rhododendron fulvum is a foliage species, deep green on the upper surface and a red-brown underside. The truss and flowers are small and somewhat insignificant.

Specimen of R. dichroanthum
was grown from wild collected seed.
This specimen of R. dichroanthum was grown from wild collected seed.
Photo courtesy of Alleyne Cook

Jim Russell came one day and took me to see the Tower Court form of R. augustinii . It was created by crossing nearest to blue with a red throat, and a good mauve with a green throat. The result is nearer to blue with a green throat. There were no leaves showing - a stunning sight, a complete floral display. I, with my camera in hand, walked away without taking a picture. Too overwhelmed! There were a great number of R. augustinii with all the varieties found in the species, shades from deep violet to nearly white.

Then there was R. concinnum which has now absorbed R. pseudoyanthinum . I do not remember digging either, for the flowers are pinkish-purple or magenta and what socially minded people in England would have such a colour in their garden? However, being a Triflorum, nothing can equal their flower power. Also, at that period (1950-53), there was the near deciduous R. chartophyllum . This had now been merged with R. yunnanense by a botanist who never sat on a bank watching me dig a great number of Drs. Hu and Yu seedlings. Botanically, I would agree. Horticulturally, I am unhappy.

The two Chinese collectors Hu and Yu had sent seeds shortly before World War II. The seedlings had been rowed out 12 inches apart and then totally neglected until 1952 when Mrs. Stevenson sold every second plant to Sunningdale, provided Cowan and Davidian were there to examine each one as they were lifted. These two, with Mrs. Stevenson and Jack Russell, sat on a sunny bank and chatted while Cook worked like a galley slave.

One species I remembered because they had shot up a spindly 8-foot shoot. In those days it was called R. chartophyllum . It is a near deciduous R. yunnanense and has now been merged with that species. This is an instance of a distinctive and useful horticultural variant being lost to science.

The plant collector, when gathering his flowers and foliage for his herbarium sheets, usually does so before the new growth appears. When the morticians of the plant world, in their cozy laboratories, examine the sheets of dried material, they can overlook minor facts such as the foliage of R. caloxanthum F27123. This species is the second most beautiful rhododendron ever discovered. It is a larger plant than R. williamsianum which it resembles in the domed shape of the bush and the nearly round but large foliage. The flowers are yellow, buds orange-scarlet, bell-like, exquisitely beautiful. But the foliage is the colour found in R. thomsonii , with a blue sheen. Naturally a plant was sent from Sunningdale to Royston Nurseries. Unfortunately it didn't remain there for long. Ted had a special friend with whom he used to go collecting. So when the friend admired this powder-puff species Ted gave it to him. When I saw it many years later it stood out as does R. concatenans ; foliage of the most superior kind. This blue sheen is caused by a wax which reflects the blue of the spectrum. In time this wax can be washed off and blue foliage plants lose a lot of their lustre. Mary never forgave poor Ted. It remains that every good R. caloxanthum in America must have originated from that plant before it went. At Tower Court this species probably covered 20 square metres with orange buds opening to yellow flowers followed by blue foliage. Sunningdale, in 1950, was selling these 4-foot plants for twenty dollars!!

The companion species flowering at the same time was R. euchaites . Bright red flowers, an untidy bush to 15 feet. This species has now been merged with R. neriiflorum and yet the foliage is completely different, very distinct, very neat, well proportioned and very pale green on the underside. Regardless of the demise of R. euchaites , the yellow and red under the pines and maples were wonderful. The third species in this group was R. pubescens . Probably 20 to 30 bushes all in flower at the same time as R. caloxanthum and R. euchaites . These three together were rather lovely.

One very famous plant in the species collection was R. repens K.W.6832, FCC 1935. Rhododendron repens is now a form of R. forrestii , the difference being the latter has a red underside to the foliage and is non-existent in the nursery trade. Rhododendron repens has green undersides and is not uncommon. The flowers are large, thick, and waxy red bells. However, when you get it, don't expect it to flower. Once we moved a large specimen into the Ted and Mary Greig Garden in Stanley Park, planting it on 6 inches of gravel with no soil under it or around it. The shock was such that it covered itself in hundreds of blooms. I rang several friends to come and photograph this plant because they were unlikely to see the spectacle again. Why did this seedling flower so freely? It certainly needs lots of light and is not for a part shady position. Years later we moved this grand specimen to Van Dusen to be part of the Sino Himalayan garden. The whole plant dissolved into twenty small starters which are now scattered over a large area.

In the lowest and coldest area at Tower Court were planted all the seedlings from the various collectors. Each planting had the distinctive label found only at Tower Court. Made of white porcelain, the name, collector's number and series were etched in black. The R. repens bed was horseshoe shaped, maybe 40-50 feet across the outside and 20 feet in the inside. Time had allowed the plants to grow and entangle themselves and occasionally to grow upwards. Throughout the garden Stevenson's judgment on spacing species was usually good, but not with R. repens . In hindsight the rate of growth in the wild would have been fractional compared with cultivation even under neglected conditions.

An order of three Tower Court
R. basilicum in the yard at Sunningdale Nursery.
An order of three Tower Court R. basilicum
in the yard at Sunningdale Nursery.
Photo courtesy of Alleyne Cook

Mrs. Stevenson gave a specimen of this species to Jim Russell as a present, and George Joy, our foreman, went in the car with me to bring it to the nursery. A sea of green interspersed with low rounded domes. The original seedlings must have been 5 feet apart. We teased the shoots away from its neighbors until there was a specimen 6 feet across, sufficient to fill the trunk of the car.

When Mrs. Stev

enson, and Cowan and Davidian from Edinburgh, reviewed this species in 1951 they divided the species into two groups, those that grew flat along the ground and those that formed mounds. In the first is R. repens and now R. forrestii . (Sunningdale did not list this species in their catalogue, but it now covers both species and variety.) The second group created mounds of up to 2 feet. Not only the size of these plants vary but also the colour. Most famous is the vibrant red which was used as a parent for the hardy hybrids. Of these the most famous must be R. 'Elizabeth'. Besides the red form of R. repens were pink forms and a reported yellow (KW#9816). However, the modern classification has changed from the revisions done by Cowan and Davidian in 1951. Those that grew upright - i.e., the scarlet R. repens v. chamaedoxa , the pink R. repens v. chamaedoron and the taller R. repens v. chamaethomsonii - have all been made one species with the former varieties of the latter.

I well remember one awful order that was completed over a period of weeks for the landscaping firm of Handcock. Sunningdale had no part in the planning or planting of this firm's gardens. We carried out the digging and delivery. There must have been three sections to their garden because Mrs. Stevenson had marked the plants with red, yellow and blue labels. All was easy with the first two. But the blue faded to green. Try spotting a green label among green leaves, the proverbial needle in a haystack. But given a lot of time we found them all. Even George Joy was brought up to deal with this difficulty.

There are some rather odd people who appear to have a fondness for certain species. Especially those species with long pointed foliage which is usually narrow and always out of proportion. Most of these belong to the Taliense series. Not only is the foliage wrong in such species but they never wish to flower, and if they condescend to do so, they have wishy-washy pink flowers in mean little trusses.

These pointy members of the series happened to be congregated in a bed by the Tower Court lake. They flowered profusely the year I left, about two or three trusses per plant. The specimens of R. proteoides measuring 6 inches by 12 inches from Tower Court were sold by Sunningdale for six dollars. Rhododendron bureavii specimens, 4 to 5 feet tall, were sold for thirteen dollars.

Looking back it is obvious that there were many other genera planted as trees which, because of my intense interest in rhododendrons and general lack of knowledge, I failed to admire. When I left New Zealand it was with considerable knowledge of South African and New Zealand flora and minor knowledge of Chinese flora. One genus I remember at Tower Court was Sorbus ; I considered them the most useless trees then and still do. They are grown for their pink, white, cream or red berries and these are stripped by the birds, sometimes before the leaves fall. As garden plants the cotoneasters are far better. There is no Sorbus that can equal Cotoneaster 'Cornubia'. Here we are today in March 1996, after a cold winter, and the trees of this hybrid in the Ted and Mary Greig Garden are still startling red with thousands of bright red fruit.

One valley at Tower Court was devoted to growing magnolias. There are actually a number of very exotic magnolia species, but all that seemed to be there were very ordinary species and hybrids. There, for the first time, I saw R. schlippenbachii which is really a wonderful species. Strong growing, these were recognized as having very fine pink flowers. Of better colour though was R. albrechtii with rose flowers. Most of the North American species were in the valley but at that period I was not interested.

The next valley was the dullest in the whole garden consisting of the various colours of azalea mollis . The range of colour is not great and when planted in the 1920s were the best there were. Newer colours of mollis became popular after the war, but all of these were second fiddle to the Exbury and Knap Hill hybrids.

There was a group of very strong growing Pieris formosa . In New Zealand we grew P. forrestii with brilliant red foliage, flowers in great panicles of white with a scent depending on the imagination. This, at the time, was considered to be a species and a special form named 'Wakehurst' had just been introduced by Duncan and Davies of New Zealand. It was always considered to be tender even though Hilliers don't consider it so. Pieris formosa was considered to be hardier and the size of the Tower Court bushes and the lushness of the new growth of bright bronze foliage was startling. Pieris forrestii is now considered a variety of P. formosa .

There must be consideration given to a failing memory and to the inclination to exaggerate. For instance, I was sure the 2,000 plants in the species collection were contained in four acres, but Savill writes two and one-half. That would imply that the outer garden contained 100,000 species. Very likely. We would take out a truckload of plants while Windsor Great Park staff were digging one specimen. Such was the care they took. Though we never had anyone complain about our methods. Our trucks went to Scotland and the north of England with loads.

What no writing can convey is the realization that at Tower Court we were walking among every species that had ever been collected and which was hardy enough to grow in that region.

For two years, Stevenson's Species of Rhododendron had been my written guide. It had divided the genus into series, subseries and species. But the written word was only one thing. At Tower Court, we were among thousands of plants that densely or loosely covered acres. Every group of species, regardless how few or how many in number, was always marked with that white porcelain label and the black writing. Stevenson had succeeded in creating a living rhododendron museum. Now it has all gone and is a housing estate. George Joy must have taken me there for the first few digs, then for three years I was in charge. The head gardener was Jock Kier. He had been there from the beginning and was wonderfully patient with us. There never seemed to be a difficulty in finding a species, or maybe I've forgotten the early days. Then there was Roza Stevenson. I have a lovely slide of her and Ray James from Eugene, Oregon, the one so properly English and the other flamboyantly American, both wonderful people.

Tower Court - the whole experience was new, exciting and exhilarating!