JARS v51n4 - The Rhododendron Gardens at Olinda, Australia

The Rhododendron Gardens at Olinda, Australia
Christopher Fairweather
Beauliew, Hampshire England

When I arrived in Australia in 1995, my first visit, I expected to find a hot, dusty country covered in bush, eucalyptus and acacia trees. Kangaroos would be hopping about everywhere and there would be koala bears up every tree.
Well, I was quite wrong. Arriving in Melbourne on a damp, cold day in November, I did not find the Australia that I had in mind. The gardens were lush and green, and the birds were all singing. The sulphur crested cockatoos pecking about on the well-cut lawns gave the only exotic touch.
Most surprising of all were the wonderful avenues of elm trees all over the city. The city of Melbourne must be one of the last strongholds of this beautiful tree, sadly devastated in Europe by Dutch elm disease. Every effort is being made to ensure that the Melbourne elms do not suffer the same fate. An active organisation called "Elm Watch" has been set up hopefully to keep the wretched beetle at bay.
The state of Victoria includes some of the most fertile land in Australia. Here you also find many exciting gardens and nurseries. Annual rainfall is high, creating ideal conditions for trees and shrubs, including rhododendrons and azaleas. With a few days to spend, I set aside one to visit the Australian Rhododendron Society gardens in the small village of Olinda, situated high up in the Dandenong hills, about one hour by car from the centre of the city.

Olinda Gardens, Olinda, Australia
Olinda Gardens, Olinda, Australia
Photo by Christopher Fairweather

Driving east out Melbourne on the Marundah highway, you pass through endless suburbs, brightened every now and then by colourful gardens. Eventually a left turn off the highway takes you on a narrow winding road that climbs up through a fern tree gully. Uphill all the way, you soon arrive at the small village of Olinda, at an altitude of 1,200 feet. In the Dandenong hills, you enter a green world of bright gardens, giant tree ferns and magnificent plantations of Eucalyptus regnans , locally called the mountain ash a magnificent tree that is claimed to be the tallest in the world.
Here at Olinda 30 years ago, the Australian Rhododendron Society selected to build their garden in a beautiful valley with an average rainfall of around 60 inches per annum and deep volcanic soil with a favourable pH ranging from 4.5 to 6, ideal, of course, for ericaceous plants. The weather is generally favourable, but sub-zero temperatures are not unknown. And yet, judging by the tender vireya rhododendrons that appear to grow happily outside, the cold weather appears to do little harm. Light falls of snow in the winter, however, can be a problem. Just three weeks before my visit the garden had a 6-inch fall that appeared to do little damage to the rhododendrons and azaleas, but the tree ferns looked definitely sad with limp fronds hanging at their sides. Olinda probably offers the best growing conditions for rhododendrons anywhere in Australia. Even so, nothing prepared me for the spectacle of colour, including a wonderful range of trees and shrubs, that this exciting garden has to offer.
This garden attracts around 10,000 visitors a year. They pay an entrance fee of $6.50 AUS dollars (3.00 sterling). This goes towards the maintenance of the garden. A team of four under the capable control of head gardener Chris Goff maintains the whole area to a very high standard.
On my first day I walked around the garden in really warm sunshine, with temperatures touching 70°F. There was definitely too much to see in one day. I returned next day to very different conditions, with rain and quite a cold wind. This confirmed the local story that in Melbourne you may often experience winter, spring and summer in one day.
Large sections of the garden have been set aside to trial rhododendrons raised in various parts of the world. A large area is given over to the many Australian hybrids. One plant that caught my eye was a cross between Rhododendron facetum (syn. R. eriogynum ) and R. yakushimanum , a neat, as yet unnamed rhododendron with striking peach to orange flowers. Plants from the United States, Britain, Germany, New Zealand, and Holland were all well represented. The lovely American hybrid 'Lem's Cameo' was, according to Chris Goff, currently one of the top sellers in the sales area.

R. nuttallii
R. nuttallii
Photo by Christopher Fairweather

I was excited to see amazing bushes of R. nuttallii among the more tender species that flourish here - to me one of the most beautiful of all rhododendrons, with large flowers like white goblets with just a hint of yellow in the throat. Vireya rhododendrons grow happily along the banks of a small stream, making their characteristic leggy growth but flowering freely with a range of vibrant colours.
By November we were too late to see the banks of Kurume azaleas in full flower. Covering both sides of the valley, they must be a stunning sight in early spring. I had to be content with the spectacular pink leaves of Cedrela sinensis 'Flamingo' planted among the banks of azaleas.
Trees are a great feature, many being very familiar to a visitor from Europe - superb specimens of the English oak, Quercus robur . Beech also flourished, with the best specimens of Fagus tricolor I have ever seen. Included in the garden is an amazing avenue of paulownias, representing 32 of the 33 known species from China. A number of these lovely trees were covered in a mass of grey-blue flowers and another unusual one with pink flowers. A further avenue of flowering cherries is to be planted shortly. The trees will be a gift from the government of Japan.
Camellias had all finished flowering in November. Considering the mass of enormous bushes, they must be quite a sight in early spring. Chris Goff told me that camellias grow with such vigour in this climate that they require pruning annually. The garden has a very useful arrangement with a local florist who arrives each year to cut the bushes. Instead of payment he happily retains the foliage, which is used in flower arrangements.
All around the garden are magnificent stands of Eucalyptus regnans or mountain ash. These are under planted with large-leaf rhododendrons including Rhododendron sinogrande , R. macabeanum , R. falconeri , and more splendid plants of R. nuttallii . Considering that the giant eucalyptus must take up much of the moisture, I was amazed to see how these rhododendrons flourished.
A small stream has been dammed to ensure a good supply of water during the summer months when, I gather, it can become very dry. This formed a small lake complete with a resident family of black swans. Various birds in the garden add their own touch of colour. Bright blue wrens with pert little tails, multi-coloured rosellas, and sulphur crested cockatoos were three that I recognized.
To add interest to the many rhododendrons and azaleas, the garden had been planted with many native plants: the native waratah ( Telopea speciosissima ) with unusual deep red flowers, pink flowered boronias, grevilleas, banksias and the best dyosnias I have ever seen, with attractive golden foliage and a mass of soft pink flowers.
They had adopted a policy of labeling plants with a number. This was a way, they hoped, to foil the light fingered visitors, possibly, it was suggested, visiting nurserymen or keen rhododendron enthusiasts anxious to obtain the latest hybrids. Green labels mark the general plants, yellow the rhododendron species, and orange the hybrids.
During the main flowering season, which luckily coincided with my visit, they hold a permanent flower show in a large hall inside the garden. This offers a seasonal display of plants that are currently looking good. Two outstanding plants caught my eye, a lovely soft yellow hybrid raised from a cross between R. 'Eldorado'* and R. rhabdotum , as yet, I believe, unnamed. The other real treasure was a specimen of vireya rhododendron 'Saint Valentine', a compact plant covered in rich orange bells - a real winner for a tub or basket.

R. 'Saint Valentine'
R. 'Saint Valentine', a vireya cross
( R. lochiae x R. gracilentum )
Photo by Christopher Fairweather

This garden was certainly a highlight of my trip and has permanently changed my view of rhododendrons in Australia. There was no sign of the hot, dry country I expected and not a kangaroo in sight! Here at Olinda was a unique and exciting collection of plants, maintained to a very high standard and cherished by a small and dedicated team. If I leave Australia with one memory, it must be the superb white flowers of Rhododendron nuttallii .

* Name is not registered.

Christopher Fairweather, a member of the Scottish Chapter, authored the article on Crosshills Garden in New Zealand in the Fall 1996 issue of the Journal.