JARS v55n2 - The Gardens at Exbury: One Man's Obsession

The Gardens at Exbury: One Man's Obsession
Peter Kendall
Portland, Oregon

One man’s captivation with plants and with rhododendrons in particular redounded in no small way to the benefit of all those to whom the rhododendron is the king of shrubs. The name Rothschild is legendary to all familiar with European finance from the latter part of the 18th century. Lionel Rothschild, a scion of the British branch of this renowned family, was he who became ensnared by the fascinating character of this exotic shrub. It all began in 1919, when Sir Lionel purchased the estate of his neighbor and friend Henry Forster in the district of Hampshire in south-central England. The place was known as Exbury. Despite the presence of some notable and aged trees, the place was more promise than garden. Very near the English Channel and bordered by the Beaulieu River, this piece of ground bore the advantage of a temperate climate, moderate rainfall and acidic soil; this constituted an ideal recipe for the cultivation of rhododendrons and their kin. With a great deal of effort Sir Lionel undertook an amelioration of the grounds and house which positioned the estate for its future eminence. The property consisted of 2,600 acres which had been carved out of a southern portion of the New Forest, a wild land of thousands of acres in this part of England. The garden itself eventually became 250 gracious acres.

R. degronianum ssp. yakushimanum Exbury form
R. degronianum ssp. yakushimanu m Exbury form,
introduced by L. Rothschild in 1934 from
stock sent by Koichiro Wada.
Photo by Peter Kendall

By the time he had finished, Mr. Lionel, as he was affectionately known, had installed one million plants with extensive irrigation to boot, for the summers were dry. In his twenty-three years at Exbury, Lionel grew exponentially in his knowledge of plants and rhododendrons specifically. He collected many of the finest species rhododendrons. This was abetted by the convergence of a flurry of exploration in the Far East by some of the most celebrated men in the annals of plant collecting. The names Forrest, Farrer, Kingdon Ward, Rock, Ludlow and Sheriff and the renowned Dr. Ernest "Chinese" Wilson leap forward. Rothschild supported a number of their expeditions, receiving valuable seed in return. He also took to hybridizing with a zeal that was astounding. Within twenty years he had introduced nearly 500 new rhododendrons and azaleas.

R. 'Naomi'
R. 'Naomi', 35 feet tall.
Photo by Peter Kendall

Although born to banking, Mr. Lionel jocularly referred to himself as a "banker by hobby and a gardener by profession." His principal objectives in hybridizing embraced an extended flowering season, improved plant forms, greater abundance of flowers and hardier varieties. With a fine eye, he was ruthless in his selections. One of his greatest accomplishments was the development of the Exbury azalea; although technically a Knap Hill azalea, Lionel wrought a stellar transformation. He also received top awards from First Class Certificate (FCC) to Award of Merit (AM) for many of his creations.

R. 'Fortune'
R. 'Fortune' ( R. falconeri x R. sinogrande ),
introduced in 1938.
Photo by Peter Kendall

Exbury’s 250 acres is divided into four major areas. First is the Home Wood along which the main drive proceeds to and from the house. Second is the Winter Garden in which Rhododendron sinogrande , R. macabeanum , R. falconeri and R. rex ssp. fictolacteum are noteworthy and in which are plants of Lionel’s 1938 cross of R. sinogrande with R. falconeri producing the unrivaled R. 'Fortune'. With stands of 'Fortune' occupying center stage, it is reputed that their flowering simultaneously is rare - twice in forty years. I was fortunate enough to witness this singular event. The Camellia Walk is located in this part of the garden with Camellia 'Donation' of Caerhays renown most prominent. The Winter Garden ultimately descends to a viewpoint with the River Beaulieu issuing into the Solent (a coastal stretch of the English channel) with Isle of Wight in the distance.

A third major area is Witcher’s Wood, so called after a family of charcoal burning gypsies. The Lady Chamberlain Walk is found here with R. 'Lady Chamberlain' standing out among other R. cinnabarinum hybrids. This rhododendron garnered one of the earliest FCC awards. The fourth of the principal areas and the last to be developed is Yard Wood. It was named after the many yew trees growing there. They were used as the finest wood for archers’ bows from medieval times.

Sir Lionel Rothschild passed away in 1942 during the height of conflict of World War II. The grounds of Exbury were requisitioned as staging area for the D-Day invasion and many areas fell into a state of disrepair. Resurrected by his son Edmund after the war, Exbury again ascends to its rightful place in the world of horticulture.

This article is the third in a series on English gardens by Peter Kendall, a member of the Portland Chapter.