JARS v64n3 - 50 Years of the Australian Rhododendron Society

50 Years of the Australian Rhododendron Society
Lesley Eaton

It had long been a dream amongst a band of dedicated and enthusiastic rhododendron growers, who at the time, belonged to the Ferny Creek Horticultural Society in the Dandenong Ranges east of Melbourne, that a more comprehensive study into the culture of the genus should be undertaken. Therefore in May 1954 a separate study group was established as part of that Ferny Creek Society.

This study group proved so successful, attracting many new members keen to learn more about all facets of rhododendron culture, that in August 1958, the members felt that all Australia should be represented. The name of the group was thus changed to the Australian Rhododendron Society, but, because it was not incorporated, it still remained connected to part of the Ferny Creek Horticultural Society.

The original aims of the fledgling society were:
1) to extend the influence of the society to other districts of Victoria and the whole of Australia,
2) to keep in close contact with other rhododendron groups and societies throughout the world,
3) to keep a register of Australian raised hybrids,
4) to give awards under Australian conditions,
5) to build up a library of publications on the genus Rhododendron ,
6) to develop a rhododendron festival, and
7) to publish and distribute information of interest to all growers and potential growers of the genus.
Over the years the aims have basically remained the same and are as relevant today as when they were first written. The first separate journal for the new society was published in February, 1959, in keeping with the newly written aims, and, from all reports, it was well received, an encouraging sign indeed.

Although the general meetings were still being held at Ferny Creek, committee meetings were held in the home of Charles Carlsson, the society's first treasurer. It was during these meetings that it was mooted that to further the society's aims, full autonomy would be necessary so its own affairs and funds could be concentrated on. Consequently a public meeting was held on February 12, 1960. It was quite a fiery meeting from all reports, and it took considerable persuasion to convince some people that it would be in the best interests for both societies for the Australian Rhododendron Society to become an independent body. Thus autonomy was granted, and so the first part of the long-held dream of a handful of dedicated enthusiasts came to pass - the Australian Rhododendron Society Inc. was incorporated. Later, In 1976, it changed its name to the Australian Rhododendron Society Victorian Branch Inc. when the national body was incorporated in South Australia in 1976 under the name Australian Rhododendron Society Inc.

The next objective was to address the dream of establishing a rhododendron garden cultivating rhododendrons from all the areas of the world where they grew. Two members of the new society approached the late Jim Wescott, who was, at the time Chief Forester of the Dandenong Ranges, for his help in convincing the local member of the Victoria State Parliament that the idea of a garden was a sound one. A special act of parliament was eventually legislated by the then Premier of Victoria, The Honorable Henry Bolte (later Sir Henry) to allow an area to be developed. Various sites were viewed and discussed, and eventually the present site, a 40.5 ha (100 acre) site running along the eastern ridge of Mount Dandenong and being a section of the Olinda State Forest was chosen. In August 1960, the Premier of Victoria in a broadcast address said

"...the aim of the government is to do everything possible to preserve and enhance the natural attractiveness of the Dandenongs, and to encourage private individuals and organizations to do the same.

The government has approved a lease of 100 acres of forest land at Olinda to the Australian Rhododendron Society, which will develop and maintain the proposed Rhododendron Garden without cost to the State!"

The dream was about to become a reality. Although the site was not the Society's first choice, it became apparent that with splendid views over the Yarra Valley and Ranges beyond, its elevation of 610 m (2000 feet), good 1270 to 1525 mm (50 to 60 inch) rainfall, a permanent spring and beautiful fern gully, and good acid, volcanic, moisture retentive soil, that a garden of high quality could be developed. So it came about that the Australian Rhododendron Society accepted the challenge to create a garden of world standard from a derelict agricultural lease, which at the time was a major bushfire risk to the township of Olinda.

The many new members living in the Melbourne suburbs requested that some Society meetings be off the mountain. The first of these meetings was held in Melbourne at the National Herbarium with the then vice-president Michael Spry as guest speaker. Following the meeting at the Herbarium, meetings were held combined with the Box Hill Horticultural Society and then in the Melbourne Town Hall as guests of the Royal Horticultural Society of Victoria. The rhododendron festival over the Melbourne Cup Weekend rounded off an exciting inaugural first year. Interest was so great that membership increased rapidly, with numbers rising to 300 in just eight months. The first show was held at the Recreational Reserve in Olinda where it was reported that 18,000 visitors came through the gates. A remarkable effort for such a young Society! How fortunate it was that television, radio and press rallied and played such a good part in drawing the public's attention to the Society's first show.

Early in 1961, an area of about six ha (15 acres) was cleared, fenced and the first plantings were made. Some 60 R. arboreum , varying in colour from deep red to pink and white, were planted along the southern boundary of the garden. Groups of members worked on Saturday afternoons and gradually the garden began to show promise, with not only rhododendrons being planted but also deciduous trees that would bring autumn colour.

However disaster struck when, on January 16, 1962, bush fires raced through the Dandenong Ranges. The fire scorched half of the rhododendrons and most of the young trees which had been planted. But as a local author wrote, "Sweat moves mountains," so instead of remaining dejected, members rallied and vowed to start all over again. In many ways the fire was a blessing in disguise, as much plant rubbish was either burnt or exposed. The Forestry Commission came to the rescue, and with heavy equipment, pushed the rubbish into rows for future burning, and removed damaged and dangerous trees. This certainly allowed for further development to take place earlier than if the Society had gradually to clear the site by hand.

During that first euphoric decade it was hard to separate the Society and the Garden as so much work needed to be done and there was so much to learn. The young Society's members realized that to take on the development of creating a garden was a formidable task and would certainly tax the Society's meagre resources. However, the dedication of members, the generosity of nurserymen and members in donating plants and money, and eventually recognition and financial assistance from the Government and Tourist Development Association finally brought about the realization of the original concept.

A register of Australian raised hybrids was commenced and a lovely cross between R. ciliatum and R. racemosum , named ‘Viscount Linley' became number one on the list. Small plants, cuttings or seedlings were being distributed to members at quite regular intervals with the first vireya, R. christianae , causing quite a stir, as these rhododendrons were just becoming known. Field days were established, with 200 members and friends turning up to the first event, and these became an important part of the year's activities, and new memberships followed.

A group of women was approached to form a Garden Auxiliary. Consequently, a meeting was held and the idea was taken up enthusiastically. It was written by one of our earlier Journal Editors that these ladies were the "Silent Service" of the Society who worked quietly away and raised much money for a variety of worthwhile projects, including providing the amenities for the clubrooms.

The annual shows were still being held at the Olinda Recreational Reserve but it was soon seen that the small hall was becoming quite inadequate, so it was decided that a show hall should be built in the Rhododendron Gardens. This would prove to be an enormous undertaking for the members. A show hall measuring 19.5 x 14.6 m (64 x 48 feet) with an adjoining 84 sq m (900 sq ft) meeting room was begun with much of the work being done by the members. The hall was eventually completed in 1966 and the first show was held there in October/November of that same year. The completion of the building was a milestone for the Society as more attention could then be given to landscaping and plantings in the gardens.

News of the young garden was travelling around the world, and it was not long before scions and small plants were being sent to establish before being planted. The decision was made to affiliate with the Royal Horticultural Society in Great Britain and the New Zealand Rhododendron Association, which in turn led to more interest and to also more members. Increased recognition of the National Rhododendron Garden as well as the Society was indeed an encouraging sign. Two New South Wales Branches, the Blue Mountains and Illawarra branches, joined the Australian Rhododendron Society in 1971, and the sharing of plants and information proved invaluable. In 1976, however, the Blue Mountains Branch wished to concentrate more on their own area and garden and once so became autonomous. At the end of 1976, the Victorian branch and the Illawarra branch formed the National Council, an umbrella group to unite branches throughout Australia. Two new branches joined the national body in 1978 - South Australia and Tasmania - and it was not long before Tasmania split into three branches to cover the southern area, the northern and the north west. The National Council held two meetings annually, and besides being the uniting body, it also was responsible for publishing the, now annual publication called The Rhododendron (initially called The Journal ). Another worthwhile decision was to have a yearly event with a different branch hosting the activities, which was to be mostly a social occasion with lots of garden visits and a dinner with a guest speaker.

Fifty years of existence has now come about and like so many other gardening bodies, what will happen in the future is always a constant worry. We all hope the Society will go on indefinitely, but there are many challenges ahead. Attracting new members is always to the forefront, as are keeping up not only the National Garden at Olinda but also the younger Emu Valley garden in Burnie, Tasmania, and persuading our nursery folk that rhododendrons are worthy of a place in our gardens.

Lesley Eaton
Lesley Eaton is a past President of both the Australian Rhododendron Society and the Australian Rhododendron Society Victorian Branch.