Rhododendrons return to the fold
These great plants are centre stage again – and rightly so, says fan Thomas Hoblyn
Next weekend (7&8 May), RHS Wisley is showcasing all things rhododendron. The RHS Rhododendron, Camellia and Magnolia Group celebrate their centenary with rhododendron competitions, tours of the Wisley collection and a showcase of the top 100 rhododendrons as voted for by the members. Some of the most famous rhododendron gardens will be exhibiting: Caerhayes, Exbury, High Beeches and Savill Gardens.
But not all of the last 100 years have been kind to rhododendrons. To say they fell out of fashion is an understatement. Thanks to some garish colours and a tendency for rhododendron gardens to fall into neglect, the genus has suffered.
When training at Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, I worked in the Rhododendron Dell, still home to some of the finest discoveries of the 19th century, and found it sad that this delicate and sophisticated plant family should have such a bad rap. I often specify rhododendrons in my schemes and used them at Chelsea Flower Show in 2011. I am glad to say that the tide now seems to be turning.
I am presently working on the most ambitious rhododendron collection to date at Hillersdon House in Devon with views of the Blackdown Hills. While the house was being built in the mid-19th century, Joseph Hooker, the future director of the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew, was in the Indian state of Sikkim collecting a huge number of rhododendron species that formed the basis of all future collections. Championed by William Robinson, the proclivity for Victorian formality thankfully gave way to naturalistic planting, which was clearly embraced by the original owners of Hillersdon.
Fast forward to summer 2010 and I find myself knee-deep in mud, looking for the Fish Pond, reputedly once home to a fine collection of rhododendrons. Subsequent generations evidently did not have the funds (or enthusiasm) to maintain the grounds as they once were. The land drains had failed, possibly killing the nearby oaks, and Fish Pond was now so silted up, dorsal fins of the resident carp broke water.
The only rhododendron in evidence was the rampant R. ponticum – once a rootstock for more refined species, but now an invasive pest of Japanese knotweed magnitude. However, early 20th-century photos show a wide variety of waterside rhododendrons. The new owner has bold ideas for Hillersdon House, starting with our helping him restore Fish Pond to its former rhododendron glory.
Newly recruited head gardener Graham Burton began a two-year campaign to rid it of R. ponticum. The
Colour explosion: clockwise from left, ‘Koichiro Wada’; view of Fish Pond at Hillersdon House; Thomas Hoblyn’s 2011 Chelsea garden, Cornish Memories