Rhodo­den­drons re­turn to the fold

The Daily Telegraph - Gardening - - Plants -

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

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