Exbury garden Hampshire

If any one garden in Britain is synonymous with a single plant, Exbury must surely be synonymous with azaleas. The Exbury strain of azalea has spread the fame of the Hampshire garden all over the world. And, of course, Exbury is not only celebrated for this shrub, but for the kindred family of rhododendrons as well.

The garden at Exbury is not old. In fact it was only fifty-five years ago that the late Mr Lionel Rothschild started raising azaleas and rhododendrons in earnest. Oddly enough, the soil at Exbury is poor, but the gravelly loam of which it is composed happens to be the perfect soil for the plants for which this garden has become so well known. Roses do not do well at Exbury, nor do lilacs; lime-loving plants such as viburnums are hardly worth planting; but rhododendrons and azaleas are happy there, and in early spring and summer the garden is one of the sights of southern England. The maritime climate, too, is kind, and the temperature at Exbury is often several degrees higher than that found only a few miles inland. Frosts are comparatively rare.

Rhododendrons found their way into British gardens following the discovery of a plant of Rhododendron ponticum growing in the wild, in Spam. The botanist who discovered the plant was a Swede, Baron Alstroemer, the date shortly before 1763. Alstroemer was a friend of the celebrated horticulturist, Carl Linnaeus, originator of the nomenclature of plants, who gave his friend’s name to the well known alstroemeria.

Exbury garden Hampshire

By 1763 R. ponticum was well established in the British colony of Gibraltar, andits famous, or infamous, career had begun. R.ponticumneedsno description. Over parts of England and Scotland it has become almost a weed. But it has great qualities, and it is invaluable as a stock plant on which to graft many varieties and species which do not root readily from cuttings, or are difficult to layer.

But the garden visitor does not come to Exbury in search of Rhododendron ponticum. Under the green canopy of the ancient cedars, trees two hundred years older than the garden they shade, are to be found the rarest species of rhododendrons. Plants such as the great Sino-grande from the uplands of China – R. falconeri, with leaves that are underfelted with tan-coloured fur; R. campylocarpum from the Himalayas; the blue-flowered R. Augustinii; the red-flowered R. arboreum from the hillsides of Ceylon; the round-leaved orbi-culare; and a rhododendron which is found in very few gardens, the Tibetan R. concatenans, which has leaves scented like incense. That is to name just a few. Many famous new hybrid rhododendrons have been raised at Exbury, and from two strains in particular, RR. campylocarpum and discolor. These were introduced into England at the turn of the century, and soon after Mr Rothschild started breeding rhododendrons professionally, ‘a marriage was arranged’ between these two great plants, from which many distinguished descendants have resulted. R. campylocarpum transmits its yellow flowers to many of its descendants, while R. discolor transmits its attractive grey-green leaves and lavishness of flower. One of the results of this ‘marriage’ was a rhododendron which Mr Lionel de Rothschild named after a friend, Lady Bessborough. This beautiful new plant first flowered in 1933 and was, in due course, crossed with . another rhododendron, the yellow flowered R. Wardii (named after one of the last and greatest of all plant collectors, Captain F. Kingdon-Ward). From this cross descended the first of the impressive Hawk hybrids, which are some of the best yellow-flowered rhododendrons in cultivation.

Another famous rhododendron first raised at Exbury is an exquisite flowerer, Lady Chamberlain. This was called after another personal friend of the Rothschilds, the wife of Sir Austen Chamberlain. It is a really beautiful plant, and is the offspring of the glaucous-leaved R. cinnabarinum roylci (first discovered in Sikkum by Sir Joseph Hooker) and Royal Flush. It is from Royal Flush that Lady Chamberlain inherits its distinctive apricot-coloured flowers.

A few more remain to be acclaimed, especially some of the named varieties of rhododendrons with unusual pastel-coloured flowers, plants such as Elizabeth de Rothschild, Repose and Halcyon, and the Jalisco group which offers flowers in stronger shades. Rouge, Nicholas and Nehru are further outstanding Exbury introductions.

But the strain of plants raised by Mr Lionel de Rothschild which has made the name of the garden at Exbury resound in the world of horticulture is the Exbury strain of azaleas. The parent plants of these were the ordinary Ghent azalea and the brilliant orange-coloured A. calendulaceum, the ‘sky paint flower’ of the Cherokees. The grandparents were A. occidentale (from which the Exbury strains of azalea inherit their strong scent) and A. arborescens. The Exbury strains are at their best in May and June, and with their heady perfume, their graceful spreading habit of growth and large, well-formed flowers, are among the most beautiful and most useful shrubs of early summer.

Lionel de Rothschild died in 1942, in the middle of the war – a difficult time for gardening. The house at Exbury had been requisitioned by the Admiralty, and its widespread plantations of precious shrubs, like all gardens in wartime, had to suffer neglect. Many of the finest plants were strangled by nettles and brambles and yet, today, thirty-five years after, so vigorously do rhododendrons and azaleas grow in the gentle climate of that part of Hampshire, that any spaces have long been filled up, and some thinning out is necessary every year.

From early spring onwards the garden at Exbury is a scene of enchantment. Perhaps it is at its peak in early March when the splendid rhododendron Red Admiral is in full flower; or perhaps in April, when the blue Rhododendron augustinii and yellow R. campylocarpum are at their best. These grow in broad swathes under the tall Scots pines, and there are daffodils everywhere to contrast with, or echo, the lucent colour of their flowers.

In May Exbury’s own azaleas come into bloom and edge one side of the lake with colour, their brilliance set off by the bright green of Griselinia littoralis. In the middle of the lake is an island, upon which grows a fine specimen of Taxodium distichum, the swamp cypress of the southern United States, a tree which loves to have its feet in water and thrives in just that situation.

Visitors who have visited Exbury in the past will surely remember Fred Wynniatt, head gardener there for many years. Recently a part of the garden by the middle pond has been christened the Wynniatt Bowl and planted with evergreen azaleas in memory of that great gardener and dedicated plantsman.

Among the fine specimens of trees and shrubs at Exbury, other than rhododendrons, are some interesting, seldom-grown oaks, such as the Hungarian oak (Quercus frainetto) which will thrive on almost any soil including chalk, and Qucrcus canadensis with its dark grey, deeply fissured bark and glossy green leaves. These two splendid trees have been described as even superior in rate of growth to our own native species. Another very special tree to be seen at Exbury is Magnolia veitchii which shows its beautiful white flowers, flushed with purple, on its leafless branches in April. Two other trees worth noting are Fagus sylvatica latifolia, our native beech, but one with leaves far larger than the type; and the Manna Ash (Fraxinus ornus), covered with flowers in May.

Some distinguished conifers to be seen in this remarkable garden are the Serbian spruce (Picea Omorica), which quickly makes a tall, graceful tree; a cypress (Cupressus arizonica) of columnar habit and rich green foliage; and the fabled redwood from California (Sequoia sempervirens). This, on its native heath, reaches the almost incredible height of 366 feet. The highest redwood recorded in Britain lags far behind that sky-scraping record, but has been measured and found to be (in 1970) all of 138 feet high. It is in a garden in north Devon.

Two last conifers at Exbury must be mentioned. Fitzroya cupressoides, introduced by William Lobb from South America in 1851, and the Californian Nutmeg (Torreya californica), another Lobb introduction. This is a handsome, broadly conical tree which, with its medium size, would grace any garden, large or comparatively small. It was called after Drjohn Torrey, a distinguished American botanist of the last century.

But for the amateur garden visitor to Exbury, perhaps the most heart warming impression will be made by the rosy-pink candle flowers of the rare Magnolia campbellii, the giant Himalayan ‘pink tulip tree’. Though this is a tree for the patient gardener as it seldom flowers before its twenty-fifth year, an established specimen, in full flower in February, is a memorable sight. There are two such splendid magnolias at Exbury, and they are worth going a very long way to see.

OPEN First Sunday in April – mid June: daily, including weekends, 2 p.m. – 6.30 p.m. LOCATION Between Beaulieu and Lymington. Leave B3054 at Royal Oak Inn, signposted from there.

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