As I sit and type this for the Head Gardeners notice board, the garden here at Exbury is literally bursting into life, and with it the full ambition of Lionel de Rothschild’s original design for Exbury becomes apparent, with its sweeping vistas, formal ponds and cascades, secluded woodland groves and majestic trees, all carpeted with native bulbs and wild flowers, spreading over nearly 200 acres of the New Forest is truly breathtaking!
One of the key players in the show is of course the Rhododendrons, one of Lionel’s favourites and his legacy is still very much with us today. With our acid soil, sheltered woodland environment and mild maritime location Exbury was the perfect place for Lionel’s obsession with Rhododendrons to take root, (literally!!). Over 600 rhododendrons were bred at Exbury over the years and whilst many of these fine plants still form the backbone of our collection, they were complemented with many species of Rhododendrons collected on behalf of Exbury by the great plant collectors such as George Forrest, Frank Kingdon Ward and Ernest Wilson. These diverse and fascinating plants came from the vast mountain forests of the Himalayan range, the remote Burmese alps, the mountains of Japan and the great mountains and deep river gorges of south west China. Many of these rare plants still thrive in the sheltered woodlands of Exbury.
One of Exbury’s finest contributions to Rhododendron breeding comes in the form of Rhododendron Fortune, a hybrid between 2 of the finest of the larger leaved species. A majestic specimen of Rhododendron sinogrande from Trewithen garden in darkest Cornwall provided the pollen and the seed parent was Rhododendron falconeri from Nepal (already growing at Exbury) The resulting hybrid was well worth the wait, as it took nearly 15 years to flower, but when it did its butter yellow flowers nearly the size of cauliflowers were a sight to behold.
Mrs Lionel de Rothschild has recorded the first appearance of 'Fortune' in 1938. ''It was,'' she wrote, ''a lovely April day when Exbury had donned its Riviera look. As we walked into the woods we saw this magnificent plant holding up its glorious blooms to a deep blue sky. In the evening Lionel gathered his family to a round-table conference to discuss the merits of the new seedling. There it stood in the largest vase available, looking most majestic. Not only was the flower outstanding, but its stance and bearing were bold and commanding. Its great leaves were disposed so as to remind me of the Discobolus, the Greek thrower of the discus with arm stretched out and poised for the throw.''
Combined, these plants now form one of the largest collections of Rhododendrons anywhere in the world, giving Exbury is unique character. The first to flower is rhododendron rirei (from the misty slopes of Omi shan in Sichuan southern China) in the middle of winter and our latest is probably auriculatum (from the dryer mountain forests of Guizhou province) finally showing is white fragrant trumpets in late summer. The genus Rhododendron which includes the azaleas, (just a gardeners name for a small Rhododendron), is one of the larger plant groups on the planet with nearly 1000 species, covering everything from 100 foot trees to tiny alpines and including sub-tropical epiphytes, shrubs (deciduous and evergreen) and flowers of nearly every colour and scent! This year has been a particularly fine year for flowers due in part to the warm summer of 2016, cool night time temperatures, warm days and a mild winter.
With the forecast set to be stable for the foreseeable future now is a great time to see some of the finest of all flowering trees and shrubs in a beautiful woodland environment.