Azaleas when in full flower show hardly a leaf. The Exbury strains are known all over the world.

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, ofcourse Exbury is not only celebrated for this shurb, but for the kindred family of rhododendrons as well.

There are rhododendrons at Exbury from China, Tibet and the Himalayas

There are rhododendrons at Exbury from China, Tibet and the Himalayas

The garden at Exbury is not old. In fact is has only ninety-five year that the late Mr Lionel Rothschild started raising azaleas and rhododendrons in earnest. Oddly enough, the soil at Exbury is poor, but the gravelly Ioam of which it is composed happens to be the perfect soil for 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 marine 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.

Rhodedendrons found their way into British gardens following the discovery of a plant of Rhododendron ponticum growing in the wild, in Spain. The botanist who discovered the plant was a Swede, Baron Alstroemer, the date shortly before 1763. By 1763 R. ponticum was well established in the British colony of Gibraltar, and its famous, or infamous carrer has begun. Over parts of England and Scotland it has become almost a weed. But is 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.

Rhododendron Ponticum at Exbury

Rhododendron Ponticum at Exbury

But the garden visitors does not come to Exbury in search of Rhododendron poncticum . Under the green conopy of the ancient cedars, trees two handred years older then the garden they shade, are to be found the rerest 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 orbiculare; 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.

Exbury Garden view

Exbury Garden view

Many famous new hybrids rhododendrons have been raised at Exbury, and from two strains in particular, RR. campylocarpum and discolor. These were introducted into England at the turn o 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 tomany 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 ans 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.

Rhododendron macabeanum has yellow flowers and enormous leaves

Rhododendron macabeanum has yellow flowers and enormous leaves

Another famous rhododendron first raised at Exbury ia 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 roylei (first discovered in Sikkum by Sir Joshep 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 of Rothschild, Repose and Halcon, and the Jalisco group which offers flowers in stronger shades. Rouge, Nicholas and Nehru are further outstanding Exbury introduction.

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 plant of these were the ordinary Ghent azalea and the brilliant orange-coloured A. calendulaceum, the “sky paint flower” of the Cherokees. 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 beautiful and most shrubs of early summer.

Lionel de Rothschild died in 1942, in the middle of the war – a difficult time for gardening. The house of Exbury had been requisitioned by the Admiralty, and its widespread plantations of precious shrubs, like all garens in wartime, had to suffer neglect. Many of the finest plants were strangled by nettles and brambles and yet, today, thirthy-five years after, so vigorously dorhododendrons 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.

Exbury House

Exbury House

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 Griselina 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 pont has been christened the Wynnaitt Bowl and planted with evergreen azaleaz 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 Quercus canariensis 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 Mongolia vietchii which shows its beautiful white flowers, flushed with purple, on its leafless branches in April. Two other threes 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.

Garden view at Exbury

Garden view at Exbury

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 behaind that sky-scraping record, but has been measured and found to be (in 1970) all of 138 feet heigh. It is in a garden in north Devon.

Two last conifers at Exbury must be mentioned. Fitzroya cupressoides, introduces by William Lobb from South America in 1851, and the Californian Nutmeg (Terreya 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 Dr John 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 Mangolia campbelli, the giant Himalayan “pink tulip tree”. Though this is a tree for the patient gardener as it seldom flowers befor 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.

lysichitum americanum, akind of arum, loves to grow by water. Though a handsome plant it has an unpleasant smell - hence its popular name, Skunk Cabbage

lysichitum americanum, akind of arum, loves to grow by water. Though a handsome plant it has an unpleasant smell – hence its popular name, Skunk Cabbage

OPEN: Mid March – 2nd Nov: daily, including weekends, 10 a.m. – 5 p.m.

LOCATION: Between Beaulieu and Lymington. Leave B3054 at Royal Oak Inn, signposted from there.

For more info: www.exbury.co.uk