Blooms Explode In Exbury Gardens
Growing award-winning hybrid rhododendrons is a family tradition as a son continues his father's work
EXBURY, HAMPSHIRE, ENGLAND
'DISINTERRED" is the word Edmund de Rothschild uses to describe what had to be done to his father's 250-acre garden, Exbury, in the aftermath of World War II. He, as eldest son, had become its owner. The garden was "just brambles and weeds," he recalls. Edmund's father was Lionel de Rothschild (a prominent member of the prominent family of international bankers), a man profoundly - even excessively - in love with rhododendrons. His vast garden was an over-the-top, spectacular celebration of this family of flowering shrubs (which includes camellias and magnolias). He had made it with literally no expense spared between 1920 and 1942. It had been afforded only a modicum of care by a few pensioners during the war. And the imposing neo-Georgian house had b eSkip to next paragraph
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en taken over by the Navy.
The death duties faced by Edmund were exorbitant. But he made the courageous decision to rescue the garden and eventually share it, to a certain extent anyway, with the general public. Today, in May (and this year also early June) when almost all rhododendrons and azaleas - which are also rhododendrons - swamp themselves with unmitigated abandon in an incalculable concentration of intensely colored flowers - orange, pink, puce, crimson, scarlet, yellow, salmon, vermilion, mauve, purple, violet and, oh y e
s, also white - Exbury Gardens is once again breathtakingly, almost ferociously, magnificent. The plants have to be seen to be believed. Now a charitable trust, Exbury is visited by increasing numbers of people - between 100,000 and 200,000 a year. "We had four and half thousand this Sunday," says Edmund proudly.
"Mister Eddy," as he is affectionately known at Exbury, says that he is not quite as smitten with rhododendrons as his father was. In fact, as a young man he had no interest in plants at all - possibly because he felt his father was even more fond of his rhododendrons than of his own children. And he confesses that immediately after the horrors of the war he sometimes felt that "there was too much beauty in the garden" and couldn't face going into it. But it gradually grew on him, and now he loves it.
When he talked to me he had just been showing a party of generals around it, plying them with his favorite stories. The Rothschilds have long moved in upper-echelon and aristocratic circles. Visitors to the garden nowadays may be mainly "the public" (he describes them as "very good - they leave very little litter") but over the years most members of the royal family have visited too, some more than once.
In Lionel's day the garden was also frequently visited by the elite of the horticultural world - by experts on trees and plants, like W. J. Bean, and by intrepid plant-hunters, like Frank Kingdon Ward. Lionel had helped sponsor expeditions to remote parts of Tibet, China, or Latin America to collect specimens. He grew seed collectors brought back and then became obsessed with "improving" on these wild species by a program of hybridizing.
In 22 years, Lionel made innumerable plant crosses, all the time aiming to produce rhododendrons of greater hardiness, stronger color, scent, better form and habit, more suited to the British climate. He was rigorous. He burned many plants that didn't come up to standard, even though they had taken years to grow. He kept some 1,210 of his finest hybrids and chose from these 452 that were worthy of naming and being registered with the Royal Horticultural Society.
Ironically, many of the hybrids he developed he never saw in flower: Some have become posthumous postwar stars in the gardening world as Edmund has continued to watch, in the disinterred garden, for rhododendrons worthy of wider attention.
Edmund has also followed in his father's footsteps as a hybridizer, and awards are still won. The "Exbury" strain of azaleas has become highly popular worldwide, but now, among the 100 or so hybrids made under Edmund's regime, there is a new range of azaleas called the "Solent Range," which is thought to be even better. Edmund is also particularly proud of a hybrid named after one his earlier head gardeners, Fred Wynniatt. "It's orangy yellow - a lovely, lovely plant," he says.