'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 e
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.
The current head gardener, Douglas Betteridge, is a warm, country-spoken character. He worked for years in the propagation side of the garden (now taken over, in these forward-looking, business-minded times, by Exbury Enterprises). For 14 years he has been head gardener, and he and Edmund clearly appreciate each other. Where the redoubtable Lionel used to dominate his gardeners totally, sticking his walking stick in the ground and commanding imperiously: "Plant it HERE!" Mister Eddy has a subtler arrang e
ment with "Dougie," and they amiably negotiate, often on a Sunday morning walk-around, the siting of new specimens and the replanting of areas (a continual process because rhododendrons have a limited life span.)
Mr. Betteridge showed me around in a manner befitting such a large garden, so extensively webbed with sandy gravel paths and roads - in his old van. Near the house he pointed to what used to be a splendid avenue of old cedars. Damaged in the most recent (1990) of two notable storms to cause havoc in this southern part of Britain (the first was in 1987), the sapling cedars replacing many of the old ones have decades of growth ahead of them before restoration is achieved. Other trees, particularly the New
Forest oaks that characterize the woodland in which this acid-soil garden is situated, were destroyed - some 500 of them - in the earlier storm. (The May after that storm saw more visitors to the garden than ever before!)
He points out the "Bridal Path a narrow curved passage cut deeply through white-flowered azaleas. "How much work is done on rhododendrons once they are planted?" I ask. "Well, they are left to grow naturally," he answers. "But we've got to prune to keep them off the roads and paths. And a lot of time is spent dead-heading, as we call it." For this task, a band of "ladies from the village" descend on the garden after the main flowering period, and, reaching to the topmost branches on special tripods, met i
culously remove every seed head from the larger species. "If you don't dead-head," explains Betteridge, "the sap goes into the seedpods rather than the growth for next year's flowers." The smaller kinds don't care. They just flower with obliging excess every year regardless.
About 70 per cent of the rhodondendrons growing in Exbury Gardens are "Exbury" hybrids. Twenty percent - often some of the most graceful and lovely - are species. Ten percent are hybrids from elsewhere.
Betteridge points out two smaller, compact rhododendrons that he says are particularly favored today as parents of new hybrids. They are a yellow-flowered American hybrid called "Hotei," and a Japanese species, with flowers that change from apple-blossom pink to pure white as they open, called yakusimanum. Compactness, for today's small gardens, an important feature sought in new hybrids.
Although Exbury is still very much in the Rothschild family's hands - Edmund's brother and both his sons are also keenly involved - its gradual commercialization since the war is perhaps an inevitable part of its need for self-sufficiency. Ex-Army managing agent Charles Orr-Ewing advocates making the garden evermore public. TV and other forms of advertising promote it as an all-year-round garden. "It's a matter of changing people's perceptions about Exbury," he says.
Naturally those perceptions stick rather exclusively to the short flowering season for rhododendrons. But Mr. Orr-Ewing enthuses about the autumn color here, and points out that there are also in early spring a continually increasing mass of daffodils to be seen; there is a winter garden for early rhododendrons and magnolias and camellias; there is (a very recently unearthed) iris garden; one of the largest rock gardens anywhere, and an enormous number of trees of all kinds.
In fact the number and variety of plants of all kinds at Exbury requires cataloging, and a botanist who is also a computer specialist has recently been engaged to compile a database, which the enterprising managing agent (the whole 2,000-acre estate, of which the garden is a part, comes under his aegis) is keen to exploit as grist to the commercial side of the garden's mill. He also feels that the visitors to the garden could be served better with educative information and "interpretation.It is a specta c
le," he points out, "but what do visitors learn? Really, it's a vast pool of information."
But then maybe most people just come for the astounding color.