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What is ‘Woodland Gardening’?
The term ‘woodland gardening’ can cover a very wide range of gardening
styles and practices from planting a pinetum or arboretum to
‘improving’ a patch of woodland by naturalising bulbs, encouraging
wild flowers or just making paths through it. For the purposes of
this book, however, we need to narrow the definition a little. Our
woodland gardens generally share all or most of the following characteristics:
Moist acidic soil
Most plants grown in classic woodland gardens require moist but
well-drained, friable acid soil with plenty of organic matter which
delivers moisture and air to the roots of woodland plants.
Woodland garden layers
The woodland garden is planted in or at the edge of woodland or
trees in a broadly informal or ‘naturalistic’ arrangement. It usually
consists of three layers: the canopy and backdrop of trees; the shrubs;
and the understory or woodland floor layer of perennials and bulbs.
Plants used are predominantly exotic and include rhododendrons,
azaleas, camellias, magnolias, hydrangeas, underplanted with woodland
perennials, ferns and bulbs.
The size of a woodland garden
There are tiny urban woodland gardens of 0.5 hectares and others
100 hectares in extent. Some are woodland gardens in their entirety,
while for other gardens the woodland element is only a part of the
overall offering. A small neglected corner of a garden can be transformed
into a woodland garden using existing or newly planted trees,
underplanted with shrubs, bulbs and perennials.
Most of the best-known woodland gardens can be found in the
climate zones known as ‘maritime temperate’ or ‘oceanic’. Such
climates mainly occur on the western sides of continents, in latitudes
45°–60°, typically situated immediately poleward of Mediterranean
climates. ‘Continental’ and ‘Mediterranean’ climate zones are more
challenging for woodland gardening because of extremes of heat
and/or cold and often less reliable rainfall. In these regions a different
or more restricted palette of plants can be used to create a woodland
garden. Maritime temperate climates are moderated by oceans, characterised
by changeable, often overcast weather with relatively cool
summers and winters. In Western Europe, this climate zone occurs
in coastal areas as far north as 63°N in Norway and as far south as
Galicia in north-west Spain and the mountains of the Azores and
Madeira. In North America, the Pacific Northwest around the Puget
Sound north to British Columbia has an oceanic climate, while to
the south most of Oregon and northern California have a more
Mediterranean character where most annual rain falls in the months
October to April.
The more favourable parts of the east coast of North America, a
coastal strip from Nova Scotia south to Georgia, have a slightly different,
less benign east-coast maritime climate which can pull in very
cold arctic air in winter and experience long periods of heat and
humidity in summer. In the southern hemisphere, the maritime
temperate zone includes central coastal Chile, most of New Zealand
and parts of coastal south Australia, around Melbourne and Tasmania,
influenced by Antarctic winds and currents.
Many of the characteristics of maritime climates are shared by
regions where woodland plants are found wild, in the richly forested
parts of the Himalaya and those of the mountains of Japan, southwest
China, North Vietnam and Korea.
Opposite. The drive at Mount Stewart, Northern Ireland, with Davidia in flower.
Overleaf. Magnolia ‘Tina Durio’, Arboretum Wespelaar, Belgium.
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The History and Evolution of Woodland Gardening
The style known as woodland gardening is a cross-cultural mélange
of influences from the ancient and classical world, European and
North American taste, the gardens of China and Japan, and the flow
of plant material between Asia, Europe and North America, South
Africa, Latin America and Australasia. This chapter examines all these
strands in turn, and how they came together in the early years of the
twentieth century to produce a style known as ‘woodland gardening’.
While garden historians tend to credit William Kent, Humphry
Repton and William Robinson as the landscapers and designers who
inspired this garden style, many aspects of woodland gardening can
be traced back millennia.
Gardens in the ancient world evolved from being primarily utilitarian,
for growing fruit, vegetables and grains, to being partly or
largely ornamental, with rivers diverted, streams dammed, water
used for fountains and pools, walls and gates fashioned into decorative
and artistic features. Ancient civilisations from the Sumerians
(c. 3000 BC) and the Assyrian, Babylonian and Mesopotamian empires
established hunting parks where trees were tended, protected and
cultivated. The cult of trees forms part of the Zoroastrian religion,
while the Assyrians viewed the symbol of eternal life as a tree with a
stream at its roots. The ancient Persian empire (600–530 BC) considered
tree-planting a sacred practice and part of the education process,
while the Epic of Gilgamesh, a Babylonian text of c. 2700 BC recorded
on tablets, explicitly describes the beauty of trees, the value of shade
they cast and the fragrant and ornamental plants grown beneath
them. The garden was integrated into the religious realm in the
paradise gardens of Islam and temple gardens of Japan and China
where imitations of the natural world were created in miniature.
Greek and Roman gardens, often created around temple
Above. The eighteenth-century landscape at Stowe, England: a combination of water, classical buildings, parkland and woodland.
Opposite. Lime Avenue, Hillsborough Castle, Northern Ireland.
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pART I: HISTORY
John Evelyn, Sylva, 1662, an influential
treatise on the importance of planting
in print for 150 years and twelve editions. Some have argued that this
is the first treatise on the idea of sustainable forestry, recommending
that timber extraction is matched by young trees planted. The idea
that landowners might like to ‘improve’ their estates by creating
woodland caught on rapidly in the eighteenth century and tree
planting became something of a competitive sport, even to the extent
of tree rustling and vandalism between the warring Scottish clans of
the Argyll Campbells and the Perthshire Dukes of Atholl, both of
whom planted millions of trees on their estates.
Formal Versus Informal Garden Design
complexes, featured formal and informal vistas combining scenery,
plants and carefully placed statues and buildings. Pliny the Younger
(AD 62–113), one of the earliest garden writers, describes in detail how
countryside villas should use the borrowed landscape for effect: ‘not
as real land but as an exquisite painting’. Pliny also stresses the value
of the countryside and man-made features revealing themselves
during a tour of the garden. Pliny describes his own gardens at Tusculum
and Laurentinum, with columns, pools and fountains, and
comments that he has little time for statues in the garden setting.
Though formal gardens became dominant in Europe in the
Renaissance period, more naturalistic features co-existed in some of
them, with Pratolino, north of Florence, the most ambitious, described
by Penelope Hobhouse as ‘a generous mixture of art and naturalism,
“ordered nature” and “natural nature”’. Italy’s extensive wooded
hillside gardens with spectacular statues, pools and fountains inspired
gardeners all over Europe to imitate this style of horticulture. English
travellers on the grand tour returned with sketches and engravings
of gardens, ruins and landscapes, which in turn inspired the classical
features of gardens such as Rousham, Stourhead, Stowe and Castle
Britain’s once extensive forests and woodland had been all but
removed or coppiced by the sixteenth century with most of the land
used for farming and grazing. Even Scotland, with its relatively small
population, was largely denuded of native forest: in 1775 Dr Samuel
Johnson wrote that ‘a tree in Scotland is as rare as a horse in Venice’.
It is generally acknowledged that one book changed the relationship
between an Englishman and his tree. Sylva, or A Discourse of Forest-
Trees and the Propagation of Timber in His Majesty’s Dominions by
John Evelyn began life as a paper presented in 1662 to the Royal Society
in London, of which he was a founding member. Evelyn’s work
inspired landowners to reforest the British countryside, and remained
It is possible to summarise much of the history of European gardening
and garden design in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries as a
long dialogue between two opposing sets of views or theories: formal
versus informal, design versus free-form, straight lines verses curves,
order versus freedom, man-made versus natural. The tradition of
formal landscaping: clipping, shaping and parterres, as seen at gardens
such as Het Loo in the Netherlands and Versailles in France, had the
counterpoint of an informal style: the naturalistic or landscape movements
with sub-branches such as arcadian, romantic, picturesque or
gardenesque. European garden styles in the eighteenth and nineteenth
centuries were moulded by these competing philosophies and the
debate reached a climax in the spectacularly rude polemical battles
between William Robinson and Reginald Blomfield in the late nineteenth
While the seventeenth century was dominated by formal gardening,
many eighteenth-century writers and poets began to describe
gardens as an extension of nature itself, abhorring the artificiality
imposed by man on nature in geometric landscaping and topiary.
Alexander Pope’s famous lines stress how gardening should be sensitive
to the context and the features of the natural landscape, and
more or less defines a woodland garden:
Consult the genius of the place in all;
That tells the waters or to rise, or fall;
Or helps th’ ambitious hill the heav’ns to scale,
Or scoops in circling theatres the vale;
Calls in the country, catches opening glades,
Joins willing woods, and varies shades from shades,
Now breaks, or now directs, th’ intending lines;
Paints as you plant, and, as you work, designs.
Alexander Pope, Epistle IV, to Richard Boyle, Earl of Burlington
In England, the eighteenth-century landscape movement of William
Kent and Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown inspired landowners to replace
formal gardens with naturalistic parkland, while in France, Jean
Jacques Rousseau rejected the formal designs and geometry of Le
Notre’s work at Vaux-le-Vicomte and Versailles in favour of naturalistic
planting, admiring the ‘English style’. Rousseau’s novel La nouvelle
Héloïse (1761) celebrates the garden as a place where man can return
to nature. Rousseau’s theories were put into practice by his pupil
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THE HISTORY AND EVOLUTION OF WOODLAND GARDENING
Drummond Castle, perthshire, Scotland, in the formal French manner. The eighteenth-century landscape movement was partly a reaction against this gardening style.
The eighteenth-century landscape at Stourhead, Wiltshire, England: lake and classical buildings. The rhododendrons were added in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.
René Louis de Girardin, who created the garden at Ermenonville,
and his influence reached Germany in landscapes such as Wörlitz
and in the writings of Professor Christian Cay Lorenz Hirschfeld, in
turn inspiring Prussian/German garden and park design in the late
eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries at Wilhelmsbad (Hanau)
and the English Garden in Munich.
The English designer Humphry Repton (1752–1818) produced
plans for 400 gardens/landscapes many of which played host to wood-
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pART I: HISTORY
land gardens in the centuries which followed, as did some of the
earlier designs such as Capability Brown’s Sheffield Park and Henry
Hoare’s Stourhead. English landscapes and gardens designed by
Repton include Antony House in Cornwall, Tatton Park in Cheshire,
Sherringham in Norfolk and Harewood House in Yorkshire. Repton
persuaded his clients of the benefits of his designs through his famous
‘red books’ containing ‘before and after’ sketches and watercolours
with hinged or sliding overlays which would show the effect of his
proposed planting plans on the existing landscape. Many of Repton’s
red books are still in existence and they can be seen to have functioned
in a similar way to modern day computer-aided design used by landscape
Before we examine woodland gardening in Victorian and Edwardian
Britain, we first need to head to Asia, the source of so many key
woodland garden plants.
East meets West
The introduction of woodland plants from Japan and China
On the last day of October 1692, after carefully checking the locks on
his boxes, the German naturalist and physician Engelbert Kaempfer
prepared to board the boat at Nagasaki on Japan’s south-western
coast. His precious booty was carefully hidden as he feared Japanese
officials might want to inspect his belongings. Kaempfer knew that
what he’d done was illegal but considered it a risk worth taking.
During his two excursions across Japan to Edo to present gifts to the
Japanese emperor, he had detailed many new plants in his diaries
and it was seeds and specimens to take back to Europe that he was
concealing in his luggage. Kaempfer’s skills as a surgeon and his
Skimmia japonica, first introduced to Europe by Engelbert Kaempfer.
supplies of alcohol enabled him to gain Japanese friends who helped
him gather plants, a risky exercise as fraternising with foreigners was
not allowed and could lead to imprisonment or even execution for
Japanese subjects. From 1689 onwards, European travel in Japan was
restricted to the closed and guarded tiny island of Deshima at Nagasaki.
Japan’s rulers were determined to stamp out the recent conversion
to Christianity of many of its people by Jesuit missionaries and had
taken drastic measures, killing tens of thousands of Christian converts
and strictly confining foreigners to trading ports. After two years in
Japan, Kaempfer headed for Java, returning to Amsterdam in 1695
and published Amoenitatum exoticarum in 1712 detailing his botanical
discoveries in Japan: amongst them Skimmia, Ginkgo, Hydrangea,
flowering cherries, peonies and many varieties of Camellia.
By 1775, when Swedish doctor/surgeon Carl Thunberg reached
Japan, restrictions to foreign travellers had eased a little. Thunberg set
about introducing to the west some of the plants first described by
Kaempfer. He started a garden in the foreign compound to grow on
his collections, some collected while searching for essential medicinal
plants, with others purchased from nurseries. Many of Thunberg’s
living plants perished on the long voyage to Europe but some of them
made it into cultivation. Thunberg later became successor to Carl
Linnaeus at the University of Uppsalla and his books on Japanese
plants were translated into many languages.
Doctor Philipp von Siebold, from Leiden, Germany, arrived in
Japan in 1826 and began making plant-hunting expeditions, while
visiting patients. He fathered a child with a young Japanese girl but
when he was discovered with illegal maps of the area, he was imprisoned,
and a year later expelled from Japan, forced to leave his partner
and child behind. Some of the locals who had helped him were tortured
or committed suicide. Eighty out of the 485 plants Siebold consigned
back to Europe made it back alive, including forms of bamboo,
Hydrangea, Camellia and azaleas which were grown in Siebold’s nurseries
in Leiden and distributed to collections and botanical gardens.
Japanese plant introductions such as the double Camellia ‘Alba
Plena’ became popular garden plants and by the early nineteenth
century there were hundreds of Camellia varieties recorded in
commerce, championed by the horticultural trend setters of the time
such as Empress Joséphine at her gardens at Malmaison in France,
and in the gardens of the Borromeo islands on Italy’s Lago Maggiore.
In both China and Japan, the wild mountain flora and landscape
inspired a stylised and mannered interpretation of the natural world,
through Japanese Shinto and Chinese Buddhist ideas of the spiritual
value of cultivated beauty. Temple courtyards, sometimes with views
over significant borrowed landscapes, with mountains in the distance
– Mt Fuji for example – were augmented by carefully selected trees
and shrubs, often trained and pruned. The view from buildings,
framed by door or window, was designed to look like an idealised
forest with water, stone and plants in studied composition. In Japan
the moss garden at Saiho-Ji (Kyoto), much imitated since, is actually
believed to have come about as a happy accident. Apparently it evolved
naturally in a shaded, neglected and overgrown monastery garden
until it was recognised as a masterpiece with the thick carpets of
moss contrasting with azalea flowers and the leaves of autumn maples
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THE HISTORY AND EVOLUTION OF WOODLAND GARDENING
One of the most widely used evergreen azalea species, Rhododendron kaempferi, on Mount Murone, Japan, in pine forest.
Japanese garden: maples in autumn colour.
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pART I: HISTORY
Kenrokuen, Kanazawa, Japan, constructed from the seventeenth to the nineteenth centuries, considered one of Japan’s best strolling landscapes.
turning yellow and red. Another influential garden was Shugakuin,
Kyoto, where the borrowed landscape of distant hills is used to frame
the lakes, islands and trees in the foreground, designed as a strolling
garden with vistas opening and disappearing, and where careful
pruning is used to create illusions of scale.
The eighteenth- and nineteenth-century gardens at Kenrokuen
(Kanazawa) feature tent-like bracing teepees which protect the pine
tree branches from the weight of snow in winter and add dramatic
architecture to the overstory. Kairakuen (Ibaraki) uses the borrowed
landscape of Lake Senba as a backdrop to a garden of plum and
cherry trees in early spring, azaleas in late spring and spectacular
maples in autumn, while Jojakkoji, on the lower slopes of Mt Ogura
(Kyoto), is a temple garden famed for its autumn colour, moss and
The USA, concerned about European influence in the Far East,
sent a small fleet under Commodore Matthew Perry in 1853–4 to
demand an end to Japanese isolationism and to force open Japan’s
ports to US trade, achieving their aims with unsubtle gunboat diplomacy.
As soon as the US–Japan treaty was signed, American planthunters
S. Wells Williams and Dr James Morrow headed for the
Japanese mountains, collecting herbarium specimens. They were
followed five years later by Dr George Rogers Hall, who consigned
live plants back to North America in Wardian cases, Nathaniel Ward’s
newly invented portable greenhouse which revolutionised the transport
of plants on long sea journeys.
The Wardian case, a portable conservatory which revolutionised the transport of plants by sea.
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THE HISTORY AND EVOLUTION OF WOODLAND GARDENING
Rhododendron fortunei, named after Robert Fortune, who introduced it to the west from China
in the 1840s.
Camellia garden, Kunming, Yunnan, China, with Abbie Jury.
Scottish botanist Robert Fortune and nurseryman John Veitch
both arrived in Japan in search of plants in 1860 and, as well as collecting
in the field, they found it relatively straightforward to buy plants
from Japanese nurseries which they shipped back to England, again
in Wardian cases. Thus another important set of woodland plants,
Chrysanthemum, Chamaecyparis obtusa, Cryptomeria, Taxus, Mahonia
japonica, Anemone japonica, Larix kaempferi, Magnolia and more
bamboos, found their way to the west. Charles Maries collected in
Japan for the Veitch Nursery from 1877 to 1879, introducing many
important woodland plants including Actinidia kolomikta, Acer maximowiczianum,
Schizophragma hydrangeoides, Enkianthus campanulatus,
Magnolia sieboldii and two named after him: Viburnum plicatum
‘Mariesii’, Hydrangea macrophylla ‘Mariesii Perfecta’.
most famous gardens of ancient China, a stylised woodland garden
in a large estate with a spectacular borrowed landscape. The garden
was created by musician, poet and landscape artist Wang Wei (699–
759), and paintings and etchings of this garden inspired many later
Chinese gardens as well as the American garden at Innisfree in Millbrook,
In western China’s Sichuan province, Emeishan (Mount Emei)
has evolved, over hundreds of years of human interaction, into wild
natural gardens on a huge scale with paths and astonishing stone
flights of steps criss-crossing the steep mountain sides linking a series
of wooden temples built amongst the native flora and cliffs. Thousands
of pilgrims would ascend the mountain each year in spring to enjoy
the rhododendrons and other plants in flower, sometimes carried
up in sedan chairs. Nowadays visitors can reach the top by bus, car
The opening up of China
Western powers were also gaining access to trade in China, forcing
the country to open up to European merchants and explorers by the
mid nineteenth century. The British waged their so called ‘opium
wars’ in China from 1839 to 1860 and plant-hunters immediately took
advantage of the unrest. Robert Fortune explored the eastern part
of the country searching for plants from 1843 onwards, and Captain
William Gill and W. Mesny travelled across China in 1877. As well as
taking camellia plants to India to establish the country’s tea industry,
Fortune introduced to Europe key woodland plants including Rhododendron
fortunei, Forsythia, Weigela florida and Jasminum nudiflorum.
Chinese plants and gardens were best known in the west through
paintings and designs on china and porcelain, portraying temple
courtyards, moon gates and plants such as peonies and chrysanthemums.
Wangchuan Villa, near what is now Xi’an, was one of the
A tangle of mature rhododendron trunks, Emeishan, Sichuan, China.
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pART I: HISTORY
and cable car, and the summit temples form an overcrowded and
unpleasant theme park. Thankfully most of the rest of the mountain
is only accessible on foot and the peaceful, densely forested slopes
are populated with hundreds of plant species from Epimedium to
Rhododendron. At the base of Emeishan there is a greater level of
human intervention with pools, bridges and grottos built into the
native forest, in what could certainly be considered an early form of
The influence of Chinese, Japanese and Korean gardens in the west
Above. Niuxin or QingYin pavilion, Emeishan, Sichuan, surrounded by a natural woodland
Below. Tatton park Japanese garden, created in 1911 and restored in 2000–1.
Western travellers who first glimpsed Japanese and Chinese gardens
were captivated by their design, in particular, the imitation of wild
landscapes in miniature. Paintings and, later, photographs of the buildings
and gardens slowly reached the west, inspiring the Chinoiserie
and Japanism movements in Europe and North America, which
included the incorporation of Asian ornament, decorative arts and
garden features such as moon gates and stonework into landscapes.
Less well known in the west are Korean woodland gardens, a tradition
stretching back centuries. One of the oldest is the 30 hectare ‘secret’
Biwon garden at Changdeokgung Palace in Seoul, first laid out in
1406: a hilly, forested landscape with streams, formal pools and carefully
placed pavilions with vistas into the garden. Deciduous azaleas
in spring and magnificent autumn colour from maples are two of
In the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, Japanese style
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THE HISTORY AND EVOLUTION OF WOODLAND GARDENING
portland Japanese Garden, OR, USA, opened in 1967.
woodland gardens, with teahouses and stone lanterns, became the
latest horticultural trend in Europe. Those who could afford it hired
skilled craftsmen and even garden designers such as Tassa Eida to
create their gardens, often constructed alongside or within the woodland
gardens of the day. Rather than the austere and formal temple
gardens, Japanese stroll gardens were most often imitated in the west,
as these were created on larger scale, with water, ravines, bridges,
cliffs and carefully sited paths which offered a series of framed views.
The formality and stylised nature of western Japanese gardens
did not always sit well in western landscapes and, coupled with this,
the skills to maintain them proved challenging. The First World War
took many gardeners away to the western front and by 1918 many
European Japanese-style gardens were lost. Some of these have since
been restored, including Parc Oriental de Maulévrier (1899–1913) in
France and the Irish National Stud’s Japanese Gardens (1906–10). I
was particularly taken by the Japanese garden at Tatton Park in
Cheshire, England. Inspired by the Anglo-Japanese Exhibition at
White City in London in 1910, Alan de Tatton constructed the Japanese
garden with the help of Japanese workmen in a section of the existing
woodland garden. The Shinto Shrine and stoneware were brought
from Japan, and the design was an adaption of the ‘tea garden’ using
bamboo, maples, clipped azaleas and an overstory of existing and
newly planted pines, around a contoured landscape of ponds, stones,
mounds and paths. I was fortunate to meet Professor Masao Fukuhara
from Osaka who worked on the 2000–1 restoration of the Tatton
garden and I appreciated the professor’s pragmatic approach to his
work on foreign Japanese gardens. He accepts that, in the very different
cultural context, Japanese garden styles can and should be adapted
to local conditions, using local borrowed landscapes and a differing
palette of plants, without losing the essence of Japan.
North America is said to have around 300 publicly accessible
examples of Japanese gardens. The three key elements – stone, water
and plants – form the basis of most designs and they vary from strictly
Japanese in style and planting to something more akin to fusion
cooking, taking some oriental influence and adding attributes from
other styles of gardening. Asticou Azalea garden in Maine, founded
in 1956 by Charles Savage, used plants from Beatrix Farrand’s Reef
Point estate in Bar Harbor when it was sold by its owner. The design
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pART III: THE pRACTICAL STUFF
Autumn at Stobo Water Gardens, Scotland.
is based on a Japanese stroll garden, with a large lake, landscaped
with rocks, bridges and a dry sand garden. This is a fine example of
a garden where east meets west on an equal basis: bold plantings of
native coastal Maine flora and American azaleas such as R. vaseyi,
with Japanese cherries, evergreen azaleas and Iris to create a substantial
The Japanese Garden Society of Oregon, formed in 1963, commissioned
Takuma Tono to design and landscape the Portland Japanese
gardens, opened in 1967. The 5.5 acre site consists of five separate
sections, the Strolling Pond Garden, Tea Garden, Natural Garden,
Flat Garden, and Sand and Stone Garden, and they are celebrated as
one of the finest examples of Japanese gardening outside Japan. These
gardens in turn inspired Rockford businessman John Anderson to
create the Anderson Garden in Illinois, enlisting designer Hoichi
Kurisu in 1978 to commence work on it. The Nitobe Memorial Garden
at University of British Columbia, Vancouver, Canada, opened in the
1960s; it is a more mannered, smaller-scale (1 hectare) garden, in a
style transplanted appropriately to that most Asian of North American
cities, on a site surrounded by university buildings. On my visit in
2015 I could see the challenges of keeping to scale the fast-growing
trees and shrubs, so that they did not swamp the structural elements
and the ornaments, but it works well as a little oasis of Japan in the
Some woodland gardens such as Ramster in Surrey, England, use
Japanese elements, but are otherwise European in design and planting.
Another is Stobo Water Gardens in Scotland, centred on a photogenic
series of pools and waterfalls, trees and shrubs, interspersed with
oriental stoneware and Japanese maples, and it works very well.
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TREES, SHADE AND SHELTER
Karikomi, the Japan style of pruning groups of plants into related rounded shapes, here with evergreen azaleas.
WOODLAND GARDENS IN JAPAN
Japanese woodland gardens, established in cool mountain climates,
use a combination of the rich Japanese native flora and imported
exotics. The gardens described below have mostly been created since
Japanese parks and gardens use azaleas extensively in their plantings
in several ways. The practice of shaping plants into mounds and
domes, karikomi, practised both in formal temple gardens and en
masse in public parks, a style imitated in some western gardens and
made popular by Belgian garden designer Jacques Wirtz. Lamorran
in Cornwall used this pruning style on their Kurume azaleas and I
think this could be more widely practised in western woodland
gardens. Some Japanese public parks have extraordinary one-colour
massed plantings of azaleas, while others, such as Nishiyama Park
which celebrates the annual Sabae azalea festival, features a spectacular
bowl of pink, red and white azaleas under deciduous trees, a look
shared by many azalea gardens in south-eastern USA. More recently
European gardening styles have inspired a less formal, wilder Japanese
gardening approach in spectacular native forest on mountainsides
where rhododendrons and magnolias naturally occur.
Opened in 1998, the 20 hectare Niigata Prefectural Botanical
Garden, in western central Japan, contains 1,000 Rhododendron
species including Vireyas, azalea species and probably the best collection
of old rhododendron hybrids and cultivars in Japan, as well as
other Japanese ericaceous plants, peonies and camellias, and a fine
collection of maples, flowering cherries, crab apples, Styrax, Cornus,
Corylopsis and perennials.
Gomadannyama Forest Park is located at an altitude of 1,372m
on Mount Gomadan, south of Osaka. 60,000 rhododendrons were
planted in the 1990s and are now maturing well. One of the most
spectacular sights is the forest of R. quinquefolium, one of the finest
Japanese azalea species. The forest cover is provided by beech and oak
as well as native Chamaecyparis obtusa, which has been found to cast
too much shade for ideal cultivation of plants beneath. The garden is
overlooked by the 33m high Gomasan Skytower, with a balcony which
affords excellent views of the garden and valleys beyond.
Mr Junichi Iseki owns and runs the private Santouka Garden,
Osaka, founded by his father and opened in 1992. They grew many
of the rhododendrons on the 10-hectare site from seed and planted
Rokko Alpine Botanical Garden, on Mount Rokko, Kobe, Japan.
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WOODLAND GARDENS IN JApAN
them under mature Chamaecyparis and Cryptomeria with Cercidiphyllum
japonicum, Acer palmatum, Hydrangea, Camellia japonica,
underplanted with perennials, ferns, lilies and other plants. Challenges
include wild boar, strong winds, rampant Cissus japonica and
Rokko Alpine Botanical Garden, founded in 1940 at the foot of
Mount Rokko, Kobe, at around 450m above sea level, is one of the
largest gardens in Japan covering almost 150 hectares. it holds an
important collection of Japanese trees and a smaller collection of
exotics. The rhododendron zone is planted in a now rather overshaded
forest of Chamaecyparis obtusa, Cryptomeria japonica and Pinus
densiflora. The woodland plantings have a long season of interest
from early spring with Hamamelis, Pieris and Magnolia kobus, cherries
and rhododendrons in late spring, hydrangeas in summer, maple
and larch colour in autumn, and Camellia sasanqua in winter. Challenges
include rabbits, boar, self-sown Robinia pseudoacacia and Alnus
firma seedlings and, more recently, diseases on Quercus and pines.
Japan’s most impressive woodland garden is perhaps Akagi Nature
Park, operated by Seibu Saison Group, located on the lower slopes
of Mount Akagi in Gunma Prefecture, north of Tokyo. It opened in
2010 after 30 years of planning and planting and has attracted more
than 300,000 visitors since. The garden is divided into several areas,
and many garden designers were involved in planning each section.
One of the garden sections with mainly rhododendrons and azaleas
was influenced by Exbury gardens in England, advised by James
Russell, creating a Japanese interpretation of the classic European
woodland gardening style, with a wide variety of rhododendrons
and azaleas, fine magnolias, spectacular autumn colour and extensive
perennial and bulb plantings, including Erythronium and Epimedium,
giving long seasons of interest.
A recently planted Japanese woodland garden is the Tokachi
Millennium Garden on the island of Hokkaido (see p. 85).
Akagi Nature park, Japan, opened in 2010.
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The Introduction of North American Plants to Europe
The introduction to Europe of North American conifers, broadleaved
trees and hardy shrubs plays a key role in the evolution of the woodland
gardening style. The English naturalist John Tradescant made
three journeys to North America in 1628–37 and brought back to
Europe some of the eastern seaboard’s coastal flora including
Parthenocissus quinquefolia, Rhus and Tradescantia. In the eighteenth
century, John and William Bartram sent many consignments of
woodland plants to Europe including Kalmia latifolia, Magnolia grandiflora,
Amelanchier and deciduous azaleas species Rhododendron
calendulaceum and R. arborescens which provided the genes for many
Ghent azalea hybrids.
Scottish botanist John Fraser collected North American plants
and found that having Emperor Paul I of Russia and Catherine the
Great as patrons was more lucrative than his London customers.
Archibald Menzies (1754–1842), a Scottish naval surgeon and botanist,
was a member of George Vancouver’s voyage of exploration to the
Pacific Northwest of North America in the 1790s. Landing on the
Puget Sound in 1792, near what is now Seattle, Menzies spent several
weeks exploring the mountains and forests of the area, describing in
his diary the discovery of many plants we now take for granted as
woodland garden subjects:
Right. Introduced to Europe in 1734, Kalmia latifolia, the mountain laurel, is now available
in many colour forms.
Below. Rhododendon calendulaceum in the Appalachians, on mountain tops known
as ‘The Balds’, NC, USA.
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pART I: HISTORY
Early rhododendron introductions
Araucaria araucana, the monkey puzzle, in fruit. Introduced by Archibald Menzies to Europe
from Chile in 1793.
The Woods here were chiefly composed of the Silver Fir –
White Spruce – Norway Spruce & Hemlock Spruce together
with . . . Oak – the Sycamore or great Maple – Sugar Maple
– Mountain Maple & Pennsylvanian Maple – the Tacamahac
& Canadian Poplars – the American Ash – common Hazel –
American Alder, Common Willow & the Oriental Arbute . . .
the great flowered Dog wood . . . small fruited Crabs & a new
species of Barberry.
Captain Vancouver and Menzies’ relationship was strained throughout
their four-year voyage, and Vancouver was not sympathetic towards
plant collecting, so in the end little seed arrived back in Europe from
this expedition. One important introduction was the monkey puzzle,
Araucaria araucana, from Chile. Legend has it that Menzies took the
seeds from a dining table and stuffed them in his pocket. Many of
the plants Menzies described in his journals were later introduced
to Britain by botanist David Douglas on his arduous expeditions
crossing the North American continent in the 1820s. Douglas’s seed
collections fed into commercial forestry (Sikta spruce and Douglas
fir) and gave Victorians the plants that gave rise to many nineteenthcentury
During the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, hardy
rhododendron and azaleas species were introduced to northern Europe
from Portugal (Rhododendron ponticum), the Caucasus (R. caucasicum,
R. luteum) and the Americas (R. maximum, R. catawbiense, R. cumberlandense).
These were planted in large numbers in shrubberies, parkland
and drive sides in a style known as ‘American gardening’, even if
the plants used were often from several continents. Nurserymen and
garden owners were soon raising hybrids such as Rhododendron
‘Cunningham’s White’ and the first hardy Ghent deciduous azaleas.
Throughout the British Isles R. ponticum was widely planted as game
cover and used as a grafting understock for hybrid rhododendrons.
Gardens at Kenwood in London, Fonthill and Bromley became famous
for their rhododendrons and azaleas, planted alongside streams or to
be reflected in lakes and ponds. Highclere Castle, now famous as the
location of television’s Downton Abbey, was perhaps the most impressive
with a 6.5 hectare American garden and a complex series of formal
borders filled with deciduous azaleas planted by Lord Carnarvon. A
mating of red R. arboreum and purple R. ponticum was named ‘Altaclerense’,
the latinisation of the estate’s name.
Bowood in Wiltshire, England, is one of the best preserved of the
Victorian woodland gardens. The garden was planted surrounding
the family mausoleum designed by Robert Adam, on a seam of greensand
(acid soil), in oak woodland, in an area otherwise too alkaline
for woodland gardening. The first plantings were made in 1854 and
hardy hybrid rhododendrons from Waterers Nursery were added
over several decades, many of which are now very rare. The garden
is now a series of dense banks of hybrids, with magnolias and deciduous
azaleas, with rides running along the slopes and through the
gullies. Further plantings were added in the early 1900s and more
recently by the current Lord Lansdowne, who has added more magnolias
and woodland hybrid rhododendrons to the mix. Bowood is a
great woodland garden, which could be improved by opening up
some of the now largely obscured views into the surrounding countryside.
Nineteenth-Century European Woodland Gardeners
The Seidel family
By Spring 1812, Europe was weary of warfare but Napoleon had one
more campaign in mind: he was determined to invade Russia. France’s
army was in constant need of soldiers and anyone fit and young
enough was in danger of being forced to fight. German Jacob Friedrich
Seidel (1789–1860) was studying at the Garden of Plants in Paris from
1810 to 1812 when he was conscripted into the French army. He set
off on the march from Paris with more than the usual army kit in
his luggage, as Jacob had no intention of fighting the Russians.
Jacob’s father Johann Heinrich Seidel (1744–1815), educated at
Kew and Paris, worked for Prince William V of Orange before returning
to northern Germany to garden for the Prince of Saxony. There
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The Robert Adam mausoleum in the nineteenth-century woodland garden at Bowood, Wiltshire, England.
he grew at least seven rhododendron species and frequently entertained
Germany’s national poet Goethe. Camellias had recently been
introduced to France from Japan and Jacob had spotted a commercial
opportunity. He guessed the French army’s march would take him
close to his home near Dresden, and as Napoleon’s armies swelled
with the addition of Prussian and German troops, Jacob deserted
and rejoined his brother, delivering the camellia plants he had secreted
in his luggage. Jacob and his brother Traugott (1775–1858) established
the Seidel nurseries near Dresden, which specialised in camellias,
indoor Azalea indica and palms. The Seidels experimented with peat
beds and rhododendron breeding and in 1843 Traugott co-authored
The Seidel Nursery, near Dresden, in 1904. This nursery has been producing rhododendrons and
woodland plants for well over 200 years.
The earliest Camellia introductions to Europe in the eighteenth century were greenhouse
cultivars such as C. japonica ‘Haku Botan’.
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pART I: HISTORY
Schlossgarten Oldenburg, Germany, one of the country’s oldest rhododendron gardens.
the first western book on rhododendrons. The next two generations
of the Seidel family, including grandson Rudolf, raised a huge number
of rhododendron hybrids tough enough to plant in many of the
colder parts of eastern and central Europe, supplying the plants for
woodland gardens and rhododendron parks such as Kromlau and
The Seidel hybrids later reached England and North America,
where they proved equally tough. You can still buy rhododendrons
from the eighth generation of the Seidel family involved in horticulture.
Connections between the extended Saxe-Coburg/House of
Hanover kings, queens and rulers of England and Prussia meant that
English and German gardening styles crossed back and forth across
the English Channel. The owners of German gardens and parks such
as Lütetsburg and the Schlossgarten Oldenburg imported many hardy
rhododendrons and azaleas from England, mainly from the Knap
Hill and Waterer nurseries in Surrey. The American and European
rhododendrons and azaleas were now well established in gardens.
Clark Ross’s 1839–43 expedition around the world, which mapped
the coast of Antarctica in the ships Erebus and Terror, surviving some
dangerous collisions with icebergs. During the expedition, Hooker
had collected plants in South America, Australia and New Zealand
for his father Sir William Hooker, director of the Botanical gardens
Joseph Hooker and the Himalayas
We now turn to a key player in the woodland garden story: explorer,
plant-hunter, writer and later director of Kew Gardens, Joseph Hooker.
At the age of 32, Joseph Hooker was already a veteran of Sir James
Joseph Dalton Hooker (1817–1911), British botanist and explorer.
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peter Hutchison, on the Milke Dande, Nepal, looking north, not far from the Sikkim border in 1985.
at Kew in London. Father and son planned a new expedition to the
Himalayas in search of plants, and Joseph Hooker left England in
1847, with numerous side excursions en route, before arriving at
Calcutta in January 1848, the start of two years of extensive exploration.
The summer of 1849 was a rain-drenched one for Joseph Hooker,
as only fools and foreigners would try exploring these mountains in
the monsoon season. All spring and summer, Hooker had been scouring
the Sikkim mountains as far as the Tibetan border in search of
new plants and he had found lots to excite him. As well as coping
with the terrain and the weather, Hooker’s Sikkim explorations were
dogged by politics. Sikkim’s rulers were rightly suspicious of the
intentions of their British neighbours, and Hooker devoted almost
as much energy to negotiating with officials as to exploring the mountains.
In the autumn of 1849, summer rains were easing and this was
the time for seed harvesting, collecting the capsules of the plants
Hooker had seen in flower in the spring and summer. Accompanied
by his friend, political officer Dr Archibald Campbell, Hooker reached
the top of the Cho La (pass) at almost 15,000ft in the Himalayas,
which led into the forbidden lands of Tibet. All the way to the top of
the pass, Hooker had been gathering the bounty for which his expedition
had been planned: poppies, primulas and 24 species of rhododendron
from the lily-like epiphytes of R. dalhousiae in the steamy
low-altitude jungle to the tree rhododendrons R. thomsonii and R.
griffithianum, to the tiny alpine R. anthopogon whose aromatic leaves
were used by Buddhists in offerings at the gates of monasteries. At
the top of the pass, Tibetan soldiers armed with matchlocks and bows
and arrows turned Hooker’s party back. That evening as they set up
camp, Hooker’s party was attacked by a mob who arrested Hooker’s
companion Campbell. Hooker was offered his freedom but determined
to stay with his friend, while still ‘quietly gathering rhododendron
seed by the way’. Word reached the British of this altercation
and troops were sent into Sikkim from the India border to force
Campbell’s release. Hooker’s large and important seed haul remained
intact and was consigned to Britain, ahead of his own return to
London in 1851. His account of the expeditions, the best-selling
Himalyan Journals, was published in 1854 and he later succeeded his
father as director of Kew.
Hooker’s plant introductions and writings had a significant effect
on the late Victorian garden landscape. Kew grew some of the seed
themselves and the seedlings were planted in the Rhododendron
Dell. But there was enough seed to send to many other gardens in
the UK and abroad. Meticulous records were kept of all the many
recipient gardens, including Edinburgh’s Royal Botanic Garden,
Castle Kennedy, Kilmory and Stonefield Castle in Scotland; Tregothnan,
Highclere, Heligan, Killerton, Belvoir Castle and the nurseries
of Veitch and Standish and Noble in England; Kilmacurragh,
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pART I: HISTORY
Glasnevin, Castlewellan and Ardnamona in Ireland. Seedlings were
also sent to the Arnold Arboretum in Boston, to Breslau, Berlin,
Dijon, Sydney and to three sites in New Zealand. Amongst Hooker’s
key 1850s woodland plant introductions were Magnolia campbellii,
Rhododendron niveum, R. lindleyi, R. campylocarpum, R. griffithianum,
R. thomsonii, R. setosum, R. dalhousiae, Meconopsis paniculata and
Primula sikkimensis. Hooker named many of his discoveries after the
government officials and friends who helped facilitate his trip including
Governor General Lord Dalhousie and his close friend and political
agent to Sikkim, Archibald Campbell.
Before we explore the next great era of plant-hunting at the beginning
of the twentieth century, another influential player needs to be
brought onto the stage.
William Robinson and the Victorian Gardener
The nineteenth century saw an explosion of horticulture in Victorian
England, which both the upper and lower classes embraced with
fervour. This was the age of formal/carpet bedding: shaped beds, cut
out of lawns, would be filled with geometrical patterns of colourful,
tender bedding plants and bulbs, replaced several times a year. The
expanding cities during the Industrial Revolution were beginning to
be dotted with parks, financed by leading industrialists, who engaged
designers such as Joseph Paxton to lay them out.
Another important Victorian obsession, and antecedent to the
woodland garden, was the shrubbery, using hardy evergreens such
Rhododendron falconeri, a Joseph Hooker herbarium specimen.
The Rhododendron Dell, Kew Gardens, London, designed by Sir Joseph Hooker, photographed in the late nineteenth century.
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THE HISTORY AND EVOLUTION OF WOODLAND GARDENING
The sweetly scented Rhododendron maddenii, one of Joseph Hooker’s Himalayan
The large-flowered Rhododendron griffithianum, introduced by Joseph Hooker, is one of the
parents of R. ‘Loderi’.
Nineteenth-century rhododendron hybrids at Tatton park, Cheshire, England.
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pART I: HISTORY
William Robinson (1838–1935), Irish gardener and author of The Wild Garden, portrait by Francis
Gardening Illustrated for Town and Country, a magazine founded by William Robinson in 1879.
as yew, laurel and privet to create shelter and privacy. The problem
was that these shrubberies quickly become large, dark and overgrown,
as William Robinson notes in The English Flower Garden:
the common mixed plantation of Evergreens means death to
the variety and beauty of flower . . . the most free-growing
are so thickly set as soon to cover the whole ground, Cherry
Laurel, Portugal Laurel, Privet, and such common things
frequently killing all the choicer shrubs and forming dark
heavy walls of leaves . . . a dark monotonous effect while
keeping the walks wet, airless, and lifeless.
As luck would have it a new range of more colourful evergreens was
about to become available: plant-hunters, plant breeders and nurserymen
from nurseries such as such as Veitch, Knap Hill and Waterer
of Bagshot began to distribute a spectacular new range of camellias,
magnolias and, above all, hardy hybrid rhododendrons. Informal
plantings of exotic shrubs began to line the drive sides, parkland and
woodland edges of country estates in the UK and Ireland as well as
in parks in Belgium, France, the Netherlands and Germany. For a
few months in spring, the dark Victorian shrubbery now burst into
William Robinson was born in Ireland in 1838 and arrived in
England to work at Regent’s Park, then a garden run by the Royal
Botanical Society. Robinson was in charge of the native plant collection
and he travelled extensively in Britain looking at both wild flowers
and gardens. With the Victorian horticultural boom came books and
magazines aplenty, which described and illustrated the latest advances
in garden technology and fashion: tools, glasshouses, heating, machinery,
new plants being collected from far-flung corners of the globe
and the latest hybrids bred from them. The most prolific of the Victorian
garden writers was Scotsman J. C. Louden, who wrote 60 million
words on every horticultural topic imaginable. William Robinson
soon saw an opportunity to join the garden writing fraternity, publishing
his first articles in Gardeners’ Chronicle in 1864–65. In 1867 he
became a full-time garden writer, inspired by tours of French gardens
and plant-hunting in the Alps.
Robinson’s most influential book, The Wild Garden, was first
published in 1870 and ran to five editions, re-edited and expanded
each time. Robinson’s reputation also rests on his book The English
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If one-tenth the trouble wasted on ‘carpet-bedding’ plants
and other fleeting and costly rubbish had been spent on flowering
shrubs, our gardens would be all the better for it.
By common consent the British statue is nothing to be
proud of, and the spread of the statue mania to gardens –
public or private – is to be deplored.
Few things have had a worse influence on gardening than
the Standard Rose.
Landscape architects, a stupid term of French origin.
Cliveden: the great flower garden, one of the most repulsive
examples of the extra formal school.
No cramming of Chinese feet into impossible shoes is
half so wicked as the wilful distortion of the divinely beautiful
forms of trees . . . The fact that men, when we had few trees,
clipped them into walls and grotesque shapes to make them
serve their notions of ‘design’ is surely not a reason why we,
who have the trees of a thousand hills with trees of almost
every size and shape among them, should violate and mutilate
some of the finest natural forms!
So, having looked at some of the things he disliked, what did he advocate?
Why should we not in these islands of ours, where there are
so many different kinds of landscape and characteristics of
soil and climate, have gardens in harmony, as it were, with
W. Robinson, The English Flower Garden
Gravetye Manor, William Robinson’s famous garden: an etching by Alfred parsons. Many such
illustrations were used in William Robinson’s books.
Flower Garden and the magazines he edited, The Garden and Flora
and Sylva. If one individual can be viewed as the ‘father’ of woodland
gardening it is Robinson, and the adjective ‘Robinsonian’ is often
used to describe gardens heavily influenced by him.
What does Robinsonian mean?
Robinson left a huge body of writing, featuring a combination of
brilliance, bombast and bigotry. Robinson particularly disliked most
formal gardens and he spent a decade castigating the leading garden
designer Reginald Blomfield for, amongst other things, designing
terraces in gardens. (This firmly argued position did not prevent
Robinson building a terraced garden at his home at Gravetye.) Robinson
was by no means alone as a horticultural polemicist at the time.
William Morris was another, with an equally dim view of carpet
bedding, which he describes as ‘an aberration of the human mind’.
Robinson, however, was certainly the most prolific and vocal garden
critic of this era; his intolerance of rival styles of gardening is almost
unmatched in horticultural history, his invective against his enemies
unceasing and his rudeness almost comical, as he lambasts his
favourite bêtes noires in works such as Garden Design (1892):
Above all, Robinson believed in observing how plants and communities
of plants grow naturally and then imitating this in the garden,
while banishing the manicured, the topiarised and the artificial. In
The Wild Garden, Robinson describes what became his most important
contribution to the woodland garden, his belief in ‘naturalising’
plants: ‘The placing of perfectly hardy exotic plants under conditions
where they will thrive without further care.’
Not all the plants Robinson recommended are looked on with
favour these days (though at least he notes the danger):
Japanese Knotweed P. cuspidatum is of fine graceful habit, its
creamy-while flowers borne in profusion. It should be grown
apart on the turf or in the wild garden. It is easier to plant
than to get rid of in the garden.
Robinson was at pains to point out that this ‘wild’ style of gardening
was not for the walled garden or formal garden – which he sometimes
granted should still have its place – but should instead be practised
in the ‘outer parts of the estate’.
The first of Robinson’s magazines, The Garden, launched in 1871,
featured articles on the many plant groups which would find their
way into the new wild and woodland gardens: flowering shrubs,
perennials and bulbs. From 1880 onwards, Gertrude Jekyll became a
regular contributor to the periodical and a valuable ally on most
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pART I: HISTORY
William Robinson’s home, Gravetye Manor: naturalised Camassia in orchard meadow.
subjects. Robinson, and his arch enemy, architect and formal garden
advocate Reginald Blomfield, battled away in print, and both tried
to enlist Jekyll’s support. Having entered the hitherto largely maledominated
world of garden design, and seeing through the bluster
to what lay behind the feud, Jekyll could see both sides of the argument.
As she saw it, both were right and both were wrong. Jekyll’s
solution, which followed on from the precepts of Humphry Repton
and John Dando Sedding, was to have formality nearer the house
with rectangular beds, terraces and straight lines, with wilder, more
natural gardening further away, which would eventually merge sympathetically
into the surrounding countryside. Jekyll’s approach is how
many of the Edwardian house and woodland garden combinations
were designed. There is perhaps no better example of this than at
Bodnant in North Wales where the house has a walled garden on
one side and a series of formal terraces (just the sort of thing that
Blomfield would build) on the slopes towards the River Conwy, while
the steeper River Hiraethlyn gorge is the centrepiece of a wonderful
woodland garden Robinson would have been proud of.
William Robinson’s role in designing or advising on specific
woodland gardens is hard to quantify. As a typical example of Robinson’s
attributed influence, A. J. Huxley in an article on Leonardslee
in Country Life 1959 writes:
One imagines William Robinson’s writings must have influenced
its design for the earliest plantings were made in 1888
only 16 years after Robinson started publishing his periodical
The Garden and five years after the first editions of his book
The English Flower Garden.
Leonardslee was the first of the great English rhododendron-dominated
woodland gardens to be planted and undoubtedly influenced
other gardeners nearby, with Sheffield Park, Borde Hill, South Lodge,
another Loder garden at Wakehurst Place and the Valley and Savill
Gardens at Windsor all within easy driving distance. Further afield,
Mount Usher in Ireland and Hergest Croft near the Welsh border
are often described as ‘Robinsonian’.
It turns out that Robinson did not formally design any gardens,
partly because he did not appear to have the skills as a draughtsman
to draw up garden plans on paper, but probably more because his
famed irascibility made the garden designer–client relationship
unlikely to bear fruit. Even his friends and professional colleagues
sometimes found him unbearable. Architect Edwin Lutyens wrote
after a day spent with Robinson: ‘he bores me . . . he goes off on
tangents – his conversation wayward and contradicts himself every
two minutes – until one feels inclined to explode . . .’
If Robinson had a rival in the world of Edwardian garden writing,
it was the equally outspoken Reginald Farrer, who was to rock gardening
what Robinson was to wild gardening. They met at least once, a
spectacular clash of egos. Farrer was not impressed, describing William
Robinson as: ‘unguided and unguidable . . . a thing purely anarchic,
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TREES, SHADE AND SHELTER
The River Vartry, at Mount Usher, Ireland, a garden often described as ‘Robinsonian’.
unruddered, unfounded on any rule or depth of knowledge’.
William Robinson did not create the woodland gardening style
on his own, but nobody else had more influence, particularly on
the next generation of gardeners who took advantage of the largest
influx ever seen of new plants from the wild. Whatever his shortcomings,
Robinson informally advised many gardeners and garden
owners. He visited Caerhays in 1899 and advised Leonard Messel at
Nymans, Frederick Lubbock at Emmetts, the Aclands at Killerton
and the owners of gardens in south-west Ireland including Derreen
and Garnish. His influence, above all, was from his periodicals and
best-selling books, many of which ran to multiple editions. Robinson’s
views were central to the zeitgeist for more naturalistic, less
artificial gardening, and Gravetye Manor, where he put his ideas
into practice, was much visited and written about by himself and
others. Robinson’s ideas have never gone out of fashion, even if his
name is fading with the passing of time. His greatest long-term
legacy must be his concept of ‘naturalising’. His belief that good
gardening practice would creating sustainable plant communities
has become widely accepted, and his legacy percolates down to the
New Perennial movement, the work of landscape architects, garden
designers and academics including Oehme, van Sweden, Roy Diblik,
Heiner Luz, Piet Oudolf and the Sheffield school of James Hitchmough
and Nigel Dunnett.
Robinson’s naturalising ideal may give the idea that wild and
woodland gardening is simply about planting amenable shrubs and
perennials and watching them grow. If only! Woodland gardening is
above all the artful illusion of non-intervention, creating a ‘look’ as if
everything is just taking care of itself. Even marginal gardener Geoff
Dutton spent many hours in his Scottish garden creating the myth
that he had hardly touched it. The ‘naturalness’ of wild gardening is
also questionable, given that most woodland gardens are an assemblage
of exotics: plants from China, Himalaya, the Andes and South Africa
transplanted to Europe, North America or Australasia.
The Golden Age of Plant-hunters in China
. . . it so happened that the great revival in rhododendron
growing, which set in with the opening of Tibet and China
to the plant-hunter, synchronised with a period of our garden
history which could not have been more auspicious . . . the
age of the informal and the naturally grown shrub was in the
ascendency. The soil was ripe for the argosies of Asia.
A. T. Johnson, A Woodland Garden
Following the 1885 Sino-French treaty of Tientsin, a series of missionaries,
mainly from France, headed for the mountains of western
China. Père Delavay, Père David, Père Bodinier, Père Farges and their
fellow churchmen spent at least as much time exploring and pressing
plant specimens, as they did converting the tribes of south-west China
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Above. Ernest Wilson’s collecting team and porters in China.
Below. One of Ernest Wilson’s introductions, Magnolia sargentiana var. robusta, at Sherwood, Devon, England.
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THE HISTORY AND EVOLUTION OF WOODLAND GARDENING
to Christianity. Thousands of pressed specimens of Chinese trees,
shrubs and perennials were sent back to Paris where expert botanists
such as Adrien Franchet sorted and identified them and, in the case
of many, describing them in Latin as new species. Delavay alone
collected more than 200,000 herbarium specimens in China. At
around the same time Irishman Augustine Henry combined the
tedium of his customs duties at Ichang in China, with plant-hunting,
collecting specimens which were sent back to Kew, before returning
to Ireland where he was appointed professor of forestry in Dublin.
Three significant Russian collectors were Dr Emil Bretschneider, who
sent some of his specimens to Paris; Nikolai Przewalski, who made
several attempts to reach Lhasa and discovered some important plants
including Daphne tangutica and Meconopsis punicea; and Grigori
Potanin, who explored Gansu, Sichuan and parts of eastern Tibet,
and who is commemorated by his discovery Larix potaninii.
Though they discovered hundreds of new plant species, named
by botanists in Europe from their carefully pressed herbarium specimens,
the missionaries and Henry collected very little seed, so that
most of their plant discoveries remained confined to the mountains
of China. As European nurserymen and garden owners became aware
of the new plants, they began to cast around for suitable men to travel
to the east to bring back seed. We have already met Ernest Wilson,
who had been commissioned to go plant-hunting in Asia. It is strange
that Wilson’s employer, Sir Harry Veitch, had such limited expectations
of what he might find in China:
My boy, stick to one thing you are after and do not spend
time and money wandering about. Probably almost every
individual plant in China has now been introduced into
Veitch’s advice turned out to be one of the most misguided botanical
statements in history, as over the subsequent decades China turned
out to be the greatest treasure trove of hardy new garden plants for
Wilson’s 1899 expedition marked the beginning of the greatest
age of plant-hunting and woodland gardening in Britain and Ireland.
On his four expeditions to China, Wilson managed to introduce a
raft of important woodland garden plants including Magnolia sargentiana
var. robusta and M. sprengeri, Rhododendron insigne and R.
williamsianum. In addition to his expeditions for the Veitch Nursery,
Wilson later worked for the Arnold Arboretum, Boston, USA, travelling
to both China and Japan. The Chinese provinces of Hubei and
Sichuan turned out to be rich sources of tough plants, which would
survive in eastern USA and northern Europe.
The next important figure to emerge as a great plant-hunter was
a Scotsman, George Forrest, who set off for China in 1904.
• • •
China: Mother of Gardens, an account of
Ernest Wilson’s plant hunting.
Isaac Bayley Balfour, Regius Keeper, Royal
Botanic Garden Edinburgh, in the early
Professor Isaac Bayley Balfour sat at his desk at the Royal Botanic
Garden, Edinburgh, staring with disbelief at the short letter from
China, dated 17 August 1905.
Foreign Office letter reporting George Forrest’s death 1905. A few days later he was reported
alive and well.
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Balfour reassured Forrest that his safety was more important than
his plant collections.
A few years after Forrest’s narrow escape, J. C. Williams was well
underway with his amassing of new Chinese plants for Caerhays in
Cornwall. Williams was determined to obtain all the Wilson and
Forrest rhododendrons offered from both Veitch and Arthur Bulley’s
Bees Nursery at Ness on the Wirral. On visiting Bees Nursery, he was
dismayed at the way the new plants were being looked after. He wrote
to Ernest Wilson: ‘I am quite sad to see stuff so knocked about, thousands
of things are dead through sheer ignorance of how to handle
J. C. Williams had an idea. If the nurseries were sending planthunters
to China, why should he not do the same? If his own plantpART
Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh, the old herbarium, with Clementina Traill (far right), later the wife of George Forrest, and herbarium staff.
There seems unfortunately little doubt that Forrest was
murdered on July 21st in the course of disturbances . . .
It was only the previous year that Balfour had seen an advertisement
placed by cotton merchant and nurseryman Arthur Bulley in Gardeners’
Chronicle. Having tried and failed to get the French missionaries
to send him seed of their discoveries from China, Bulley had determined
to find a plant-hunter to go to China and obtain seed for
wanted a young man well up in hardy
plants to go out to the Far East and Collect
Box 15, G.P.O. Liverpool
Balfour had replied to Bulley recommending one of his young
employees. ‘There is a man, Forrest, here who is on the lookout for
a billet such as you describe . . . the right sort of grit for a collector.’
Forrest had been in China for only a few months when on that
terrible morning, with the telegram in his hand, Balfour realised that
he had sent this brave young man to his death. Balfour had to share
the news with Forrest’s family and his fiancée Clementina, who
worked in the Edinburgh Botanic Garden herbarium.
A few days later, Balfour was perhaps even more shocked to receive
news dated 19 August 1907 stating: ‘Further telegram received from
consul, Yunnan, stating Forrest is alive and safe.’
It turned out that George Forrest was the only survivor of a
massacre by Tibetans of his colleagues, the Catholic priests and their
Chinese guides and staff, the legacy of a long and vicious frontier
war. The dead included the plant-hunting French missionary Père
Soulié and two of his fellow priests who were tortured for three days
before being killed. It took Forrest over 20 days to walk to safety,
much of the time being hunted by his would-be assassins.
Forrest later wrote to Bayley Balfour lamenting his professional
setbacks as well as his fragile mental state:
I have just passed through the worst experience of my life
and I sincerely hope I will never be called upon to suffer the
like again . . .
In the sack of Tsekou, I have lost everything; 700 species
of dried specimens, 70 species of plant seeds, my camera and
over 50 negatives of plants . . . Worst of all I have lost the
greater part of the season and this grieves me more than
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THE HISTORY AND EVOLUTION OF WOODLAND GARDENING
George Forrest, camp at Lijiang, Yunnan, China.
hunter could bring back seed, Williams could grow any number of
wild-origin plants in his glasshouses and nursery beds at Caerhays
and bypass the nurseries altogether. He invited George Forrest to
Cornwall in spring 1911, and was taken with this stocky, self-confident
Scot. The timing could not have been better. Forrest’s relationship
with nurseryman and plant collector Arthur Bulley had broken down.
Bulley had paid Forrest £200 a year for his dangerous expeditions to
China, but was a slow/reluctant payer, quibbling over expenses, and
Forrest had already decided to resign from Bulley’s employment.
When J. C. Williams offered him £500 to go to Yunnan to collect
plants for Caerhays, paid in advance, with no limits on expenses,
Forrest could hardly refuse a more than doubling of his salary. Scarcely
a month after his second child was born, he set out for Burma and,
from Rangoon, up river and over the mountain ranges, back to China.
Not surprisingly, Arthur Bulley was displeased to lose his collector,
but the timing was fortunate. Bayley Balfour’s connections in the
world of botany led him to suggest a replacement in the form of
young graduate, Frank Kingdon Ward, son of the professor of botany
at Cambridge. Ward had already been to China on a zoology expedition
and it did not take much to persuade him to return, this time
in Bulley’s employ. He set off for China in 1911 and had had already
discovered some new plants by the time George Forrest returned to
Yunnan in 1912. The Scot did not feel threatened by Austrian and
plant-hunter George Forrest in a Chinese moon gate.
J. C. Williams from Caerhays, the major sponsor of George Forrest’s later plant-hunting
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in 1913 despite the well-publicised dangers and strict instructions
from Chinese officials that it was not safe to go. Ward narrowly
escaped with his life in the raging border warfare but lost his collections
and was banished by the Chinese from further exploration.
Ward’s paymaster, the rather tight-fisted Arthur Bulley, was not
impressed, as he had already advertised in his catalogue the ‘untold
riches of the Chinese flora’ that Ward would bring back. The two
great plant-hunters never made peace, and as late as 1917 Forrest was
still waging his propaganda battle to keep Ward out of Yunnan, writing
disingenuously to one of his sponsors, Reginald Cory: ‘Results show
that Ward has no interest whatsoever in botanical or horticultural
work . . .’
Reginald Farrer was another plant-hunter sponsored by Arthur
Bulley. Farrer wanted to go to Yunnan, but aware that this was Forrest’s
guarded ‘patch’, determined instead to head for Burma in 1919 with
my grandfather Euan Cox as a companion. Farrer was livid when
Forrest’s trained Chinese collectors arrived in Farrer and Cox’s
Burmese valley, prompting a terse letter from Farrer asking Forrest
to call his collectors off. ‘Regret, cannot recall men’ replied Forrest.
Both collectors wrote in complaint to Isaac Bayley Balfour in Edinburgh
and the Regius Keeper had to stress once again that this vast
region could accommodate several collectors, writing to Farrer in
1919: ‘Twenty men working for twenty years wont exhaust it.’
Frank Kingdon Ward had the longest career of the great planthunters
of this era, from 1910 to the early 1950s, covering China, Tibet,
Burma and north-east India, with his most famous expedition to
the Tibetan Tsangpo Gorges in 1924–25, from where he introduced
the famous blue poppy Meconopsis baileyi. On later expeditions to
India, he introduced the magnificent yellow species rhododendron
R. macabeanum. Ward also wrote excellent accounts of all his expepART
Caerhays Castle, Cornwall, with huge magnolias and rhododendrons in the woodland behind.
George Forrest, haul of pressed specimens and seed; the collecting boxes are marked
for J. C. Williams.
German collectors Camillo Schneider and Dr Handel-Mazzetti
working in the same region, but Forrest was furious to find a competing
British plant-hunter in Yunnan, especially one in the pay of his
previous employer. He felt Ward was in direct competition, a rival
who might affect his livelihood. Over the next 10 years Forrest did
everything he could to guard his patch and stymie his rival, often
writing to Bayley Balfour and J. C. Williams complaining bitterly of
Ward’s activities. Both tried to pacify Forrest, believing that there
was work and plants enough in China for both of them. Forrest’s
aggressive reputation forced Ward to make a foolhardy trip to Tibet
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THE HISTORY AND EVOLUTION OF WOODLAND GARDENING
plant-hunter Frank Kingdon Ward, George Forrest’s great rival,
photographed in old age.
Embothrium, from Chile, collected by Harold Comber for the Andes Syndicate in the 1920s.
ditions as well as introducing many key woodland garden plants. It
was Ward’s writing that inspired me to follow in his footsteps to Tibet
in the 1990s, which in turn led to the publication of a new edition of
his classic Riddle of The Tsangpo Gorges, augmented with our
photographs of the plants and country Ward describes.
If there was a ranking system for the Sino-Himalayan planthunters,
the number one spot would probably go to George Forrest,
as he had more impact on the woodland garden than any other single
individual. In a 30-year plant-hunting career, Forrest and his team
of trained collectors amassed 31,015 specimens, made 5,300 rhododendron
collections and introduced hundreds of plant species for
the first time, many of which have become staples of the woodland
garden. Just a sample of his introductions reveals this: Abies forrestii,
Acer davidii, Acer forrestii, Clethra delavayi, Gentiana sino-ornata,
Incarvillea delavayi, Iris chrysographes, Magnolia delavayi, Michelia
doltsopa, Primula beesiana, Primula bulleyana, Rhododendron
arizelum, R. fulvum, R. forrestii, R. lacteum and R. sinogrande. If one
single introduction could be said to be the most influential, perhaps
it was Camellia saluenensis, parent of the Camellia x williamsii hybrids
including the world’s favourite Camellia ‘Donation’.
At some point in the 1920s, the estate-owning sponsors of planthunting
expeditions had accumulated such a backlog of rhododendrons
to plant in their woodlands that they decided, for a change, to
look to the southern hemisphere for new plants that might suit the
British climate. A group of garden owners which included the
McLarens at Bodnant and the Messels at Nymans formed the Andes
Syndicate in 1925. They commissioned Harold Comber, son of Nyman’s
first head gardener James Comber, to collect plants in the Andes on
two journeys, while a later expedition organised by Lionel de Rothschild
saw Comber scouring Tasmania’s plant-rich highlands. Comber introduced
some excellent plants for milder woodland gardens, amongst
them a group of shrubs with tubular red flowers, ideal for clambering
up mossy logs, Asteranthera ovata, Mitraria coccinea and Sarmienta
repens, and the deep-pink-flowered Philesia magellanica and its larger
relative Lapageria rosea. Comber’s collections of larger-growing
Eucryphia and Embothrium introduced two outstanding woodland
plants which extend the flowering season into summer.
Austrian Joseph Rock, Frank Kingdon Ward and the team of
Frank Ludlow and Geordie Sherriff were the last explorers of this
golden era of plant-hunting, which came to an end in the late 1940s
and early 1950s; in the post-Second World War world order, with
Mao’s triumph in China, the mountains of Asia were once again
closed to foreigners. A generation of frustrated potential explorers
wondered whether there would ever be another chance to go east.
Happily for them, after almost 30 years, east–west politics changed
and in 1981 a new era of plant collecting began with the Sino-British
Expedition to the Cangshan (SBEC) of which my father was a
member. Roy Lancaster, Bleddyn and Sue Wynn-Jones, Tom Hudson,
Dan Hinkley, Steve Hootman, Keith Rushforth, Alan Clark, Peter
Cox and Peter Hutchison, Tony Kirkham, Mark Flanagan, Jens Nielsen
and myself have all been lucky enough to be fit and able at a time
when amazing opportunities presented themselves once again for
the introduction of woodland garden plants. These modern-day
plant-hunters have not only re-introduced plants which had been
lost to cultivation but also collected hundreds of new plants for the
first time, many newly described by Chinese botanists. Northern
Vietnam, north-east India, Korea and the Chinese provinces, which
the earlier plant-hunters had missed, have all revealed many new
plant species, including rhododendrons, camellias and magnolias.
Climate change and warmer winters have made less hardy genera
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pART I: HISTORY
such as Schefflera more attractive as garden plants. This second golden
era of woodland garden plant-hunting may have drawn to a close
with the ratifying of the Convention on Biodiversity (1992) and the
Nagoya Protocol (2010). Signature countries to these agreements
make plant collecting for anything other than pure research difficult.
Even if collecting slows to a trickle, the woodland garden is already
a much richer place for the endeavours of the last few decades of
The Flourishing of Woodland Gardening in the British Isles
Woodland gardens have been so often associated with rhododendrons
that it has become a commonplace that it was the
rhododendron which was the stimulus to their creation. On
the contrary, the older the woodland garden, the less likely
that it was planned specifically to accommodate rhododendrons
. . . rhododendrons only gradually became dominant.
Brent Elliot, Garden History, Vol. 35
While rhododendrons were the stimulus for the establishment of
some twentieth-century woodland gardens, many eighteenth-century
and Victorian gardens had already been landscaped as pinetums,
arboretums and/or shrubberies and only later evolved into rhododendron
and magnolia-filled woodland gardens as new plants were
introduced from China. Such transformations took place at Antony
House, Dawyck, Minterne, Borde Hill, Westonbirt and Abbotsbury.
The pinetum planted in the 1870s at Bodnant in North Wales evolved
from 1910 onwards into a woodland garden with rhododendrons,
magnolias and camellias bought from the Veitch Nursery and later
grown from seed collected by George Forrest and other plant-hunters.
The fact that woodland plants grow so well in conifer plantations is
no coincidence. As plant-hunter Keith Rushforth says: ‘If you are in
the zone dominated by silver firs . . . you will be amongst the best
I have often found myself scouring distant Chinese hillsides and
gullies looking for the distinctive silhouette of firs and spruce, as
Abies (wetter) and Picea (drier) are the best indicators of rhododendron-rich
forest in China and the Himalayas. By 1900 woodlands of
The nineteenth-century pinetum at Bodnant, North Wales, was used to create one of the world’s great woodland gardens.
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THE HISTORY AND EVOLUTION OF WOODLAND GARDENING
Bluebells in the woodland at Nymans, Sussex, England, a Robinsonian wild garden.
North American spruce and fir were relatively common on the estates
of Britain’s gentry and these woodlands turned out to be ideal planting
sites for the newly introduced Himalayan and Chinese plants, leading
to the creation of some of the largest gardens ever created in the
British Isles. The prosperity of the late Victorian period in Britain
and Ireland from wealth created during the Industrial Revolution
led to a widening of the landowning classes which still included the
aristocracy and ‘old families’ but also empire builders, industrialists,
scientists, city bankers and stockbrokers who purchased properties
and, with them, the chance to garden. To garden on a large scale
required plants with a ‘wow’ factor. Nothing suited them better than
the newly introduced species of rhododendrons, magnolias and
camellias and the new cultivars bred from them. And they planted
them in thousands.
Henry Mangles sold his family’s Indian coffee plantation and
with the proceeds bought Littleworth, Surrey, in 1872. Later he hosted
the tea party where Gertrude Jekyll met Edwin Lutyens for the first
time. J. G. Millais purchased Compton’s Brow, Sussex and later wrote
one of the first rhododendron books, while in 1889 Sir Edmund Loder
inherited Leonardslee, which he filled with a combination of rhododendrons,
magnolias and exotic wildlife including wallabies. In 1890
investment banker Ludwig Messel bought Nymans and sponsored
plant-hunters to bring back treasures for his rock garden, pinetum,
glasshouses, Japanese garden and woodland garden, with guidance
from William Robinson. In Cornwall J. C. Williams inherited Caerhays
in 1890 and set about planting it with purchases from the Veitch
Nursery in Exeter, later sponsoring plant-hunter George Forrest.
George Johnstone inherited nearby Trewithen in 1904 and began
creating its famous woodland plantings.
In 1915, when the younger generation were suffering and dying
in the trenches of the First World War, a group of woodland gardeners,
including J. C. Williams, who himself lost sons in the battles in France,
formed an exclusive new club with founder members Charles Eley,
J. G. Millais and P. D. Williams. They met at Lanarth in Cornwall and
declared: ‘We are the Rhododendron Society’. To join this exclusive
club you had to be invited and you needed to own a substantial woodland/rhododendron
garden. Early members included Major Arthur
Dorrien Smith from Tresco and Edward Magor from Lamellen, both
in Cornwall, and the Loders, owners of the two Sussex gardens Wakehurst
Place and Leonardslee. Plant-hunters Ernest Wilson and George
Forrest were invited as honorary members; after all it was their expe-
The logo of the Rhododendron Society,
founded in England in 1915.
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pART III: THE pRACTICAL STUFF
Himalayan Garden, Yorkshire. Owner peter Roberts delights in spectacular colour in May.
ditions which provided the many new plant species from China
which filled the society members’ developing gardens.
Many of the great British woodland gardens were established and
planted during this period: Muncaster in the English Lake District,
Mount Stewart, Mount Usher, Kilmacurragh and Rowallane in Ireland,
and Logan, Brodick and Lochinch/Castle Kennedy in Scotland. In
1928, a new Rhododendron Association was formed with a less exclusive
membership than the Rhododendron Society, which it soon
replaced. Its first president was banker Lionel de Rothschild, who
moved to the New Forest in 1922 and planted woodland gardens at
Exbury (see pp. 43–46).
By the end of the 1920s, most of the great woodland gardens in
Britain were in full swing and introductions such as Magnolia
denudata, M. sargentiana var. robusta and M. sprengeri, Camellia
saluenensis and Rhododendron griersonianum provided the genepool
for the gentlemen woodland gardeners and hybridisers who raised
enormous numbers of new cultivars of magnolias, camellias and
rhododendrons. Lionel de Rothschild at Exbury concentrated on
breeding azaleas and large-flowered and late-flowering rhododendrons,
while Lord Aberconway at Bodnant, J. C. Williams at Caerhays,
the Johnstones from Trewithen and others would bring their latest
rhododendron, magnolia and camellia hybrids to London shows to
compete for awards, taking the credit for what was often the work
of their head gardeners. The top show accolade was the ‘FCC’ or First
Class Certificate and competition for them was fierce.
During the 1920s, at Caerhays and Borde Hill, the first Camellia
x williamsii hybrids were created by crossing the long cultivated C.
japonica with the newly introduced C. saluenensis which produced
freer-flowering and hardier cultivars more suited to northern gardens.
Reflecting the complexity in the taxonomy and the sheer numbers
of taxa which had been named, John Barr Stevenson at Tower Court
edited the first monograph on rhododendron species, published in
Woodland gardens in Britain were supplied by a group of pioneering
nurseries owned by skilled plantsmen, many of whom were also
hybridising and selecting new varieties which would be launched at
the Chelsea show. In the nineteenth century the extended Waterer
family were the kings of rhododendron production on the acid
Bagshot Sands. The sons and grandsons ended up running rival businesses
under the names Waterer, Knap Hill and Goldsworth nurseries.
The widest range of trees and shrubs was supplied by the nursery
firm of Hillier who also had a thriving export business. Standish and
Noble, later Sunningdale Nursery, survived for over 120 years, changing
hands several times but run latterly by the extraordinary triumvirate
of Harry White, Jim Russell – who went on to design many gardens
including Ray Wood at Castle Howard – and Graham Stuart Thomas,
whose later career was as the most influential garden advisor at the
National Trust. In Cornwall, Treseders Nurseries, Trehane Camellias
and Burncoose provided a huge range of material to west country
woodland gardens, including southern hemisphere rarities, while
elsewhere in Britain, retail growers and hybridisers included Reuthe,
Hydon and Millais nurseries in England and Glendoick in Scotland.
Dutch nurseries exhibited their latest hybrids at Chelsea and often
named them for the English market; the most popular red hybrid of
this era, from C. B. Van Nes, was named ‘Britannia’ in 1921. Not long
afterwards, Dietrich Hobbie in Germany began hybridising dwarf
rhododendrons with red and pink bells, which quickly became very
popular as ideal evergreens for suburban gardens all over Europe.