Woodland Gardening by Kenneth Cox sample chapters pps 7-42

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Woodland Gardening, Published in May 2018 is the first full colour survey on the history and practice of woodland gardening with acid-loving plants: rhododendrons, azaleas, magnolias, camellias, hydrangeas, trees and perennials.

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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.

Moderate temperatures

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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PART I

HISTORY


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chapter 1

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

trees.

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

Howard.

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

century.

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

architects.

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

steep steps.

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,

New York.

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

woodland gardening.

The influence of Chinese, Japanese and Korean gardens in the west

Above. Niuxin or QingYin pavilion, Emeishan, Sichuan, surrounded by a natural woodland

garden.

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

the highlights.

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

woodland-style garden.

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

Pacific Northwest.

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

the 1980s.

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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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

longhorn beetles.

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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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

pinetums.

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

Graal Müritz.

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 sweetly scented Rhododendron maddenii, one of Joseph Hooker’s Himalayan

rhododendron introductions.

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

Dodd.

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

bloom.

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

their surroundings?

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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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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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

Europe.

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

temperate gardens.

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

twentieth century.

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

them.’

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

I: HISTORY

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

himself.

SITUATIONS VACANT

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

anything.

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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

expeditions.

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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

I: HISTORY

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

exploration.

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

rhododendrons.’

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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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

1930.

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.

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