What’s wrong with Rhododendrons?

Towards the end of May I spent two consecutive days garden visiting and there could hardly have been a greater contrast.  Firstly I was one of thousands at the RHS Chelsea Flower Show and the following day I attended a preview of Leonardslee Gardens in West Sussex currently undergoing restoration.  Apart from the weather – we were well and truly rained on at Leonardslee as the bottom photograph attests – the greatest contrast was the Rhododendron question.

Purple rhododendronLeonardslee contains one of the great collections of these shrubs ranging from small mounds of colour to majestic frameworks that you can walk through.  Whereas at Chelsea I noticed only two gardens that included a Rhodo or Azalea.  Of course fashions change and plants come and go in popularity.  The current trend for gardens reminiscent of natural landscapes has clearly not extended to the foothills of the Himalayas with its lush Rhododendron forests.  And it is true that they are pretty flamboyant performers, espescially this year, which does not suit every style of garden design.  But I do think it a shame not to see more Rhodos in the gardens at this iconic flower show.  After all it is exactly the right time of year for them to bloom and almost everyone has a “wow, look at that!” reaction when they see one at their peak.

A quick note on the names we habitually use: ‘Rhododendron’ generally refers to the large leaved, evergreen plants with flowers of white, pink, purple or red; ‘Azalea’ to the deciduous plants with scented flowers of yellow, peach or orange.  But botanically they are all the same genus.

This was a good year for all spring flowering shrubs and seeing Rhododendrons as I drove around has been a real treat.  In fact I reckon that the front garden is the ideal place for one.  You see the stunning flower power whenever you come and go but are not faced with a huge ball of eye-watering pink when you are relaxing in your back garden.  They can be somewhat dull and green through the summer but planting a summer flowering climber like a Clematis to scramble up and over gives a second season of colour in the same space.  So cheer me up and join the Rhododendron revolution!

Leonardslee Restoration and re-opening

Whether you are firmly in the Rhododendron camp, interested in the history of plant hunting and rare trees or simply like to walk through acres of stunning planting then the restoration and planned re-opening of Leonardslee Lakes and Gardens is good news.  Sold and closed in 2010 the gardens were neglected until a new owner bought the estate in 2017 to restore and re-open the landscaped grounds, lakes and valleys.

Rhododendron photo

Rhododendron valley at Leonardslee

I never managed to visit before the closure although the gardens were high on my ‘must visit’ list.  So I jumped at the chance to see them last month on a preview visit.  The word that comes to mind was “spectacular” and despite the pouring rain there was much stopping to admire and photograph. The landscaped woodland gardens were first planted in 1801 and are listed Grade I on the Register of Historic Parks and Gardens.  The gardens are in a steep-sided valley with seven man-made ponds running along the bottom.  The slightly acidic soil and the damp microclimate of the valley mean that rhododendrons, camellias and magnolias thrive and it is the home of the original Loderi Rhododendron, named after the owner of Leonardslee in the early 1900s.

Much work has already been done in both the gardens and the buildings and I shall certainly visit again once the estate is once more open to the public.  The website Leonardslee house & garden has all the details – watch this space, as they say.

Happy Gardening, Alison

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