Rhododendrons at Stoneywell
Rhododendrons are a principal feature of the gardens at Stoneywell, with some 150 varieties planted around the four acres. Fringing the drive and tennis courts before extending into the woodland, the rhododendrons produce a succession of flowers which ensures something is in colour every week of the year. Stoneywell garden volunteer Anne tells us more.
One of the joys of being a volunteer garden host at Stoneywell is the chance to become acquainted with a completely different set of plants to those that enjoy my Leicester clay. The acidic, sandy and sharply-drained soil here at Stoneywell is plant heaven for pieris, camellias and rhododendrons. Before I came here, I used to be dismissive of the latter, regarding them sniffily as being too big and gaudy for my taste but - having had the deep pleasure of watching them blossom in a cycle carefully planned by Donald and Anne Gimson's discerning taste to last from January to August, with the peak as you might expect in April or May - I appreciate them so much more now.
Just like the sleepy piping of the first blackbird to start the dawn chorus, the first rhodie to brave the worst of the winter in the new year is often the doughty little Rh. Dauricum 'Midwinter', with its open purple flowers. It was first collected in Dauria in Siberia (hence its name), where it can survive temperatures as low as -32°C, and was introduced to the UK in 1780. It became one of the parents of another early riser to be seen dotted about the grounds in February, Rh. Praecox (Latin for 'forward' or 'eager') with its mauve-purple flowers well in advance of its leaves. However in many years even it is pipped to the post by the suitably named 'Christmas Cheer' which has been known to burst into luxuriant pink bloom in November and keep going until February, which cheers the stout hearts of the garden gang during the dark months.
Although there are lots of gorgeous pinks and reds which quickly come to the fore in May, there is also much pleasure to be derived from some of the less conspicuous but beautiful yellows. For example, this March saw hosts of flowers like so many Brimstone butterflies covering Rh. lutescens in the spring sunshine and, looking ahead, the gleamingly translucent primrose bells of Rh. 'Moonstone', will soon be brightening up a dark corner overlooking the tennis court. We will not have long to wait for tawny, amber-hearted Rh. luteum, with its beautiful fragrance. This last has the extra virtue of proving vibrant foliage in autumn.
Showstoppers can still be found in early summer after the peak of the season. like the sensational Rh. loderi 'King George (near the sheds), with its exuberent shell pink and gloriously scented flowers. Late summer sees the glacial white 'Polar Bear' blossom, which surprises many a visitor who entertained no expectation of seeing any rhodie in flower at this at this time of year.
Yet glorious as all flowers are, there are other subjects which can make the visitor gasp at the sight of their foliage along. One example is Rh. Sinogrande )a lyrical Latin name meaning, 'Great Chinese'), which always catches the visitor's eye and prompts a question as to its identity, even from a non-gardening spouse dragged along for the day! This stunner has enormous, glossy, paddle-shaped and deep-veined leaves, often a foot long here at Stoneywell but capable of growing to three feet in length in its native China. As if that were not treat enough, it also has lovely yellow blossoms in Spring. Another plant that electrifies is the much smaller Rh. cinnabarinum ssp xanthocodon, which has steely blue foliage and makes a real statement in the border.
So why not come along and expand your rhododendron horizons at Stoneywell? You too may experience a Damascene conversion!