Wednesday, July 22, 2020

Lionel de Rothschild's Azaleas at Exbury

By Judith Taylor

Azalea is now an anachronistic term, purely descriptive. We are no longer allowed to refer to azaleas by the flower police. Modern taxonomy has shown that they are not a separate genus but actually rhododendrons. Pity.

Putting that cavil behind us let’s turn to Lionel de Rothschild and his gorgeous shrubs. He was born in 1882, the son of Leopold and Marie née Perugia de Rothschild and a great grandson of Mayer Amschel Rothschild, the founder of the dynasty in Frankfurt.  By then the Rothschilds had been established in England for almost eighty years and were completely Anglicized. The one thing they adhered to was their faith. The story of Nathan Mayer Rothschild finally being allowed to take his seat in Parliament on July 26, 1858, without having to swear on the New Testament, remains alive in English Jewish history. The House eventually permitted him to remain hatted and swear by Jehovah, not Jesus. He had been elected on two previous occasions but would not betray his religion.

Lionel de Rothschild in uniform, WWI

His parents sent Lionel to Harrow and later Trinity College, Cambridge and as the eldest son he was groomed to work in the family bank. Leopold was an affable and genial man who lived for hunting, shooting and horse racing. Lionel gradually lost interest in these pursuits even though he was a skilled shot.

What he loved was speed. Whenever he had a chance he would take one of his fast cars out for a spin. He spent a lot of time at race car tracks. While exciting this was an unproductive pastime. Fortunately it was later replaced by the very constructive passion for horticulture which absorbed the main part of his adult life but which could be traced back to his childhood. Even as a small boy he had been attracted to the rhododendrons in his father’s gardens at Ascott in Leighton buzzard. Unlike so many children he made good use of the little garden plot they let him have when he was five.

“Mr Lionel”, as all the staff called him, even senior managers, married the composer Meyerbeer’s grand daughter Marie Louise Beer in 1912. In 1919 Rothschild bought the Mitford estate at Exbury in Hampshire on the Beaulieu River. The property had been owned by the descendants of Walter Mitford, not David Freeman-Mitford, Lord Redesdale. Mitford’s grandson had called it an “earthly paradise”.

Azaleas at Exbury

The estate was heavily wooded and required an army of more than two hundred gardeners to clear out the excess undergrowth. Rothschild prevented the men from destroying the mature trees. Some of the cypresses had been grown from seed cones in the Duke of Wellington’s funeral wreaths in 1853. It was clear he already knew what he wanted to do.

Rhododendrons do best in partial to full shade. If you drive past wild ones in the Pacific North West the colours get deeper and richer the farther away you get from the road. A wood is the ideal place to raise them. A dairyman in Pennsylvania, or “cow feeder” as Sir Walter Scott called them, Joseph Gable, only had very modest means but did own a lot of untouched woodland. That enabled him to become one of the leading breeders of new rhododendrons of his generation. Later when he gave up farming and bred rhododendron full time someone asked why he had switched. Gable replied “Well, I never did like being nursemaid to a cow”.

Those decades were very fruitful for new plants. Since the nineteenth century various British syndicates and large nursery firms had sent explorers to very remote parts of Asia to bring back new and unknown plants. The syndicates dispersed their trophies amongst each other for gentle competition and enjoyment. The nurseries made fortunes from selling the exotic finds.

The explorers worked in different ways. Many of them were very tough Scots. They hired Chinese porters and stayed wherever they could, often in very rough conditions. One or two climbed to fifteen thousand feet in the Himalayas to reach the plants. At that altitude a rhododendron grows prostrate along the ground.  Their presence aroused dismay among Buddhist lamas and the latter tried to chase them away, attacking them violently.

The French missionary fathers in the region, who were very capable plant collectors themselves, had been too successful with their missionary efforts. Buddhists were becoming Christian. In the lamas’ minds all white men were devils. Plant explorers like George Forrest were not so easily intimidated. Their entire lives had been one of unmitigated hardship at the hands of the Scottish head gardeners.

In some cases Europeans already living and working in those countries were enthusiastic collectors. For example Nathaniel Wallich in India, a Danish surgeon who became an Englishman as a result of one of the many petty local wars of the time, sent back the enormous Rhododendron arboreum with its crimson flowers. Nothing like that had ever been seen before in England.  The few native European and Eurasian rhododendron species were in pastel colors. The lavender R. ponticum is one of those. The big challenge for the plant breeders was to keep the deep crimson colour but reduce the size of the trunk and branches.

Rhododendron arboreum

British gardens already had numerous azaleas from the eighteenth century exploration of North America such as R. catawbiensis. Trying to find more of the genus in Asia was a natural extension of this process. In the foundational epoch of the planet the single ur-continent of Pangaea is thought to have split into Asia and North America billions of years ago but still after the development of the flowering plants.  Plants of the same family which had been growing together in the mother continent were now separated and developed along their own lines. This was true of more than one genus, including magnolias and maples.

As a class of plants most rhododendrons require acid soil and many are very tender. They are endemic to the warmer southern parts of the United States and sub tropical China. Gable’s life work was to make them more winter hardy. Some breeders also tried to develop hybrids which might grow on chalky soil. The hardiness which came from the high alpine species was lost as a result of much breeding.

Rothschild wanted to breed in new color, dimensions and fragrance. When he died in 1942 he left 1024 new cultivars, immensely enriching the entire world by his work. He won many cups and medals in his life time but in 2001 the American Rhododendron Society gave him a posthumous Pioneer Achievement Award.  His death in the middle of World War II allowed the Admiralty to requisition his house and estate to be the headquarters for Navy shipping along the Beaulieu River. Lionel’s family vacated the house at forty eight hours notice.

Back in 1920, with the property cleared, he began construction. Winding paths were carved out. A large water tower emerged, the source of miles of irrigation pipes. That particular micro -climate was very dry. Rothschild built a small private railway to bring in the heavy rocks and stone he needed for his glens and dells. Later that came in very handy for rebuilding the dwelling house on the property. There were two small steam engines which are still an attraction now.

The final step was acquiring the plants to begin his great adventure. He did not always have to start from scratch. Knap Hill Nursery in Surrey was the source of many valuable hybrids on which he could build and the Belgian breeder Mortier had already introduced the  ‘Mollis’ azaleas.

One of the most striking elements of his work came from an obscure Japanese species only to be found growing on the top of a hill on a small island off the coast, R. yakushimanum. The moment it was presented to him by Koichiro Wada, a dedicated Japanese nurseryman, in the 1930s he saw its potential. The entire plant can only be about eighteen inches to three feet tall and is very hardy. This gave him a dwarfing gene with which to modify so many of his prospective hybrids. 

R. yakushimanum

During his active years he meticulously planned the crossings he wanted done to reach his goals. Unless a breeder has a strong notion of what he is trying to accomplish simply making crossings for their own sakes can be a meaningless exercise in futility. Other wealthy men used the same discipline with their flocks of pedigree sheep or their Arabian horses. Rothschild followed the advice he was intelligent enough to seek from experts like J. C. Williams at Caerhays in Cornwall. They often participated in the same plant exploring syndicates.

Every Friday he drove down from London to spend his time gardening. “Gardening” in his vocabulary did not mean putting on an old tweed jacket and wellies, then sallying forth with a hoe. No, this was a strategic planning meeting with the head gardener, laying out the genealogical background of each plant he wanted crossed. He had spent much of the time at the office working out these plans.  He himself performed the hand pollination of each cross but then told the staff where he wanted the older saplings to go. Once he had quipped that he wanted his epitaph to read “A gardener by profession and a banker by hobby”.

The head gardener issued his instructions to the thirteen gardeners at his disposal. Some of the exquisite results were R. ‘Albatross’, ‘Avalanche’, ‘Brocade’ and more in the alphabetical order he chose his names.

R. Albatross

There is actually much more to be said about the gardens at Exbury than is possible in this short essay. Rothschild liked almost all trees and plants. He created an arboretum of England’s trees on his land and dabbled in breeding narcissus. The distinguished forester W. J. Bean advised him about the arboretum.

After World War Two ended his son Edmund tried to maintain the estate but there were almost no men available to work in the gardens. As I write this I realize how little the idea of women working as gardeners had penetrated the wider consciousness. Beside this concern there were the issues of taxation and general maintenance which even the Rothschilds could not ignore. Edmund de Rothschild donated the estate to the public and set up a registered charity to take care of it. In that way the rhododendrons were kept in their natural habitat and many visitors would enjoy the cool charm of the winding paths and long vistas.


Philips, C. E.  Lucas and Peter N. Barber 1979  (revised edition)  The Rothschild Rhododendrons

London                Cassell

Taylor, Judith M. 2014  Visions of Loveliness: great flower breeders of the past”

Athens, Ohio       Ohio University Press


Judith M. Taylor MD is a graduate of Somerville College and the Oxford University Medical School and is a board certified neurologist. She practiced neurology in New York and since retiring has written six books on horticultural history as well as numerous articles and book reviews on the same subject.

Dr Taylor’s books include The Olive in California: history of an immigrant tree (2000), Tangible Memories: Californians and their gardens 1800 – 1950 (2003), The Global Migrations of Ornamental Plants: how the world got into your garden (Missouri Botanical Garden Press 2009), Visions of Loveliness: the work of forgotten flower breeders (Ohio University Press 2014) and An Abundance of Flowers: more great flower breeders of the past (Ohio University Press  2018).  In 2019 she published A Five Year Plan for Geraniums: growing flowers commercially in East Germany 1946 – 1989. This book has recently been shortlisted for a prize from the Council on Botanical and Horticultural Libraries.
Dr Taylor’s web site is:

1 comment:

  1. A thoughtful post about a truly great gardener. Admission to Exbury allows you to come back in the autumn, when it becomes a completely different garden with a fabulous palette of rich autumn colours.


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