RHS Recommended Lecture - A Century of Rhododendrons
Introduction & Brief History
Home to a National Magnolia Collection, the gardens here at Caerhays are a spring-time wonderland for visitors.
The 120 acre woodland gardens are English Heritage Listed Grade II*. The origins of this historically important collection of Chinese plants can be traced back to the work of the great plant hunters Ernest Wilson (1876 - 1930) and George Forrest (1873 - 1932).
As Caerhays is a spectacular spring garden, public opening is normally from February to the beginning of June. Groups are welcome throughout the year, with prior booking.
There are structured walks around the garden giving views over the estate and grounds, the lake, and out to sea. Guided tours of the gardens by the head gardeners are available and usually last around 1½- 2 hours. These must be prebooked.
Dogs are welcome in the gardens on leads.
J C Williams of Caerhays (1862 - 1939) gave up politics in 1895 and became passionate about gardening. He was quick to recognise the importance of the plant hunters' work and contributed £300,000 (in today's terms) of his own money towards Forrest's 1911 and subsequent expeditions, as well as being involved in the joint funding of many other trips.
In return, Caerhays received a wealth of seed from newly discovered species of Chinese rhododendrons, magnolias, camellias, azaleas, acers and evergreen oaks to mention but a few. A large number of these unique plants can be seen growing in maturity at Caerhays today.
The arrival of this plant material opened up opportunities for JC and his successors, Charles and Julian Williams to engage in an extensive programme of hybridisation work which is still going on today. The origin of the truly hardy, free flowering and easy to grow x williamsii strain of camellias dates from J C's original cross between Camellia saluenensis and Camellia japonica in 1923. Williamsii hybrid camellias now number many thousands of varieties and are still hybridised and grown throughout the world.
We have lots of photos in our 'what's in the garden section' of J C and Caerhays' achievements in hybridising magnolias, rhododendrons and camellias. Visitors to the gardens will see some of our latest hybridisation work as well as the ever expanding NCCPG National Magnolia Collection which now numbers around 80 species and over 500 hybrids
Caerhays is a woodland garden covering the whole of Castle Wood and now extending on into Kennel Close Wood, Forty Acres Wood and Old Park. With recent clearings and new plantings there are well over 120 acres of garden tended by a team of four or five gardeners led, since 1996, by Jaimie Parsons.
A Garden View
The gardens are open to the public for over 100 days from mid February to early June and attract more than 14,000 visitors in a year. To some this may seem a very early spring start and rather a short period of time to be open. Caerhays is however very much a traditional Cornish spring flowering garden and, by June, the trash and vegetation which grows so quickly in our wet climate (55-60 inches of rain per year) has less obvious appeal to visitors.
Caerhays is not a manicured or planned garden in the conventional sense. It is however designated as being of Outstanding importance by Kew Gardens and Registered as a Grade II* Park and Garden by English Heritage under the old style designations which they are soon to review.
Until the turn of the 20th Century Caerhays had no real garden. The earlier 19th century plant introductions of Joseph Rock, Hooker, or Abbe Delavay from China and the Lobb brothers in South America are largely absent. Caerhays only came into its own as a premier Cornish or British garden after 1900 with the combination of an ongoing family interest in plants and their opportunity and desire to link in with the exciting plant exploration work taking place in China. Although gardeners did disseminate new plants widely amongst neighbouring or family estates such as Heligan, Trewithen, Tregothnan and Stanage much of the material at Caerhays (and Werrington Park) is unique. The first plants of many new species formerly unknown in Western Europe can still be seen today more than a hundred years on.
The garden at Caerhays has a unique microclimate. The prevailing and frequently westerly gales rage over the top of the sheltered garden. Sea mists bathe the woodland in moisture and humidity which is very suited to the Chinese mountain habitats from which so many magnolias and rhododendrons originate. In addition the rich acidic soil is ideal for growing ericaceous plants. Just as many would regard the castle as an ugly building without its setting in the Luney valley, so the gardens themselves would also be impossible to replicate if set in a less favourable environment.
To appreciate what the gardens are really about imagine you are halfway up a mountain in the Chinese province of Yunnan 100 years or so ago and then enjoy the reality of Caerhays.
The Chinese Plant Hunters
The gardens at Caerhays stem from the work of two great Chinese plant collectors, E.H.Wilson (1876 -1930) and George Forrest (1873 – 1932). If they were the ones who risked their lives collecting plant seeds from new species unknown in Western Europe in parts of China which were still, even at the start of the 20th Century, effectively in the Dark Ages, it was the sponsors and funders of their expeditions who then grew on the spoils in their new gardens.
J.C. Williams, who owned Caerhays, Burncoose and Werrington Estates, bought his first 25 Chinese rhododendrons from the Veitch Nursery in Exeter in 1903. In 1905 the Garden Book at Caerhays records the first of these new Chinese specimens, which had been collected by Wilson, being planted out on the hillside above the castle. By 1906 over 50 new species of Rhododendrons were being planted out and the creation of the garden was well under way.
Part of what we look at today as the core of the woodland garden would have been coastal scrub. The remainder, at the top of the garden, was still fields. JCW and his garden staff, which numbered over 50 by 1910, made inroads into the scrub to create small sheltered planting coupes. They also wisely planted dense shelterbelts to protect the new introductions.
The excitement of the first new arrivals was tempered by the risks being taken by the plant collectors. In Szechwan and Yunnan, where disputes were still being settled with bows and arrows, and where Forrest was to narrowly escape the fate of many indigenous tribesmen who had their hearts cut out and eaten, there was a considerable risk that collectors would be unable to return. For this reason their plant introductions had to be protected at all costs with little thought of ultimate size or fancy colour schemes. Survival was all important.
Nestling plants together for protection to help create their own microclimates is how we would perhaps describe it today. Probably more likely, was that JCW and his head gardeners were trying to replicate the densely wooded mountain slopes of Yunnan by planting thickly and in clumps.
In 1911 George Forrest switched allegiances to work for JCW. His third Chinese expedition from 1912 – 1915 was funded entirely by JCW on his own to the tune of £3,108.13s.6d. This would be over £400,000 in today’s money. JCW was also to make major financial contributions to Forrest’s next four expeditions ending with his death in Tengyueh, China in 1932.
J C Williams
Literally thousands of packets of seeds began arrive at Caerhays and the onset of World War in Europe appears to have made no difference to the collectors’ continuing work.
JCW, Wilson and Forrest were great letter writers. Forrest’s letters to JCW meticulously record his discoveries while JCW’s replies often go into great detail about the first flowerings of these new plants.
Forrest’s collecting was not limited to rhododendrons alone but encompassed a wide range of other genuses including, acer, magnolia, michelia, manglietia to mention but a few of his woody (as opposed to herbaceous) plant introductions.
A selection of original, and possibly the most important, of Wilson and Forrest’s introductions at Caerhays are listed below. It is interesting to note the longevity of some of these plants which continue to be record sized UK trees in their own right 80 or more years after planting. It would seem that Chinese magnolias will live to be a hundred but many rhododendron species peak at the age of 60 – 70.
One can only speculate on how many seeds failed to germinate and which were consequently never named. Some may have been rediscovered in more recent times by botanists but many more may well await rediscovery. Although JCW paid Forrest a bonus for each new species of rhododendron he brought back, and although this may have helped cause the same species to be given several different names, the sheer volume of discoveries made by Wilson and Forrest remains staggering to comprehend in this day and age.
Please read more in the Caerhays Garden Guide or Caerhays Book.
Original Forrest Introductions
|24214||Magnolia campbellii subsp.mollicomata|
Some Wilson introductions at Caerhays which survive today
|923||Magnolia sargentiana var. robusta|
|4239||Rhodo. davidsonianum - Caerhays Pink form|
|1350||Rhodo. williamsianum (original plants have died -but one remains at Burncoose)|
|290||Styrax wilsonii (original died but seedlings survive)|
|313||Trochodendron arallioides (Old Park)|