I saw this rhododendron right at the top of the bluebell wood in Emmetts Garden, a National Trust property just outside Sevenoaks in Kent and noted the pendant habit of the flowers and of course, the warm, deep shades of orange, both setting this apart as a rather special rhododendron. I suspected it was R. cinnabarinum, and it may well be a named cultivar but there was no label that I could see.
The garden was set up as the country retreat of an Edwardian gentleman with inclinations to create something rather special, with plenty of (then and now) unusual plants, so it is not surprising to find this particular plant in residence. I was, I admit, in some haste to see the bluebells I had already glimpsed from higher up the woodland slope, but did stop long enough for these two photographs. The foliage apparently has both a metallic sheen and a distinct camphor-cinnamon smell that I did not notice (the bluebells, you see) and the copious nectar is immensely poisonous.
Altogether a rather lovely and still rare rhododendron in cultivation and I am glad I didn’t miss it entirely.
Now that I have a little more time I’ve looked up Emmetts Garden in my ‘The Gardens of Britain and Ireland’ (Ed. Patrick Taylor) for a bit more insight.
A wild garden of trees and shrubs on a fine hilly site
High, wild and windy are the words that spring to mind at Emmetts. The occasional touch of formality – for example, a formal rose garden hedged in Thuja – seems like a domestic pussy cat that has wandered into a den of lions. The garden is 600ft/180m above sea level (reputedly the highest point in the whole of Kent), and is exposed to winds and frequently marvellously shrouded in mist.
Frederick Lubbock, a friend of William Robinson, bought the estate in 1893 and made his garden, which, in the pointedly accurate words of Graham Stuart Thomas, “owes nothing to design and little to forethought”. A rock garden was made under the influence of Robinson, who illustrated it in his Alpine Flowers for the Garden (1903). The soil is sufficiently acid to support camellias, eucryphia, Kalmia latifolia, rhododendrons and splendid stewartias. All these grow among thickets of distinguished trees – acers, beech, Davidia involucrata, dogwoods (Cornus species) and tulip trees (Liriodendron tulipifera).
Emmetts gives its greatest pleasure in spring and autumn. In April, the lower slops are thick with bluebells; camellias and azaleas are in flower; and the pale foliage of deciduous trees gives freshness to the scene. In autumn, there are the beautiful colours of Berberis wilsonii (red leaves and red fruit). Cercidiphyllum japonicum (whose autumn leaves smell of candy floss) and many acers. As you follow the paths winding down the hill the exotic trees and shrubs give way, almost imperceptibly, to the natural wild scrub.
I would not make a long journey in order to visit Emmetts, but it is a wonderful thing to have on one’s doorstep – an attractive example of the Robinsonian naturalistic style of gardening wholly appropriate to its site. On a blowy day, with the aromatic whiff of azaleas in the air, a brisk walk among the trees and shrubs about the hill can seem exactly what is needed.
A more generous account of the garden is given in Gardens of the National Trust (Stephen Lacey)
Emmetts is one of Kent’s highest gardens. After the 1987 storm, the views became panoramic; north to the North Downs, east towards Ide Hill village, and south and west over the great sweep of trees that lead towards Crowborough Ridge. Now the native trees have grown up again, though a fine view is preserved south to the Kentish Weald.
The garden is largely the creation of Frederic Lubbock, a banker who bought the property in 1893, but in its design and planting it owes much to the influence and advice of his friend William Robinson, the gardening writer, who lived not far away at Gravetye. Part of the rock garden was illustrated in Robinson’s Alpine Flowers for the Garden (1903). The only touch of formality s the Italianate rose garden, in which purple ‘Cardinal Hume’, pink ‘Escapade’ and white ‘Iceberg’ roses, Hybrid Musk roses and catmint (Nepeta) are arranged around a central fountain pond. Following the discovery of photographic slides taken before the First World War, sways for climbing roses have recently been reintroduced, with Rosa ‘Climbing Cécile Brunner’ trained along them. The rock garden, with its cascade, pond and outcrops of Westmoreland limestone, has also recently been reinvigorated with 96 tons of Kentish ragstone. This has created a montane scree for the cultivation of a diverse range of unusual alpines.
Otherwise, the garden follows a relaxed pattern of lawns, glades and meandering paths – and informal Edwardian design that evolved in response to a straightforward passion for plants displayed in a natural way, a mood that the Trust is actively fostering. The conditions are not perfect for a collection of trees and shrubs, the soil being light and fast-draining, but thanks to copious amounts of mulch, many Asian species flourish. Among the notable pleasures in the upper garden are Eucryphia glutinosa, showered in white blossom in autumn, Magnolia denudata and heavily-scented summer-flowering M. x wiesneri. These are accompanied by generous plantings of azaleas, including the white-flowerd Rhododendron quinquefolium, while Nyssa sylvatica, Ekianthus perulatus and seed-raied Berberis wilsonii give a panoply of berry and leaf colour in autumn.
Lower down the slope, across the former drive, the collection takes on the flavour of an arboretum, with individual trees and stands of shrubs displayed in grass. The tall Dawyck beech withstood the 1987 storm, and there are still good examples of Cercidiphyllum japonicum, Davidia involucrata var vilmoriniana and Stewartia pseudocamellia, together with an enormous clump of Pieris japonica and a number of good rhododendrons, including R. ferrugineum and R. smirnowii. In spring, the grass here is patched yellow with daffodills and below the South Garden are paths that lead enticingly into bluebell woods.
Now that’s a more positive review!
And finally, a bit of history –
In 1849 and 1850 Sir Joseph Hooker’s expedition to Sikkim in the eastern Himalayas discovered forty-five new species including the yellow-flowered R. campylocarpum and R. wightii; the red-flowered R. thomsonii; the small trees, R. falconeri, R. grande, and R. hodgsonii, with their enormous leaves; the epiphytes, R. dalhousiae and R. maddenii; the large vigorous R. griffithianum with massive white flowers; and the interesting R. triflorum, R. edgeworthii, R. fulgens, R. niveum, R. wallichii, R. lanatum, R. glaucophyllum, R. cinnabarinum, and R. lepidotum.