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Rhododendrons and Azaleas at Isobella Plantation in Richmond Park

In late spring one corner of the huge Richmond Park harbours an oasis of exotic blooms, which is the Isobella Plantation.

Isobella Plantation, Richmond Park
Isobella Plantation, Richmond Park

This woodland park was created in the 1830s, when former Prime Minister Lord Sidmouth, then the Deputy Ranger of Richmond Park, wooded off a boggy corner of the park to keep the deer out, and a some native trees and later some rhododendrons  were planted.

Isobella Plantation, Richmond Park

Serious rhododendron planting started after World War II, and now the gardens house the National Collection of Wilson 50 Kurume Azaleas, which were brought from Japan in 1920s by the plant collector Ernest Wilson, as well as rhododendrons, camellias, heathers and all sorts of other trees and flowers. It was opened to the public in 1953.

Azaleas
Azaleas

The grounds are managed organically, without the use of pesticides, offering ideal habitat for birds and animals. Beautiful lakes complete the idyllic beauty of this woodland oasis.

So, we have azaleas and rhododendrons – what’s the difference? All azaleas are rhododendrons, but not all rhododendrons are azaleas.

The name Rhododendron comes from Ancient Greek, meaning ‘rose tree’. It is the generic name for over 1,000 types of plants which regard Asia as their home, but are found nowadays all around the world. Characteristically, they grow into big trees with large leaves. Azalea is a type of rhododendron, but it is a small bush with little leaves covered in a dense mass of little flowers.

The flowers are also different, in size as well as type – rhododendrons have 10 stamens, and azaleas have 5. Many azaleas are deciduous, while most rhododendrons are evergreen.

What all of them love is a shady boggy ground with ericaceous (acidic) soil, so if your soil is alkaline, forget about growing them, and come to enjoy the Isobella plantation instead!

But beware – these beauties are highly toxic, it contains something nasty called andromedotoxins in its leaves and even nectar, to the extent that if bees have too much of it, their honey would have hallucinogenic (as well as laxative) properties….

In the Victorian era of flower symbolism, rhododendrons meant ‘beware of danger’, and a bouquet of them in a black vase was a death threat…

As we have very few bees here anyway, and as long as we do not go munching on leaves and flowers, Isobella plantation is a fabulous day out in late May – even if it is extra popular and crowded on a lovely day in late spring.

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Camellias

March is the month of Camellias. I have three blooming in my garden.

The Birchen Grove Camellia
The Birchen Grove Camellia

Chiswick House has 32 in the conservatory alone – home to the oldest collection of camellias under cover in England.

Chiswick House Camellias
Chiswick House Camellias

Camellias come from Eastern and Southern Asia. Botanist Karl Linnaeus, who classified all our plants, named it after the missionary and botanist Georg Joseph Kamel, who worked in the Philippines and described a species of this flowering bush. There are 100-300 species of camellias, and around 3,000 hybrids, two thirds of those being Camellia Japonica, the most wide spread type grown in the UK. Abundant in gardens in Japan and China for centuries, camellia arrived in this country in the 18th century, with the efforts of plant hunters and the East India Company, – the latter provided transport and wealthy patrons, who could afford to pay for rare plants from exotic countries. A keen gardener Robert James, Lord Petrie, had camellias in his garden at Thornton Hall in Essex in 1739 – the first mention of the plant growing in this country.

Just under 100 years later, the camellia collection was established in the Chiswick House Conservatory. In 1828 the Duke of Devonshire replaced the fruit in his conservatory with the latest fashionable import – camellias from China.

Chiswick House Conservatory
Chiswick House Conservatory

The rarest plant in the Chiswick collection is Middlemist’s Red. It was brought from China by Londoner John Middlemist, who had a nursery in Shepherd’s Bush and supplied plants to Kew Gardens. This tree is one of the two currently known in the world – the other one being in Waitangi in New Zealand.

Middlemist's Red - one of the world's rarest camellias
Middlemist’s Red – one of the world’s rarest camellias

The most curious one is Pompone – On one tree flowers can be red, white, or variegated (more than one colour). This variety was brought from China to Kew in c.1810, and went by the name of Kew Bush.

Pompone - multi-coloured camellia
Pompone – multi-coloured camellia

Outside the conservatory bushes grow bigger, with masses of flowers – however, the get ‘bitten’ by cold air and wind at night, and go brown at the edges… this affliction affects my camellias every year….

Camellias in the grounds of Chiswick House
Camellias in the grounds of Chiswick House

Camellias come in a variety of flower forms – single, semi-double, double (paeony, anemone or rose form), – and colours – white, red, pink or variegated.

Single flowered camellia
Single flowered camellia (Birchen Grove)
Double flowering Camellia in Chiswick House Conservatory
Double flowering Camellia in Chiswick House Conservatory
Double flowering Camellia in Chiswick House gardens
Double flowering Camellia in Chiswick House gardens
Double flowering variegated Camellia in my garden
Double flowering variegated Camellia in my garden

There’s another type of camellia that we all love – and consume – every day of the year. Camellia sinensis gives us leaves for our tea. For years I’ve been trying to grow this one, – despite being hardy enough to be grown commercially in the UK, I found it not as hardy as your big flowering bushes, but this one is not looking too bad at the moment – in my conservatory.

My tea plant
My tea plant