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Exbury’s autumn colour wows visitors from all over the world

PUBLISHED: 13:15 12 November 2013 | UPDATED: 13:15 12 November 2013

Exbury by Colin Roberts

Exbury by Colin Roberts


Often described as ‘the gates to heaven’, Exbury’s autumn colour wows visitors from all over the world writes Carole Varley

John Keat’s famous lines about autumn being a time of “mists and mellow fruitfulness” have been quoted so often at this time of year, that they have almost become a cliché. But that’s only because they sum up so wonderfully the sense of overweening maturity and ripeness that this season embodies. It’s a brief but particularly beautiful time of year in our landscape, when the seed heads and hedgerow berries are dressed in their best, and riotous shades of hot scarlet, burnt orange and mellow yellow are splashed carelessly on to the trees.

One excellent place to witness this entire exuberant autumn colour is Exbury Gardens, near the New Forest, which draws more than 100,000 visitors each year from all over the world to see its collection of rhododendrons, azaleas, camellias and rare trees and shrubs. The gardens were created by Lionel de Rothschild, who bought the Exbury estate in 1919 to be near to his friend, the 2nd Baron Montagu of Beaulieu, owner of the neighbouring estate on the river of the same name. The pair shared a passion for speed on land and water and together they scooped the water speed record of 28.8 knots in 1906. But the other passion driving Lionel forward, and for which he is perhaps better remembered, were his gardens (he is said to have planted his first at the age of five) and it was his vision, and – let’s face it, as a member of the famous Rothschild banking family - his resources, that led him to create what has been described as the finest woodland gardens in the country. Indeed, one enthralled visitor is reported as having 
said that they looked like “heaven with the gates open”.

Such was Lionel’s passion that he described himself as a “banker by hobby – a gardener by profession”. Such was his dedication that he even built a private railway to transport the boulders used in his rock garden, the largest in the country. Other infrastructure that he constructed at the 200-acre estate, which had been purchased from a branch of the Mitford family, included a water tower, three large concrete-lined ponds, and 22 miles of underground piping.

What has made the gardens so special, though, is the huge variety of plants to be found there - more than a million of them. Lionel was a keen collector, co-sponsoring plant-hunting expeditions to seek out unusual specimens in hidden corners of the Himalayas, for instance, the natural habitat of rhododendrons, and he was also a highly successful hybridiser of many different species. Today, the gardens are graced by no less than 1,204 new breeds of rhododendron and azalea alone.

The traditions he set were continued by his descendants, sons Edmund and Leopold and grandsons Nicholas and Lionel, who continue to develop the gardens to this day. Indeed, Edmund and Lionel were awarded the Victoria Medal of Honour, the highest possible accolade, by the RHS in recognition of their horticultural achievements. These include features such as herbaceous borders bursting with huge varieties of perennials, a sundial garden, enclosed by a yew hedge and a pergola smothered in ancient wisteria, and tennis court tea gardens that, planted with specimens tolerating dry conditions, offer a different, Mediterranean-type scene. The main delight for children has to be the board walk which sports specimens dating back to Jurassic times, including ginkco, a non-flowering large-leaved living fossil, which gave shelter to the dinosaurs some 270 million years ago, giant rhubarb that looks like food for Brogdingnagians, and the fern-like Wollemi pines. These were only known through fossil records until 1994 when they were found growing in a temperate rainforest wilderness area of a national park in New South Wales, and are now legally protected in Australia as a rare and endangered species.

One of the bonuses Lionel enjoyed when buying Exbury was that the Mitfords, who had owned the estate since the early 18th century, had themselves planted several exotic tree species, including a cypress grown from a seed that reputedly fell from the Duke of Wellington’s funeral cortege. They also planted several cedars in glades that gave the garden structure from the outset, and these giant veterans survive today, standing amidst as many different>> types of tree as Lionel could get his hands on from around the world, with new species and varieties being added all 
the time.

This is one of the reasons why Exbury has few rivals when it comes to reflecting the changing mood of nature, with spectacular displays of autumn colour from its Japanese maples, deciduous azaleas and the gardens’ national collection of two of the world’s most colourful types of tree, the North American Nyssa and the Oxydendrum. The names of some of the Nyssa cultivars, including‘ Autumn Cascade’, ‘Jermyn’s Flame’, ‘Miss Scarlet’, ‘Valley Scorcher’ and ‘Wisley Bonfire’ say 
it all.

As the head gardener at Exbury, John Anderson, an acknowledged expert on woodland trees says: “What these two types of tree have in common is their outstanding autumn colour. Nyssa leaves turn all shades of red, yellow and orange in autumn, while Oxydendrums become a flaming scarlet.”

Another seasonal beauty on display at the gardens are Nerine sarniensis, sometimes referred to as jewel or diamond lilies because their petals make the most of the mellow autumn light, showcased in the gardens’ Five Arrows Gallery. A special autumn trail leads to the best of the colour.

Today the gardens are run by registered charity Exbury Gardens Limited, set up by Edmund, whose stated aim is to “to maintain, improve, develop and preserve Exbury Gardens...to advance horticultural science, knowledge and learning for the public’s benefit”.

It may be almost 100 years since Lionel created his gardens, but the show put on by his trees and shrubs each autumn stand testament to the fact that the flame of his spirit burns as brightly as ever.


Autumn sparklers

Related to amaryllis, and sometimes referred to as jewel or diamond lilies, Nerina sarniensis have been described by professionals as a “well-kept secret” for brightening gardens in the weaker autumn sun. Coming in cupcake colours from fiery reds to snowy whites, Victorian growers poetically called the phenomenon caused by these exotic bulbs in the mellow sunlight as a gold or silver dusting. Some varieties also have wavy petals, which intensify the effect of the refracted light.


Breakfast walks

Many of the plants found by Lionel de Rothschild’s plant-hunters can be seen in the gardens today, including at the famous azalea bowl where visitors can see collector E H Wilson’s 50 best kurume azaleas from Japan. During the year a number of special events held at Exbury recall the exploits of the plant hunters and, in his series of breakfast walks this month, the head gardener John Anderson identifies many of the specimens associated with the golden age of plant exploration. Indeed, John continues the tradition himself, having undertaken an expedition to India in 2010 to collect seed which has since been propagated for introduction into the gardens.


All aboard

One of the highlights in the Exbury calendar for children is the steam railway, which stages popular ghost trains during the October half-term (and Santa specials in the run-up to Christmas). Embarking at Exbury Central Station (which is modelled on Aviemore in Scotland), children are encouraged to look out for the railway’s woodland creatures made out of moss, and there’s an opportunity to get up close and personal with the steam engines at the turntable. There’s also a walk-through engine shed exhibition with displays of railway memorabilia and posters. Built in 2000-2001, the railway was given the royal seal of approval in 2008, when it carried the Queen on a footplate trip around the gardens.


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