Caerhays completes rhododendron restoration

Caerhays Estate has planted a new collection of around 60 varieties of wild rhododendrons, originating from the same species of Chinese seed as first collected by plant hunters Ernest Wilson and George Forrest.

The rhododendrons are the final stage of the 15-year project to restore the Caerhays Rhododendron  Collection, in Old Park Wood, to its former glory. The aim is to replace many of the original Caerhays  Rhododendrons which, having matured had begun to die since the 1960’s.

The history of rhododendrons at Caerhays dates back to the works of the plant explorers Ernest Wilson and George Forrest when seed collected from the wild in China first started arriving back at Caerhays from 1905 to 1932. By 1910 J C Williams, owner of Caerhays, was a major sponsor of Forrest’s expeditions. During that period until Forrest’s death in the Yunnan Province in 1932, seed from hundreds of new rhododendron species, then unknown in Western Europe, were carefully propagated and grown on before being planted out, often in large clumps, in Caerhays’ expanding new woodland garden.  

Despite the thriving collection of rhododendrons, some years later Caerhays discovered that the maximum life span of taller growing rhododendron species was 60-80 years with many smaller growing species dying of old age in a much shorter timescale.

It was decided the best way to replace the plants would be to return to to China to try to obtain wild collected seed of those species which had progressively died out. In 1999 Caerhays started making financial contributions towards Alan Clark’s regular field trips to Yunnan, Sichuan, North Vietnam and North India in return for a selection of his wild collected Rhododendron seed.

After Clark’s trips, a selection of his seed lists was compiled and by 2013 two van-loads of young rhododendron species (three of most species) had arrived at Caerhays from Alan Clark’s nursery in Cumbria. There was then much debate about their provenance, the altitude and location at which the seed had been collected and their consequent hardiness and suitability for different areas of the garden. The young plants, then aged only five or six years old, were grown on and nurtured in nursery beds at Caerhays until ready for planting.

To make way for the new rhododendrons, the woodland garden in Old Park was extensively cleared and in spring 2015 the huge new collection of around 60 wild collected rhododendron species was transplanted into the 25 acre garden in Old Park Wood.

The new rhododendron species are located in a prime position in the centre of the wood with dappled shade where the soil is richest and where wind damage is least likely. In this way, barring climatic disasters, the Rhododendron species collection will have been restored to its former glory.

Head gardener Jaimie Parsons said: "The excitement of growing on these species for myself and the team has matched the excitement of gardeners at Caerhays over 100 years ago seeing these new plants from China grow and flower for the first time."

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