If you’ve ever walked around Bodnant Garden and wondered what the green plant labels mean…they are reserved for special rhododendrons, those unique to Bodnant, our Bodnant Hybrids.
We’ve recently had news that the conservation body Plant Heritage has approved this group as an important new National Collection – to give them their full title, Rhododendron Hybrids Bred at Bodnant Garden 1927-1983. This takes our number of National Collections to five – we already hold collections of Magnolia, Eucryphia, Embothrium and Rhododendron forrestii.
It’s a big deal – the collection reflects Bodnant’s place in the great British history of rhododendrons. It also highlights our quest to save these hybrid plants, some of which are ‘lost’ to records and some even nearing extinction.
This is something close to the heart of Bodnant Garden’s taxonomist Alison Clarke (seen right) who has been working for several years to nurture our hybrids and safeguard their future.
Bodnant Garden played a lead role in the story of rhododendrons in Britain. These ‘exotic’ new plants began trickling into Britain in the late 1800s but it was in the early 20th century that they really made their mark. Bodnant Garden’s owner Henry Duncan McLaren, second Lord Aberconway, was active in sponsoring the expeditions of plant hunters such as George Forrest, Ernest Wilson, Frank Kingdom Ward, Joseph Rock, which brought back to our large country houses, parks and gardens quantities of these and other Asian plants, like magnolias.
Head gardener Frederick Puddle and Lord Aberconway
The first rhododendron came to Bodnant Garden in 1910. Legend has it that head gardener Frederick Puddle at first didn’t believe they would be hardy enough to grow in North Wales – thankfully he was proved wrong! They acclimatised so well that Lord Aberconway and Mr Puddle went on to develop a successful breeding programme.
Their hybridisation programme started during 1920s. Many of the early rhododendrons offered a new colour palette and range of genes to work with. Those that were most used at Bodnant Garden included Rh. wardii (the first strong yellow), Rh. cinnabarinum (which introduced orange shades), and the reds for which the garden became so famous, including Rh. forrestii and Rh. griersonianum (seen above). Nearly half of all hybrids registered were reds – the Bodnant Bloody Reds.
Rhododendron wardii and Rhododendron cinnabarinum
One aim was to extend the flowering season by using particularly early and late flowering species; also to produce stronger plants by crossing tender plants with more hardy species; another reason was to produce smaller plants suitable for the domestic market, the most famous example being Rh.‘Elizabeth’ – still one of the most popular rhododendrons in the UK.
Alison says: “Over 300 hybrids were raised and registered to Bodnant. To date we have 115 varieties in the garden. Some exist only as a singular specimen. Those under threat of extinction are being actively propagated.
“Sadly today there are only perhaps ten or so that are widely available to buy. Some of the most well know are Rhododendrons Elizabeth, Cilpinense, Vanessa Pastel, Fabia Tangerine and Matador. We are actively searching for the others both in the garden and elsewhere, including nurseries selling them and other gardens which may have them.”
Rhododendron Fabia Tangerine and Rhododendron Vanessa Pastel
Many of the ‘missing’ plants are thought to be still in the garden but have lost their labels so we are working with metal detectorists from Mold Historical Society to help find labels. In future DNA analysis may also help identify plants thought to be missing hybrids.
Meanwhile we are actively propagating ‘at risk’ hybrids using alternative methods such as grafting, layering and micro-propagation, and hope to one day restart a Bodnant Garden hybridisation programme.
Our registration as a National Collection will raise the profile of these special plants and hopefully encourage more people to grow them, helping to safeguard their future.
For more details about Bodnant Garden call 01492 650460, check out our website nationaltrust.org.uk/bodnant-garden or catch up with us on Facebook or Twitter.