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Rhododendrons hirsutum

The first rhododendron to be cultivated was the 'Alpine Rose' - Rhododendron hirsutum - the plant on the picture postcards sent back by friends on holiday in Switzerland.

The reason it has been with us for over three hundred years is that it does not demand the one essential condition for all the rest - an acid soil. It lives where the others die from the lime that prevents the roots taking up vital plant foods.

It was not until the early nineteenth century that it was realised that certain plants only thrived on an acid soil. So the first rhododendrons chances of survival were small. And yet, in 1632, Jacob Bobard, the German curator of the first botanic garden in England, at Oxford, was experimenting with a 'Bog' which was, in effect, a pocket of acid soil for the cultivation of lime-hating plants.

The story of the rhododendron is international, although it centres round Great Britain. And like the story of so many plants, the early chapters have the conflict between the different doctrines and dogmas of the Church written between the lines. The exact details of how and when the 'Alpine Rose' came to this country are not known, but John Gerard mentions it in his famous Herbal of 1596.

It was also described by that cosmopolitan character Clusius (the name adopted by a sixteenth-century Flemish botanist whose correct name was Charles l'Ecluse (1525-1609)). He became a professor at Leyden University and later he was Court Gardener to Maximilian II at Vienna. He was one of the first men to collect alpine plants on the mountains in order to grow them in gardens. He is thought to have been responsible for introducing the tulip to Holland, the lilac to Europe and the auricula to Belgium. Some of his plants were later brought to this country by the Huguenots and this may be the channel through which the 'Alpine Rose' came to be grown in England in 1656.

It was known to have been grown by John Tradescant in his garden at Lambeth where the lilac was also grown in this country for the first time. John Tradescant (senior) was Court Gardener to Charles I and both he and his son were responsible for introducing many new plants to this country. The father is thought to have been a Huguenot refugee and this may be the first example of religious persecution having the beneficial side effect of enriching our gardens.

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