Great Balls of Fire – Sandling Park in May

There was such an extraordinary amount going on in May that I am now working through a draft post pile-up. In contrast to the scarcity of blogging fodder during the winter months, early summer offers incredibly bounty. I find myself spoilt for choice and with a backlog of fine subjects to share. Now that June is here, I can reflect on the marvellous Kentish gardens I visited during May – Saltwood Castle, Sissinghurst, The Salutation, Goodnestone Park and, last but not least, Sandling Park.

Sandling Park, May 2014

Open on just one Sunday each year in support of Pilgrim’s Hospices, Sandling’s ancient woodland is situated in a small area with acidic soil, a rarity in chalky East Kent. The garden that’s been created in this unique spot is lavishly planted with a collection of rhododendrons, camellias and azaleas which have been collected over the last hundred years or so. After a period of neglect, beginning in the 1960s and ending in the 1990s, the Hardy family have effected a very successful restoration; nothing too neat and tidy, but reopening pathways and clearing some of the most overgrown areas. Old rhododendron and azalea cultivars, many no longer available commercially, have been identified and labelled. New stock has been planted in the gaps created by the Great Storm of 1987 and in areas cleared of Rhododendron ponticum. 

Azalea, cultivar unknown, Sandling Park, May 2014An unnamed double azalea with flowers in subtle shades of pink, amber and peach

Narrow streams cut into deep gullies drain the garden, each lined with its own unique shade of candelabra primula, ranging from pure white to cherry red. Osmunda, gunnera and polygonatum provide a supporting cast of foliage.

Primula japonica, Sandling Park, May 2014Primula japonica finds its feet in damp shade.

In a good year, when the weather is kind, Sandling’s deciduous azaleas steal the show with a display that’s nothing short of psychedelic. Flaming oranges and scorching pinks vie with zesty lemons and brilliant whites, creating a dazzling kaleidoscope of colour. This would be sufficient, but on top of the sizzling colour comes the unmistakable perfume of sun-warmed azalea flowers. It’s a scent I’d happily have under my nose every day.

Rhododendron 'Orient', Sandling Park, May 2014Rhododendron ‘Orient’, an Exbury Hybrid introduced by Lionel de Rothschild in the late 1920s.

Deciduous azaleas originate from temperate areas of the world including Turkey, the USA, Japan and Taiwan. Most appreciate an acid soil and partial shade at the edge of woodland. Growing to around 1.5m in 10 years they are ideal shrubs for small garden. Prolific breeding means that there are varieties on offer which extend the flowering season from April through to early July. Autumn will see many deciduous azaleas produce colourful displays before the foliage drops. All azaleas are now officially classified as rhododendrons, but are still more commonly known by their original name. The identity of many of Sandling’s cultivars have been lost in time, although they lose nothing in their anonymity. I find it hard to choose favourites, but here are just a few of the garden’s specialities.

Azalea calendulaceum, Sandling Park, May 2014

Rhododendron calendulaceum – commonly known as the flame azalea, and for good reason. The naked branches bear elegant scarlet flowers before new growth begins in spring. It flowers from May to June and has excellent autumn foliage colour.

Rhododendron Mrs Oliver Slowcock, Sandling Park, May 2014

Rhododendron ‘Mrs Oliver Slowcock’ – alas I can find no official description of this marvellously named variety, but it appears WC Slowcock was a nursery back in the 1960s. Clear tangerine flowers form shapely heads against a background of lime green foliage.

Azalea 'Norma', Sandling Park, May 2014

Rhododendron ‘Norma’ – a vibrant, sweetly scented rose-red double tinted with salmon and orange. Introduced in 1888.

Rhododendron 'Favor Major', Sandling Park, May 2014

Rhododendron ‘Favor Major’ – another stunner, and a parent of R. ‘Fireball’ which carries the RHS Award of Garden Merit. Flame red with an amber sheen to its petals.

Rhododendron 'Cannon's Double', Sandling Park, May 2014

Rhododendron ‘Cannon’s Double’ – more delicious than a knickerbocker glory, the flowers begin deep pink in bud, and opens light apricot and primrose with a reddish pink shading to the outer petals. It has excellent autumn foliage.

Azalea 'Thisbe', Sandling Park, May 2014

Rhododendron ‘Thisbe’ – I haven’t found any information about this lovely variety, which appears no longer to be available commercially. Shell pink flowers emerge from deep pink buds with the upper petals stained the colour of egg-yolk. Glorious.

Rhododendron 'Corneille', Sandling Park, May 2014

Rhododendron ‘Corneille’ – vivid crimson buds open to reveal cherry blossom pink blooms which fade subtly with age. The flowers, which have the appearance of growing one inside the other, are described as ‘hose-in-hose’. A prettier shrub it’s hard to imagine.

Azalea narcissiflorum AGM, Sandling Park, May 2014

Rhododendron narcissiflorum AGM – a nicely shaped shrub covered with sweetly scented, double flowers in May and June, followed by good autumn colour. At Sandling, carpets of pink saponaria grow beneath the spreading branches.

Unknown azalea, Sandling Park, May 2014

An unnamed azalea with white flowers stained golden yellow and blush pink petal edges. Rhododendron ‘Northern Hi-Lights’ is an Exbury type with similar colouration.

Rhododendron atlanticum 'Seaboard', Sandling Park, May 2014

Rhododendron atlanticum ‘Seaboard’ – If all those fancy colours and fussy flowers are not for you, this is a perfect choice with flowers shaped like jasmine and a heavenly fragrance to match. Low growing and stoloniferous, so will slowly creep along the ground, rooting as it goes.

For an excellent selection of deciduous azaleas in the UK, try Chelsea gold medal winners Millais Nurseries in Surrey.

If you missed this year’s open day at Sandling Park, your next chance will be in May 2015.