Exbury Gardens celebrates centenary in 2019 with unveiling of new ‘secret’ garden & exhibit at RHS Chelsea

Exbury Gardens, one of the UK’s finest woodland gardens famed for its colourful rhododendrons, will be marking its centenary this year with a series of special events including the opening of a new ‘secret’ garden and a showcase display at the world’s leading flower show, RHS Chelsea.

Created by Lionel de Rothschild in 1919, a passionate collector of plants and a keen supporter and sponsor of the early 20th century plant hunters, Exbury has grown to become a stunning garden paradise filled with rare plants, shrubs and trees. Thanks to its unrivalled collection of rhododendrons, azaleas and camellias, it is famed for its riot of spring colour, as well as a vast array of beautiful, mature rare trees. Over recent years the Hampshire garden has been expanded for all-season interest with areas designed to show off summer and autumn ‘flower power’, as well as an extension of its 1 ½-mile Rhododendron Line steam railway.

Grown in secret – Centenary Garden 

During 2019:

  • Visitors will get their first glimpse of a ‘secret’ centenary garden designed by Lionel’s great grand-daughter and RHS gold medal award-winning designer, Marie-Louise Agius. This was planted within Exbury Gardens in 2017 and has been carefully hidden from public view, whilst it grows and matures, for an official launch in summer 2019. Contemporary in style, it contains subtle nods to the family history and has been planted with a particular focus on late summer. The Centenary Garden will be unveiled and accessible to visitors when the gardens open for the season on 23 March 2019.
  • A stream of spring bulbs – 100,000 yellow and blue (Rothschild family colours) bulbs have been planted in the lawns, weaving around rare trees near Exbury House, to give a centenary colour burst including daffodils, crocus and bluebells.
  • Exbury’s famous rhododendrons will be showcased in the Great Pavilion at RHS Chelsea Flower Show in May 2019 in a collaboration with experts Millais Nurseries. Exbury and Millais have been working together to conserve some of the more rare and threatened hybrid rhododendrons in their collection. The display will aim to evoke the ‘spirit’ of Exbury Gardens.
  • An official book on the history of Exbury Gardens will be published outlining the extraordinary story behind this garden which was originally created over just 20 years before the outbreak of WW2. Visitors will also get the chance to learn about the history in a special exhibition at Exbury.


Thomas Clarke, head gardener at Exbury, said: “The 1920s were the golden age of woodland gardening and Exbury, under the careful eye of Lionel de Rothschild and his staff, was at the cutting edge of this movement. The location, climate, existing oak woodland and acid soil all allowed for the creation of one of the finest gardens of its kind in the UK. Combine this with the legacy of the great plant hunters, and the extensive plant breeding programme at Exbury, and we are fortunate enough to have inherited a truly wonderful garden packed full of horticultural treasures.


“The centenary year will see some fantastic new projects unveiled plus a continued focus on our work to conserve and develop the plants and landscape at Exbury for the next 100 years.”


Exbury Gardens, located in the New Forest near Southampton, will open daily from 23 March – 3 November 2019 10am – 5.30pm. Adult tickets £12.50, children (3-15yrs) £4, under 3s are free and a family ticket is £29. Full information at www.exbury.co.uk


Key features of Exbury Gardens


The gardens look spectacular throughout the year but are at their peak in April/May during the flowering season for rhododendrons and azaleas. The season starts in March with spring colour in the daffodil meadow, camellias, magnolias and heather. Summer months see iris, wisteria, dogwoods, primulas, hydrangeas and the herbaceous borders in bloom whilst autumn colour in these spectacular woodland gardens includes dahlias, salvias, fuchsias, dogwoods, maples and the magnificent Nyssa.

Home Wood – A stunning contemporary Herbaceous Garden leads to The Glade which stretches down from the neo-Palladian Exbury House that Lionel de Rothschild built around the smaller 18th century house. This is marked by a number of magnificent Cedars of Lebanon, planted in 1738, and a very tall giant redwood from the USA. Many beautiful Exbury hybrids line the way to St. Mary’s Spring, where ‘Mrs. Lionel’s Seat’, overlooks the bog primulas, ferns, giant Gunnera and various forms of Pieris. A stream from the spring then passes under the Japanese Bridge to Top Pond which is surrounded by a full display of Exbury and Solent deciduous azaleas with fiery colours. These same leaves shade a small waterfall which splashes into a series of pools, beside which grow Japanese maples, candelabra primulas and hostas. The Azalea Bowl has a fine display of evergreen azaleas, whose reds, shocking pinks, fuchsias, mauves and whites can almost be described as outrageous. This tapestry of colour also extends around the Lower Pond.

From here you can reach the Winter Garden where the extensive collection of large leaved macabeanum and sinogrande hybrids flower in the early part of the season, looking almost prehistoric in form. You also connect with the Camellia Walk; view point towards the Solent & Arromanches Plaque; the Daffodil Meadow and the Sundial Garden, a small formal herbaceous garden enclosed by high yew hedges.

Witcher’s Wood – named after a family of charcoal-burners who used to live there, it contains many fine specimens of ornamental trees.  Lover’s Lane, leading towards the Beaulieu River, has banks of the Solent deciduous azaleas. The central part of this Wood is one of the least formalised areas in the garden, and here can be found some of the most strikingly mature rhododendrons. Straying from the main path, small grassy paths provide the visitor with glimpses of some of the taller and most beautiful rhododendrons in the garden.

Yard Wood – the last part of the garden to be developed. It derives its name from the many yew trees growing there. The wood of the yew was used for yardsticks which formed the bows of the archers in medieval times, and folklore has it that one of these Exbury trees was mentioned in the Domesday book. Includes: the Boardwalk, planted with tree ferns, bamboo, Gunnera and Wollemi pine; the Nyssa collection; Rock Garden, the largest man-made in Europe; American Garden with a comprehensive collection of rhododendrons from the USA; Bog Garden; Hydrangea Walk; and impressive Azalea Drive.

Steam Train – superb 12 ¼” railway runs along a 1 ½ mile track and gives a sweeping view of the northernmost part of Exbury Gardens. Visitors can enjoy a relaxing 20-minute journey as the train passes through the specially-designed ‘Summer Lane’ Garden. Now reaching maturity, the huge swathes of colourful perennials, flowering grasses, a pool and maturing trees complement one another in a free-flowing naturalistic style. After their railway journey, passengers are encouraged to explore Exbury’s roomy Engine Shed. Graphics, videos and memorabilia line the walls recalling steam’s heyday and the construction of the railway.


History overview

Exbury Gardens was the inspiration of Lionel de Rothschild. It was his vision, his dedication and his resources which have created one of the finest woodland gardens in the country. Born in 1882 into the famous banking family, he bought the Exbury Estate in the New Forest in 1919 from Lord Forster. It was an isolated hamlet on the northern edge of the Solent which had a unique micro-climate ideally suited for growing rhododendrons. William Mitford, whose family owned the Estate in the nineteenth century, described it as an ‘earthly paradise’.

Lionel made his garden during the era when plant hunters and explorers such as Farrer, Forrest, Kingdon-Ward and Comber were bringing back seeds of hitherto unseen plants from the remoter areas of the Himalayas and South-East Asia. Many of these expeditions were funded in part by Lionel and the seed that was collected was then used as part of his extraordinary hybridising exercise which resulted in 1,210 new named hybrids.

Some 150 men were employed to double dig the New Forest soil at Exbury with spent hops to improve the naturally acidic soil and create the perfect growing conditions for the wonderful collection of rhododendrons, azaleas, camellias, cotoneasters, magnolias, viburnums and many other beautiful woodlanders.  Twenty miles of pathway was laid, the same of irrigation buried and a 100 ft water tower and reservoirs were built to help facilitate the much-needed watering of the gardens.

One of the largest man-made rock gardens in Europe was constructed by installing a temporary railway to transport rocks to the 2 ½ acre site and took four years to build and plant with the plant hunters’ spoils.

The onset of war in 1939 brought the development to a standstill. In January 1942, Lionel died; later that year in May, Exbury House was requisitioned by the Admiralty and his wife, Marie-Louise and their son, Edmund, were asked to clear it in 48 hours. The House was then commissioned as a ‘stone frigate’ and used for D-Day planning.

When the forces left Exbury after the war, Edmund began the enormous task of restoring the gardens to their former glory, and when he had achieved this, he decided to open them to the public.

Thousands of rhododendrons have been planted over the years and well over 1,000 hybrids have been raised by three generations of the Rothschild family. The gardens also boast many Champion and rare trees and National Collections for Nyssa and Oxydendrum. In recent years, the gardens have been further developed with a new generation of rare and unusual trees and shrubs, new vistas opened up, the season extended with more unusual summer flowering shrubs and strong emphasis on autumn colour. Also, a renovated Iris garden with over 40 varieties of water-loving irises.



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