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Cloudehill’s living garden history

Gathered by plant hunters across the globe, the trees of Cloudehill gardens are of international significance.

Jeremy Francis - The creator and driving force behind the acclaimed gardens of Cloudehill in Olinda.

In 1922, when Ted Woolrich was setting up his Rangeview Nursery on the site that is now Cloudehill, he was searching out exciting plants for his catalogue and happened to approach, of all people, Ernest Henry ‘Chinese’ Wilson.


Wilson was the greatest of the legendary plant hunters, famous for bringing treasures from the ‘Land of the Four Rivers’ in Southwest China to the gardens of the world.

Such things as the lovely Paperbark Maple, Acer griseum, the astonishing Dove Tree, Davidia involucrata, any number of rhododendrons, shrubs of all sorts and alpines such as the breathtaking Blue Poppy. His story of finding the exquisite Royal Lily, Lillium regale, could have been a book by Robert Louis Stephenson.

In the 1920s, Wilson divided his time between the Arnold Arboretum at Harvard University in the US and the famous Yokohama Nursery in Japan. Wilson chose plants from Yokohama to send back to his employers and the Arnold Arboretum boasts many of these plants to this day. Yokohama was no ordinary nursery – it was a rather special Meiji Period institution, established to showcase Japanese plants to the world. For this reason, any
plant originating from that nursery is now of serious significance.

top left Gigantic tree rhododendrons (R. arboreum ‘Delavayi’) behind the entry gate.
bottom left Cloudehill’s hedges give the garden its structure and form.
middle Beech trees are a feature of Cloudehill – this is the Fern-leaf Beech.
top right Jeremy continually assesses plant selections.
bottom right The rich red autumn tones of Enkianthus perulatus.

Connecting Olinda with plant hunters of the world
Under Wilson’s guidance, a collection of trees and shrubs were sent from Yokohama to Ted Woolrich in 1928. These important plants include the two glorious weeping maples, Acer palmatum ‘Atropurpureum’, growing splendidly on Cloudehill’s main terrace, and maples such as Acer pal. ‘Osakazuki’, A. japonicum ‘Aconitifolium’, A. jap. ‘Aureum’, and A. maximowiczianum (syn nikoense).

There’s a huge Magnolia denudata at the bottom of the gardens and several shrubs near the summer house, including three Enkianthus perulatus and an E. campanulatus, all with small bell flowers in spring and extraordinary autumn colour. Finally there’s the Rhododendron schlippenbachii below Cloudehill’s peony pavilion, with sweetly-perfumed, soft-pink bell flowers on bare stems in spring.

Wilson was originally from the Cotswolds and on good terms with many English horticulturalists. Wilson probably put the Woolrichs in touch with the famed Fred Streeter. Fred, I’m sure, was recommended by Wilson as someone who could reliably supply named varieties of European Beech. These glorious trees are still tricky to propagate.

Again in 1928, a batch of clonal beech was sent by Streeter to the Rangeview Nursery. These include three Fagus sylvatica ‘Roseo Marginata’, the Tricolour Beech scattered throughout Cloudehill, two magnificent Copper Beech, F. syl. ‘Purpurea’, in the top corner of the gardens and the Fern-leaf Beech, F. syl. var. heterophylla, at the end of the main terrace. There are more in our neighbour’s garden, including a Weeping and a Golden Beech.


Rhododendrons that grow as trees
Other significant plants at Cloudehill include the ‘arboreum’ rhododendrons all around Seasons Restaurant. We don’t know the history for these variants of the glorious tree rhododendron, which is a shame, as most date back to the 1950s and one or two to the 1930s. The collection includes the colossal Rhododendron arboreum ‘Delavayi’ on the edge of Seasons’ carpark which, I might add, Jim Woolrich fondly called ‘The Rocket’. This lovely plant drips with blood-red flowers from August to December. Deservedly, R. arboreum ‘Delavayi’ is the national flower of Nepal.

Immediately below Seasons Restaurant we have two enormous specimens of the pink-flowering R. a. campbelliae from Southwest China, and finally, overhanging the deck we have R. a. ssp. zeylanicum from the mountains of Sri Lanka. Because this rhododendron has made its way to mountain tops near the equator, part of the world lacking proper winters and springs, it has lost its flowering season. Zeylanicum is likely to bloom any old time – spring, summer, autumn, even winter – a garden lottery for our visitors year-round.

Cloudehill has about 50 significant and historic trees and shrubs which should be listed on the historic tree register. The Diggers Foundation will work to guarantee their preservation. Cloudehill will become the third Diggers Foundation garden upon Jeremy Francis’ retirement.

Visit Cloudehill at 89 Olinda-Monbulk Road, Olinda, Victoria. Open 10am–5pm daily.

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