Leonardslee – The reawakening of a garden

By Andy McIndoe

Leonadslee is a world famous, Grade 1 listed garden in West Sussex, not far from Horsham in the South of England.

It is best known as the birthplace of the glorious Rhododendrom loderi hybrids which were raised there. These are some of the most arresting of this enormous genus of ericaceous plants. Their large, lily-like fragrant blooms opening in loose clusters in late spring, often above a carpet of bluebells.

Rhododendron loderi

Victorian plant collector, Sir Edmund Loder purchased the Leonardslee estate from his parents-in law in 1886. The acid soil and interesting topography of the site made the perfect place for him to indulge his passion: planting extensive collections of rhododendrons and trees to create the naturalistic garden that he loved. The famous rock garden with its incredible rock formations and meandering paths was added in the early stages of garden development, along with the introduction of wallabies, gazelles and other exotic species.

The Rock Garden

Robin Loder was the last of the family to own the estate and was finally sold in 2010 and the gardens were closed to the public; a sad day for all those that had come to love them. When such a high profile garden closes its future is a concern. Will it be loved and tended behind closed gates?

However in 2017 the house and gardens were acquired by the Benguela Collection Hospitality, owned by entrepreneur Penny Streeter and a programme of restoration has followed. The gardens reopened in 2019 and are today under the superb care of Head Gardener, Stephen Herrington. He was previously Gardens and parks Consultant and project Manager for the National trust.

I visited recently, in early autumn. Certainly not the peak season for a garden known for its rich spring colours. However Leonadslee is now attracting visitors throughout the year. They come to enjoy the maturity of the landscape, the changing season and to admire its real stars: the trees. Leonadslee boasts 22 Champion Trees, the tallest of their type in any garden in the UK. 16 gardeners and arborists, under Stephen’s direction, have done superb job of restoring and maintain the garden. Visitors are extremely well catered for, both in terms of facilities and signage and information.

Walking through the many paths around the lakes the wonderful bark of so many fantastic specimens catches the eye. Some of the mature rhododendrons would have been planted by the founder. Rhododendrom arboreum boasts exquisite stems, some of the finest outside Cornwall.

Rhododendron arboreum

The Giant redwood, Sequiadendron giganteum was a popular choice among the Victorian collectors. We are lucky to be able to admire their legacy today. Sequiadendron can grow to over 80 metres on height, but it is the girth of the trunk, clad in spongy bark which is so impressive.This soft coat is a protection against the ravages of forest fires.

Sequioadendron giganteum

The Dawn redwood, Metasequoia glyptostroboides is another soft barked coniferous tree, but a deciduous one. This prehistoric wonder is to be found in fossils, but was not introduced into cultivation until 1947. It grows quickly and often, as here develops interesting buttressed roots and interesting formations of the lower trunk.

Metaseqoia glyptostroboides

In our quest for the exotic, sometimes the native and familiar are overlooked. Alongside all these introductions from across the globe the British native Scots pine, Pinus sylvestris is outstanding.With its distinctive blue-green foliage and warm pink-copper bark Leonardslee boasts some of the most magnificent specimens you are likely to find anywhere. Trees can live for 600 years, so these are merely youngsters. The mature flaking bark is an important habitat for a wide variety of insects.

The Deer Park features many magnificent specimens including mature Cedrus atlantica. However it is good to see younger specimens growing alongside, indicating that the Loder generations were thinking of the future. It is easy to forget that the trees we so enjoy today were planted by enthusiasts that would never see them as we do.

Cedrus atlantica

Likewise the towering windmill palms, Trachycarpus fortunei, that rise above mounds of mature rhododendron would have been diminutive when planted. One can only wonder at the vision of Sir Edmund Loder.

Cedrus atlantica

The lakes that run through the heart of the garden from The Dell into the Deer Park have been extended over the years.

The Dell

Water is a magic ingredient in any garden, particularly one with a landscape and flora such as this. The autumn tints of the deciduous azaleas and deciduous shrubs such as Euonymus alatus are all the more beautiful in mellow autumn light and reflected in water.

Euonymus alatus

Leonardslee is a magnificent garden, not just a piece of history or a monument to its creator. It is evolving and growing as any garden should. Gardens do not stand still, and thankfully this one is not. Also its legacy continues in every garden where Rhododendron loderi hybrids light up the spring with their magnificent blooms.

Andy McIndoe

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