Rhododendrons: From the Himalayas to Chelsea, by David Millais

David is our local rhododendron specialist running the Millais Nurseries at Crosswater Farm in Churt, which was set up by his parents Ted and Romy in 1970. The Millais family has been established at Crosswater Farm since 1947, but their rhododendron heritage goes back to the naturalist, botanist and author J G Millais, who identified and described many Rhododendrons for the first time, and published his great two volume series ‘Rhododendrons’ (1917 and 1924). Since then, the Millais family has travelled widely, particularly to the Himalayas in search of new plants to bring home and propagate, and David is still hoping to find the Holy Grail of a late flowering rhododendron…..

The nurseries regularly enter various shows, and have been awarded five consecutive gold medals at Chelsea, a significant achievement – and David’s talk was aptly titled “Rhododendrons from the Himalayas to Chelsea”.

We followed David on a journey to the mountains of Nepal, sharing beautiful scenic photos and getting an appreciation of the sheer hard work involved on the trek heading towards Mt Kanchenjunga, the third highest mountain in the world. The walk took us through temperate forests to alpine regions, enjoying the brightness of the light levels, to get to approx. 2500-3000m where the rhododendrons grow that are hardy enough for the UK climate. David shared details of several beautiful examples – campylocarpum with its stunning yellow flowers that likes the dry, thomsonni with lovely red blooms and a prominent calyx that likes to be near flowing water, and the hybrid of both.

Back at the nurseries, where David and his team propagate 40,000 rhododendrons a year, most of the new plants are created from cuttings, as this gives a more uniform result than planting seeds.  The work starts in late May starting with deciduous, then dwarf, species, hybrids, hardy hybrids and the rest, and the rooting process takes six months.  Great success with cuttings is achieved for evergreen azaleas, though success reduces to 20% for rarer species, mainly due to timing – soft cuttings root better, but need more care. Millais try to use “organic type” products in their plant care regime – feed includes compost tea, mineral fertilisers and maxicrop seaweed, with revive plant tonic, SB plant invigorator, which is also good for bud blight, and biosept citrus seed oil as needed.  Pest control is managed using garlic extract and agri 50 physical pest barriers, mildew counteracted with potassium bicarb and vine weevil handled with nemasys. Irrigation water is enhanced with a copper dosing to help plants keep clear of pests and diseases.

In our own gardens, rhododendrons will love the acidic soil with a PH of 4.5-5.5, although adding manganese to the soil will enable rhodis to grown in limestone areas.  They like moist but free draining soil, and a location with dappled shade to full sun away from trees and plants/hedges so they have a enough room to grow.  Planting is best done between September and March and you need a wide shallow hole, as their roots are not very deep – this is the most common mistake when planting rhodis, the holes are just too deep!  Once planted, water well in June and July, as this is when the buds are forming for the next year and use a light dose of slow release feed in March and again after flowering. If you have a poorly plant, use liquid feed as nourishment. To mulch use bark, wood chips, bracken compost and leaf mould including pine needles. They don’t like stones or weed membrane to control weeds. Deadheading should be done on young or sick plants, and any others if you have time and energy. Light pruning can be done straight after flowering using secateurs, bigger cuts using loppers and saws should be done in early Spring. After any big pruning, help the plant recover with leaf mould and bark, lots of water and some granular feed.

After all this loving care, Millais nurseries exhibit at Chelsea every two to three years – the costs are high, with £30,000 worth of stock required and £10,000 labour. A key challenge is to make sure that the plants flower at exactly the right time, so they are often kept in cold storage.  The main exhibit has five main plants in 90 litre pots, and numerous others, all selected for complimentary shapes and colours.

Not only finding time for Chelsea, the Millais Woodland Garden at the nurseries has been completely renovated and is now open again as part of the NGS, on the Sunday of the first bank holiday in May.

A very interesting and enlightening talk that showed us the journey of a rhododendron from the Himalayas to the Chelsea Flower Show and all the work involved in making these beautiful plants available to us – with some very helpful insights on how to care for them to keep our own plants healthy and blooming.

David very kindly donated his fee to the Perennial charity.

Report by Pamela Wright