I’d often heard about the splendour of the National Rhododendron Garden in spring, but had never been there before.
On account of the lovely weather today, I decided to make the trip out to the small town of Olinda in the Dandenong Ranges to see the famous garden for myself.
I have to say that it was one of the loveliest gardens I have ever visited.
To begin with, the colour displays were absolutely stunning. Whilst the very first of the bloomers had just passed their prime, the majority of plants were in peak flower. Combined with the beautiful landscaping, sunny weather and ambience of the Dandenongs, it was a most enjoyable visit.
The National Rhododendron Garden was established in 1960 by the Victorian branch of the Australian Rhododendron Society on land leased to them by the State Government of Victoria.
The society quickly set about clearing the thick forest and planting shrubs but in 1962, a massive bushfire destroyed the site. Whilst this provided an initial set-back, the task of clearing the forest was made much easier and so the gardens that we see today were developed.
Many of the plants were propagated by society members from their own collections, or from material supplied by international rhododendron societies.
Rhododendron is a large genus of 1000+ trees and shrubs of the family Ericaceae which occurs naturally across moist parts of Asia (Himalayas, Japan, Korea, Thailand, Indonesia, Malaysia) and Australia. The taxonomy of Rhododendron is complicated, with a number of sub-genera representing the biggest groups:
- Vireya Rhododendrons: Rhododendron subgen. Rhododendron sect. Vireya
- Large-leaf Rhododendrons: Rhododendron subgen. Hymenanthes
- Deciduous Azaleas: Rhododendron subgen. Pentanthera
- Evergreen Azaleas: Rhododendron subgen. Tsutsusi
The National Rhododendron Garden has a large collection of representative species and culivars from all of these subgenera, as well as other Rhododendron species.
One of the nicest aspects of the National Rhododendron Garden is that it’s so beautifully landscaped, and not just with rhododendrons. Other cool-climate species such as dogwoods (Cornus), magnolias (Magnolia), conifers (including Sequoia) and tree ferns have been planted within the garden to add diversity and structure.
The property is surrounded by giant Mountain Ash (Eucalyptus regnans) and also features a large ornamental lake. Beside the lake is a pagoda in which one can rest and admire the scenery.
The National Rhododendron Garden has many different paths that can be explored. Some of them are sealed whilst others aren’t. That said, the garden is quite steep in places and it would take a fit person an hour to explore all parts of the garden without any rests.
For those who can’t manage to walk the steep paths, a small bus is provided and one can take a 25-minute tour for a small fee. Whilst such a tour would provide comfort and accessibility to those who would otherwise miss out, it provides no opportunity to study the plants up close.
The garden is now managed by Parks Victoria, a State Government agency. I found the staff to be most friendly and I even had a small chat about film versus digital photography with a few blokes whilst they took a break from planting Helleborus. They all seemed to be quite keen photographers too, and why wouldn’t they be when they work in such beautiful surrounds?
My only criticism would be that the labelling of the rhododendron species is limited, so that there’s no easy way of identifying a specific cultivar or species that one may find to be of interest. However I suspect this will be a minor concern for most visitors. The National Rhododendron Garden has an on-site café called ‘Café Vireya‘, but this was closed today on account of building works so I can’t comment on the quality of its fare or value-for-money.
For those who live within visiting range of the National Rhododendron Garden, now is the time to go and see it at its finest. The garden is open 10.00am to 5.00pm daily except Christmas Day, and is located 500 meters from the Olinda township along Georgian Road, off the Olinda–Monbulk Road (Melway reference 66 K6). Admission is free.