Gardening: Glendoick’s rhododendrons are world renowned

Glendoick Gardens, Perth. Picture: Ray Cox
Glendoick Gardens, Perth. Picture: Ray Cox
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It all began at a tea party in 1918. While working at the Foreign Office, Dundonian jute heir Euan Cox was hanging out with the literati in London one afternoon. Over what was presumably a cup of Earl Grey, the 25-year-old got chatting to garden writer Reginald Farrer.

It was a conversation that would change the course of the Cox family history.

One of the most famous plant hunters of his day, Farrer asked his new friend to join him on a plant expedition to upper Burma in 1919. The trip was a success and yielded several important discoveries. When Euan returned to the UK later that year, he’d found his calling. Turning his back on a job at Cox Brothers – the family’s lucrative jute business which, at its height, operated out of Dundee’s Camperdown Works, thought to be the world’s largest factory at one time – he embarked on a garden writing career. On his trips home to Glendoick Estate he started developing the garden, eventually moving back to Scotland in the 1930s and devoting his life to the family seat.

Now a world-famous rhododendron nursery, Glendoick celebrates its 60th anniversary this month. Today, not only is it home to Britain’s largest selection of rhododendrons, it hosts an expansive garden centre (which started life in a small shed on the grounds) and an award-winning café. And of course, there are the gardens – a series of woodland spaces packed with plants collected by or raised by the Coxes – which attract visitors from all over the world.

While Glendoick might be synonymous with rhododendrons, what makes this independent nursery so unusual is the family connection that started with a handful of seeds. “There are a few nursery dynasties in Britain, but there is no other place where three generations of the same family are associated with the one plant,” explains Kenneth Cox, who now manages the centre. Like his father and grandfather before him, he has spent his adult life combing the globe looking for new types of the species and sharing his expertise in a series of gardening books.

But why rhododendrons? “I think he thought Glendoick looked like a Himalayan glen and decided he could plant there,” says Kenneth of his grandfather’s decision to clear a patch of land on the estate in the early 1920s. “Of all the plants found in Burma, rhododendrons turned out to do particularly well in Scotland.” It all grew from there.

However, it wasn’t until after the Second World War, when Euan was living at Glendoick, that the garden really started to bloom. It was during this time that a number of rhododendrons were bought from notable collections in England such as Tower Court.

Glendoick’s first Rhododendron nursery listing (a catalogue of plants for sale) was published 1953, with Euan – and his son, Peter – selling their first plants from a tiny fenced field.

The 1950s and 1960s was a time of huge expansion. Peter boosted the collection when he started to go on plant-hunting expeditions – discovering his first new rhododendron species in North East India in 1965. In the meantime, newly bred rhododendron hybrids were acquired, including some of the first new American hybrids to reach this country.

Identifying gaps in the market, he also began hybridising rhododendrons and azaleas himself to produce plants suitable for small gardens and the Scottish climate. Kenneth joined Peter’s hybridising programme in the 1980s and the pair started to name their creations after birds and latterly mammals.

For some avid gardeners, these hybrids have become collectable and they are an important part of the family’s commercial success story. “Every major rhododendron garden and collection in the world now has rhododendrons which originated with us or were grown or hybridised at Glendoick,” he explains.

In terms of the future, Kenneth is realistic about the need for garden centres to move with the times. However, he insists the core of his business will forever be entwined with the roots of the rhododendrons planted on the estate – as well as those he’s yet to hybridise and grow. “Rhododendrons go in and out of fashion, but we’ve never sold so many,” he says. “They are reliable, weather-proof and hardy, which is what people – particularly in Scotland – want, so I think they are here to stay.”

• A ten-day programme of events this month will celebrate the Glendoick story and the family’s pioneering work. Kenneth Cox will give guided tours of the gardens tomorrow and next Sunday 12 May. Tickets cost £5. For more information visit

Blooming marvellous

1899 Jute baron Alfred Cox buys Glendoick House and Estate – built around 1747 for Robert Craigie, Lord Advocate of Scotland.

1919 Alfred’s son, Euan, goes to Burma plant hunting with Reginald Farrer.

1929-38 Euan Cox edits New Flora and Silva magazine, the gardening authority of its day.

1953 Euan and son Peter found Glendoick nursery.

1962 Rhododendron ‘Chikor’ becomes the first dwarf rhododendron ‘bird’ hybrid named at the estate – the first low-growing alpine plant cultivated for the small garden, rock garden or raised bed.

1973 Peter and Patricia Cox open Glendoick Garden Centre (pictured below).

1981 Peter Cox leads their first expedition to China.

1995 Kenneth Cox leads the first of three expeditions to the Tsangpo Gorges region in South East Tibet, discovering R. titapuriense.

2001 Kenneth’s wife, Jane, joins the company to run the expanding culinary offering.

2008 Glendoick Restaurant wins UK Garden Centre Café of the Year.

2008 Seeds of Adventure – In Search of Plants by Peter Cox and Peter Hutchison wins the Garden Media Guild Inspirational Book of the Year award.

2009 Glendoick Garden Centre wins UK Garden Centre of the Year.

2009 Scotland for Gardeners by Kenneth Cox wins the Garden Media Guild Reference Book of the Year.

2012 Special viewing points are built to allow visitors to better appreciate the gardens.

2013 A new set of double flower deciduous azaleas – Ben Lomond, Ben Cruchan and Ben Lawers – are created to celebrate the 60th anniversary.

Garden Works by Jo Whittingham

Thanks to the exceptionally cold spring, my East Lothian garden is about a month behind where it would normally be at the beginning of May. Things have only begun to turn green in the last week, the fruit trees are just coming into blossom, and my vegetable patch still looks distressingly bare.

Spring has been a long time coming, but the consistently chilly weather may have worked to the gardener’s advantage in a few small ways at least. I’ve certainly been glad of the extra time to lift and divide dormant perennials, get on top of sluggish weeds and finish the winter pruning. Late fruit blossom may seem a bad thing, but is less likely to be damaged by frost and stands a good chance of yielding plenty of summer fruit. Many pests have also had a slow start, which might mean we have fewer generations of them to contend with this year.

Rather than sowing vegetable seeds into cold soil outside, I’ve been raising plants in the greenhouse and on windowsills to plant out. These now need acclimatising to outdoor conditions gradually before taking their positions in the veg plot. Early May is a good time to sow tender crops, such as courgettes, French and runner beans, under cover so that they’re a good size to plant out when the risk of frost has passed in early June. Potato plants also need to be ‘earthed-up’ by drawing up soil around their shoots, to help increase yields and protect from the cold.

Days may be warm this month, but nights can still be cold, so don’t be hasty when it comes to planting out half-hardy summer bedding, such as petunias and pelargoniums, and other tender plants. This is, however, a good time to move and split clumps of early-flowering bulbs, like snowdrops and narcissi, while they are still in leaf. Remember to let the leaves of all bulbs die down naturally to allow the bulb to bulk up for next year.

Many plants will benefit from trimming or pruning once their spring flowers are over. Cut back the spent flowers and foliage of lungworts (Pulmonaria) and other early perennials, to give a fresh flush of foliage that is less prone to mildew. Take the shears to Clematis montana once its petals have fallen, to keep its vigorous growth in check. Spring-flowering shrubs, such as Forsythia and flowering quince (Chaenomeles), are also best pruned immediately after blooming. But with so much of this colour still to come, May promises to be a glorious month in the garden.