RhododendronsÂ and eucalyptus donâ€™t seem an obvious combination, Â but head for the National Rhododendron Garden and you will find a memorable blend. The eucalyptus that covers the hilltops here in the forests of theÂ Dandenong RangesÂ National Park isÂ E. regnans, the worldâ€™s tallest hardwood tree. Batallions of its rocket-like trunks form the backdrop to the slopes, dells, lawns and lakesides of the garden, which spans 40 hectares and is home to some 15,000 rhododendrons, 12,000 azaleas and much else.
It was begun by members of theÂ Australian Rhododendron Society, who took a lease on the land from the State Government in 1960 and propagated many of the plants from their own gardens. It is now managed by Parks Victoria.
The site was well chosen: the soil is a perfect, well-drained, acid loam and the climate is cooler and wetter climate than Melbourne with frequent summer thunderstorms. In fact, it was raining on and off on the day of my visit in early November - which is pretty much peak flowering time. Extensive plantings of daffodils, hydrangeas, cherries and autumn-tinting trees, however, ensure there is plenty going on at other times, too.
Particularly exciting for me was seeing the extensive beds of multicoloured vireya rhododendrons, which are not hardy in the UK; rummaging among their orange bells and white jasmine-like tubes, I found many rich scents. I was also taken by the luscious stands of scarlet and cream telopeas, with their fat artichoke-shaped heads. Frost rarely troubles this garden: the chief hazard is fire â€“ indeed the early plantings were destroyed in a 1962 bushfire.
Not to be Missed
This garden is one of the most reliable places in Victoria to spot the elusive lyrebird, whose talent for mimicry, I was told, extends to copying the sounds of the gardenersâ€™ chainsaws. We saw two after scarcely ten minutes here. You can track them down by listening out for pheasant-like scratching and blackbird-like burbling in the undergrowth.
There is no guidebook.
Other gardens nearby
There are several other interesting, less manicured, woodland gardens nearby which are also managed by Parks Victoria. The 11 hectare Pirianda Garden, developed by the Ansell family after 1962, comprises a steeply sloping arboretum descending into an atmospheric dell of native tree ferns; it has particularly good autumn colour. George Tindale Memorial Gardens is a more intimate garden. The 5 hectare Alfred Nicholas Gardens, developed after 1929 around lake and rock pools, is the best of the three.
The National Rhododendron Garden in Olinda is just over an hourâ€™s drive east of Melbourne. Â Pirianda, Tindale and Nicholas Gardens are all within a few miles, close to Olinda and Sherbrooke. There is free entry to allÂ the gardens, and they are open most days.