Rhododendron Days

For the past few years, my college roommate has visited from her home in the Hudson River valley for a weekend of plant swapping, plant shopping and touring local gardens for inspiration. We were art students together in college, and have become passionate gardeners who use the garden as our canvas. This May weekend had a strong rhododendron theme, coinciding with the Mass. Rhododendron Society’s plant sale at Weston Nurseries, followed by a viewing of Boulderwoods Nursery, the awe-inspiring Hopkinton garden of hybridizer Joe Bruso. Rhododendrons are exceptionally floriferous this year, so it was an excellent time to round out the weekend with a trip to Cape Cod to visit the Heritage Museums and Gardens in Sandwich.

 Established in 1969 by Josiah K. Lilly III, Heritage Museums and Gardens is a garden oasis with outstanding collections of rhododendrons, hollies, hostas, hydrangeas and over 1,000 daylilies which light up the garden in July and August. The 100-acre grounds feature thousands of rhododendron shrubs that burst into pink, red, and cream-hued bloom in late May. These plants are the legacy of two rhododendron-obsessed men. Charles Owen Dexter, a man of varied interests who became famous for hybridizing and propagating rhododendrons, lived on the property between 1921 and 1943. His plant breeding goals were hardiness, clear bright colors, fragrance, and large, showy blossoms, and the most well known of his hybrids today is ‘Scintillation.’ Other unique rhododendron cultivars in the Heritage gardens are the work of horticulturist Jack Cowles, who lived and worked on the estate from 1957 to 1967.

 Heritage Museums and Gardens exceeded our expectations. The rolling landscape was covered with a tapestry of rhododendrons, some 20 feet in height, most in bloom. Instead of the mauvy pinks, purples and whites that are commonly found in local nurseries, there were soft creams, pinkish apricots, rosy pinks and soft reds. To my surprise, many of the rhododendrons were wonderfully scented, and I quickly chose two favorites: ‘Dexter’s Spice,’ with its huge frilly, funnel-shaped white flowers and intoxicating fragrance, and ‘Dexter’s Honeydew’, another fragrant variety with pink buds that open into creamy apricot-tinged blossoms.

 In addition to the other plant collections, which I plan to come see when they are blooming in July, Heritage Gardens features a labyrinth, children’s garden, flume water feature, classical herb garden and an arboretum of beautiful mature trees, including umbrella pine, enkianthus, halesia, stewartia and many more. An unusual maze constructed of metal frames supports dozens of climbing vines, including climbing hydrangea, clematis, hops, akebia, and wisteria.

 Heritage is currently celebrating “Rhododendron Days” through May 30 with daily special events and an on-going plant sale of some of their hydrangea and rhododendron cultivars. (I am only sorry that I did not purchase the ‘Dexter’s Honeydew’, as it is almost impossible to find anywhere else.) The property also includes several excellent museums featuring antique cars, folk art, history and a lovely old carousel. (heritagemuseumsandgardens.org). A perfect way to top off a visit to Heritage Museums is to stop for Afternoon English tea at the Dunbar Tea Room, less than a mile away in Sandwich (dunbarteashop.com)