Hartley Magazine

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Heritage Gardens in Sandwich, MA

White rhododendrons

This spring I visited Heritage Gardens in Sandwich, Massachusetts, to see the rhododendrons in bloom. These 100 acres were formerly the estate of Charles Dexter, who, beginning in 1921, spent years propagating and raising thousands of rhododendrons.  He gave many to friends and neighbors without keeping records of these gifts, which is why new Dexter hybrids are continually being discovered.

According to the America Rhododendron Society, Dexter initially grew blueberries until he found at a nearby nursery some Asian rhododendrons imported from England. These were probably the first plants used in his breeding program. Research shows he crossed many favorite R. fortunei strains, endlessly trying to enhance color, fragrance, and form in his cultivars. But because Dexter didn’t systematically document his parent plants and crosses, numerous unanswered questions remain about how he derived his hybrids.

After Dexter’s death in 1943, the American Rhododendron Society formed a committee to locate and evaluate many of these hybrids in gardens throughout the East Coast. The Scott Arboretum of Swarthmore College in Pennsylvania set out to acquire a complete set of the plants. As this collection grew, specimens were sent to Harvard’s Arnold Arboretum in Boston and to the U.S. National Arboretum in Washington, D.C. These are just a few of the other places you can see these beautiful rhododendrons in bloom.

But nothing is likely to top the display at Heritage Gardens, with its more than 10,000 rhododendron plants, including some 150 named varieties. Their colors range from pure white to pastel pinks, yellows, and apricots, to vibrant shades of coral, magenta, lavender, purple, and red. Some of the blossoms are enormous, while others are quite small. The plants vary in height from a mere two feet to a towering thirty feet for some of the older varieties. The collective effect is truly magnificent. Adding a few of these wonderful plants to the north side of your greenhouse could provide you with some glorious springtime color.

Bear in mind that spring is not the only season to visit Heritage Gardens. The property has impressive displays throughout the year, including a superb collection of hydrangea and daylilies in summer, a blaze of brilliantly colored New England foliage in fall, and from Thanksgiving until New Year a spectacular collection of holiday lights that winds through miles of garden pathways. Also offered throughout the year are a variety of workshops, lectures, and other activities for gardeners.