Plant/Life: The National Rhododendron Gardens

“Our vision for the National Rhododendron Garden is for it to become the premier cool-climate public garden in Melbourne for species conservation and preservation,” says Mark Kraus, the Parks Victoria team leader responsible for the care of this incredible 42-hectare gem, nestled deep in the lush Dandenong Ranges east of Melbourne.

The view! Image by Caitlin Mills.
Spectacular reflections on the lake. Image by Caitlin Mills.

The garden was first established in 1960 by the Australian Rhododendron Society with an aim to display rhododendron species in an Australian setting and to share knowledge about the genus. Parks Victoria officially took over the management of the gardens in 1995. Nowadays, the garden holds around 15 000 rhododendrons, 12 000 azaleas and 25 000 daffodils and jonquils. Quantity AND quality!

All plant lovers and those who have an appreciation of nature will find the National Rhododendron Gardens a sheer delight,” Mark says. “The nationally recognised collection of rhododendrons is a highlight in September through to early November.”

But don’t just drop in then! There’s heaps of other good stuff like collections of plants from Southern China, lots of magnolias, conifers, cherries, camellias daffodils and more. It’s a plant lover’s paradise and a great way to get up close and personal with a wide range of interesting, and often rare, cool climate plants.

Due to its location – the Dandenong ranges receives high rainfall and minimal frost, and has beautiful rich volcanic soil – a wide range of plants can be grown, making the garden an internationally important resource for the ex-situ conservation of threatened rhododendron species. According to the Australian Network for Plant Conservation, 50 of the world’s rare and endangered rhododendron species are held in the garden.

The gardens feature around five kilometres of walking trails through a range of different microclimates. Image by Caitlin Mills.
New growth. Image by Caitlin Mills.
Rhododendrons are FULL ON in flower! Image by Caitlin Mills.
The soils and climate of the Dandenong Ranges provide the perfect conditions for the growing of rhododendrons and other cool climate plants. This is a rhododendron nutallii x rhododendron lindleyi (try saying that quickly three times!) Image by Caitlin Mills.
Rhododendrons are FULL ON in flower! Image by Caitlin Mills.
The National Rhododendron Gardens holds the largest collection of rhododendrons in the southern hemisphere. Pictured here is a 'freckle pink' rhododendron. Image by Caitlin Mills.
Spectacular reflections on the lake. Image by Caitlin Mills.
The National Rhododendron Gardens was first established in 1960 on land leased to the Australian Rhododendron Society from the Victorian government. Image by Caitlin Mills.
Many of the plants in the garden were donated by members of the Australian Rhododendron Society. Image by Caitlin Mills.

The site is host to a range of landscape types – from shady fern gullies to vast open spaces and grand views, winding walkways and sensory gardens.

There’s around five kilometres of tracks winding through the space. Serenity Point, at the far end of the gardens, is one of Mark’s favourite spots. “Serenity Point is at the northern end of the garden and provides 270 degree views overlooking the Yarra Valley. It’s a favourite location for weddings and family functions,” he says.

The design of the site has evolved over the years, and according to Mark, “the key landscape design feature of the property is the Kurume Bowl. It’s built in the shape of an amphitheatre and displays hundreds of azalea plants.” Then there’s the main lake: “It’s a photographer’s delight – with reflections of acer trees, hydrangeas in full bloom, mature magnolia specimens and mountain ash trees at the southern end of the lake,” he says.

Right now in the gardens, though, it’s all about the rhododendrons.

The rhododendron collection is coming into full display throughout the garden at the moment,” Mark says. “The Australian Hybrid collection showing some exquisite flower colour and form and the Kurume Bowl is promising to be a show stopper.”

So, if you’re wondering what to do this weekend, I reckon you should pack yourself a picnic and head for the hills. Go botanising at the National Rhododendron Gardens in Olinda and immerse yourself in the wonder that is 15 000 rhododendron plants in full flower. What else is there, really?

The National Rhododendron Garden is located just outside the town of Olinda in the Dandenong Ranges. Entry is via The Georgian Road. The gardens are open 10.00am to 5.00pm daily (last entry 4.30pm) except Christmas Day. Entrance to the gardens is free.

This post was produced as a part of our monthly collaboration with The Design Files. All images by Caitlin Mills.

Mark Kraus (team leader), Craig Parsons (senior ranger), Ben di Battista (horticultural ranger). Image by Caitlin Mills.
The bright colours of the exotic plants featured in the gardens are framed by a backdrop of mountain ash trees. Image by Caitlin Mills.
The 42-hectare garden is tended to by a staff of 17 green thumbs employed by Parks Victoria. Image by Caitlin Mills.