History of Rhododendrons on Bidston Hill

Birkenhead Borough Council purchased Bidston Hill from Lord de Grey Vyner between 1894 and 1908 with funds raised by public subscription matched by Birkenhead Corporation (a total of £30,310).

The present owner is the Education & Cultural Services Department of the Metropolitan Borough of Wirral who employ a part-time ranger with assistance from the ranger at Tam O’Shanter Urban Farm.

Dr Hilary Ash a consultant ecologist with Cheshire Ecological Services and Colin Hayes from English Nature drew up a five-year management plan in 2003  which included a report from Tony Ormond on bird populations and migrants on Bidston Hill. Funding for this plan was raised through the Friends of Bidston Hill with grants from the Neighbourhood Community Chest and the SEED programme (Social, Economic and Environmental Development programme) ‘New Opportunities Fund’.

When Bidston Hill was purchased in 1894, a management committee for Bidston Hill was set up. The minutes of their meetings between 1894 and 1933 are available in the archives section of Birkenhead Town Hall. Entries concerning trees and rhododendrons have been copied in order to find out what plants were introduced and when.

Extracts from these minutes are as follows:

December 2nd 1897: Mr Parkinson (superintendent in charge of all the parks) ordered 200 Rhododendron ponticum, 24 silver birch and 12 Austrian pines. Mr McKee promised 300 rhododendrons for planting in the wood.

March 12th 1900: It was decided to recommend the planting of some Rhododendrons on the North and South West side of the bridge over Vyner Road and to place iron seats in the central walk of the wood and plant Rhododendrons in various places and to alter the line of the walk.

May 21st 1900: The Chairman reported the offer by Mr James McKee of 100 Rhododendrons to be planted in the autumn in the wood (Park Wood).

March 15th 1910: Desirable to plant some Austrian Pines, Rhododendrons and other dwarf shrubs on bare places in the wood.

November 16th 1910: Important new wood would be planted promptly with Scotch Firs also Spruce and Larch.

January 20th 1916:  The secretary reported he had given permission to Mr & Mrs Colwel to plant 500 bulbs in Western Wood (Park Wood). This was approved.

November 25th 1919: Replanting: It was decided to plant 1000 Scotch Firs, 500 Douglas Firs and 500 Beech trees. It was arranged to be done.

October 23rd 1924: Mr Cowie (the Superintendent) reported that some tree planting was being done under his supervision and he was instructed that any trees planted should be of English kind grown, naturally or in the neighbourhood of the Hill in accordance with the terms of Conveyance of 29th April 1894 between Mr Vyner and the Corporation.

February 24th 1933: General satisfaction was expressed at the improvement of the hill top, wrought by cutting down and clearing away Birch trees and other trees, thus opening out delightful and extensive views as formerly obtained through Park Wood. Mr Cowie was warmly complimented upon the result.

These extracts record that rhododendrons and trees were planted over several years in Park Wood. In order to identify these rhododendrons specifically, reference has been made to specialist rhododendron books where descriptions of the plants and their origins are recorded (see book reference list). Catalogues from the 2 main rhododendron nurseries specialising in importing and breeding rhododendrons were obtained from the RHS Lindley Library in London. These being Standish & Noble at Sunningdale (1850) and Waterers at Knaphill & Bagshot (1936 & 1949/50).

The history of the hardy hybrids as shown in the “History of Hardy Hybrid Rhododendrons” shows that the main species rhododendrons used to breed these hybrids were R. ponticum, R. maximum, R.caucasicum, R.catawbiense, R. arboreum, R.griffithianum and R. thomsonii. By looking at the parentage for the named hardy hybrids, only those which were bred before 1950, preferably in the 19th Century, with parents being of one or more of the seven species listed above were considered as being available for planting in Park Wood at the time that records show rhododendrons were planted.

Various rhododendron books with colour plates (Street, Cox, Sally & Greer etc) were used to compare photographs taken in March-June 2003 of the plants currently growing on the hill. Morna Knottenbelt’s descriptions were compared with the descriptions in the books to see if both photograph and description matched and that the parentage and time of breeding fell within the right period. On this basis she compiled a list of the rhododendron hybrids in Park Wood.

The identification of specific names for each one was a painstaking and lengthy undertaking and it is very difficult to guarantee that they are all correct. There appear to be no records of the specific plants that were planted and historically we know that grafted specimens were frequently used to produce hybrids, which if neglected over many years may revert to the original ponticum stock.

Many of the ponticums seen today in Park Wood may have been planted originally as hybrids with more interesting colours and they too may have reverted to the common R. ponticum. There will also have been natural cross-breeding of the hybrids and ponticums over the last 100 years contributing to many variants of the ponticum rhododendron seen today.

Source: M.K. Knottenbelt 2004