To see rhododendrons in all their exotic glory, steer well clear of suburban lawns

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I really love rhododendrons. It's not cool, but it's been true since I was five and first went to Cornwall for an Easter holiday: plants you could actually stand underneath in a game of hide-and-seek – and my mind boggled at the mighty pinkness of them.

In later years, I learnt that you shouldn't own up to this kind of personal failing; rhododendrons are for people to be snooty about in suburban Surrey, not to make your heart soar with thoughts of the faraway Himalayas. Yet I could never quite forget that in that Cornish classic, Daphne du Maurier's Rebecca, it is 50ft-tall, blood-red rhododendrons that line the drive of the spooky house at Manderley. See, they can have a dangerous glamour – it just gets lost in the commuter belt.

Suburban taste definitely neglected some of the gorgeous tree-sized species collected by the grand Victorians – such as Rhododendron arboreum, the blood-red, tallest-growing rhodie. Instead, mid-century gardens favoured smaller hybrids that sat like a squat dark-green bubble on the lawn.

But these days, we increasingly admire the wild variations, with their elegant branching growth and peeling, papery bark in russet tones. Rhododendron thomsonii is one of these, with small red flowers on ginger-toned branches. And Rhododendron falconeri carries its white bells in huge clusters, and inside the flower, a blood-red stain, to conjure up the first Mrs de Winter in all her glory.

I saw all these plants growing at their best two years ago on a Highlands and Islands garden tour in Scotland. We felt a million miles from anywhere on the little Scottish island of Gigha, walking through forest glades, the May sunshine striking us through gaps in the treetops. In the shade, we found Rhododendron sinogrande, which has fantastic furry reddish-brown undersides to its leaves, giving the plant an exotic feel even when it's not in flower.

But you don't have to travel that far: rhododendrons give the celebrated nurserywoman Beth Chatto's garden in deepest Essex a touch of Nepal, with a deep-pink hybrid flowering by the upper pond, and a huge specimen of Rhododendron "Sappho" on the lawn, its high-held white bells with a burgundy touch inside.

These rhododendrons are not for small gardens. They are for hillsides and valleys. And maybe private estates. If you can make it to Scotland, go. But Wakehurst in Sussex is spectacular, as are those Cornish gardens. Escape the bourgeois smallness of Surrey. Your own garden, like mine, may be much too small to actually plant them, but when it comes to rhododendrons, there's nothing quite like thinking big.

On the rhodie: Britain's best examples

Exbury Gardens

Exquisite Rothschild family collection in the heart of the New Forest. Check its regularly updated Flickr page to see exactly what's in store for your visit. www.exbury.co.uk, http://tinyurl.com/d8nf4k

Trelissick Garden

Delightful woodland walks open to grand lawns and vistas on the edge of the River Fal in this National Trust garden near Truro. Rhododendrons in quantity, as well as other unusual tender exotics. http://tinyurl.com/ct4r6l

Benmore Botanic Garden

Set within the Loch Lomond and the Trossachs National Park, California redwoods tower over a rhododendron dell of jaw-dropping dimensions. Plus the best rhodie audio guide you'll ever hear. http://tinyurl.com/cj3rhl

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