Monday, 28 January 2013

Early snowdrops at Colesbourne Park

Galanthus plicatus 'Colossus'

The original big drift of 'Colossus' is a highlight of the early part of the season at Colesbourne.

I spent the weekend at Colesbourne Park, helping with the preparations for the snowdrop open days, which start next weekend. When I arrived on Saturday most of the garden was covered in snow and Chris Horsfall and I went round placing labels through the snow, but heavy rain in the early hours of Sunday cleared almost all of it, to everyone's great relief. As the snow went the snowdrops emerged, revealing quite a good show already in flower. With mild weather forecast for this week I'm sure that by next weekend there will be a lot to see. The garden is open every weekend in February and the first weekend of March, from 1pm. Details are on the website, as is the very nice list of potted snowdrops available for sale - they are looking really good!

The very pretty flower of 'Esther Merton', available at Colesbourne for a fraction of Ebay prices... 

Galanthus elwesii 'Green Brush' looking good after a couple of years in the ground.
G. elwesii 'Rosemary Burnham' is a very choice, short-statured virescent.

'John Grey' with Bergenia 'Godfrey Owen'

The stalwart 'James Backhouse' is just getting going.

Friday, 25 January 2013

Unusual plants at Mt Tomah

One of several large patches of the Kenyan giant lobelia, Lobelia aberdarica
 On a very cold snowy evening it seems pleasant to revisit another good garden in Australia, seen during my tour in November last year. The Blue Mountains Botanic Garden is a satellite of the Royal Botanic Gardens, Sydney, established in the 1980s at 1000 m in the Blue Mountains on the slopes of Mt Tomah, to grow cool climate plants. It is indeed a cool climate, with frequent snow and sharp frosts in winter, and is temperate even inn the Australian summer. The plants - as can be seen from the selection illustrated in this post - come from all over the world, making a rather unique assemblage in a compact space. The garden itself covers 28 ha, but the property also includes a large tract of natural Eucalyptus forest, with some relict patches of montane rainforest. With several friends working in the garden it's a place I've wanted to visit for a long time - thanks to Mat, Steve and Michael for giving me a fascinating tour.

Another African rosette plant, Aloe polyphylla, endemic to Lesotho, in full flower.

Puya chilensis produces a massive inflorescence froma clump ov viciously tooth-edged leaves, but the flowers are worth the inconvenience. 

Puya chilensis

Part of the rock garden, with an access ramp built the garden's master builder, Michael Carle.
An Australian native aquatic Ranunculus, with yellow flowers instead of the expected white.

Cheiranthera linearis, a  native plant I'd never heard of, belonging to the Pittosporaceae.
Male cones on Araucaria montana, from New Caledonia.

A hedge made of Saxegothaea conspicua, a  yew-like podocarp from Chile, named in honour of Prince Albert of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha.

A view over the Eucalyptus forest of the Blue Mountains: the most diverse assortment of eucalypts occurs here. Montane rainforest shows as darker green patches.

A fern climbs tree trunks in a fragment of rainforest adjacent to the garden.

The bower of a male Satin Bower-bird; he dances in the mouth of the bower, attracting females with an assortment of brightly coloured objects outside. Note to gardeners: blue labels are not a good idea in bower-bird country!

Sunday, 20 January 2013

Chestnuts roasting on an open fire

Chestnuts over the hot coals: a mixture of two species of Castanea.
 I have always loved eating the autumn and winter ritual of cooking chestnuts. My earliest memories are of cooking them under the grill when we had no fireplace, and then, in another home, roasting them in an old fashioned chestnut pan over an open fire. From childhood, too, come memories of my grandmother buying us small bags of chestnuts from what she called a 'brassiere' on the street in London. When I've not had a fireplace to hand I've found that one can microwave them quite successfully  - just make sure they're well pricked, with the ends cut off, to avoid very messy explosions - and boiling them is successful too. Neither of these methods gives the traditional partially scorched flavour from roasting them over the coals, though. With open fireplaces in this house I've been able to get back to roasting them properly. As with a barbecue one really needs to put them over hot coals rather than a briskly burning fire, and then shoogle them about to prevent them burning in one place. They don't take long, about ten minutes.

The traditional edible chestnut in Europe is the Sweet Chestnut, Castanea sativa, potentially a magnificent big tree with many fine ornamental characters. It doesn't fruit reliably in this country, so finding trees with a good crop of nuts just adds to the pleasure. The nuts are therefore imported from southern Europe, mostly Italy. They're not very big - 3 cm across would be large. When I was in Vancouver a few years ago I got a bag of chestnuts from a 'brassiere' (an indelible malapropism) and noticed they were much larger than normal. In the past two or three autumns I've seen the same nuts for sale here, and although I knew they weren't C. sativa I didn't pay them much attention. This year I bought some to make a deliberate comparison and to try to identify them.

Chestnuts from China, either Castanea mollissima or C. crenata. The enormous dark hilum (seed scar) is very obvious.
 It's clear that they are imported from China, so the obvious thing was to try the Flora of China. Two species are grown there commercially for edible nuts: the native C. mollissima and the Japanese C. crenata, but the descriptions of the nuts are insufficient for an identification. They have clear foliage differences, however, so I'll grow on a few and see how they are in spring. The nuts are very much larger (4 cm + across) and 'chunkier' than C. sativa, usually a rather triangular shape, and have a very large hilum, or scar, where the nut was attached to the capsule. This is very distinctive.

A comparison of two species: the Chinese nuts (left) and  Italian C. sativa  (right) the differences in size, colour, hilum, etc, are very visible.

I carefully tested the flavour by both roasting and boiling nuts together. There is no doubt that for flavour C. sativa wins hands-down: sweet and soft-textured.  The Chinese nuts are much more coarsely textured and have only a whisper of sweetness. They're not unpleasant, but they're pointless if C. sativa is available. I just hope that in this case the European goods can hold up their market share against Chinese imports...

Wednesday, 16 January 2013

Trees in the snow

Hornbeam, Carpinus betulus

Birch, Betula sp.

Metasequoia glyptostroboides

Limes in the Castle Howard avenue,
Tilia × europaea   

Oaks, Quercus robur

Wollemia nobilis
All taken today in the Castle Howard Arboretum, North Yorkshire.

Saturday, 12 January 2013

The Trees of Great Britain and Ireland - a majestic centenarian

The Trees of Great Britain and Ireland, by Henry John Elwes and Augustine Henry, 1906-1913, magnificently reissued by the Society of Irish Foresters.

In 1900 or thereabouts, a Gloucestershire landowner was frustrated by not being able to find any up-to-date information on trees, native or exotic, that he could plant on his land with the hope of commercial success, so he 'conceived the idea of commencing a work on the subject.' He was Henry John Elwes, of Colesbourne Park, and in his own reckoning this project, published from 1906-1913 as The Trees of Great Britain and Ireland', was to be 'the most complete and useful work I ever did.'   We are fortunate in that, in addition to 'the work' - one can hardly call seven hefty volumes a book - he also left an account of why and how it was written, published in his posthumous autobiography (1930). He records how he wanted it to be a contemporary, accurate and fully verified 'life-history of every tree which had been cultivated in this country from the seed to the stage at which it was converted or convertible into timber' and how the realisation dawned that 'an immense deal of research... would be necessary to come up to the high standard which I set up for myself.'

In consequence he looked about for 'a colleague who would help me'  and was put in touch with Dr Augustine Henry, already renowned for his exploration of the Chinese flora (see my post of 7 December 2011) and engaged him as his co-author, based at Kew. Henry was to do all the technical botanical part of the book, while Elwes attended to the practical aspects of cultivation, forestry and timber production and usage. Each signed their contributions with their initials, so there was no doubt as to who had written each section.Although HJE never ventured into technical botany, AH  frequently also comments on the growing trees, and often provides information  from his observations in China (though most of the Chinese species introduced by Wilson following in Henry's footsteps were too new in cultivation to warrant more than a note.)

In writing 'The Trees', Elwes and Henry left nothing to chance, and no expense was spared: 'My previous experience in publishing privately an important work on Lilies had also proved to me that where an author is prepared and able to finance a work of this size and cost himself, he will gain in many ways by dispensing with a publisher.' It was a lordly approach, and it worked. One suspects that HJE was proud of the fact that in the course of his travels in the British Isles alone, visiting 600 locations to see the trees there, he 'wore out two motor cars' and travelled thousands of miles by rail. Augustine Henry travelled a lot too, and his note that he travelled by stagecoach from Grants Pass in Oregon to Crescent City, California, in 1906, sets the book's date into perspective. Their correspondence must have been immense and indefatigable, with information recorded from contributors all over the world - and all in longhand, and by mail. By personal experience I know the effort involved in communicating with a body of contributors, even with the convenience of email.

The first results of their labours, in the form of Volume I, were published in 1906. Rather idiosyncratically they published the accounts of each species as they were ready, rather than organising them in any botanical or alphabetical sequence. It is odd, but as HJE said, there is a full index (the eighth volume) that renders the publication order irrelevant, and the advantages they gained were enormous, giving the authors longer to study the more difficult genera. It is not surprising that Tilia, Populus and Ulmus are found in Volume VII (1913). Each species gets a botanical description by Henry, followed by Elwes's notes. These cover its cultivation, notes on the best specimens to be seen (not only in Britain and Ireland, but frequently detouring across to Europe) and the timber and its uses, in extraordinary detail. It is this utter thoroughness that makes it such a useful and fascinating work.

A  spread from the 25 pages of text on Pinus sylvestris, illustrated with 11 full-page plates from photographs specially commissioned for the book. These were provided separate to the letterpress, to be added when the volume was bound.

"When, after four years' work, we had at last got Volume I ready to publish, my friend Sir Joseph Hooker [HJE is writing], then in his ninetieth year, asked me to show him some of the proofs, and I took down the first article in print to his house at Sunningdale. After lunch he pushed up his spectacles onto his forehead and read through the twenty-eight pages without a remark. When he had finished he congratulated me and said that he would not have thought it possible to say so much that was new and interesting to him about so common and well known a tree as the Beech." I think it is true to say that any modern reader would find it exactly the same. It is a wonderful book to browse in for unfamiliar facts, and both authors wrote beautifully clear, readable prose. No doubt now, a hundred years later, there are many facts that could be added or amended, but I have not come across any book on trees that is so satisfyingly complete.

This was, until it fell in 1911, the largest tree in the British Isles, standing 142' with a girth of 27' at 5' high.  'At my suggestion [the Bursar of Magdalen College] removed a scrubby tree... in order to allow [this] photograph to be taken...'
For many dendrologists it is the record of 'remarkable trees' that makes 'Elwes and Henry' so fascinating, though sadly most of the specimens they recorded have long gone, but the work preserves the memory of many fine trees of the past. Some we shall never see again, like the great elm of Magdalen College, illustrated above, but in fact many champion trees now exceed the dimensions of the specimens recorded here, by virtue of having had longer to grow. It is salutary to recall that when Volume I was published, Sequoiadendron giganteum had been introduced only 52 years previously, and the tallest was 100-105' (c 31 m)  by 17' in girth; the current tallest specimen in Britain is 54.5m.

For nearly ten years I had the privilege of working with, and seeing daily, the trees that HJE had planted at Colesbourne while working on the book. Some are mentioned in it, as young specimens . Among them is the fastigiate hybrid poplar now known as Populus 'Serotina de Selys'. From Volume VII we learn that this is of Belgian origin, and that in 1908 HJE visited the Baron de Selys-Longchamps, at Chateau de Longchamps near Waremme 'on purpose to see these trees'. The original had been 'procured by chance' from a local nursery in 1818, and the photograph shows trees propagated as cuttings in 1862, and standing 120' tall by 1908, compared against the leafed-out Lombardy poplars adjacent.

'Cuttings from  the fastigiate variety were kindly sent me by the baron, and are growing vigorously at Colesborne.' This is the surviving Colesbourne specimen in about 2004 or 2005, when it was 36 m tall. 

The Trees of Great Britain and Ireland appeared in seven volumes from 1906-1913, when an index volume was produced. Only 500 copies were printed, of which just over half were sold to subscribers, a list of whom can be found with the index; the ledger recording their payments is still at Colesbourne Park. The rest were sold through the bookseller Bernard Quaritch and quickly became sought-after. The original set were issued as rough blocks of folded sheets, in a flimsy grey paper wrapper. They look terribly rough, but it was expected that the gentlemen (and a few ladies - Miss Willmott had three sets) who purchased a set would have them bound in their own favoured style.

The Index volume, as issued in the first printing, with uncut pages and a flimsy cover.
 In the 1970s the Royal Forestry Society produced a facsimile, again in only 500 copies and unfortunately rather grubby in appearance. In 2012, to commemorate the centenary of 'The Trees' and honouring Augustine Henry, widely regarded as the father of Irish forestry, the Society of Irish Foresters has produced another facsimile reprint, of 250 copies. This time, with the benefit of modern scanning technology, it has turned out beautifully, with crisply rendered text and good rendition of the plates (although they are inevitably duller than the originals). This makes this great work available to a new generation of dendrologists, at a fair price. It is offered in two formats, either bound in linen boards for €500, or in half-leather for €1500. More information is available from

Through the munificence of a gentleman who I am sure would prefer not to be named, but to whom I am happy to have been able to render service, I have been presented with a set of The Trees in half leather binding. It is a gift I shall always treasure - and use.

Thursday, 10 January 2013

Winter interest in Ray Wood

A mass-planting of Hamamelis × intermedia 'Pallida' in Ray Wood, looking fantastic and smelling delicious.
Today, for the first time this year, I paid a visit to the other part of my 'domain', the woodland garden created by James Russell in Ray Wood, adjacent to the great house of Castle Howard. It was a dampish but brightish day, and quite mild in the wood and I was pleasantly surprised to see how much of winter-interest grows there. Most notable is the grove of Hamamelis × intermedia 'Pallida', that old favourite with its luminous flowers and subtle but exquisite fragrance, glowing under the high standard trees. Ray Wood is most famous for its Rhododendron collection: winter is not usually thought of as Rhododendron season, but as the pictures show, the genus contributes significantly to the winter display in the interest of its winter stem colours, the shapes, textures and hairiness of the foliage, and even flowers.

Big bushes of Mahonia × media 'Charity' with Hamamelis behind.

Mahonia 'Charity' - free-flowering but sadly unscented.

Rhododendron dauricum 'Mid-winter' is in full flower. Rather a vicious magenta, but who cares in January/?

Gingery indumentum on the petioles and bud of Rhododendron bureavii.

The magnificent foliage of Rhododendron falconeri subsp. eximium.

Brightened by light drizzle: the bark of Rhododendron barbatum.

Betula ermanii 'Grayswood Hill'

The 'Thursday team' of Ray Wood volunteers take a well-earned break. They and the 'Tuesday team', led by Jan Hoyland and Jonathan Watkinson, are restoring and maintaining this important woodland garden.

Soft hummocks of deep Polytrichum moss on the woodland floor.

Sunday, 6 January 2013

Two collections in Canberra

Patersonia longifolia
 While in Australia in November I was asked to give a couple of talks in Canberra, which enabled me to see two gardens there. First was the Australian National Botanic Gardens, effectively started in the 1950s and growing only native species and selections from them. The planting is quite informal but very pleasant, and gave me the chance to see a lot of species not encountered in other gardens.  I also had the pleasure of meeting some members of the seed bank team, who gave me a warm welcome and tour of their facilities. It was fascinating to see their work and learn of projects for restoring native plants to degraded habitats.

The founding father of Australian botany, Sir Joseph Banks, in his young Tahitian-seducing days of the Endeavour's voyage, given due prominence at the Australian National Botanic Gardens, with a tree-forming Banksia behind.

A less-familiar style of Banksia, forming a tuft of leaves arising from prostrate stems, with inflorescences at ground level. This is aptly called B. blechnifolia.

An attractive legume from northern New South Wales and southern Queensland, Jacksonia scoparia, not dissimilar in habit to Genista aetnensis

Jacksonia scoparia

Callistemon 'Howie's Fire Glow' - a particularly bright bottlebrush.

A young Spiny Echidna in the Australian National Botanic Gardens: the best mammal sighting of the trip.

Viewpoint with engraved rail in the National Arboretum Canberra.

The second visit was to the very new - in fact not yet formally open - National Arboretum Canberra. This is a project on a massive scale, occupying 250 ha on a site that was a pine plantation until it was destroyed by a fire in 2003. The ACT Government seized upon the site quickly for a National Arboretum, and following competition, awarded the design project to Taylor Cullity Lethlean Landscape Architects with Tonkin Zulaikha Greer Architects. Their concept was a series of blocks of one species of tree 'of rare, threatened and symbolic tree species from around the world' and so the landscape is divided into blocks that look like forestry trial plots. It's a very different concept from a traditional arboretum, but one can see the big boldness of it. A lot of trouble was put into getting appropriate seed and propagation material, but it is really vexing to learn that no thought was taken of the conservation value of such large blocks of rare trees, which could act as important seed orchards in the future. For example Cupressus dupreziana var. dupreziana, and var. atlantica, both reduced to a handful of wild specimens, were grown from wild-origin seed and then planted together, instead of growing them as disparate blocks that would preserve a decent genetic diversity. Ideology also seems to have dictated the location of the plantations, and one does wonder how many of them will thrive and prosper long term. But it is good to see any big horticultural project going ahead in these times, and I wish the arboretum well for the future.

Ideology dominant over physiology: a plantation of Dracaena draco (with cages for  wrapping against frost) with Liriodendron chinensis scorching in the sunshine beyond.

New buildings and amphitheatre at the National Arboretum Canberra, with a stand of Washingtonia on  the hilltop opposite.