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Journal American Rhododendron Society

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Volume 41, Number 4
Fall 1987

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A Day At Brodick
Martha Prince
Locust Valley, New York

        The morning of May twenty-first was bright, sunny and cool. We had spent our first night in Scotland at a charming inn on the Ayrshire coast and our destination for the day was Brodick Castle Gardens on the Isle of Arran. After hurrying through breakfast, we drove the fourteen miles to the Ardrossan ferry. Along the landward side the road skirts stone walls, fencing in black-faced Highland sheep, and dips through several small villages. Our journey across the water was beautiful - and very windy. A north wind whipped up white caps; I had to brace myself against the boat's bulkhead in order to use my camera. It took nearly an hour to reach Brodick Bay.
        Arran is mountainous. At first sighting the castle is just a light speck against the dark blue-green cone of Goatfell, the island's highest peak (2866 feet). The name seems to have nothing to do with goats falling but is probably a corruption of the Gaelic "Goadh Bhein", or "Mountain of the Wind". This seems apt. Brodick Castle vanished from our view, into the trees, as the ferry neared land.
        For some months I had exchanged letters with John Basford, Head Gardener, who has been at Brodick for almost thirty years. He had most generously offered his time as guide; without his help this story could not have been written. Somehow he accurately identified us on the crowded pier and we climbed into his National Trust for Scotland van.
        Brodick is an imposing castle of red sandstone, mounted high on a manicured grass terrace. There is a remnant of a thirteenth century tower within the walls, but the rest is sixteenth, seventeenth and nineteenth century. It was the property of the Dukes of Hamilton, and descended from the 12th Duke to his daughter Mary Louise; she later became the Duchess of Montrose. The gardens as they are today were begun in the 1920's by the Duchess, an enthusiastic plantswoman and collector. When she died, in 1957, the property was deeded to the government, in lieu of death taxes. It was then turned over to the National Trust for Scotland, which beautifully maintains it today. The actual property is over 7000 acres, including the dominating peak of Goatfell, but the gardens themselves are of just sixty-five acres.
        John pulled up into an enclosure behind the castle and led us through to the front. As we walked along, we asked about the climate. How can a great rhododendron garden exist at the latitude of Hudson Bay and northern Labrador? The Gulf Stream - called here the North Atlantic Current - is the moderating force. There are only about twenty days in the year when the thermometer goes above 70F and 20F is the annual low. Mountains block gales from the west and the garden faces protectively southeast toward the Bay. When questioned about rainfall, John smiled and indicated the top of his head. As he is a tall man, I took his gesture to mean at least 72 inches. We New York gardeners, who must water often, were most impressed.

Brodick Castle from the walled garden
Brodick Castle from the walled garden
Photo by Martha Prince

        We began our garden exploration by following him down the neatly clipped grass slope and over to the walled garden. The wall itself, built in 1710, intrigued me instantly. Wonderful tufts of fern (some species of spleenwort, I think) and bright Erinus alpinus nestle between the blocks of weathered sandstone. A blazing Chilean Firebush (Embothrium lanceolatum) guards the entrance, and a very tropical array of shrubs, vines and trees are ranged along the protected inside perimeter of the garden. Plants from Australia, New Zealand and South America ring this only formal area at Brodick. The walled garden slopes down toward a view of the water, seen through ranks of tall conifers. At the bottom, a patterned area was brightly bedded out in vari-colored pansies, pink tulips and yellow wallflowers. John said he grows some 10,000 bedding plants, to keep a blooming succession. Roses, also, come later in the season.
        Below the walled garden is a nicely planted outcrop of rock, displaying some of the smaller rhododendrons. There is pale rose R. ungernii, then a sunny R. xanthostephanum. The name means "yellow garland" - most appropriate. John seemed surprised that we didn't recognize R. ferrugineum, the little Alpine Rose. These two New York gardeners were rapidly developing an inferiority complex! At least the next plant - lovely R. souliei - was familiar from English gardens we had visited a few years ago.
        Next we turned into the woodland area. The hillside below the castle is quite steep in places, and the paths run back and forth in long gentle zigzags. Here is the true glory of the garden, the collection of the larger rhododendron species. John first stopped before the mammoth leaved and most impressive R. sinogrande. Unhappily for us, bloom was long over. Further along, the leaves of R. macabeanum were glistening like polished leather and R. giganteum was in splendid new growth. We paused to admire the huge leaves of R. montroseanum, which was named for the Duchess of Montrose. There was also a giant R. magnificum; we were told that this was 30 feet tall and had taken thirty long years to flower.

R. sidereum 'Glen Rosa'
R. sidereum 'Glen Rosa', Brodick's A.M. form.
Photo by Martha Prince

        Among the Grandias, R. sidereum was the only species still in bloom. The first of these was creamy white and the second was a richly beautiful yellow (Brodick's own A.M. form, 'Glen Rosa'). John picked leaves of several species for us and of course we brought our treasure home, pressed between layers of newspaper in the bottom of a suitcase.
        He pointed out a wonderful R. falconeri (a white form) still in glorious bloom. A man seemed quite dwarfed, standing beneath it. In the same subsection (Falconera) we admired a white R. rex (Kingdon Ward 4509). A fine yellow hybrid of R. falconeri x R. sinogrande, the Exbury 'Fortune', was not far away. The portrait I took of John Basford here is the one I like best.

John Basford with Exbury's 'Fortune'.
John Basford with Exbury's 'Fortune'.
Photo by Martha Prince

        Among other species mounded along the path were lovely plants of R. griffithianum, with soft white blossoms. Various self-sown natural hybrids of griffithianum / vernicosum / decorum grow happily here; most are gentle pinks and are quite handsome. Another Fortunea, R. houlstonii (now listed by R.H.S. as R. fortunei ssp. discolor Houlstonii Group), has petals seemingly cut from the pink organdy of a little girl's party dress.
        We found three differing forms of the sweetly fragrant R. lindleyi, two white and a faintly pink-tinged one. The only other Maddenia we saw in bloom was R. brachysiphon. I would have liked a chance to see a plant I find listed by Davidian, R. basfordii. This was introduced in 1949, first flowered at Brodick, and is named for John Basford.

R. lindleyi
R. lindleyi
Photo by Martha Prince

        In the deep woodland shade the ground was sometimes fern-covered, sometimes mossy. At one spot there was a pretty sprinkling of tiny white oxalis flowers over moss-covered rocks. A view through big old trees provided glimpses of Brodick Bay; John pointed out the sculpted stone of what he called a raised beach - an obvious change in the level of the sea. As we walked along we passed banks of R. sinogrande seedlings, self-sown among ferns and bluebells. This setting seemed so natural that it was difficult to realize that these rhododendrons are native to the high mountains of Yunnan, Burma and Tibet, rather than to the coast of Scotland.
        An unfamiliar wild ginger carpeted one bit of ground. Our guide reached down beneath the heart-shaped leaves and picked a small brown flower. It was not too unlike the familiar "little brown jug" of the Asarum europeum we all grow, except that it had a surprising long brown tail. "Mouse plant", he said. It did, indeed, look like a small mouse. I carried this curious tidbit around for the rest of the afternoon.
        John bounded up the hillside above the path, saying that we should meet a neighborhood resident. I clambered up after him; there was a mother blackbird, almost invisible in her grassy, twiggy nest. She was startled, of course, but sat still for her portrait.

R. viscidifolium
R. viscidifolium
Photo by Martha Prince

        It would be impossible to list all the species blooming on the day of our visit. A bright red R. arboreum was still in bloom high up the hill. It had an amazing triple trunk, two and a half feet in diameter. Another red rhododendron I liked was R. haematodes x R. neriflorum ssp. euchaites. Then we met the coppery R. viscidifolium for the first time. R. spinuliferum, with strange tubular red flowers, was rather an oddity, as was R. genestierianum. The peculiar grape-purple flowers and unopened flowers certainly looked as though they should be cooked (with sugar) and eaten in a pie. Perhaps "grape" is wrong; the flavor might be plum - or blueberry. On a path near the castle sat a charming R. glaucophyllum with sweet pink bells. I also photographed a sunny R. wardii.
        John Basford had to leave us to tend to duty, but he pointed us toward the Horlick Collection. As you may know, Sir James Horlick left his rhododendron collection on the Isle of Gigha to the National Trust for Scotland. To reach this part of the garden, one takes a path across a noisy little burn (stream). Beyond it a frilly Victorian cast iron bench beckoned us; here we rested under the dangling yellow flowers of a small laburnum tree. Facing us was a red mound of R. 'Leo', an unlabelled pink, and the gently peachy R. 'Mrs. James Horlick'. To our left was a vivid R. 'Winsome'. As good reds always make us pause, we examined a glowing, unlabelled R. griersonianum cross, and then Horlick's R. 'Rosy Fido'.

Horlick's 'Rosy Fido'
Horlick's 'Rosy Fido'
Photo by Martha Prince

        We walked a bit further, but since the garden seemed to end we headed back toward the castle. When I later expressed my disappointment at the modest size of the Horlick Collection, John laughed. We had only explored about a tenth of it.
        As we were both tired by now, we investigated more benches. Sitting down can be a lovely way to see a garden. Just below the castle, along the Old Drive, one bench faces massed blue R. augustinii and a bank of the ubiquitous and beautiful yellow azalea, R. luteum. Behind are deep orange azaleas and a lovely pink cross of Basford's own, R. 'Salmon Trout' ('Lady Chamberlain' grex) x R. yunnanense (white form). A magnolia across the path is under planted with bluebells. Nothing could be prettier. (The one unhappy sight anywhere in the garden is nearby, a vacant bank. All the grouped plants of R. 'Lady Chamberlain' which grew here were killed by a combination of rust and mildew.)

R. 'Salmon Trout'
John Basford's cross of 'Salmon Trout'
'Lady Chamberlain' grex x R. yunnanense (white form)
Photo by Martha Prince

        The castle interior is well worth a visit, I know, but only Jordan went in. Instead, I soaked up the warm sunshine outside, on a bench between two very small cannons. There is a tea shop at the castle, and I shared the crumbs from a buttered scone with my favorite little British birds, the friendly chaf finchs. Jordan reported favorably on the castle's carved plaster ceilings and on the collections of porcelain, silver and pictures.
        Even the loveliest of days comes to an end. I doubt if we could have absorbed more kaleidoscopic impressions, anyway. A single day is just not enough - and the gardens should really be seen at several seasons, not just one. A letter I had from John Basford, dated last March 7, listed an amazing array of species in bloom: R. giganteum, R. magnificum, R. praestans, R. mallotum, R. hookeri, R. sulfureum, R. macabeanum, R. mollyanum, R. pocophorum, R. hemidartum, R. grande, R. irroratum. Our Long Island spring creeps in shyly and gently, with small flowers; it would be exciting to see the bold and blazing arrival of Brodick's spring, instead. Someday we must go back.

Brodick Castle and Goatfell peak from ferry.
Brodick Castle and Goatfell peak from ferry.
Photo by Martha Prince

        John collected us in time to catch the 4:30 ferry back to Ardrossan. The journey was not as windy as the morning one, but the day was still beautiful and sunny. Brodick Castle again became a tiny dot against the darker mountain.

Martha Prince, a New York chapter member, has written for many magazines. Her previous contributions to the ARS Journal include "Wanderings at Windsor," Vol. 37:2 (Spring 1983) and "A Day at Exbury," Vol. 36:40 (Fall 1982).


Volume 41, Number 4
Fall 1987

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