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Journal American Rhododendron Society

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Dr. Glen Jamieson ars.editor@gmail.com


Volume 48, Number 2
Spring 1994

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The Younger Botanic Garden at Benmore in Scotland
George Smith
Stockport, England

        Containing a leading collection of trees and shrubs of known wild origin, this Argyllshire garden is one of the three Satellites of the Royal Botanic Garden at Edinburgh. It is located on the northern side of the Firth of Clyde, inland from the Holy Loch, and is within reach of Glasgow. It has a most attractive setting in unspoiled countryside at the foot of the 2,400-foot high mountain, Beinn Mhor. About one third of the garden area, that containing most of the old plantings, is flat alluvial ground on the banks of the river Eachaig, and the rest is a steep east and south facing wooded slope, well served with easy paths.
        Tree planting began as early as 1820, and more exotic plantings in the early 1860s: most notably, 1863 saw the creation of the now famous Avenue of Giant Redwoods. These trees, now 130 years old, are thriving and still growing mightily. The Younger Family, of the well known Edinburgh Brewery, owned the garden from 1889 to 1925, and initiated the plantings of ornamental trees and shrubs - by the time H.G. Younger made a gift of the garden to the nation, Benmore already had a high reputation, especially for its collection of rhododendrons and conifers. From 1929 the development of the garden was managed by the R.B.G. Edinburgh, and much planting began, especially of the very many new Sino-Himalayan species, which obviously have enjoyed the wet and relatively mild climate. Most of the large rhododendrons between Benmore House and the Golden Gate, now venerable old specimens, date from this period. After the neglect of the war years, the real work of creating a large botanic garden began in 1953 under the direction of Mr. Richard Shaw, and then of Mr. Arthur Hall: this involved years of very hard work, clearing the slopes of wild scrub, a lot of it Rhododendron ponticum, and of thinning out the mature conifer woodland in preparation for a major extension of the plantings up the hill. In 1975 the ownership of the garden was transferred from the Forestry Commission to the Royal Botanic Garden at Edinburgh, and the future of this marvelous collection was assured. The newer plantings are now maturing, and the scientific value of Benmore, as well as its aesthetic appeal, make a visit a real must for anyone who is keen on rhododendrons.

Benmore: a view toward the house
Benmore: a view toward the house.
Photo by George Smith

        This article will, of course, concentrate mainly on Rhododendron. Broadly speaking, the plantings since 1953 follow the pattern established at Edinburgh, that is, planting by subsection - this may not be the best way to create a beautiful garden (though in fact Benmore is delightful!), but it does allow one to see the differences between closely related species, which helps to a better appreciation of the genus; it also enables you to decide which in a number of similar species is the one which most appeals to you. Of course the nomenclature used is that of the Edinburgh Revision of the 1980s (Drs. Cullen, Chamberlain, and Philipson). The accompanying sketch-map gives some idea of the layout of the garden.

Younger Botanical Garden

        The highest spot, on the northern edge of the garden, is the Wright-Smith Memorial, which is a splendid viewpoint. The slope immediately below is dedicated to species in the Neriiflora Subsection, and most of its 26 species are represented. Many of them are still rather small, but all are healthy and floriferous: the well known RR. haematodes, piercei, several forms of sanguineum, and neriiflorum are there, as well as the more obscure species. A bit further down from these are most of the 18 or so species in the Triflora subsection, with large specimens of RR. yunnanense, pleistanthum, rigidum, and of the more tender davidsonianum and augustinii; the several R. lutescens are particularly attractive, as is a large and quite overwhelmingly beautiful R. concinnum, with its dense reddish purple flowers so brilliant in sunlight. Alas, there is not enough space in this article for a description of all the locations, and I will have to limit myself to some of the highlights.

R. oreodoxa var. fargesii
R. oreodoxa var. fargesii
Photo by George Smith

        One plant which stands out on the hillside very clearly in April, is a rounded small tree of R. oreodoxa var. fargesii which covers itself with the most fulsome open trusses of deep pink conical bells, patterned in white and pale pink. Somewhat earlier in the season, on the edge of the marginal woodland above the office buildings, there is a large and splendid R. rex ssp. arizelum carrying large trusses of waxy pink bells, fading to white, and set off beautifully by the dark green shiny and indumented leaves. A little below is the area for the Glauca Subsection, with large, dense shrubberies of mature specimens of RR. glaucophyllum, brachyanthum, pruniflorum, charitopes, and more recent plantings of luteiflorum and shweliense, which cover themselves, each in its turn, with their small open waxy bells.

R. campanulatum
R. campanulatum
Photo by George Smith

        Above Benmore House, a huge tree of R. campanulatum stands 25 feet on its own, and in April is quite unbelievably richly covered from top to bottom with the typical lilac-pink bells; a whole hillside of R. campanulatum has recently been planted on steep ground at the western end of the garden above the fernery. Among the many forms of R. cinnabarinum, which are usually in flower in May, there is a splendid var. blanfordiiflorum, ablaze with yellowish orange and red waxy corollas. Regular spraying with fungicide is holding back powdery mildew from this particularly susceptible species.

R. cinnabarinum var. blanfordiiflorum
R. cinnabarinum var. blanfordiiflorum
Photo by George Smith
 
R. praestans
R. praestans
Photo by George Smith

        The Grandia and Falconera large leaved species are mostly early flowerers, and the creamy yellow R. macabeanum is at its best towards the end of March; among the others, there is a mature R. praestans with glorious large trusses of waxy ventricose bells, which are creamy white, with winy red and slaty grey shadings, and a very dark blotch, a stunning combination of colours. Above the Grandias is a grove of R. thomsonii, glowing with the deep red of its wide, well shaped trumpets, especially when the sunlight is filtering through. Speaking of deep crimson red, what can be more impressive than a free standing R. arboreum, its tall slim conical shape dotted with brilliant compact spherical trusses. Closely similar, but with a rounded shape and a fawn, quite dense indumentum under the leaves is R. lanigerum, which is to be found just above Benmore House. Notable large specimens in this neighborhood are RR. irroratum, strigillosum, pachytrichum, glischrum, and the smaller morii, densely covered with pink and white flowers - the latter competes with R. pseudochrysanthum in the delicacy of its flowers. Further out on the flat ground, towards the Golden Gate, are large and thriving plants of the large leaved RR. falconeri, basilicum, macabeanum, arizelum, etc., as well as many other species. The Maddenia Subsection is not well represented, with very new plantings of RR. maddenii, johnstoneanum, lindleyi, and megacalyx in sheltered woodland along the Glen Massan Path: the Maddenias are, however, very well represented in the much milder climate of another of the Satellite Gardens, that at Logan on the coast of the Irish Sea in Wigtownshire. Finally, at the top end of the Garden at Benmore, three mature plants of the not often seen R. tephropeplum form one large rounded bush, well away from the main plantings: it is really worth making a special pilgrimage to see them in full flower in May, when they are a mass of perfect open bells, each plant a different shade of magenta pink. I can't imagine that R. tephropeplumcan be seen in better form anywhere.

R. tephropeplum
R. tephropeplum
Photo by George Smith

        Apart from Rhododendron, Benmore has a first rate collection of mature conifer species, with large individuals of Abies densa, A. veitchii, A. procera, A. nordmanniana, Cryptomeria japonica, Picea jezoensis hondoensis, Thujopsis dolabrata, Torreya californica, Fitzroya cupressoides, Tsuga heterophylla, Cedrus deodara, and Athreotaxis laxifolia. Among other families, Osmanthus delavayi, Nothofagus procera, N. solandri, Cercidiphyllum japonicum, and Sorbus alnifolia are particularly fine.
        The Younger Botanic Garden at Benmore represents one of the foremost collections of trees and shrubs, is still expanding, and has a great future: among other projects is one initiated by Ian Sinclair, to plant a steep slope above the old fernery as a Bhutanese forest.

George Smith, a member of the Scottish Chapter, authored the article on the Scottish garden Arduaine which appeared in the Winter 1992 issue of the Journal. He is particularly interested in alpine plants and has traveled widely in the mountain regions of Europe and Nepal.


Volume 48, Number 2
Spring 1994

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