JARS v42n2 - Scottish Gardens Seen Through Scandinavian Eyes

Scottish Gardens Seen Through Scandinavian Eyes
Niels M. Barford
Viby J., Denmark

In the middle of May 1986, my father, a fellow gardener and yours truly went for a ten day trip to Scotland to visit some of the famous gardens so often referred to in rhododendron literature.

The climate of Scotland, especially in the west, near the Atlantic Ocean, is well suited to rhododendron cultivation with up to 2000 mm annual rainfall, cool summers and mild winters. Most of the rhododendron species, except the very tropical ones, can be grown somewhere in Scotland, although species that definitely need winter dormancy thrive best in the east.

Many of the big leaf species such as the Grande and Falconeri series as well as the more difficult species from the Neriiflorum series benefit when grown in the cool Scottish summers. The cool summers also diminish the risk of root rot which is a serious problem in more continental climates.

We made our headquarters in the heart of western "rhodo-country" in Inverary. This town, the capital of Argyll has about 500 citizens. The west of Scotland seems desolate and not suitable for very much more than rhododendron culture and sheep breeding.

However, with the exception of Rhododendron ponticum , which covers whole hillsides in certain areas, the landscape is not dominated by our favorite plant genus. The fact that most of the Asiatic rhododendron species are not seen in the landscape immediately tells you something about their cultural demands, namely that they need shelter from wind and sun.

All the rhododendrons we saw grew in light to dense woodland gardens. Man has greatly influenced the landscape of western Scotland. Nearly all the trees in the mountainous regions have been removed, presumably to allow more room for sheep. It is noteworthy that we observed no earth erosion in spite of all the tree felling on the hillsides and the heavy rainfall in this region.

The first garden we visited was at Crarae in the neighborhood of Inverary. The garden is situated in a glen (valley) raising up along the hillsides from Loch Fyne. The Campbell family began Crarae garden in about 1912. The place is quite wet. In fact, rather deep ditches have been dug to drain surplus rainwater away during the heavy showers. Gunnera manicata grows nearly as weeds in these ditches.

The soil is acid and generally shallow overlying rock and boulder clay, although in some places there are areas of deep mineralized peat. The garden faces southerly, but is rather exposed to the wind. Rainfall averages 1930 mm (76 inches) per year.

The garden is extremely charming with its hilly ground allowing visitors to inspect the many interesting plants from different angles. There are plant genera from New Zealand, Chile, Tasmania, the Himalayas and parts of China and Japan.

The genus Rhododendron is well represented and seems especially suited to the climate here. Some of the species are planted in groups. A small wood of R. macabeanum is especially impressive. In this garden we saw the most handsome example of R. barbatum of our trip to Scotland.

Most of the rhododendrons here have been planted to allow room for natural development. Eventually, however, they will be crowded. Without removal of some plants as time goes by, the rhododendrons will develop into their natural growth pattern, namely into dense forests with nothing visible but trunks. Then you will need to be a butterfly to enjoy the flowers.

It was obvious that most of the gardens we saw had been strongly influenced by the men who created them with love and care. All were in distinct phases of development; some were in their infancy, others at maximum development and others declining. Crarae must be characterized as being at the top of its development.

The next garden visited, Strone, is situated on sheltered slopes above the upper waters of Loch Fyne. Mature rhododendrons flower brilliantly among the mighty trunks of one of England's most celebrated Pinetums containing England's tallest Giant Fir, Abies grandis , now over 200 feet high.

The hybrid rhododendrons here are dominated by the blood of R. griersonianum . At an earlier time it was a very popular parent for creating red, floriferous plants. In due course I expect we will see similar dominance (or monotony) from the use of R. yakushimanum as is currently popular in more recent hybrids from Denmark and elsewhere, resulting in compact, hardy, pale flowered plants.

Strone Garden woodland
Strone Garden woodland
R. augustinii and R. glaucophyllum in flower
Photo by Niels M. Barford

Stonefield Castle
At Stonefield Castle, situated in the southern part of Loch Fyne, we saw a garden which a few years ago must have been one of the most impressive in all of Scotland. Some of the Himalayan rhododendrons are well over 100 years old, raised from seed collected by Sir Joseph Hooker around 1850 on his expeditions to Sikkim.

We saw a white flowering R. arboreum with a trunk as large as a big forest tree. In fact, the trunks of many mature Asiatic rhododendrons are very pretty and colored in various shades, a characteristic not often mentioned or appreciated as a quality marker.

Stonefield Castle is now a hotel. Unfortunately, many of the most valuable plants, a big R. sinogrande , some magnificent R. falconeri and others were fighting for room, air and light due to some years of neglect.

A very serious problem in wet western Scotland is the self sowing of rhododendron seed. Everywhere we saw an invasion of small as well as bigger self sown seedlings, both of the ubiquitous R. ponticum and of open pollinated Himalayan species, starting to swamp the original plantings.

A pretty R. niveum and R. thomsonii are planted near the castle, well away from the invasive seedlings. Rhododendron niveum can be variable and sometimes muddy in flower color, but here and also at Achnacloich near Oban we saw this wonderful species full of character with its silvery indumentum and compact deep violet trusses.

Arduaine Garden is situated near the Atlantic Ocean, bounded on one side by Loch Melfort and on the other by the Sound of Jura. This fine coastal garden is a major attraction for horticulturists visiting Argyll with many rhododendron and azalea species, magnolias, other rare trees and shrubs and waterside plants.

Some rhododendron species not often seen, such as R. edgeworthii , R. valentinianum and R. johnstoneanum , were growing well here in the open just a few steps from the ocean.

In the woodland part of the garden we saw an approximately forty foot high R. sinogrande in full glory with huge creamy-white blossoms and impressive leaves up to two feet long. We saw another rare item here, R. cowanianum , a deciduous lepidote related to R. lepidotum . I find this species, which is not very highly rated horticulturally in the literature, charming with its dark violet flowers appearing on naked stems.

Similarly two deciduous lepidotes, R. semilunatum and R. melinanthum from the Trichocladum series seen at Crarae and Benmore impressed me with their deep yellow bloom. We should grow these different but delightful species more frequently.

R. melinanthum
R. melinanthum (Trichocladum series)
Crarae Garden
Photo by Niels M. Barford

Younger Botanic Garden - Benmore
One of the highlights of our tour was Younger Botanic Garden at Benmore near Dunoon. If you are in Scotland and only plan to see one garden, this is the place to visit. Today the garden is an outstation for the Royal Botanic Garden in Edinburgh. The big leaf species at Benmore are better developed than at Edinburgh, due to Benmore's slightly wetter and warmer climate.

An avenue of Sequoiadendron giganteum is obvious the minute you enter the garden. These trees, natives of California, average 40 m (133 feet) in height. They were planted between 1865 and 1870 and are still growing strongly.

The rhododendron plantations are located on steep hill sides. A whole area has been reserved for hybrids from the hands of Mr. Dietrich Hobbie, West Germany. What an honor for this skillful hybridizer who has had such a big influence on what Danish rhodoholics grow in their gardens!

Benmore has a large collection of rhododendron species, especially the many forms and intermediate forms in the Neriiflorum series and also many species from the Glaucophyllum, Triflorum and Cinnabarinum series. Only here did we see the deciduous Cinnabarinum species, R. tamaense .

Self sowing of open-pollinated rhododendron seed is also a problem here. Most of the plantings appear rather new and so do the self sown seedlings which in due course, if not looked after, will overgrow the true species.

R. cerasinum
Bi-coloured form of R. cerasinum (Thomsonii series)
Benmore Garden
Photo by Niels M. Barford

Edinburgh Botanic Garden
Nowhere in western Scotland did we see much of the high alpine species from the Lapponicum, Anthopogon and Campylogynum series. The few times we did see these they were not growing very well, some suffered from partial die-back, others had grown out of character. Obviously, the winter is too mild to induce dormancy which is known to stimulate the growth and well-being of many alpines. This lack of alpine species was remedied when we arrived at the Royal Botanic Garden in Edinburgh with its magnificent rock garden containing all the alpine dwarf rhododendrons. Edinburgh has been the main center for taxonomic research on the plants of China and the Himalayas including rhododendrons and primulas. This activity has been supported by several botanical explorations, particularly the expeditions to western China from 1904 to 1932 of George Forrest who brought back so many horticulturally important plants as well as over 40,000 dried and living specimens for scientific research.

Before our trip, we had contacted the well-known rhododendron expert from Edinburgh, Mr. Davidian, who kindly agreed to show us the rhododendron collections. Mr. Davidian is still active in botany research, writing volumes II and III of his rhododendron encyclopedia, Rhododendron Species . We were told that volume II will soon be in print and I am sure that all true rhododendron enthusiasts are looking forward to the continuation of his extremely informative volume I on lepidote rhododendrons.

In recent years the rhododendron collection at Edinburgh has been replanted and rearranged. Some of the rhododendron beds have given way to lawns resulting in less protection from wind and sun for some of the big leaf species. Up to ninety per cent of the species have been uprooted and transferred from one area to another in the garden according to the new rhododendron classification. Unfortunately these changes have caused some loss and damage to the collection.

Mr. Davidian showed us around and pointed out the characteristics which make it easy to identify the different species. We were shown the rare, newly described species R. piercei and a new and as yet unnamed species related to R. lanatum .

R. hodgsonii
A good form of one of the most hardy big leafed species,
R. hodgsonii , Botanic Garden at Edinburgh
Photo by Niels M. Barford

In Perth we visited the Branklyn Alpine Garden and the nursery and garden of Mr. Peter Cox. Mr. Cox's garden is not generally open for the public except for a few selected weekends in the spring. The garden, situated in a glen, is a true paradise for rhododendron enthusiasts. We noticed the great variation in his seedlings germinated from wild collected seed from China. Also we saw many new dwarf lepidote hybrids from the hands of Mr. Cox. We were especially interested in the collection of tender species from his expeditions to India. Some of these will be purchased for a new cool temperate conservatory in Kolding, Denmark, especially designed to display the many interesting species which don't tolerate the harsh Danish climate.

Dwarf hybrids
Dwarf hybrids of Peter Cox's
in his private garden, Perth
Photo by Niels M. Barford

Dawyck Botanic Garden
Our last visit was to Dawyck Botanic Garden at Peebles in the Tweeddale, an outstation of the Royal Botanic Garden of Edinburgh. Dawyck is a contrast to the outstation at Benmore, the winters are very cold with frequent frosts. Rainfall is moderate averaging about 900 mm per year. We found plants with a much better chance of survival in Denmark than many of those seen in western Scotland. The garden is dominated by species from the Taliense series including mature specimens of R. bureavii and R. russotinctum . Here we saw the most handsome blue flowered R. campanulatum of our whole tour.

We did not find time to visit the famous gardens at Brodick and Achamore on the Isle of Gigha nor the outstation at Logan for subtropical plants. Scotland was found to be a very nice place to visit with polite and sociable people everywhere. There were many inexpensive "Bed and Breakfast" facilities. However, you are well advised to bring your raincoat, umbrella and boots, especially if you visit wet western Scotland.

Dr. Niels M. Barford, Denmark Chapter member, is a research biochemist working at Grinsted AIS, Denmark.