A Scottish Odyssey

'Dramatic', 'Rugged', 'Magnificent', all words used to describe the west coast of Scotland, and its exotic gardens. Jason Payne goes on tour. Part one.
Jason Payne, c/o The Palm Centre, 563 Upper Richmond Road West, London SW14 7ED
Chamaerops No. 8, published online 23-10-2002

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Rhododendron sino-grande - magnificent!

The dramatic, rugged geography of northern Scotland gives its gardens a unique character, and the ocean current flowing along its western coasts from Florida, a warm, humid climate. The Gulf Stream allows lush, exotic plantscapes to flourish in wild-looking glens that one would usually associate with a barren, windswept landscape. Thanks to the Scottish National Trust and the Royal Botanic Gardens, all of those that I went to see were immaculately kept and run so that the public can appreciate some of the most spectacular gardens in the country.

My girlfriend and I drove from London, which was much easier that I had imagined only just over seven hours. We stayed overnight just north of Glasgow and the next day we drove to Inverewe, stopping off at Cairngorm, 1245m, which we climbed and chair-lifted to the summit.

The roads became single track and great fun the further north we drove, and the mountain ranges steeper and more dramatic. Some of the trees that we drove past looked unfamiliar until I could get a closer look. They turned out to be Common Birches but with much smaller leaves and a much more gaunt, architectural appearance. The same applied to Sycamore trees: much smaller leaves and more compact. The colder climate is the cause of this, and may also have something to with the Scots pines that are seen on the west coast; much more beautiful than anywhere else in the country.

Near Caimgorm we passed the remains of the original Caledonian forest, which used to cover most of Scotland. Ancient looking Pinus sylvestins looking like small Sequoias still cover large areas of what would otherwise be heather covered moorland. We planned to spend ten days visiting gardens and walking, with an open plan about exactly which gardens to visit and how far north to go. I had been told by fellow EPS member Cohn McLeod about a garden at Scourie, about 100 kilometres' drive north from Inverewe, and another at Ullapool close by. The difficulty in deciding which gardens to visit, when faced with such a choice, is knowing what type of planting they have; no roses or pansies for me!

Waiting to greet us at the gate of Inverewe Garden were some of western Scotland's most famous inhabitants: midges. These voracious, tiny, airborne insects thrive in still, humid air and are at their worst just after rain. If you stand still for a minute they will cover any exposed skin and bite, leaving an irritating itch for the next two or three days.

You are aware of being in a special garden as soon as you enter Inverewe, faced with 8 foot Cordyline australis and many Eucalyptus coccifera, most of which were planted in 1880 by the garden's founder, Osgood MacKenzie. The predominance of Rhododendrons is obvious from the beginning, with R. fabooneri amongst the first to be encountered, near a striking grey, small leaved Rhododendron, unfortunately not labelled. Cordyline indivisa and a sorry looking young Phoenix palm in a pot were early surprises, growing within 300 metres of the sea.

As we walked further into the garden, I became worried by the lack of palms, bamboos and the other 'basics of exotica', but the sheer quantity of mature Eucalyptus and specimens of Oleria, (of which Inverewe holds the national collection), Corokia, Eucryphia, Metrosideros umbellata (a member of the Myrtle family, although it was not in bloom when we saw it, it has brilliant scarlet bottle brush flowers), and many Rhododendrons, all planted in a wild-like composition, gave the garden a generally exotic appearance. As we walled through the rock garden, which actually faces the beach, the rain fell and we were thankful for waterproof clothing, essential with the west coast's average August rainfall of 100mm plus.

Mature specimens of Salix boydii, over 5 metres, and Tropaeolum polyphyllum, Raoulia, and Gentiana septemfida gave the rock garden a Japanese appearance, with its mat-forming plants looking like moss, and compact topiaried shrubs.

AT last a palm! Trachycarpus fortunei, 3 metres tall and growing in a perfect exotic setting - underneath mature trees and behind a hedge of Grisellina littoralis, which seems to have naturalised on the west coast. As well as overgrowth and wind shelter the palm had an undergrowth of Blechnum chilense and Euphorbia sikkimensis, looking like E. wallichii, Hosta 'Halcyon', Helleborus argutifolius and three other Trachycarpus fortunei, about 40cm. Around the palms were Dicksonia antarctica 1.5 metres tall, Cordyline australis, Acer palmatum purpureum' and Pseudopanax arboreum and laetum. A tropical setting indeed, marred if you could call it that, by the overgrowth of Billardiera longiflora, a twining climber that was carrying its unusual vivid deep blue fruits, and Tropaeolum speciosum on the Trachycarpus, obscuring its strong architectural shape.

The size of the garden gave no clue as to the amount of time required to really see all of its plants, though The Scottish National Trust's brochure that you may buy at the entrance does give an excellent introduction to the garden's background and the list of plants that you can see in the different areas. Unfortunately the brochure has caused me much frustration since our visit because I now realise exactly how many plants I did not see. Eucalyptus sub crenulata and pauciflora I did spot, but I missed E. dalrympleana, one of the most beautiful Eucalypts.

In the same area that I saw Fitzroya cupressioides and Nothofagus antarctica and betuloides, I missed a Podocarpus that I have yet to see: P.totara. One area of the garden that was landscaped in the style that looked as tropical as the plants used, was called simply Rhododendron Walk, as if the whole garden wasn't one. The most striking aspect of this area and possibly the whole garden, in terms of landscaping, was a path lined on each side with Peltiphyllum peltatum, the umbrella plant, with leaves up to half a metre in diameter. The broad beds of big foliage, bordered by lush grass areas evoked a heavy tropical atmosphere. The surrounding planting included a 10 x lOm Rhododendron hogsonii with many smooth-barked 20cm dia. boughs, a R. macabeanum, few R. sinogrande. In the dense humidity and evening light, this was an unforgettable sight that in my own experience has been surpassed only by Logan, and Singapore Botanic Gardens.

Around the large leaved rhododendrons was the healthiest clump of Chusquea couleou, the South American bamboo, I have ever seen, a Dicksonia squarrosa and another bamboo: Arundinaria nitida.

Although many people think of rhododendrons as colourful spring flowering shrubs, these plants are spectacular in leaf; usually tough, leathery and deep glossy green. They can be as much as 80cm long in the case of R.sino-grande. The new leaves may form an elongated spike-like bud of up to 10cm, before they open, covered in pale creamy indumentum. When the leaves eventually fan out from this spike, the bracts, relinquishing their protective role, recurve and display their inner coral red colouring. Next year I plan to revisit the garden in April and see the flowers, which in most cases I regard as a bonus.

Listed in the brochure as being in another part of the garden, were Chamaerops humilis and Eucalyptus vemicosa, again I could not find them! I did see Berberidopsis coralliana, Fascicularia bicolour, another Cordyline indivisa, Euphorbia milifera and another Dicksonia antarctica. Also Eucalyptus cordata, Disanthus cercidifolius, a rare member of the hazel family with delicate heart-shaped leaves which turn purple in Autumn, and Quercus cerris 'Variegata', the Turkey Oak, making a wide, spreading specimen with its variegation a startling addition to this fine collection of trees.

Inverewe was the first of the three Scottish National Trust Gardens that we were to visit. As we encountered the others, the similarities between them became apparent. All have an overgrown style to their planting, with the majority of plants being mature, that have grown together to form a kind of exotic woodland. In places this has caused some of the specimens to be obscured from view and the potential of the individual plant's overall appearance to be muted. Many of the same species were to be found in all of the gardens; Lomatia, Eucalyptus coccifera, Eucryphia, Cordyline australis, Podocarpus, Gevuina avellana, Gunnera manicata and of course endiess Rhododendrons. Although these gardens, through their maturity and climate attained a jungle effect, there were only small areas where plants of exotic appearance were used in association, and these only began to explore the range of species that could be used, and the subsequent effects they could achieve. I believe it is a conscious decision of the Trust not to create an extra- vagantly exotic feel to the gardens, but to keep the appearance to soft rounded shrubs and woodland style gardens, with plenty of traditional flowering plants. This is a valid way to maintain these gardens' appearance and it is immensely popular with the general public, but as a lover of palms and exotic plants in general it is frustrating to see in such a climate a collection of mature plants merely dotted with exotica. Exotica for exotica's sake I say!

Our next visit was not to an official garden but to a hotel garden that my girlfriend remembered seeing in her childhood. After a journey through the famous Isle of Skye, two ferries and a lot of driving around Lochs, we arrived at the village of Ariseag. The Ariseag Hotel garden had the most tropical looking plant that I was to see on the entire trip: the prize Rhododendron of them all: a 4 metre Rhododendron sino grande. There was not one leaf on the plant under 40 cm long and most were 80 cm. Stunning!

Ardunie was the second Scottish National Trust Garden that we visited. Its location was similar to Inverewe's on the sheltered side of a cove that was otherwise open to the Atlantic. With the protection of considerable shelterbelt planting, the garden is able to withstand the fearsome gales that come in over the Isles of Scarba and Luing. Ardunie played host to the largest Phormium tenax that I have ever seen its sword-like leaves standing at over 2.5 metres tall and flower spikes another metre over that. In the rainforest-like atmosphere, grass carpeted the floor of the wooded areas of the garden and moss covered the tree trunks. I was surprised not to have seen any epiphytic plants there. Amongst the many trees that hosted climbing plants, there was one that boasted a lOin Berberidopsis coralliana, the Coral Plant with its leathery evergreen leaves and scarlet flowers.

Although Ardunie had slightly different plantings to Inverewe, the general feel was the same even though the wooded areas were not so densely underplanted, and there were larger open spaces of lawn with island beds. The next gardens we were to visit would be very different....

In the next issue: Crarae, Logan and Cuizean Castle.

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