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.
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Jason Payne, c/o The Palm Centre, 563 Upper Richmond Road West,
London SW14 7ED
Chamaerops No. 8, published online 23-10-2002
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
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
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
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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