Scotland the Brave

In the search for exotica, we continue the Scottish adventure. A botanical motoring holiday north of the border. Part 2.
Jason Payne, c/o The Palm Centre, 563 Upper Richmond Road West, London SW14 7ED
Chamaerops No. 9, published online 23-09-2002

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The Scottish National Trust Garden, Crarae, was different from the other gardens we had seen, by virtue of its setting and slightly different emphasis on trees, but although we could only afford it the briefest of visits, the SNT character was soon apparent once again. Amongst the Rhododendrons there were many mature Acers and a heavy conifer planting around the sides of a valley. The steep rocky-sided glen had a fast river flowing through it and provided a powerful setting for a garden.

One of the first plants that we encountered at the start of our walk was a 4 metre Trachycarpus fortunei, on the bank of the river. After crossing most of the bridges that traverse it at its most scenic waterfalls, the fact that Crarae is an archetype of this school of gardening wears thin. The most exotic aspect of the garden was its very large collection of Eucalyptus. These were mostly planted in one area, very close together. Most of the trees were over 7 metres tall holding their foliage well beyond true appreciation. Very few were named and seemed to have been planted in an almost careless way, with many different species packed together.

Walking through such a dense planting of these elegant and fragrant trees definitely made me feel more at home; I could make-believe that I was not surrounded by Rhododendronscape. The multitude of different bark colourings and textures, leaf shapes and colours made a unique plant environment. The seriously weathered labelling system did not allow me to learn more from the planting and to write about which particular species were there.

After leaving Crarae we felt that we needed to drive to Ben More, which is an outpost of the Royal Botanic Gardens, Edinburgh. Although we had heard that this garden had an eminent collection of coniferous trees, we did not expect to find any extravagant displays of exotica. Only one place we had heard of fitted the bill, but that was miles away and Ben More was on our way back.

After much exasperation and nail biting we agreed to make the 150 mile dash to Logan Botanic Garden. This is another outpost of Edinburgh Botanic Garden and is situated on the most southerly tip of Scotland, near Stranraer. To say that we were glad that we took the plunge and decided to rush there would be rather an understatement. As one approaches the garden it is obvious that something is different. Cordyline australis is growing, and bearing fruit. Like a weed too: 3.5 metres tall, beside a road around the perimeter wall! Once inside, the immediate successive views are enough to make the jaw hang rather low, and inspire ecstatic groans of wonderment that this can really be a garden in the British Isles. The first spectacle to greet your ever-widening eyes is an avenue of 25 Trachycarpus fortunei, most of which are about 6 metres tall.

There are more, younger, specimens planted nearby, including several of the 'Wagnerianus variety. This avenue with a small walled stream running beneath was worth the drive alone. The plants possessed very few leaves that were not browned or broken; a great shame because for many people this relegates the plants to 'interesting' as opposed to beautiful. However, when planted in such a mass, their appearance is so unique that the state of the leaves does not destroy their appeal.

The site of the garden was lived on by one of the oldest Scots families, the McDoualls of Logan, from the 12th Century until 1945. The estate was passed on to a cousin and then to a Mr Olaf Hambro, who restored the garden from the neglect it suffered during the war years. It was the Hambro trustees who gave parts of the garden to the Department of Agriculture and Fisheries for Scotland as an annexe for the Royal Botanic Garden, Edinburgh. Part of the McDouall castle remains as a section of one of the walls in the garden.

The anvil-shaped peninsula on which the garden is situated is Scotland's closest land point to Ireland, and Stranraer, the peninsula's main town, is a busy port. Port Logan and the nearby gardens are thus surrounded by the Irish Sea; the sheltered Luce Bay to the east and the currents of the Gulf Stream to the west. It is the walled garden that you enter after leaving the first Trachycarpus avenue. If the rows of palms impressed you as you enter, then this part of the garden will stop you in your tracks. At the back of the garden, above the terraced beds, the ruins of the Old Castle of Balzieland look over an avenue of Cordyline australis that must be more than 50 metres long and 25 metres wide. Some of the cordylines are 6 or 7 metres tall with trunks at least 60cm thick. Between the rows of cordylines is a formal pond and beside it, a bed of Blechnum chilense, a bold evergreen fern 75cm tall, with large leaflets that give it an affinity with pinnate palm leaves.

Beyond that, still between the cordylines is a perfectly manicured lawn with about 20 Dicksonia antarctica, both straight and leaning over the grass at 2 metres plus. Thins was the most exotic landscape I had seen outside the tropics. The age of the plants and the semi-formal way that they were laid out on a site inhabited since Britain's Dark Ages, made it easy to imagine some pagan rite being celebrated under the treeferns.

The terraces were southeast facing and contained many sun lovers such as mesembryanthemums, halimium, nerine, Echium pinnata, Lomatia tinctora and Yucca whiplei. This was one of the only yuccas that I was to see. Both Echium and Cordyline australis seem to seed readily in the garden; they have both become almost weeds. In the semi shade from the tree and shrubs of the terraces was the second rare fern that I saw on the trip; Woodwardia radicans, with long fronds that make it look like a young treefern.

Continuing the exotic display was Marsdenia orephila from China, with red tubular flowers shaped like those of Stephanotis or Bomarea, growing around the gate in the west woodland.

Now it was the turn of the family Eucalyptus to predominate. The feel of this part of the garden, with lawn growing under trees and island beds densely planted with shrubs including Pittisporum, Oleria, Eucryphis and Fucshias reminded me of the SNT gardens.

The impressive collection of Eucalyptus distinguished this part of the garden as exceptional, amongst them were E. nitens, with 10 cm long scimitar shaped leaves, E. unigera, E. dalrympleana, E. macarthurii, whose powerfully aromatic leaves are used in making perfume, E. johnstonii, E. subcrenulata and E. pauciflora.

There were many young plants as well as mature specimens, which will make my next visit to this garden even more interesting. When Eucalyptus are only three or four years old their rate of growth is even more conspicuous than later in their lives, some of these plants, such as E. glaucescens and E. nitens, can grow as much as 2 metres a year in the right conditions.

Eucalypts are a group of trees that have many untried possibilities as subjects for use in exotic landscapes. Their characteristics of large evergreen leaves, usually grey/green/dull purple, with patchwork dark grey, orange, yellow, green and sometimes red trunks, together with their branching patterns and the way the foliage is held, generally make them architectural and elegant subjects. The head of foliage is rarely dense, allowing sunlight to pass through the trees and for admirers to look up into the branches, which usually have some of the colouring and appearance of the trunk's bark. The next part of the garden was laid out within the walled area, around a huge lawn and a monumental beech hedge. This 'New Garden' was dominated by a planting of two 6-metre tall Eucryphia nymansinensis 'Nymansay', presenting themselves as mounds of white flowers. In front of them was Phormium tenax in flower and the most elegant specimen of Azara that I have ever seen Azara microphylla 'variegata'. At 3.5 metres tall and almost as wide, its tiered layers of tiny leaves appeared as a haze of light gold. With a 5 metre Cordyline australis behind it and the two Eucryphia framing it, this was another triumph of landscaping that was in its peak of maturity, provided by Logan and seen only once of twice elsewhere on this tour.

As we left the New Garden we walked past the beech hedge and saw the treefern mound. A collection of seven Dicksonia antarctica were planted beneath yet more 6-metre Cordyline australis. Some of these plants demonstrated the reclining habit that treeferns sometimes adopt. As a group, the oldest of which was planted in 1912, they made a powerful architectural feature, on their raised mound of manicured lawn. The last part of the garden we had time to see was the South Woodland, where there were two newly planted Jubaea chilensis. The plants were only 80cm tall, but I look forward to seeing them reach 1 .5 metres in my lifetime, I cannot imagine a place where their survival would be more assured. Amongst more Eucalyptus including E. coccifera and a beautiful E. nitens was a young Dicksonia fibrosa, with slightly longer and narrower fronds than D. antarctica.

Now on our way home we agreed to make a flying visit to one more exotic spectacle that the Head Gardener at Ardunie had told us about: Culzean Castle. The main attraction of this well attended tourist spot is indeed a beautiful castle, but it was to the garden that we turned our attention.

After seeing three of four windblown Trachycarpus fortunei planted in front of the castle, we headed to the walled section of the garden. More T. fortunei presented themselves at the gate, but once inside more and more palms became visible along the perimeter path. As you get to the back of the garden past a beautiful, ancient cedar a mass of Trachycarpus reveals itself. Except for one or two young plants they were all over 6 metres tall and planted as such a wide spreading group that the sorry state of their crowns did not matter.

Culzean Castle was our last port of call; after this we headed for the long journey south. Wow! What a trip: 7 different gardens, and we covered nearly 2000 miles. If you want to know where to find exotica in these islands, it's alive and flourishing north o' the border.

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