Viburnum x bodnantense ‘Charles Lamont’ is looking good in this mild weather. Although it doesn’t mind the snow the flowers can turn brown with a sharp frost. Charles Lamont was an assistant curator at the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh (RBGE). In 1933 he was experimenting with crossing Viburnum grandiflorum with Viburnum farreri (previously V. fragrans). He didn’t think much of the results and chose not to proceed with the experiments. Meanwhile at Bodnant Gardens near Colwyn Bay in Wales, the head gardener, Frederick Puddle, was doing similar experiments but with satisfactory results – thus the name of the hybrids we know as bodnantense viburnums. Bodnant Gardens developed the cultivar ‘Dawn’, and later Notcutt nurseries marketed ‘Deben’. The plants produced at RBGE were given Charles Lamont’s name. We have all three cultivars at Crathes and their parents, but I rely on the labels to tell the cultivars apart. Deben is said to be white when in flower; the Crathes ‘Deben’ is pink. Pete Brownless of RBGE thinks that ‘Deben’ plants may be pinker in the north because of the colder climate.
At Crathes the parents are not as floriferous as the cultivars; V. farreri (another name, this time for Reginald Farrer who collected it in China) is less vigorous with pale flowers, whereas the V. grandiflorum has deeper pink flowers. Whatever the cultivar, the bodnantense viburnums make a lovely addition to any garden. Their scent is doubly welcome in the winter sun and they can go on flowering for months. Their summer presence is dull, but at Crathes there is plenty else to focus the mind.
The mild weather fools us into thinking spring is here. The snowdrops are out, the snowflakes are on their way and the first daffodil appeared on 21 January. Jo has planted out primulas in the Red Garden and James, Andy and Tim have been working hard in the new Evolution Garden – more about this project in weeks to come. The sunny days show the garden at its best.
The volunteers have been busy weeding in the Double Shrub Border where a cocky blackbird was enjoying the fallout from the disturbed soil. Other blackbirds are busy feasting on the thousands of fallen handkerchief tree fruits (Davidia involucrata) in the Rose Garden and gardeners’ yard. It is only in January that the fruits become soft enough for the birds eat. The blackbirds and fieldfares are also fond of arbutus fruits.
Over a hundred years before Charles Lamont was conducting experiments in Edinburgh, Archibald Menzies – a Perthshire man from near Aberfeldy – was exploring the west coast of the Americas as ship’s surgeon come naturalist. Amongst the many plants he discovered is the Pacific madrone, Arbutus menziesii, which always attracts attention at Crathes for its brightly coloured bark, the red ochre outer bark peeling to reveal a smooth lime green beneath.
The more mature of the two trees that grow on the Four Squares in the walled garden is currently giving cause for concern. Absent in the 1948 photograph of the garden, planting books tell us that is there by at least 1965. Struck by lightning many years ago, the dead core of the tree is a worry and James has called for a second opinion from a tree specialist.
Fortunately the second arbutus, a few metres to the west, has made good growth in the last decade. The late Peter Sim told me it was a slip from the mother tree. Andy remembers it as a young sapling about a foot high 23 years ago. Its bark is not so brightly coloured at the moment, but it reddens up in the summer.
Last year some of the seeds gathered from the garden by Jo included the arbutus. They were soaked overnight. Those that sank were thought to be more viable and were put into a peaty type seed mix in loosely tied polythene bags and kept in the fridge for 60 days. The mix was then put into seed trays and covered with a cm of the mix and kept at about thirteen degrees. Before long (within a week) the seeds had germinated. Jo cautions that the seedlings are subject to damping off, and, furthermore, they dislike being transplanted. How will they fare?
Archibald Menzies had started his career working as a gardener under his father at Castle Menzies near Aberfeldy in Perthshire. After a period at the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh (RBGE) he qualified as a surgeon and began his life as an explorer. In 1792 he was exploring the Olympic Peninsula in Washington State just to the south of Vancouver Island when he discovered the arbutus tree that would later bear his name. It would, however, be David Douglas that introduced the plant to Britain.
W.J. Bean of Trees and Shrubs Hardy in the British Isles fame records of the arbutus: ‘This is one of the most beautiful of all broad-leaved trees, and as seen at its best in the moist rich valleys of N. California is by far the noblest of all the heath family.’ (1980 reprint). Wikipedia tells us it is a favourite tree of Joni Mitchell.
There is a native British Isles arbutus – Arbutus unedo – the strawberry tree of southern Ireland. It has much bigger fruits than A. menziesii.
Garrya elliptica is another plant that Menzies discovered and Douglas introduced to Britain. It is in flower at the moment in the Fountain Garden. The tassels are said to be longer in male plants (the Crathes plant is a male), but shorter in colder climates. Apparently in Cornwall the tassels can be up to a foot long.