Pushing the limits

The bromeliad, Fascicularia bicolor, beside the steps to the Upper Pool Garden, 1 December 2020.

With the mild days gone we can see how much damage the frost does generally, and how tender plants can sometimes survive in sheltered parts of the garden against expectations. Most of the fuchsias are finished for the year, but will come back in the spring. Fuchsia reflexa in the Upper Pool Garden may be a little hardier than the others – it and an unnamed one beside the Four Square wall remain undamaged. The wall provides shelter too for Melianthus major, a tender plant with fine leaves, and for the purple vine bells, Rhodochiton atrosanguineus.

Purple vine bells, Rhodochiton atrosanguineus, sheltered by the Four Squares wall, 25 November 2020.
Melianthus major and fuchsia by the Four Square wall, 25 November 2020.

Sir James Burnett, who gave Crathes to the National Trust for Scotland in 1951, was always pushing the limits when it came to trying out tender plants in the garden. He and his wife, Sybil, would surely have approved of the continuing experiments with tender plants.

Up by the steps to the Upper Pool Garden I came upon the startling red leaves of the bromeliad Fascicularia bicolor (see top photograph). It is usually grown in the glasshouse this far north, but lately there have been various attempts at growing it outside at Crathes. The microclimate down beside the steps and in the shelter of the castle seems to suit it although we haven’t had really hard frost yet. The bromeliaceae is a large family of plants found mostly in South America and north to the southern part of the USA. They are epiphytes or lithophytes – growing on trees or rock. F. bicolor is from Chile; other bromeliads I know of are pineapples and Spanish Moss, Tillandsia usneoides. There also are quite a few houseplants that I recognise without knowing their names. Spanish Moss has been present in the glasshouse as long as I can remember. I used to wonder if it was a lichen and if it was alive. It just hangs on the wall absorbing nutrients and moisture from the atmosphere. It can flower, but not at Crathes as far I know. If the F. bicolor succumbs to the frost there are plenty more plants in the glasshouse.

Spanish Moss, Tillandsia usneoides on the right; pruned abutilon centre, 1 December 2020.
Fascicularia bicolor in the glasshouse – apparently the scarlet leaves only appear when the plant is flowering, 1 December 2020.

Correa backhousiana is another tender plant, usually a glasshouse plant except in mild areas of Britain. But it seems happy enough against the Aviary Terrace wall and is just coming into flower. Sometimes called the Australian fuchsia, the species name reminded me of two botanist brothers and their nursery founded some centuries ago. A quick search gives me the details. In 1815 James and Thomas Backhouse founded the Backhouse Nursery in York. From 1831-41 James spent 10 years in Australia working as a Quaker missionary. He travelled home via Mauritius and South Africa. Whilst away he collected plants and seeds which he sent back both to the nursery and to William Hooker, at that time Professor of Botany in Glasgow, and later director of Kew. It was Hooker that named the plant in 1834. The nursery continued to be run by following generations of the family and by the late nineteenth century was especially famous for alpines and ferns. It finally closed in 1955.

The Australian fuchsia, Correa backhousiana, on the Aviary Terrace, 1 December 2020.

According to Sir James’s 1937 planting list Correa harrisii was grown at Crathes in the Yew Borders, but later recorded by him as ‘dead’. C. harrisii is less hardy than C. backhousiana and has red flowers.

The cyclamen in flower in the Yew Borders is hardy and happily copes with the North-East weather. It likes the shade and the rotting leaves. I surmise that the species is hederifolium because of the little ear like projections – auricles – at the base of the petals. Cyclamen coum, the other hardy cyclamen, has more rounded leaves and an absence of auricles. You can just see in the centre of the photograph a fruit with the stem beginning to curl. This curling eventually brings the fruit close to the earth so that it can release its seeds in a suitable spot. You can see more of the curling in the bottom left of the photograph. The combination of exquisite flowers and attractive leaves with the fact that it needs very little attention makes this a great late autumn/winter addition to the garden. The flowers look good in an old inkwell or similar small vase on a desk or table.

Cyclamen hederifolium, in the Yew Borders, 1 December 2020.

Staying on the Yew Borders, I see that the Mahonia lomariifolia is now producing fruits and coping well with the frosts. You can see the effect of frost in the 2016 photograph.

Mahonia lomariifolia on the Yew Borders, 1 December 2020.
Mahonia lomariifolia after frost ,23 November 2016.

Steve has now finished the round beds in The Evolution Garden. Each circle will represent different times in the earth’s history as continental drift caused the continents to move apart.

Steve finishes the wall of a circle in the Evolution Garden, 25 November 2020.
The Evolution Garden ready for planting, 1 December 2020.

The bananas that were left out have been devastated by the frost, but there is still a chance that they might regrow in the spring.

The bananas in the Evolution Garden after frost; behind, Helen and Sandra are working on the June Border, 25 November 2020.
Andy lifts iris (I think) on the Blue and Pink Border, 1 December 2020.

Mike and Andy have been splitting up plants in the Blue and Pink Border. The tall Pontic blue sow thistles, Cicerbita bourgaei, have been dominating the border and need re-organising. The only native blue sow thistle, Cicerbita alpina, is very rare and only found in parts of Angus and Aberdeenshire. I have seen it in Caenlochan (Glen Isla), an important site for alpines. Cicerbita bourgaei, originally from Georgia and north-east Turkey, sometimes naturalises in Britain. It is a great draw for insects. Mike is surprised that the roots are so easy to lift. The volunteers have been cutting back, clearing and weeding where necessary. Alyson and Sheila were pruning roses earlier in the week. The robins are forever present beside the turning earth. They are so cocky that Helen and Sandra have been fearful of standing on them, but I think the Robins can look after themselves.

Mike re-positions the blue sow thistle Cicerbita bourgaei on the Blue and Pink Border, 25 November 2020.
The large drift of blue in the centre is Cicerbita bourgeai, 21 July 2020.
Fine picking in the overturned soil, 1 December 2020.

In the glasshouses Joanna has been storing the dahlia tubers. Once the tubers had dried off, Andy got the worst of the soil off using compressed air; Joanna then finished the cleaning and stored them in the frost free dark. Sooty mould has been a problem in the glasshouses this year, partly because, with staff reduction, time was precious and other work took priority. The glasshouses are organic which makes good hygiene especially important. When problems do arise a spray with plant invigorator can often be the solution. The peach tree is to be removed, not just on account of the sooty mould, but because it was too crowded. It could really have used the whole wall of its glasshouse. Its removal will leave space for the passion flower and the hibiscus. There has been a lot of pruning in the glasshouses. The cactus bed is to be removed with some of the plants being potted up. The space left will be used for propagating conifers that need some bottom heat and a moist atmosphere.

Sooty mould obvious on the wall after the peach tree is removed, 1 December 2020.
A bayful of pruned fuchsias, 1 December 2020.

Joanna has been experimenting with moss around the paperwhite narcissi for aesthetic effect. There is an excess of moss on the roof of the tool shed which has come in useful.

Terracotta pots and moss finishes make the paperwhites attractive before flowering, 25 November 2020.

Leaving the garden I see that Davy and Kevin have been busy improving the muddy ‘swamp’ in the compost yard. Constant barrowing of garden refuse in, and good compost out had left its mark.

Kevin and Davy after cleaning up the compost yard, 1 December 2020.

2020 has been a good ‘mast year’ and in the native woodland area I spy a jay, probably waiting for me to go away so that it can continue collecting acorns. The old hazel tree is already covered with next year’s catkins. The ancient sycamores along the edge of the Crow Wood field are magnificent in the winter sunshine. I can’t pass them without thinking of Alexander fourth baronet and his labourers who likely planted them in the first half of the eighteenth century; like Alexander we plant trees today for following generations. Some of the sycamores provide good habitat for ferns and mosses and the sun lights up the polypody ferns on one particularly fine specimen.

Good mast year, 1 December 2020.
The old hazel tree, 1 December 2020.
One of the eighteenth century sycamores that line the Crow Wood Field, 1 December 2020.
mosses and polypod ferns find this sycamore a good habitat, 1 December 2020.

Continuing on to the Courthill New area I find most of the sorbus fruits have gone, but Sorbus harrowiana and Sorbus discolor are still putting on a show.

Sorbus harrowiana (in front) and Sorbus discolor in Courthill New, 1 December 2020.

With a vaccine on its way we are finally looking at a resolution to our Covid problems, and we can make cautious plans for next year. Meantime the virus doesn’t know or care, so stay safe everyone.

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