The Evolution Garden at Crathes is finally completed – in so much as a garden is ever completed. The triangular piece of garden between the June Border and the Doocot Border was for many years used as a nursery for cardiocrinums, but by the end of the last century the lilies were not doing very well and the area became a Learning Garden. Different themes were trialled usually for three years. Vegetables came first then pollinators, and when James took up post in October 2017 the theme chosen by Chris Wardle (our previous head gardener) was evolution. James took time to decide on action – evolution after all is a – the – big theme. Eventually he decided that such a garden merited a lot of effort and should be longterm. The space was small, but cool and enclosed and could easily incorporate part of the Doocot Border. It would fit in with the idea of Crathes ‘rooms’, but would also go along with the Burnetts’ cutting edge approach; Sir James and Lady Burnett had always looked for originality and excitement in their gardening. Whilst it was not against the ethos of the garden it gave James some freedom to be creative. He decided that there would be three raised circular beds depicting different geological periods containing some of the relevant plants. The planting outside the beds would not be time-themed as that would constrict the final effect. Every plant tells a story and so a variety of plants would make for interest, especially if they were unusual, maybe living fossils or evolutionary curiosities.
The whole project was to be as sustainable as possible with all work done by James and the team. The granite setts represent the greater road miles having been sourced 20 miles away in Aberdeen. The tiles came from Drum, and all other stone work was found lying around at Crathes. Soil, compost, sand and stumps all came from the estate. Work got under way at the beginning of 2020. Then came the pandemic.
Work resumed in 2021 and all it needs now is time to grow, and maybe some interpretation.
First a potted history of plant evolution.
Fungi are neither plant nor animal, but are crucial in the development of plants. Of especial importance are the lichens, a group resulting from a symbiotic relationship between fungi and algae. The fungi make the lichens tough and provide shelter for the algae which provide sugar by photosynthesis. Lichens are able to break down rocks, over millions of years, and thus form soils which are necessary for plant growth.
Liverworts were early land plants. They are dependent on water for fertilisation and spore production. Obligingly they grow naturally on the paths in the Evolution Garden.
Mosses have leaves and stems and a simple vascular system for transporting water; they cannot grow to any size. They reproduce by spores and need water for fertilisation. With the June drought the mosses in the garden shrivelled away, but will soon recover.
Clubmosses and horsetails have better developed vascular systems. Both produce spores. In earlier times they grew to a great size and were important plants in the formation of coal. Horsetails have hollow stems with an outer ring of vascular tissue which acts for support as well as for transport of water. As a child I remember being fascinated by the jointed stems which are easily pulled apart.
Ferns have a more complex vascular system with well-developed stems and fronds. They are still dependent on water for reproduction. They could grow to enormous size and were also important in coal deposits. The spores may be carried on the underside of the fronds or on separate reproductive stems.
Gymnosperms have naked seeds. Pollination is by wind, and water is not required for reproduction. They flourished during dinosaur times, but remain important in the temperate coniferous forests of today. Cycads and ginkgo trees are both primitive gymnosperms. Our only native gymnosperms are yew, juniper and Scots pine.
The flowering plants or angiosperms have covered seeds and are the dominant plants of our modern world. They often have complex flowers that evolved alongside insects and are adapted for efficient pollination.
The first raised circular bed represents the earth at a time when the continents made up one land mass – Pangaea – surrounded by the oceans (the slates) from about 350 million years ago (mya) to 200mya when it began to break up – a process that continued through Triassic and Jurassic periods. James has chosen equisetums and cycads and for this bed. Cycads, said to be the favourite food of dinosaurs, may look like palms, but they are more closely related to ginkgo trees and conifers like our native Scots pine. Cycads are not completely hardy and James will be taking a gamble when he leaves them out over the winter. On the other hand moving them in and out each year sets them back – they are slow growers anyway.
The second circle represents the Cretaceous period (145-66mya) after the breakup of Pangaea. The dinosaurs were still evolving, ferns and conifers were expanding. This bed is planted with a gymnosperm – the monkey puzzles trees, Araucaria araucana, which will have to be moved on in a few years; a fern, Blechnum penna-marina, that should form a dense underlayer; and a palm, Chamaerops humilis. By the end of the Cretaceous angiosperms were an important part of the flora. The little palm is a true palm and thus one of the flowering plants.
The third circle, nearest the seats, represents the world as it is today. Despite the lack of obvious flowers, grasses are more recently evolved angiosperms. James has planted this circle with grasses because globally they are the basis of our diets; wheat, oats, barley and rice dominate our agriculture.
Other plants, often new to Crathes, grow in the rest of the garden. A few are listed below.
The tree ferns, Dicksonia antarctica have spent the winter inside. Because they are young they don’t yet look like ‘trees’. They are ferns, not trees, but will eventually grow tall if they thrive. This is another experiment for James because, like the cycads, the tree ferns will need to take their chance in the winter, although they will be given some protection. One of the baby tree ferns in the glasshouse that Joanna has been nurturing is now looking more like a young fern.
Dryopteris affinis is the native golden-scaled male fern. The cultivar ‘Cristata’, with its much branched pinnae is the result of human interference in evolution – as are most of our plant cultivars. The Victorian craze for ferns resulted in many experiments in finding unusual wild varieties and raising offspring from their spores. Hundreds of cultivars were raised in what was a largely a British obsession.
Lotus berthelotii, sometimes known as parrot beak, is a member of the pea family. Its flowers are orange or red. Although it is much cultivated by gardeners, it is thought to be extinct in its native Tenerife.
Cautleya spicata is a hardy ginger. It arrived as a small piece of rhizome and is so far looking good.
Pinus parviflora ‘Jim’s Mini Curls’ is a favourite of James. He has been taking special care of this slow growing pine and it is beginning to sprout new needles.
The Japanese wheel tree, Trochodendron aralioides, is sometimes called the loneliest tree in the world – it is the only species of its genus and the only genus of its family. The wood does not contain the xylem vessels that are so efficient for transporting water in most of the angiosperms, but is less sophisticated as in the gymnosperms. This suggests that the wheel tree is a primitive angiosperm – as are the magnolias.
The Earth is four and a half billion years old and we humans have been around for about two hundred thousand years – just a tiny fraction of that time. Geological time, however, isn’t just history. Many scientists believe we are now in a new geological epoch – the Anthropocene – directly as a result of human impact on the earth. Whether it began with humans starting to farm thousands of years ago, nuclear developments in the 1950s or with the ubiquitous plastic that is now found across the planet is not agreed upon, but there is little doubt that our own actions have contributed to the present Climate Crisis and to what is now referred to as the sixth extinction. Many remember the insect splattered windscreens after a long car journey and the abundance of salmon in our rivers; now depleted to an alarming extent. Will the Anthropocene end in our own destruction, or can we turn the tide?
In amongst the gloom there is hope and some of that relates to Deeside. I have just finished reading a book about the regeneration of Mar Lodge Estate – for me a real page turner.* It’s now 25 years since the National Trust for Scotland (NTS) bought the estate and it has not been an easy ride for the Trust; I remember well the headline criticisms in the media regarding the culling of the deer.
Back then in 1995 there were about 3,500 deer on the estate; muirburn and driven grouse moor shoots with the accompanying destruction of ‘vermin’ were regular practice. The NTS plan was to reduce the deer numbers to 1,650. It was not an easy task with much opposition from all sides. Today sporting remains integral to the estate, generating important income to spend on conservation. The sport, however, is of a different nature. I quote: ‘Maintaining a comparatively small herd of high quality deer offers a higher quality sporting experience in a healthier ecosystem, with no impact on financial income and with significant ecological benefits across the moors, bogs and woodland of Mar Lodge. Deer stalking is still done at Mar Lodge in the traditional Highland way – a skilled stalker takes a guest up onto the hills and bogs, a single rifle is used, and deer are killed with a single shot. The Mar Lodge tweeds are still proudly worn, local whisky is still toasted at the end of the day… Mar Lodge is fully booked a year in advance.’
With the reduced deer population the pines are beginning to regenerate and the Caledonian Forest is returning to something like its original condition; even montane willows are increasing – maybe a new montane scrub zone will be part of the future. Fences are generally removed partly to help with capercaillie recovery. With no driven grouse shoots and no muirburn, raptors such as the hen harrier are returning. Plenty of dead wood left to rot results in greater invertebrate biodiversity which in turn will feed animals higher up the food chain. Special projects are nurturing rare plants and animals, such as the alpine sow thistle, Cicerbita alpina, the pine hoverfly, Blera fallax, and the Kentish glory moth, Endromis versicolora. The endangered dotterel may disappear with global warming, but the young pines by the rivers might in time help to cool the spawning beds of the salmon, and the restoration of the peat will offset emissions generated elsewhere.
Having been inspired by the book, it was time to take a trip up Deeside. It was some years since I had visited Mar Lodge Estate. The lodge itself is now used for offices and as a venue for weddings and corporate events. It is not open to the public.
Weekends are best avoided just now as the car parks fill up rapidly, so we set off with a picnic on Monday 28th June. The glorious resinous smell of pines on a hot day assailed us as we opened the car door. The walk in the lower reaches of Glen Lui was just ideal and we could see the young pines regenerating and stretching up into the hill. It was a perfect day.
Nearer home there have been other important contributions to the health of the Dee. The Beltie Burn, which flows through Torphins and enters the Dee as the Canny at Invercanny, was straightened in the nineteenth century to accommodate the railway. In the autumn of 2020 a restoration project, managed by the Dee Catchment Partnership, turned the burn back into a meandering river with associated wetlands and appropriate tree planting. Much slit was removed from the burn to improve the habitat for spawning salmon. Biodiversity monitoring of the site continues and the Torphins Paths Group are involved in public accessibility. Taking a walk that way this week we could see and hear the oyster catchers. Bird watchers tell us that lapwing, redshank and common sandpiper have also nested this year.
All these projects cost money and much conservation is funded by charities such as the NTS and the River Dee Trust. On 25-26 June a Fishdee24 event took place with anglers fishing through 24 hours to raise money for the conservation work on the salmon.
At Crathes the Coy Burn runs into the Dee at Milton of Crathes after passing through the Millpond. It is not an insignificant burn – it drains 40 square kilometres of land. In the estate the burn is largely ecologically healthy: it meanders, it soaks up and slows down large amounts of water and supports biodiversity. But the state of the Millpond is not healthy: in June it dried up completely, other than the Coy Burn running through. This is due in part to the drought, but mainly because the old sluice has broken. It has been difficult to control for some years and it has been James that has had to deal with it. The fish trap that was installed beside the dam has not been adequate and new solutions are required. The Millpond itself needs to be dredged of the massive amounts of silt that have built up over the years. A meeting of interested parties and hydraulic engineers has just taken place. The initial focus is on fixing the two sluices (one is for the old lade), redesigning and installing a suitable fish trap, and installing a simple silt trap. In the longer term the pond needs to be carefully dredged with a more sophisticated silt trap installed.
Across Scotland there are exciting projects taking place with different bodies, such as the RSPB, the Scottish Wildlife Trust, Trees for Life, and the NTS, connecting up into partnerships to save our landscapes and our oceans. The international meeting, COP26 in Glasgow, in November, could be a turning point. We are an intelligent species; it should be possible.
Whatever happens to the human race, the flora and fauna of the earth will go on evolving. Meantime (that’s an interesting word) I look forward to watching the development of our own Evolution Garden whilst pondering on the mysteries of time.
Sadly the oyster catcher didn’t succeed and the nest was abandoned. The various adjustments needed to the pipes and drainage of the dipping pool have been made and a new stand pipe has been installed. The pool edge is now filled with the newly arrived plants. All of the tender shrubs that were so badly affected by the late frosts seemed to be recovering. Some had to be cut right back, but they are re-sprouting from the base. Even the bananas that were left out through the winter, and thought to be dead, are pushing up new shoots. The battle with the weeds continues. Up at the viewpoint the new vines and some rowans have been planted. The meadow behind the viewpoint is full of ox-eyed daisies, a catsear (or related dandelion type flower), tufted vetch and yellow rattle. The show houses are usually open. The Walled Garden is now much more accessible and you can walk up the various borders into the centre of the garden, but remember it is closed on Tuesdays and Wednesdays. Enjoy the roses and lilies if you visit. Take care.
*Painting, Andrew, Regeneration (Edinburgh 2021). You can buy this book in the Crathes shop.