A passion for plants

The audit team had good weather to work in the Golden Garden, 1 September 2022.

It’s a glorious sunny day when I happen upon Philippa and her team working on the plant audit. The Double Shrub Border and the Golden Garden are the areas under scrutiny. This is the penultimate day for the Crathes survey; next week the team goes to Inverewe. They will be back in the winter, based at Crathes, to research and finalise their lists from all the gardens they have surveyed.

Philippa tries to determine the dividing line between Double Shrub Border and the Golden Garden, 1 September 2022.

The Double Shrub Border was one of the early areas to be planted in the then kitchen garden in the 1920s. James Burnett’s marriage to Sybil Crozier-Smith in 1913 created a union that was to make Crathes one of the great gardens of the world. James was a military man, trained at Sandhurst, who served in the Boer War, in India, Egypt, France and China. Having narrowly escaped death in the First World War, he returned to Crathes to indulge in his passion for collecting shrubs and trees from across the world. He inherited Crathes and the baronetcy on his father’s death in 1926, and, apart from a year in China ‘looking after British interests’ he and Sybil devoted their lives to Crathes and its gardens. The garden that James and Sybil took over was very different to that we see today. The southern half was a kitchen garden producing fruit and vegetables for the family with surplus for sale. Initially James found space for his young trees and shrubs in the borders surroundings the northern ornamental half of the garden, but soon he had his eye on the kitchen garden. The Camel Garden and the Double Shrub Border were the first areas to be planted with exotics, some of which remain today. In 1937 he recorded in a notebook all the shrubs and trees he had planted at Crathes. Sybil was the designer of the two and by 1951, when Crathes was gifted to the National Trust for Scotland, the kitchen garden was limited to the area now occupied by the Golden Garden. Today the garden is famed for its diversity of plants and its brilliant design.

Sir James’s 1937 notebook showing list of buddleias with his notes in red. Other annotations added later.

One of the largest trees in the Double Shrub is Phellodendron amurense and we can be sure it is a Sir  James original because of its size. It is an Aberdeenshire champion tree because of its height of 13m, and a Scotland champion for its girth of 233cm. The flowers, which are small and green, are greatly attractive to bumblebees. Almost opposite the phellodendron is a long established Viburnum rhytidophyllum, also one of the Sir James originals. William Wright Smith of the Royal Botanic Garden of Scotland (RBGE) took seeds and cuttings of this viburnum to Edinburgh in 1936 and the descendants of the Crathes specimen still live on in RBGE. The ancient looking Viburnum henryi which also grows on the Double Shrub is likely to be another of the early plantings. In 1929 James received various packets of seeds from RBGE, which included some of V. henryi. The present shrub may be of that seed. The shrub that grows beside it has been a mystery for some years. A low mound of tangled branches, I remember discussing it with the gardeners one winter, but I don’t think we came to any conclusions. It’s definitely not a viburnum because it has alternate leaves. This is a problem for the team that may be resolved in their winter research.

Looking south from the Golden Garden with the large tree, Phellodendron amurense, on the left, 22 October 2014.
The red berried Viburnum henryi grows alongside a mystery shrub, 12 September 2022.

We puzzle about the two mahonias – which one is wagneri? Eventually Philippa decides that the low growing one beside the path is correct. Following up about M. wagneri in Bean* I find I am even more confused.  A Mahonia pinnata var. wagneri seems to have arisen in a nursery in France in around 1863. I will spare you more confusion but quote Bean: ‘M. x wagneri would be a valid name for hybrids of this parentage [M. pinnata x M. aquifolium], but these would combine the characters of the parents in such diverse ways that the name is of little use in garden nomenclature’. Any the wiser? Such are the joys of naming plants – all the same I think of the audit as a dream job.

And that’s the way it goes when it comes to the naming of plants. Plant names change – sometimes because more historical information comes to light; protocol dictates that the first given name takes precedence. Now there is DNA testing to give scientific evidence of relationships and everything is thrown into confusion. Then again, some plants are put together by the ‘lumpers’ who consider variation is normal within a species, and others are separated into new species, by the ‘splitters’. And I haven’t even mentioned the hybrids and the cultivars. There is no definitive answer because the whole system of classification has been devised by humans and who’s to say? Well, actually, there is a body is to say: the International Plant Names Index is a collaboration between The Royal Botanic Gardens Kew, The Harvard University Herbaria, and the Australian National Herbarium. The Index names plants down to subspecies, but doesn’t consider cultivars. The International Society for Horticultural Science publishes the International Code of nomenclature for cultivated plants. The thought of being responsible for all the plants names in the world puts the audit for Crathes into perspective.

Latin names are crucial to knowing that botanists in, say, India are talking about the same plant as botanists in UK. Trying to remember all the names is another problem. Philippa and I ponder over a herbaceous plant looking past its best and finally ‘Jeffersonia’ comes to mind. Yes it’s on the database so that sounds good. But I admit to confusing it with Diphylleia sinensis which grows on the South Border. Comparing the two we can see how Jeffersonia got its species name – diphylla. And even without a Latin education I can see that means two parts to the leaf, hence the common name – twinleaf.  Not surprisingly the Jeffersonia comes from North America and the Diphylleia sinensis comes from China. Will I retain these names until next year? Maybe just talking and writing about them will help me out. Near to the twinleaf is a shrub that has seen better days, now not much more than a couple of twigs. Philippa consults the database and wonders if it could be Syringa tomentella. I am quite taken with this possibility because some years ago when I was struggling with syringas (lilacs) I was trying to locate this plant without success. Maybe the recent removal of some of the overgrown vegetation will enable it to recover.    

Jeffersonia diphylla 1 September 2022.
Diphylleia sinensis, 12 September 2022.
The berries of Diphylleia sinensis, 6 July 2020.

Ten years ago the Double Shrub Border was crowded with shrubs and trees and rather overgrown, but slowly much of the dense planting has been thinned and woodland spring plants such as primulas, fritillaries and trilliums lighten the pathway.

Spring flowers on the Double Shrub Border earlier in the year, 11 April 2022.

Whilst Philippa deals with the Double Shrub, Valeria and Niki tackle the Golden Garden. At the SE entrance to the Golden Garden are two viburnums. At one time they were both labelled Viburnum opulus ‘Xanthocarpum’, but at this time of year anyone can see that one of the shrubs has yellow berries whilst the other has red berries. Another problem to sort out.

Viburnum opulus ‘Xanthocarpum’ at the entrance to the Golden Garden, 12 September 2022.
Niki and Valeria consider the misnamed viburnum at the entrance to the Golden Garden, 1 September 2022.

It’s now nearly two years since I puzzled over the mystery vine that grows on the Doocot Border (see Mild November days 22 November 2020) and I was interested to know what the team thought about it. Ampelopsis glandulosa var. brevipedunculata has been mooted and is now under discussion. Thank goodness I don’t have to decide! I’m beginning to think the dream job might be quite stressful when time is limited.

The mystery vine on the Doocot Border, 1 September 2022.

When I walk up towards the castle I see that the usual Horn of Leys pennant has been replaced by the Union Jack flying at half-mast. The Royal family is regarded with much affection on Deeside and I am reminded that the Queen, at that time Princess Elizabeth, used to sometimes visit Crathes where she and Prince Philip would be welcomed by Sir James and Lady Burnett. James died in 1953, a year after the Queen’s father, George VI. It seems appropriate that there is a Book of Condolence at Crathes for people to sign if they wish – during the usual opening hours which can be checked on the website.  

Castle in mourning, 12 September 2022.


The Rose Garden project continues to move on at a pace. The beds and paths will soon be in place. James has decided that planting will have to wait until next year. He has ordered manure and topsoil for the beds. Over the winter there will be a settling down and more topsoil can be added in the spring, after which planting can begin. The plants have been waiting a while and Joanna has been potting on when necessary.

The central area gets a firm base whilst James cuts back Frau Dagmar Hastrup to give access to the machinery, 25 August 2022.
The paths and beds take shape, 1 September 2022.
Still some way to go, 12 September 2022.

Mike and Steve have just about finished the hedge cutting. This week Steve has been cutting the apiary hedges. Bees don’t like machinery near their hives so the beekeepers closed the hives up for a day or two.

Steve trims the egg and eggcups, 25 August 2022.

Joanna has been taking more cuttings to add to the many already doing well.

Joanna is busy with cuttings, 12 September 2022.
Next year’s garden will need all these cuttings and more, 12 September 2022.

As a result of the rain and warmth of the last two weeks, there has been a glut of fungi.

They look like chanterelles, but I wouldn’t eat them just in case…12 September 2022.

The Millpond problem is not as yet resolved. During the drought it dried up, but the last spell of rain has filled it up again.    

The acer on the small island is reflected in the millpond after the rain, 12 September 2022.

*Bean WJ, Trees and Shrubs Hardy in the British Isles, 4 vols. (London 1980 edition)

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