As winter takes its turn I see the garden from a different perspective. There are plants that I have never noticed before – how can that be that I have walked passed the Japanese beauty berry, Callicarpa japonica, hundreds of times with blinkered eyes? Now I see that it has delicate mauve berries. I must remember to look out for the flowers next year.
As the leaves fall away the bark is more obvious; sometimes it is intriguing; sometimes beautiful. It is also highly functional: protecting the tree from all manner of threats, such as drying out, damage from herbivores, or disease. It may also be a good substrate on which mosses, ferns and lichens can thrive, along with insects and other invertebrates, adding to biodiversity of the ecosystem. The fungi that might appear out of the bark may be a threat to the tree but they too are a necessary part of the cycle of decay and regeneration. Without its leaves the tree can conserve water and cut down its activity, but it still needs oxygen to breathe; oxygen in the atmosphere that it has contributed to throughout the summer by photosynthesis. Gaseous exchange takes place through the lenticals – small pores – in the bark, which sometimes add to the beauty. As a tree ages so its bark changes, sometimes making identification tricky.
Thinking about bark and its idiosyncrasies inevitably leads to thoughts of the giant redwoods, Sequoiadendron giganteum, and their spongy bark; the bark, which in ancient specimens can be 60 cm thick, is the thickest known of any tree. At Crathes it provides roosting sites for tree creepers. Always ready to be side-tracked I ponder on the redwood family. According to the Collins Tree Guide the ‘Taxodiaceae is a family of 17 primitive conifers, often gigantic and with spongy red bark. They survive in scattered montane populations in both hemispheres’.* The story of these trees can be of legendary proportions: the living fossil dawn redwood, Metasequoia glyptoblastoides, was discovered growing in Hupeh, China, in the middle of World War Two. By means of academic co-operation between Chinese and American botanists desperate to safeguard the tree from extinction, seed was sent to the Arnold Arboretum in Boston in January 1948. Here the seed germinated quickly and was distributed throughout the world. Crathes was amongst those that received early seed and two of the trees survive in the Woodland Garden, although the trees do better in warmer climes.*
Quite a few trees of the redwood family grow at Crathes. The giant redwood is common about the castle and some were planted in the 1850s when it was first introduced to Britain. Although its wood is brittle and useless commercially – which makes the early reckless logging in its native California heartbreaking to read about – it is easy to grow, and majestic when planted around grand estates. It doesn’t blow over because of its buttressed trunk, but, as we saw in storm Arwen (see American giants and English oaks, 16 January 2022) it can lose limbs in a very dangerous way. The coast redwood, Sequoia sempervirens, is often confused with the giant sequoia although the needles grow quite differently. The two are rivals in the claim for the world’s largest tree. The giant redwood can live for more than 3,000 thousand years, but the coast redwood coppices naturally and can sprout afresh even after forest fires have reduced the parent tree to a blackened stump, which means it might go on forever. Both trees are adapted to wildfires and need the heat and the fertilizing ash to regenerate, but the recent, frequent, extreme wildfires are threatening their very survival as they leave no time for recovery. The swamp cypress, Taxodium distichum also native North America – Texas to New Jersey – has been known in Britain from the seventeenth century. I find it difficult to distinguish from the dawn redwood; the two look similar and both are deciduous. However, in the dawn redwood the young shoots and needles are opposite in arrangement whereas in the swamp cypress they are alternate. A small taxodium grows beside the Woodland Garden pond. For many years it looked to be dying, but when surrounding shrubs were cleared it took on a new lease of life.
Across the other side of the world, three species of the Athrotaxis genus are found in Tasmania. The large Athrotaxis laxifolia which grows just outside the garden gate at Crathes is over a hundred years old. In 1922 it was identified by W J Bean at Kew. By 1937 it was still a small specimen, but can just be seen in a Country Life photograph. A small specimen of a rarer species, A. cupressoides, grows in the Woodland Garden. The third Athrotaxis species, the King William Pine, A. selaginoides, is probably too tender to grow at Crathes.
Going north to China the redwoods are represented by the previously mentioned dawn redwood, the Taiwania cryptomeriodes (found near the East Lodge) and the Chinese fir, Cunninghamia lanceolata. A young attractive Chinese fir grew in the Woodland Garden for a while, but was felled by a falling oak limb some years ago.
Japan gives us the Japanese red cedar, Cryptomeria japonica, and the Japanese umbrella pine, Sciadopitys verticillata. The cryptomeria grows next to the taiwania near the Millpond and their needles have a similarity that is reflected in the species name of the taiwania. The umbrella pine thrives in Caroline’s Garden.
The weather and transport problems have kept me away from Crathes for much of the month; the only days I managed in were either gloomy or wet, but James and Joanna keep me informed. The floods of mid-November (a month’s rain fell in less than two days) have concentrated efforts to improve drainage in the Rose Garden and in the doocot pool. The path that slopes down to the summerhouse in the Rose Garden has been repaired many times after excessive rainfall and, if I remember rightly, as recently as last year. This time the team have built, in effect a soakaway to channel the water away, using pebbles found on the estate and probably sourced from the River Dee many years ago. The camber of the path has been altered slightly and the edging stones have been reset. Mike and Steve have been working on the doocot pool which was built to give focus to the little statue of a putto (young boy) and turtle that had been gifted to the Trust in the 1960s by Lady Burnett’s sister, Elizabeth Carr. James thinks that excess water from the leaking pool and a defective overflow caused the death of the lovely Cornus controversa ‘Variegata’ in 2019. The hedge of Lonicera nitida that surrounds the poolis to be removed and replaced by box. L. nitida only looks good if it is cut frequently – maybe as much as three or four times a year, so its removal has been planned for some time. All these improvements will hardly be noticed by the public but they are essential to the health and maintenance of the garden.
In the glasshouse Joanna is looking after fourteen boxes of yew cuttings. These cuttings have been taken from different yew trees in the garden and on the estate. Each is recorded and will be tagged throughout its life. James is keen to see any differences in survival and fitness of the cuttings. Some are likely to be planted to replace trees lost in the storms. Yew, Taxus baccata, is one of the three native conifers of the British Isles. Scots pine and juniper are the other two. The sentinel Irish yews are of the same species, but fastigiate and growing more vertically than the norm. All Irish Yews are thought to have originated from the Florence Court estate in Northern Ireland.
Commercial forestry has now come to an end on the Crathes estate. The contactors and their heavy machinery have been clearing the estate of the damage wreaked by Storm Arwen. The result is not a pretty sight, but the subsequent planting will be kinder to the environment and it is hoped that heavy machinery will not be needed in future.
Management of the Crathes estate has never been as important as now when nations meet in Montreal for the United Nations Biodiversity Conference (confusingly called COP15) to consider and highlight the present crisis. Biodiversity and climate change are inter-related. A healthy ecosystem sequesters carbon; an impoverished one releases carbon, and when nature is destroyed so are we. The planet needs a New Year Resolution in which we will all participate. Whether the 30×30 target of 30% land and ocean protected by 2030 is agreed upon is doubtful at this moment as nations grapple to divide finances fairly and empower indigenous peoples to care for some of the amazing areas of biodiversity of the world, such as the Amazon basin.** As I finish writing, news comes of an agreement on 30×30. All the nation states of the world have agreed to this, with the exception of USA and the Vatican State who have never signed up to the Biodiversity programme. These next seven years will be critical.
But who are the indigenous people of Scotland? And how does such a small nation matter in the global picture? Solutions to these matters are complex, but co-operation, grass roots action and political will are all as relevant to Crathes as much as anywhere.
And that’s why I talk about beavers with the rangers. As far as they know, there are no beavers in the Dee catchment area at this moment, but I guess it is just a matter of time: a year, a decade? Although the Coy Burn is an ideal location for beaver activity, there is the problem of dogs. The Crathes estate is a haven for dog walkers and dogs love nothing more than a swim in the burn. No-one knows how beavers and dogs might inter-react. Beavers have evolved with predators and are clever enough to have the entrances to their dams underwater, so there may not be a problem – it’s just one of the unknowns about beaver re-introductions. So why beavers? The gardeners will not want their fine trees cut down. Beavers are drivers of biodiversity – with their dams come millions of insects and other invertebrates; then, feasting on the abundance of food, come fish, amphibians, reptiles, birds and mammals. The beavers also reduce flooding downstream by holding back the water. They cut down trees but more sprout. The farmers are not so keen because river banks are damaged as the wetlands spread. But that’s the crunch. We, gardeners and farmers and land and sea managers, have to make compromises to reach that 30×30 goal. We are not controllers of nature; we are part of nature and nature will ultimately decide our fate. Crathes may not re-introduce beavers as a policy, but these bioengineers could well make their own way from, say, the Hill of Fare. And when they come they will be here to stay and the world will be a better place. And as I write I hear news of proposed new introductions of beavers to the Loch Lomond National Nature Reserve. Maybe the Cairngorms will be next.
Crathes has applied to the Just Transition Fund which helps with programmes that work towards net zero carbon. If successful the water borehole will go ahead releasing the garden from using the public water supply.
Hard frosts have hit the North-East and stayed for over a week. James does not expect the outdoor bananas to survive this winter. The tree ferns and cardiocrinum lilies have been covered up. There have been problems with heating the glasshouses as well.
My own New Year resolution is the get one, maybe two, apple trees planted and to start experimenting with a mini meadow.
More questions than answers in this month’s offerings. Have a good Christmas everyone!
*Collins Tree Guide by Owen Johnson and David More, 2004.
** An article in The Guardian, ‘The power of the Amazon’, highlights the problems facing the Amazon, 17 December 2022. The United Nations website is full of relevant biodiversity stories.