I love the view from the window of the spare room in March. An early flowering cherry, a starry flowered Amelanchier and a large Magnolia with pale pink flowers grow in the gardens behind mine. The Magnolia is now very large indeed. Sometimes on a dull day the sun breaks through the cloud and illuminates the shell pink petals, which shine out all the more against the grey of the sky. This year the Magnolia seemed to come into flower earlier than usual.
On a walk with a friend in Kew Gardens on 2 March several of the Magnolia Grove trees were flowering, including a couple of the very large old specimens, the flowers high above very difficult to capture in a photograph. Welcome as the sight of these gorgeous flowers was, after the dreariness of winter, we both expressed the same thought, that we hoped the magnolias would last until 29 March! I had persuaded my friend and her husband to join me on that date for a magnolia walk at Borde Hill Garden in West Sussex. I rationalised that the trees in Kew were more advanced because the temperatures in London are higher than in the countryside. Driving to jobs in the weeks that followed I saw magnolias in glorious bloom everywhere, and had begun to resign myself to having to imagine Borde Hill’s trees in flower rather than seeing the real thing on the day of the walk.
Thanks to Colonel Stephenson Robert Clarke, the great grandfather of the current owner of Borde Hill, this 35 acre garden a couple of miles from Haywards Heath is home to around 150 different species and cultivated varieties of Magnolia, including summer flowering evergreen specimens. Colonel Stehenson Clarke (‘Stephie’) bought the Elizabethan house and the surrounding estate in 1893 and created the garden, planting trees and shrubs collected by some of the famous plant hunters of the early C20.
The walk was led by Borde Hill’s Head of Horticulture, Harry Baldwin, and Dori Whatmore, Senior Gardener. Harry joined the team last November from Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew where after attaining his Kew Diploma he worked as a Dendrologist and Horticultural Taxonomist. The two-handed presentation by these knowledgeable gardeners worked really well and it was inspiring hearing about the work being done at the garden and Harry’s five year plan for it.
In his introduction, Harry explained that the Borde Hill private archive includes letters to Colonel Stephenson Clarke from plant hunters like Ernest ‘China’ Wilson and George Forrest forming a fascinating record of the creation of the garden and the stories behind the introduction of new species. As we had noticed earlier in the month, magnolias are indeed beginning to flower earlier as a result of climate change, but Harry reassured us that because of the vast range of magnolias at Borde Hill we would still see plenty of trees in bloom during the walk. Colonel Clarke chose the property because of its geology: eight different types of clay have been identified on the site. It stands on an east-west ridge meaning it has both north and south facing slopes creating several different climate niches.
At our first stop near the entrance to the garden we were shown four trees which derived from seed collected by Ernest Wilson, including the fabulously named Magnolia sprengeri ‘Diva’, the Goddess magnolia. Near a pathway along the perimeter of the garden stands another Wilson discovery, not a magnolia but a rare tree which flowers so infrequently that when it does it’s a very special event: Emmenopterys henryi. Searching Wikipedia later I read that flowering (apparently the flowers resemble lace cap hydrangeas) seems to be triggered by long hot summers and that the tree is part of the Rubiaceae family, another member of which is the coffee plant! At Borde Hill, it last flowered in 2018.
We skirted the part of the garden called the Azalea Ring to find the next trees on our route. Named after a former head gardener from Caerhays near St Austell in Cornwall, Magnolia ‘Philip Tregunna’ is a young tree whose goblet like blooms are shaded deep pink at the base and fade upwards to a paler pink. Nearby, Harry described M. ‘Peachy’ as having ‘sickly looking flowers’. They reminded me of that shade ‘nude’ which was so popular in shoes a few years ago. Next was a tree which survived the Great Storm of 1987 despite being blown over, M. x soulangeana ‘Brozzonii’. Harry explained that the species from which this white-flowered beauty derives was named for Etienne Soulange-Bodin (1774-1846), who founded the French equivalent of the RHS, Le Société d’horticulture de Paris. We then encountered the first of the TROBI champion trees* at Borde Hill, a 60 foot high M. campbellii, a champion because of its great girth.
The walk paused at this stage to enable us to examine in detail the structure of a magnolia flower. Laid out on three picnic tables were small branches bearing a few blooms. Harry encouraged us to strip back the petals to the centre of the flower and explained the complex morphology of what is one of the most ancient of the flowering plants, including the fact that magnolias are pollinated by beetles rather than flying insects, which they pre-date.
We learnt that most magnolias dislike alkaline soil and prefer a neutral to acidic soil of 5.5 to 6.6 pH, the ideal soil texture being a good loam. Magnolia stellata is the exception in that it can be grown on alkaline soil. When planting a magnolia, incorporate organic matter into the planting hole and feed with an organic mulch. Harry has already created ‘tree circles’ around many of the specimens where the ground beneath the trees is cleared of grass and any competing growth. This not only looks attractive but makes mowing easier and prevents damage to the tree or shrub. He was asked if he would stake a newly planted magnolia and explained that he tends not to do so, preferring that the plant becomes stronger when allowed to move with the wind. Were he to stake he would angle the stake towards the south west and attach it to the tree with a rubber tree tie. In Harry’s five year plan for the garden the priority is to propagate the collection, ensuring its survival for years to come. Propagation is done by grafting one year’s growth from seed onto material taken from the tree’s own rootstock.
Continuing the walk we passed the rear of the house with a view across to the property’s North Park. In the area of the garden called the Garden of Allah, we were shown a couple of evergreen species, M. obovata from eastern Russia and Japan and M. fraseri from the south-eastern USA. Both bear scented flowers in early summer. the M. obovata is a TROBI champion tree by girth and the species’ wood is used for furniture making.
In the same way that we all exchange plants and cuttings and cuttings with our friends and neighbours, the next tree M. officinalis was a gift in 1933 from a neighbour, Col. Messel of nearby Nymans. In its native China an extract from the bark is used in traditional medicine as a cold remedy and the tree is becoming increasingly rare. Harry shared a sobering statistic: 48% of the approximately 240 species of magnolia across the globe are threatened with extinction, through logging and change of land use to agriculture and development. Which makes it all the more important to preserve and propagate collections of these magnificent trees such as that at Borde Hill. Because fleshy magnolia seeds are ‘recalcitrant’ they cannot be dried and stored in seed banks such as Kew’s Millennium Seed Bank at Wakehurst, a few miles away from Borde Hill. Like acorns and chestnuts, they have to be planted and grown on in order to be preserved, which makes gardens like Borde Hill with botanic collections of rare plants, conservation communities in their own right.
Perched on a knoll across from M. officinalis is a near relative of the magnolia, the tulip tree. Liriodendron chinense again hails from China and was collected in the wild by Ernest Wilson. Harry described the leaves as saddle shaped, with their blunt upper edges. Like its American cousin, L. tulipfera, the tree flowers in early summer.
In the north-west of the garden, in an open space called Gardiner Grove, named after magnolia expert Jim Gardiner, several specimens of two species of magnolia have been planted: M. springeri and M. acuminata. The young trees are protected with guards against rabbits which are attracted to the sap in the wood. They are soon to be fitted with TreeGator watering bags, zip up bags which release water over a three day period whilst the plants establish themselves. As the walk continued we all admired M. Black Tulip with its dark purple tulip-shaped flowers.
The final stop on the tour was the Italian Garden, a formal space with a rectangular pond at its centre, created on the site of a tennis court, with a view out to the South Park. To one side of the garden stands a large example of M. stellata with its open long-petalled flowers, which are slightly scented. It’s a popular choice in small gardens or as a border shrub.
Chatting to Harry and Dori at the end of the tour we discovered that a small horticultural team looks after the garden, supported by a small group of volunteers. They must work tremendously hard to keep this varied space looking so good. We were strongly recommended to return in June to see the Rose Garden.
After the walk we had delicious freshly made sandwiches and excellent coffee at the open-air Gardener’s Retreat Cafe and then retraced our steps and explored the area around the Rose and Italian Gardens more thoroughly, finding some fascinating plants and intriguing pathways as we went. Tucked in the south-western corner of the garden are the roofless remains of the old potting sheds which have become a charming garden in their own right, planted with tree peonies and primroses, a vivid Japanese quince (Chaenomeles x superba) scrambling across the mullion windows which still contain their leaded lights.
Thanks to Harry and Dori’s informative tour of Borde Hill’s extensive collection of magnolias I’ve learnt a great deal more about this elegant tree. Borde Hill Garden is a delightful place and I shall definitely return at another season to discover more of its treasures.
10 April 2022
*TROBI (Tree Register of Britain and Ireland) champion trees are the tallest and largest trees in Britain and Ireland. There are 75 champion trees at Borde Hill.
Here are some more images from the day at Borde Hill Garden giving a flavour of the different sections of the garden and the diversity of planting.