Part 2 Medicinal Garden of the Royal College of Physicians
At the south-eastern corner of The Regent’s Park stands a building quite unlike its elegant Regency neighbours. Designed in 1964 in modernist style by Denys Lasdun, architect of The National Theatre, this is The Royal College of Physicians. Its quarter acre garden is home to a large living collection of medicinal plants. My first visit was for a guided tour on 14 September, arranged by the WGFA, and when I returned with a friend in early November for a tour of the building and its collections of art and medical artefacts, we also strolled around the garden.
The September tour was led by a retired consultant dermatologist, Sue Burge, assisted by Anthony Dayan, Emeritus Professor of Toxicology at the University of London, both of whom shared a wealth of fascinating stories about the plants in the College’s garden. We learnt that nearly all plants have evolved to be poisonous to protect against animal predators, but that many poisons have been found to make useful medicines. This unique garden tells the story of plants once commonly used in the treatment of disease, those used in contemporary medicine and those with names commemorating early physicians. There are about 1,100 species represented, all of which are documented in a database. Each plant is clearly labelled, with those named after physicians having a brief biography on a blue label, and green labels denoting those used to produce modern medicines.
Tours start in the car park, where the raised bed opposite the main entrance is planted with specimens from the Americas and the three raised beds alongside the Outer Circle of the park form the World medicine area of the garden. In the small front gardens of the eight terraced buildings of St Andrew’s Place, opposite the College, the head gardener, Jane Knowles has incorporated plants whose flowers (house 1), roots (house 2), barks, fruits, leaves, seeds, sap, gums or resins were referred to by the College of Physicians in its Pharmacopoeia Londinensis of 1618. Low box hedges in knot garden style frame much of the planting, evoking seventeenth century garden fashion.
You enter the main garden through gates at the end of St Andrew’s Place, near William Harvey House, with its classically inspired facade, a Grade I listed building designed and built in 1826 by the architect of much of Regency London, John Nash.
Plants from classical antiquity and arid zones are represented in beds alongside the house. The lawn of the main garden is dominated by an oriental plane tree, Platanus orientalis, grafted from the plane tree on the Aegean island of Cos under which the ‘Father of Medicine’ Hippocrates is said to have taught his students. The borders surrounding the lawn contain medicinal plants from the orient and southern hemisphere, Europe and the Middle East. A shady courtyard tucked into a corner of the college building shelters a pot garden of tender plants including a fine lemon tree, Citrus x limon. From 1795 lemons and later limes were used to prevent scurvy in the British navy. Nearby is a a handsome memorial the Latin inscription on which translates: Remembering the doctors who died while working in the COVID-19 pandemic. It had been unveiled by Sir Christopher Whitty only a week before my first visit to the college.
Here I’ve picked out here just a few of the numerous plants which our guides, Sue and Anthony highlighted during the tour.
Arnica chamissonis. Used for bruises by Native Americans.
Taxus baccata, the European yew, source of paclitaxel (‘Taxol’) which is used both as an anti-cancer drug and to prevent clogging up in the stents used to open up blocked coronary arteries.
Rheum palmatum, Chinese rhubarb. Used in traditional Chinese medicine as a laxative. See photo above.
Ricinus communis, the castor oil plant. The coating of its seed capsules contain an extraordinary powerful poison, Ricin, which was used in the murder on Waterloo Bridge in 1978 of Bulgarian dissident Georgi Markov, where the KGB is alleged to have fired a pellet of the poison into his leg from the tip of an umbrella.
Pelargonium sidoides. This one intrigued me because it’s a plant I’ve grown for the last several years in a container, having been given a cutting at Osterley. In South African native medicine its tubers have been used in the treatment of acute bronchitis, coughs and colds.
Artemisia annua. Annual mugwort. The 2015 Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine was awarded to a female Chinese professor Tu Youyou ‘for her discoveries concerning a novel therapy against Malaria’. She detected artemisinin in the plant and proved its antimalarial properties.
There can be few gardens which concentrate so many extraordinary stories into so small an area. The garden can be visited between 9am and 5pm on weekdays and from April to October tours of the Medicinal Garden are given by senior physicians from the RCP on the first Wednesday of the month at 2pm.
An aerial view of London shows plenty of green space amidst the urban layout of streets, shops and offices. The expansive royal parks account for much of those spaces- Hyde Park, The Green Park, St James’s Park and The Regent’s Park- as do squares (both public and private), churchyards, private gardens and the gardens attached to some professional bodies. In this and my next post I explore two of the latter: the Inner Temple (commonly known as The Honourable Society of the Inner Temple) and The Royal College of Physicians.
Occupying a site beside the River Thames, from which it is separated by the Victoria Embankment, the three acres of the Inner Temple Garden are surrounded to the west, north and east by the buildings of the Inn, housing barristers’ chambers, judges’ lodgings as well as Inner Temple Hall and the offices of this ancient Inn of Court, one of the four located in this area of London, between the theatres and shops of the West End and the banks and financial institutions of the City of London.
In early September, a kind friend who works for the Inn arranged for me to meet Sean Harkin, the Inn’s head gardener. During lockdown I had watched Sean give an online lecture to the Kew Mutual Improvement Society about Inner Temple Garden and was struck by his enthusiasm for plants and for his work in this unique sanctuary in the heart of the busy city. Sean’s CV is impressive: RHS Wisley, the National Trust’s gardener in residence for the city of Manchester and head gardener at Kensington Palace where he created the white garden in memory of Princess Diana. My friend and Sean took time out of their busy schedules to meet me on a rather overcast and damp day, a contrast to the extreme heat of only a week or so before. Sean explained that over the last couple of years, he and his small team of three gardeners had created a new meadow on part of the lawn in the centre of the garden. Now mown, I can imagine that the meadow added a very natural and contemporary aspect to what might otherwise be expected to be a rather conventional space. But Sean’s vision is for bold planting in scale, form and colour. And this is most evident in the deep herbaceous border along the garden’s northern side where tall grasses and cardoon seedheads jostle alongside blowsy pink dahlias, Salvia Amistad, giant fennel and rudbeckias. A broad-leaved plant I didn’t recognise (resembling a very tall canna lily or a banana) added an exotic accent. It reminded me of the long border at Great Dixter where what at first glance seems informal planting is in fact a carefully woven tapestry of textures and hues. Sean told me the garden is at its best in April and May, and I shall certainly return then, but I loved the late summer colour scheme of pink and gold and was impressed at how well the plants had fared in the recent drought.
Sean reminded me that until 1911, the Royal Horticultural society staged its annual spring show in the garden, before moving to its current venue, the Royal Hospital in Chelsea. The border I have just described was turned over to allotments in WW2 and blitz spoil lies beneath much of the soil of upper part of the garden. A magnificent avenue of London plane trees (Platanus x hispanica) runs parallel with the Victoria Embankment, screening the Inn from traffic and filtering the fumes. In a peaceful spot alongside the avenue stands a large circular lily pond, raised above ground and screened from the surrounding lawn by a recently planted hedge.
Elsewhere pillowy yew topiary forms settle plumply at the corners of a shady lawn. Silvery hued plants such as Mexican fleabane (Erigeron karvinskianus) and a Euphorbia echo the pale stone of an elaborate pillar supporting a sundial.
Tucked to the east of the garden are steps lined with pots containing tender plants including a flamboyant Brugmansia and Cobaea scandens, the cup and saucer vine. A nearby lean-to greenhouse is full of succulents and cacti.
As well as the planes, the garden is home to some other beautiful trees including a Magnolia soulangeana and a dawn redwood (Metasequoia glyptostroboides). And to some wonderful roses: tall China rose shrubs smothered in loose-petalled blooms.
Inner Temple Garden might be located in the heart of an ancient institution but thanks to the head gardener’s vision and flair, it’s a garden for the twenty first century.
The Inner Temple Garden is usually open to the public on weekdays (excluding bank holidays) from 12.30-3pm. Access is via the main gate opposite the Treasury Office on Crown Office Row, London EC4Y 7HL.
Little did I know on 1 September, as I walked with a friend along The Long Walk in Windsor Great Park, that a few weeks later Queen Elizabeth’s funeral cortege would cover the same ground en route to St George’s Chapel in Windsor Castle. Our destination was Frogmore House and garden, open for charity (in this case Guide Dogs) on one of its three or so fundraising occasions of the year.
Extending to 35 acres, the garden at Frogmore is less than a quarter of the size of Kew Gardens, the other estate influenced by the horticultural enthusiasm of Queen Charlotte, consort to George III. Apart from Frogmore House itself, another major landmark in the grounds is the Royal Mausoleum where Queen Victoria and Prince Albert are buried. The site of this Byzantine style edifice was identified by Victoria within days of her husband’s premature death in December 1861. The Royal Mausoleum has been described as one of the finest Victorian buildings in the country. The imposing building stands across the Frogmore Lake from a smaller mausoleum, built to accommodate the mortal remains of Victoria’s mother, the Duchess of Kent.
The Frogmore estate also features several smaller buildings and follies, all of which combine to create a fascinating landscape from both a historical and garden design point of view. An elegant iron bridge, reminiscent of a bridge across the lake in St James’s Park, crosses Frogmore Lake which twines across the centre of the garden, its sinuous outline emulating a river. Looking back from the promontory to which the bridge leads, there’s a fine prospect of the south western facade of the house. A short walk from the bridge and one can see the Duchess of Kent’s Mausoleum and, nestled at the lake’s edge, the ‘Swiss Seat’, a timber hut dating from around 1833 which the guide book describes as ‘faced with split trunks arranged as gothic blind tracery’.
One of my favourite buildings at Frogmore was Queen Victoria’s Tea House. Built of brick and tiles, it consists of two small rooms joined by a loggia. An enormous Wisteria is trained over the colonnade which surrounds the building. Elaborately decorated chimneys dominate the tiled roofs of each half of the building. There were a few small Wisteria blossoms to be seen, presumably the third flush. This has been a plant which has revelled in the summer’s heat this year it seems, judging by this and the specimen in my own garden. Evidence of the drought was apparent elsewhere at Frogmore, where the soil in the borders (mostly shrubberies) was dry and cracked.
Another Wisteria lent a suitably mysterious air to the Gothic Ruin, almost obscuring its beautifully arched windows. An onion dome tops an elegant white marble structure, the Indian Kiosk, presented to Queen Victoria in 1858. There are few flower beds in the Frogmore garden. The glory of the place is the variety of trees from across the world which, with the lake, create a peaceful parkland within the Great Park itself.
In late July a ginger kitten called Seamus, born 7 May, will be taking up residence chez Weeds Roots & Leaves. Knowing that trips away will be limited for a few months while he settles in, I’ve been cramming in some garden visits. Four weeks ago, I made a three-day road-trip to Hampshire and Somerset, taking in four glorious gardens and a horticultural gem of a nursery.
The first day I made two visits in Hampshire arranged by the Garden Media Guild, to Hardy’s Cottage Garden Plants in the morning and then on to the Sir Harold Hillier Gardens. The Guild asked me to write an account of the visit for the next edition of GMG News which I’ve done. I’ll publish my blog post about the visits later in the summer and concentrate in this post on the Somerset leg of my trip when, incidentally, I met Seamus for the second time.
I stayed with a very old friend (by which I mean we’ve known each other a very long time, not that she’s very old!) in the New Forest after the Guild visits. Her garden is a delight and includes a beautiful rose garden which was looking stunning. She has planted the raised bed either side of the steps leading down to the rose garden with David Austin rose Harlow Carr and it’s the perfect scale for such a position. Several weeks earlier, a deer had got into the garden and nibbled dozens of buds off the roses, but there was no sign of this when I was there and the roses had revived, healthier than ever.
The next morning, we drove north west across Cranbourne Chase towards Somerset, our destination Durslade on the outskirts of Bruton. Cranbourne Chase is designated an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty. I cannot better the Chase’s website https://cranbornechase.org.uk/about-us/the-aonb/ which describes it as ‘a diverse landscape offering areas of rolling chalk grassland, ancient woodlands, chalk escarpments, downland hillsides and chalk river valleys each with a distinct and recognisable character’. What struck me in particular was how few villages there are and how remote and unspoilt it is.
In Durslade, we met another old friend at Hauser & Wirth Somerset, the impressive arts centre which is, remarkably, free. The current exhibition ‘Henry Moore Sharing Form’ is housed in the converted farm buildings with some pieces displayed outside.
I’ve been wanting to visit the centre for a number of years, attracted by Oudolf Field, the perennial meadow designed by Dutch landscape designer Piet Oudolf. The date was 2 June and the prairie effect less obvious than I imagine it to be further into summer when the members of the daisy family with warm colours and distinctive seedheads will dominate the planting. For now, the overall impression is of cooler blues and mauves, with Siberian irises, alliums and foxtail lilies adding height and grasses movement.
The site rises gently towards the squat white Cilic Pavilion with grassy paths winding around the metal-edged island beds. There is a broad central gravelled path interrupted by low grassy mounds which have been closely mowed and resemble smooth green pebbles.
The pale blue flowers of what I’ve since learnt is called bluestar (Amsonia– see more below) matched the blue of the sky and toned with the slate roofs of the gallery buildings. I noticed that the starry flowers were an attraction for bumblebees. Its needle-like leaves will, I have been reading, turn yellow in autumn. Like so many of the plants here, it has been chosen to extend the period of interest in the garden beyond spring and summer. I want to see this fascinating place in the winter when I anticipate that Oudolf’s signature seedheads and grasses will dominate the site.
Another unusual plant that caught my eye on the margins of the wildlife pond was the flowering rush, Butomus umbellatus. The planting combinations throughout are so clever: for example here are the flat umbels of a pale pink Achillea alongside the leaves of the chunky but also horizontally inclined Darmara peltata.
I have read that the garden resembles a giant artist’s palette, an appropriate description for a garden in such a location.
In a location to the edge of the ‘field’, stands a piece of land art by Richard Long, Stone Circle 1980, made from Swedish Granite. Our lunch at Hauser & Wirth was delicious, sitting in the large courtyard café and enjoying being together in the sunshine.
Oudolf Field was created in 2014. Our next stop, The Newt, is even younger. The garden in its present form opened to the public in 2019. I say present form, because there has been a garden here since the C18, namely the grounds of Hadspen House, now a luxury hotel. An English landscape garden with a parabola shaped walled garden, was transformed in the 1960s and 1970s into a C20 arts and crafts garden by designer Penelope Hobhouse, whose family owned the house. The estate was bought in 2013 by South Africans Karen Roos and her billionaire husband Koos Bekker who have created a visitor attraction in the mould of the garden attached to their South African winery, Babylonstoren.
This was my second visit and like my first, merely scratched the surface of the place. On both occasions, I have had limited time to explore and shall do so on another occasion. But what I have seen each time has made a huge impression on me. The sloping parabola planted with apple varieties from all the apple growing counties in the country, intersected by rills and pools, was a magnet for my great nephews when we were there on a hot July day after the first lockdown two years ago. Fantastical birds feature in topiary fashioned atop hedging alongside the brick wall surrounding the parabola. Beyond the huge kitchen garden, are the Colour Gardens, a series of rooms each dedicated to red, blue and white. An interpretation panel explained that the gardens pay tribute to Sandra and Nori Pope who created colour gardens when they leased the gardens in the 1990s. The gardens are separated by wattle screens, into which oval ‘windows’ have been fitted, offering tantalising glimpses into the garden next door.
I was excited to see that Amsonia featured in the Blue Garden, and thanks to another panel, that it was the same species as that I’d seen that morning at Oudolf Field, Amsonia tabernaemontana. Retreating to the shade of the Cottage Garden for ice-cream, we didn’t explore any further and I’m saving that treat for another occasion. I was anxious by then to drive the dozen or so miles to my niece’s house where I was taking over cat-sitting duties for a day or so. I had in fact met Seamus the previous week when he was only three weeks old and I was struck by how much the four kittens had grown in a week. Their eyes now open, they were beginning to explore a little beyond the warm security of mum, though not venturing far and still a little unsteady on their legs.
The next morning, having made sure all was well with the cats and kittens, I headed to a delightful National Trust property, Lytes Cary Manor, a short drive away. With origins as a mediaeval manor house, the house was extended in the C16 and restored in the early C20 by Sir Walter and Lady Flora Jenner. I enjoyed the tour of the house very much. Its scale is modest in comparison to many historic houses, and does still retain the air of a home, thanks to its being fully furnished and lovingly tended by the Trust. A late C16 occupant of the house, Henry Lyte I (c.1529-1607) was a botany scholar and translated a Flemish herbal illustrated with 870 woodcuts of plants. The book is on display in a glass case, protected from light by a leather covering when not being scrutinised by visitors. It was open at a page featuring thyme and pennywort. In a mirror frame dating from the C17, the stumpwork embroidery had been added to by Sir Walter’s sister in law with a panel depicting the house and part of the garden.
The present garden layout dates from 1907 when the Jenners began to create a garden in the Arts and Crafts style so fashionable in Edwardian times. Three sides of the house are surrounded by a series of ‘garden rooms’ divided by yew hedges and stone walls. The main entrance to the house is on the east front, reached by a stone path flanked by 12 yew bushes, each topiarised into an immaculately clipped half sphere topped by a cone. This is the Apostle Garden. I hope the photos capture a flavour of the gardens with their formal topiary, stone walls and gateways and exquisite planting.
My last blog post about the gardens at Hever Castle was in July 2019. I had the good fortune to return to Hever last Monday with a great group from the Garden Media Guild. Head gardener Neil Miller lead a tour of the garden. Our visit coincided with peak season for the 40,000 tulips planted at Hever. Neil demonstrated throughout the tour that in a garden nothing stands still, it’s an ever changing space. Plants outgrow their site, new areas are cleared and planted, Yew topiary is cut back to the bone and re-shaped.
Despite being a listed garden there is scope for experimentation and innovative practices at Hever. With a third of a million visitors a year compaction is a problem in the Yew Maze so the opportunity was taken when the garden closed during the first lockdown in spring 2020 to revitalise the yews. Terrain Aeration was engaged to pump air and dried seaweed one metre below the compacted soil. Elsewhere in the garden digestate (the odourless by-product of anaerobic digestion of e.g. sewage sludge) is used to enrich the soil around established plants. In an area known as the Acer Dell a swathe of red and white tulips (a tribute to the Tudor Rose) was created last year using a bulb planting machine operated by Dutch firm Lubbe & Sons. The tines of the machine act as ‘dibbers’ to create the planting holes, the machine drops the bulbs into place and then backfills the holes.
No garden is immune from the ravages of the weather and Neil showed us a 120 year old poplar tree near the drawbridge across the moat which was blown down by Storm Eunice in February this year. Its rootball was winched back into position and it is hoped it will regenerate. Beside the Italian Garden it was sad to see that the severe frost about four weeks ago had taken out most of the flower buds of the Wisteria trained over the pergola*.
Neil explained that the herbaceous border alongside Two Sisters’ Lawn, named for Ann and Mary Boleyn who were raised at Hever, is planted in the style of Edwardian garden designer Gertrude Jekyll. In the summer, cool shades of white and silver will progress through the colour spectrum to warm reds and golds. The opposite border is punctuated with dainty standard forms of the earliest flowering rose, Rosa xanthina Canary Bird.
Beyond the Festival Theatre, a curving raised bed (the dahlia border) is graced with 3,500 tulips all of which are planted into crates as is done in the Keukenhof gardens in the Netherlands. Not only does this make it easier to remove the bulbs in time for planting dahlias in June, it avoids a rogue cultivar finding its way into the scheme. The theme changes each year, this year’s being cream (Tulipa Avant Garde), red (Tulipa Red Wing) and purple (Tulipa Purple Flag). The tulips from this area and those in the Italian Garden are lifted later in May and planted in less formal areas of the garden.
Neil introduced us to the six acre Italian Garden by telling us that it was designed to house the huge collection of ancient and renaissance statuary collected by William Waldorf Astor while US ambassador to Rome. Individual garden ‘rooms’ occupy the niches along the south facing border inspired by the ruins of Pompeii. These have been planted with tulips and complementary spring flowers. I was struck by the unusual Evergreen tulips underplanted with wallflowers, the fringed purple tulips interspersed with blue pansies.
The south-facing border is also a perfect site for exotic shrubs like pomegranates, pistachio (mastic) and olives, the latter wall-trained so immaculately it resembles a trompe l’oeil painting. A fig and a loquat have been trained in a similar fashion against the wall opposite the Pavilion Cafe.
The long border on the other side of the Italian Garden, at the foot of the colonnade, is ablaze with the scarlet, orange and yellow of Olympic Flame and Apeldoorn Elite tulips.
Venerable camellias occupy the shady side of the colonnade. They are pruned back after flowering to keep them from growing too far across the pathway and pressure washing is used to treat those specimens affected by sooty mould. In the rose garden no insecticides are used, any aphids on the 4,000 roses are soon consumed by visiting blackbirds and invertebrates like ladybirds and hoverflies. Because the roses are planted very close together in a walled garden, airflow is impeded and blackspot can be a problem from July onwards, causing defoliation. To prevent this, the roses are sprayed fortnightly from the end of April until late September. A foliar feed is also added to the spray to encourage healthy growth. Deadheading is carried out throughout the flowering season. Neil’s pruning regime is to reduce the roses by one third in November to prevent windrock and in March to cut stems to three or five buds (hybrid tea roses) and five or seven buds (floribunda roses).
After a very sociable lunch we were taken to a newly planted woodland area of the garden: Church Gill where, seven years ago, long-forgotten stone steps and a pathway were uncovered when laurels and bracken was being removed from the top of the stream-side Sunday Walk, along which the Astor family would have made their way to the Hever parish church. Over the last three years the area has been revitalised with a scheme of shade-loving woodland and alpine plants designed by Graham Gunn and Monica Wylie of Kevock Garden Plants in Edinburgh. The steep sides of the valley through which the stream flows must have made planting very challenging.
The natural atmosphere of this part of the garden is a complete contrast to the colour and formality of the Italian Garden but it’s a beautifully realised example of how Neil Miller and his team of 10 gardeners develop new projects as well as maintaining the highest standards of horticulture throughout the gardens at Hever.
Kew, 1 May 2022
*In my own garden about 50% of the buds were checked by that frost but happily the rest have flowered successfully and it is currently looking and smelling divine.
Some more photographs of the gardens at Hever follow:
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.
What links a grand house on the Strand, a textile town in Essex and a mansion in south east London? Answer: the Courtauld family. The weaving dynasty has left its mark on Somerset House, Halstead and Eltham Palace.
In the 1820s Samuel Courtauld established Townsford Mill on the river Colne in Halstead, in north Essex, for the manufacture of silk crepe. Throughout the C19 and much of the C20, further textile factories were built in the town, but with manufacturing costs soaring, production moved abroad and those buildings have been re-purposed to accommodate, for example, the Co-op supermarket. When a friend and I visited Beth Chatto’s Garden and Hyde Hall last October, we stayed at a pub in Halstead. The names displayed on the front of the 1920s houses opposite the pub piqued our interest: Sense and Sensibility, Pride and Prejudice, Mansfield Park. Spotting a pattern, we soon found Northanger Abbey, Persuasion and Emma. Each house also bore the initials, SAC. A spot of googling revealed that these were built by Samuel Augustine Courtauld as homes for his workforce. Apparently, elsewhere in the town there are houses bearing the names of novels by Fanny Burney. I can find nothing to explain why the Arts and Crafts style houses were named after novels in this way. Unlike the Cadburys who built an entire community (Bournville) to accommodate their workers, the Courtaulds seem to have preferred building such homes throughout the town.
The Courtauld name reminded me of a of visit three years ago to Eltham Palace, the unique property now run by English Heritage. In 1933 Stephen Courtauld (1883 – 1967), younger brother of SAC, took out a 99 year lease of the site of the childhood home of Henry VIII. All that remained of the palace was the huge Great Hall built by Edward IV. Stephen and his wife Virginia built a luxurious home in the then fashionable Art Deco style, incorporating the hall into the design. The palace is surrounded by a moat which is an integral part of the garden. The moat is partly dry but this aerial view illustrates the extent of the water-filled section of the moat.
Much of this garden on two levels was laid out by Stephen and Virginia in the 1930s, and more recently English Heritage has developed it further. For example in 2000 they commissioned garden designer Isabelle van Groeningen to re-design the planting in the monumental herbaceous borders. When I was there in late August, these deep borders between brick buttresses were billowing with drifts of golden Achillea, bronze grasses, succulent Sedum (now Telephium) with their burgundy stems and leaves and pink flowers. Elsewhere a mass planting of creamy petalled roses made an impact. Irish yews fashioned into columns stood sentinel at each corner of a rectangular pond in the centre of the rose garden. A charming carving on the wall of the palace depicts Virginia ‘Ginny’ Courtauld in her wide-brimmed gardening hat, surrounded with a garland of flowers and leaves, a basket of fruit, the handle of a border fork and a long-spouted watering can completing the picture.
The Courtauld Gallery
When I began work in a small law practice in the City of London in 1980, there was a weekly run to the Stamp Office at Somerset House on the Strand, where, upon payment of the duty (with a banker’s draft: remember them?) the relevant deed was stamped using an archaic looking machine where the clerk operated a lever to press down on the document to emboss the stamp. I loved this weekly ritual which was a great opportunity to get out of the office for an hour or so and exchange the traffic on the Strand for the C18 elegance of Somerset House*. Now that stamp duty is paid electronically the practice of stamping a document with evidence of payment is no longer necessary. The Revenue (now HM Revenue & Customs) moved out of Somerset House in 2013. Gone are the black and gold stamp machines, to be replaced by a number of organisations associated with the arts including the Courtauld Gallery. This houses the world-famous art collection of Samuel Courtauld (1876 – 1947). The collection has recently been re-hung and I went to see it a week ago, my last visit having been about ten years ago. I concentrated on the top floor of the gallery where the Impressionist and Post-Impressionists are located.
Many of these paintings feel like old friends, the images are so familiar from reproductions. I’d forgotten how many of the paintings depict gardens and plants.
If the artworks are impressive, so is the room in which most of them are displayed. The Great Room as it is called hosted the annual Summer Exhibition of the Royal Academy from 1780 to 1837.
It’s quite an arc isn’t it, from a silk mill on a riverbank in Essex, via a medieval palace meets Art Deco mansion to a priceless art collection in one of the grandest buildings in London? I’ve enjoyed my visits to all three of these places associated with the formidable Courtaulds.
*There’s a connection here with Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew: the principal architect of Somerset House, from 1775, was Sir William Chambers, designer of the Pagoda in the southern section of the Gardens.