Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh

Orchid hunting, part 1: Denge Wood and Bonsai Bank

Southeast England, and in particular Kent, is known to have strong orchid populations including some species that are rare in Britain. And so it was in the spirit of great plant hunters’ past that my husband and I set out for a day of orchid hunting on May 18. Unlike the collectors who walked before us, our aim was to only botanize and take a few photos, not entire plants. The practice of plant collection can, and historically has, massively damaged native plant populations and their ability to reproduce and survive. As conservation-minded and responsible horticulturists uprooting or picking plants would be the last thing we would do. It is enough to just see these beautiful plants growing wild.

Our first stop was Denge Wood, an ancient semi-natural woodland on the North Downs. We began our walk through a stunning beech forest that was doing just what makes me love beech woodlands so much, creating a dynamic interplay of light and shadow on fresh, new spring leaves. Nothing else approaches the feeling of being in a living cathedral like a beech woodland. The bluebells were just going over but I could tell they had been a stunning carpet below the green canopy.

As we continued walking the forest opened up to include other tree species, including conifers and birch, and more grassland. It was then that we found what we were after: our first Lady Orchid, Orchis purpurea, growing tucked up right next to a yew. It was huge, with a raceme that was about eight inches long. You can see how the orchid gets its name—look for the lady in her dark bonnet and fluffy skirts.

As we continued along the track we met an older man walking the unlikely combination of an Afghan hound and a miniature poodle. We stopped to chat and as he’d visited the site for years he filled us in on all the orchids in the area and what we could expect to see. Once he learned we were botanists he fed us all sorts of intel about orchiding in Kent. Then he motioned us toward Bonsai Bank, where our horticultural lives changed forever.

The open forest/scrubland was full of Lady Orchids as far as the eye could see. In addition to Lady Orchids we saw many Common Twayblades, Neottia ovata, which are easily overlooked because they are the exact color of the surrounding grass. Once you “get your eye in,” they are easy to spot by their relatively large and rounded leaves.

While I was photographing the orchids I heard a rustling nearby and just caught this grass snake navigating under a thick layer of moss. In the almost five years I have lived in Britain I have seen only two snakes, both tiny and inconspicuous, as well as one slow worm (a legless lizard). Coming from a land where snakes are usually much larger, sometimes venomous, and have a penchant for living around human dwellings I admit the relatively smaller size and harmlessness of British snakes is one of the things I love about living here.

We continued on walking amongst the orchids, enjoying a display that had us both in awe. I really enjoyed seeing the variation in the Lady Orchids. Some were almost white and others deep purple. They were so thick it was hard to photograph them for fear of treading on others, or the later-flowering species yet to come.

There were a few other orchid enthusiasts on the bank, mostly men with great big camera gear, but it was quiet enough that we could easily be alone with the orchids. A very common plant in this area is a native British dogwood, Cornus sanguinea, growing at the base of the Lady Orchid below.

The man we met on the path had told us that a White Helleborine, Cephalanthera damasonium, had been spotted in this general area but was hard to find. And wouldn’t you know it, I found two while wandering alone down a path. They were growing right next to a Lady Orchid and a Common Twayblade, with other, later orchid species waiting to flower. Three orchid species in one photo is a pretty great find. Can you spot the White Helleborine and Common Twayblade, below?

We brought along a text we spent a lot of time with while studying botany at the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh: The Wild Flower Key by Francis Rose. It takes a bit of practice to learn to use a floral key, as well as a good understanding of plant anatomy in order to differentiate your sepals from your stipules. But with time it is an excellent way to correctly identify specimens. Here we’re working on IDing this yet-unflowered orchid.

We had a few more stops planned on our great orchid-hunting day, so with reluctance we left Bonsai Bank and hiked back out through the magical beech woodland.

In Part 2, we continue our day of orchid hunting in Kent with some new discoveries and a woodland so beautiful it put everything at Chelsea to shame.

Dec. 19: Floral advent calendar: Fagus sylvatica var. heterophylla 'Aspleniifolia'

I love trees, but they don’t usually lend themselves to casual iPhone capture like smaller plants and flowers. Thought it’s not a flower, I’ll make an exception for tonight’s advent post: Fagus sylvatica var. hetrerophylla ‘Aspleniifolia,’ or the fern-leaved beech. This particular specimen grows at Bath Botanical Gardens, and was photographed on a visit there this August.

I was wandering the gardens when I saw the small tree, above, and was instantly intrigued by its beautiful foliage and distinctive glow. I thought it was a perfect small tree until I walked a few steps further and saw:

What I had mistaken for a sapling was actually just a layered branch of this much-larger, majestic beech.

My husband reminded me tonight that our encounter in Bath wasn’t my first exposure to this tree. There is actually one growing at the Edinburgh Botanics, and on one of our school walk-arounds our beloved professor Phil Lusby stood under it and remarked that it was beautiful. “It’s as if it produces its own light,” he said. My iPhone photos may not be the best at conveying this characteristic, but what he said is true. It is a remarkable tree.

2017: Where to even begin?

I've been trying to think of a word that sums up 2017. The first few that spring to mind are uncertainty, change, exhaustion, and adaptation. A few on a slightly more positive note would be wonder, gratitude, and love. In short, there is no one word to encompass the monumental life achievements and transitions of the past year, along with their highs and lows. I am happy to have made it through relatively intact...and looking forward to 2018. 

Last year's review post featured lots of exotic foreign travel and and world-class gardens. In 2017 I was too busy to leave the British Isles. I finished my horticulture degree, learned to drive a manual car on the left side of the road and passed my U.K. driving test. I got married, obtained my next U.K. visa, moved to south-east England, bought a car, re-adapted to life in the country, and found and began my first professional horticultural job. 

Mixed in with all the life groundwork above were some truly beautiful moments, the finest of which was without a doubt my wedding. There were other highlights including a class outing to the Victorian fernery on the isle of Bute, a trip to Broadwoodside garden in June, a visit from my parents in July, and my first trip to RHS Wisley, which helped assuage the pain of missing Edinburgh's Botanics. A much-needed trip to London this past week topped up my depleted reserves of art, culture, and delicious food. Even simpler pleasures were time spent walking along the Water of Leith in Edinburgh, spotting kingfishers and otters. I walked miles a day in that beautiful city, taking in all I could before I knew I'd have to leave. 

Now that I am starting to stabilize into the next phase of my life, I plan on spending 2018 exploring as much of southern England as I can and visiting the many famous gardens planted in this warmer and sunnier part of Britain. I'm looking forward to wearing shorts and sandals for the first time in this country, fingers crossed. I hope to take advantage of living almost within sight of France and generous vacation time to do more trips to the Continent. Along with my husband, I am excited to plan, plant, and tend our first garden--the seeds of which were my favorite Christmas present. Most important, I'd like to gather my strength to plan the next step in my brand-new horticultural career, in which I want to combine my technical gardening skills with my writing and photography to teach people about plants. 

Wherever you are, thanks for reading along, and have a wonderful new year. 

RHS Wisley: A Tom Stuart-Smith garden and thoughts on innovation

I've been a Royal Horticultural Society (RHS) member since moving to Britain, and I treasure their monthly magazine, The Garden, as an exemplar of horticultural journalism. However, I'd yet to visit one of their four major gardens (soon to be five when RHS Bridgewater opens in 2019). But today I was on an errand in Hampshire and realized I was very close to the RHS flagship garden, Wisley. Of course I stopped in, flashing my membership card and gaining free entry for myself and my companion. 

On this clear and cold Sunday in November it seemed that every London family had chosen Wisley to exercise their children. The garden had the feel of a theme park totally overrun with strollers and overly-cautious city parents. "We don't touch red berries," warned one hipster dad to his daughter, probably setting her up for a lifetime of soft-fruit aversion. 

The garden surrounding the large glasshouse complex was less populated than other areas of the property, and it was pure joy to wander amongst the plants under a clear blue sky. This area was designed by Tom Stuart-Smith, one of Britain's most well-regarded garden designers. I've always wanted to see this garden, and as I am now working in a Tom Stuart-Smith-designed garden I'm particularly keen to experience more of his work. I enjoyed pointing out plants at Wisley that I tend every day and noticing stylistic similarities between the two properties. 

I am also particularly interested in the management of gardens in the style of Tom Stuart-Smith, which are designed for four-season interest. Traditional herbaceous perennial management has dictated that all plants are cut to the ground in autumn, leaving bare earth over winter. The newer thinking--led by the New Perennial et al. movement--advocates growing herbaceous perennials that "live well and die well," in the words of Piet Oudolf, the Dutch master who popularized the style. This means growing plants that look good even as they turn brown and crispy, and that are able to stand up through winter providing not only visual interest but also food and shelter for animals, birds, and insects. 

In my nascent professional horticulture career I've come across more than one gardener who still believes all herbaceous material must be cut down, removed, and the garden "put to bed" for winter under a thick layer of compost. I've no truck with the compost layer--more compost is usually always a good thing--but I do believe that gardens designed in the style Tom Stuart-Smith uses should be left standing as long as possible into winter. On the flip side, though, I do understand that time, staffing, weather, and seasonal changes dictate what happens when in large gardens. Sometimes there are simply too many other jobs in an already packed calendar to delay the autumn chop. What's most interesting to me is the intersection between what designers are creating and what boots-on-the-ground gardeners believe is the best way to manage these same gardens, even if they aren't actually able to put their knowledge into practice. I notice a disconnect here, as I do in many areas of horticulture. The "newer" ideas about garden design and management--including new best practices backed up by scientific research--so very rarely make it into everyday gardening at many established properties. 

For example, this summer I interviewed for a gardener job at a historic garden run by the largest gardening charity in England. On my walkaround I noticed American skunk cabbage, Lysichiton americanus, growing along a stream that ran through the property. Lystichon americanus is a bog-dwelling North American native that was introduced to Britain in 1901 as an ornamental. Like so many ornamental plant introductions, Lystichon really liked its new territory--so much so that it's run wild, outcompeting native British plants in boggy and marshy areas. Lystichon is now considered an "invasive non-native species" subject to EU regulation, according to the RHS, which does not recommend that the plant be grown in Britain. At Dawyck Botanic Garden, part of the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh portfolio, all the Lystichon was dug up and removed from the garden once gardeners realized that even with frequent deadheading to remove seeds before they could spread through the watercourse, the plant was still making its way downstream:

"American skunk-cabbage (Lysichiton americanus) has also been removed following its recognition nationally as an invasive non-native species of significant concern. The plants at Dawyck were popular for their spring flowers and grew well for many years...Dawyck has taken the lead on the removal of this plant and will look forward to replanting new species in the areas once occupied by the skunk cabbage." --RBGE

And yet the gardener who was interviewing me for this job openly scoffed at the idea that Lystichon could ever be a problem.  

All this to say, I wonder how best to disseminate new ideas about gardening out to professional gardeners, particularly when many still have "old-school" attitudes rooted in Britain's Victorian horticultural glory days. I wonder how much change will really happen, outside of botanical and research gardens such as the RHS, until that old guard returns to the nitrogen cycle. 

Anyway, I would love to know the management strategy used at Wisley to care for such a large area (two hectares) of herbaceous perennials. I know similar gardens use hedge cutters or even mowers to take everything off in one fell swoop in late winter--eliminating much tedious and hand-numbing secateur work. If anyone is reading from Wisley or Tom Stuart-Smith's team is reading, please let me know what you do so I can make better management decisions going forward. 

The beauty of antique plant catalogues

I just finished a late-Victorian garden design for a class. Part of my research included reading primary sources, such as William Robinson's The English Flower Garden, and digging up antique nursery catalogues to determine which plants and their varieties were available and popular in the late 1800s. 

In the RBGE library, one of my happy places on Earth, I found a catalog from the Veitch nursery. According to the Vietch Family History site, in 1771 a 19-year old Scot named John Veitch traveled to England and by 1808 had begun a nursery. John's son, James, and his son grew the nursery and purchased its Chelsea location in 1853. The dynasty carried on through the height of the Victorian plant collecting craze, with the nursery sending 23 collectors around the globe. These plant hunters returned with many of the specimens you'd recognize in a British garden today. One such treasure is the beautiful Davidia involucrata, located in China by Ernest Wilson. Despite being shipwrecked on the way home to England, Wilson managed to save the Davidia seeds. The Veitches were eventually responsible for introducing 1281 plants which were either previously unknown or newly bred varieties. Horticulture would not be the same without this impressive family. 

What impresses me just as much as their story is the beauty of their nursery catalogues, which are illustrated with detailed engravings and, in the late 1800s, very few colour images. In today's era of almost-instant digital photography and computer-aided layouts, the idea of engraving a catalogue is mind-boggling.

I am particularly drawn to these images of gardening tools, which are so beautifully composed that I'd happily hang them on my wall as art. 

I also enjoy this ad for the brand-new 'Frogmore Selected' tomato, though as I am used to growing 7-foot tall tomatoes outdoors with barely any attention at all, their meticulous indoor cultivation in Britain still strikes me as odd. The testimonials below the images are from the leading horticultural publications of the day, including Joseph Paxton and friend's 'Gardeners' Chronicle' and William Robinson's 'The Garden,' two magazines I've spent countless hours investigating during my studies at RBGE. 

This ad reminds me of one of my favorite watercolours by Eric Ravilious, 'The Greenhouse: Cyclamen and Tomatoes' (1935), which is now in the care of the Tate gallery. Clearly Ravilious too was moved by the beauty of full-to-bursting glasshouse.

Portrait of a pear

One of my favorite trees at the Botanics is in bloom. I've been visiting recently trying to take its portrait, but the grey weather hasn't been cooperating. Then last weekend the clouds broke for a few minutes and I got the sun for which I hoped. 

This is Pyrus korshinskyi, the Kazhak pear. It is native to Kyrghystan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan, but it seems quite at home in Edinburgh. Unfortunately this tree is critically endangered in its native habitat because of overgrazing damage by livestock and harvesting. 

This particular tree at the Botanics is listed on the Tree Register of the British Isles as the largest Kazhak pear in cultivation. 

I especially love the upright habit of its gnarled, lichen-covered branches and they way it seems to lift its blossoms skyward. It is truly spectacular and a rare tree that some day I hope to raise in my own garden. 

Spring comes to the Botanics

In a break between classes yesterday I took a walk around the Botanics. My goal was to see if one of my favorite spring flowers, Pulsatilla vulgaris, was yet blooming. However, along the way to the rock garden I found so many beautiful plants that I had to share. 

First up is the amazing Corylopis sinensis var. calvescens, a late-winter yellow-flowering shrub that in my book beats Fosythia any day. This Chinese native, as you could probably have guessed from the name, is sweetly scented and its profusion of pendant racemes make quite a vision. It's a good-sized shrub, but if you're lacking in garden space the smaller-statured Corylopis pauciflora is just as pretty on a miniature scale. 

As I entered the rock garden I was thrilled to see that one of my favorite spring bulbs, Narcissus cyclamineus, was out in full force. It's severely reflexed perianth is the key to its species name, as it resembles the reflexed petals of Cyclamen. There was one super-large mutant in this clump, and though I am sure it would sell well if brought into cultivation (if it hasn't been already), I found that at such a size the flower lacked the charm of the smaller version. 

Narcissus cyclamienus will spread by self seeding, as it has done at the Botanics. What I love most about it is the graphic effect it gives to the landscape with its bright hatchmarks of gold looking as though they've been stroked onto the landscape with a fine brush. 

This little Erythronium dens-canis is complex and best observed up close. Plant it in a trough or somewhere closer to eye level to best appreciate its details. 

This strangely lurid purple plant is the romantically named Lathraea clandestina. It's actually a parasitic plant, living off the roots of mostly poplar and willow but sometimes other species. It has no chlophyll and instead survives by attaching haustoria (suckers) on its roots to the roots of its host tree, gaining its nutrition through the host plant. 

Finally I found what I was looking for, my friend the stunning Pulsatilla vulgaris. Its common name, the Pasque flower, refers to is tendency to bloom at Easter. This British native, which grows on calcareous (chalky lime) soil, is now endangered in the wild. Just last night in the bath I was reading Vita Sackville-West's Let Us Now Praise Famous Gardens, a selection of weekly columns she wrote for the Observer newspaper. Of Pulsatilla vulgaris she wrote, "This is a native of our Downs, getting rare in its wild state but still cultivated in gardens. It is a soft and lovely thing, pale lilac in colour with a silvery floss-silk surround." It is interesting to me that even in 1950 the plant was recognized as rare. I have been lucky enough to see it in its native habitat, which I will no doubt write about someday. 

Some of the plants were not yet blooming in the rock garden, but I found this little unlabeled clump on the south side of a large rock, where it was most likely a bit ahead of its relatives by virtue of a slightly warmer microclimate.

I was hoping for some sun, as the fine hairs on the plant make for some stunning photos. But it was just about to bucket down rain, despite starting my short walk under sunny skies.

Regardless, I was pleased that the lit-from-within effect was still present without sun, as seen on this clump of Pulsatilla halleri subsp. rhodopaea (though it's labeled with its synonym, Anemone rhodopaea). I find Pulsatilla absolutely magical, and will return in a few days--hopefully when the sun is out--to photograph them as their blooms continue to open and the spring garden returns to life. 

Snowdrops and stories: A winter visit to Dawyck Botanic Garden

Yesterday dawned reasonably mild and almost sunny, so the decision was made to drive down to Dawyck Botanic Garden, a Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh property in the Scottish Borders known for its snowdrop display. The clouds had once again closed thickly overhead by the time we arrived, and it was spitting rain, but we had a warm welcome from the reception staff and were encouraged to join one of the volunteer-led tours as something of a insider quality assurance scheme. 

The tour guide went over much of what was covered during a class trip last year, but for someone with no experience of the garden it would definitely be educational. So often it's easy to look at gardens superficially as just a collection of plants and trees in an aesthetically appealing arrangement. However, gardens are always full of stories, whether they are as globally influenced and influencing as a botanic garden or the personal histories of a private home patch. Because plants can't speak, and designed interpretation can only explain so much, garden tours are the only way to learn these stories that bring gardens even more to life. 

From the Dawyck tour guide I learned of the rumors that C. Linnaeus, father of the binomial naming system used today, may have planted the European larch (Larix decidua) near the Dynamo Pond. The story is contested, as Linnaeus is thought to have not traveled further north than Oxford. However, examination of mycorrhizal fungi from the roots of the tree found it to be unique within Britain and originating in Linnaeus' home country of Sweden. That's a botanical mystery--just one of thousands that make horticulture so endlessly fascinating. 

The American skunk-cabbage (Lysichiton americanus) has been removed from the banks of the creek winding through the garden. Last year we learned that the garden staff were carefully monitoring this planting, which was dispersing its seed into the watercourse and becoming invasive downstream. In the ensuing year this plant's status as an invasive non-native of serious concern meant it had to go. Our tour guide expressed remorse at losing part of the collection, but I applaud Dawyck for modeling environmentally responsible behavior, which I believe is one of the major obligations of botanic gardens today. Throughout history, plant collectors and horticulturists have sometimes done more damage than good, and with our increased knowledge and sensitivity to the effects of our actions on the living world, now is the time to reverse that trend and begin protecting our environments through more considered husbandry.

I also learned a few new words, including "indumentum," a kind of catch-all term to describe plant surface coverings of any kind, such as hairs or scales. This bit of botanical vocabulary was passed on whilst examining a fuzzy Rhododendron leaf. In addition to its snowdrops, Dawyck is known for its collection of Rhododendron species, the earliest of which were just on the brink of bloom. 

But back to the snowdrops (Galanthus nivalus), the real reason for the trip. This was my first visit to a "snowdrop wood," and it did not disappoint. Snowdrops grew throughout the entire garden, but were mostly concentrated along the burn, where they grew so thickly as to actually look, at a distance, like a blanket of snow. 

Snowdrops are sweet and pretty, and if I ever garden a woodland I'll definitely turn a bunch loose to spread at will. I understand their importance as one of the first flowers of the year, bringing hope for the spring just to come. But I'll never be a galanthophile, which is just as well given the seemingly ridiculous prices paid by some collectors for specimens, such as the rare yellow-bloomed varieties. At right, Galanthus nivalis 'Sandersii' Lowick blooming last week in the alpine backup area of RBGE. 

Paying up to $2,500 a bulb for a tiny plant that pushes out a chlorotic-looking bloom just seems silly to me, but people get very passionate about their snowdrops, fueling what could be the tulip bubble of the 21st century. 

The mass effect of a snowdrop wood is impressive, and I imagine it would be even more so with a little bit of sun. But until I garden on such a scale I'll enjoy my snowdrops close-up, in simple clay pots, where I can appreciate their perfectly delicate form. And I'll get my Galanthus fix from places like Dawyck, where snowdrops and stories abound. 

2016: A good year

2016 was, world events aside, a very good year. My biggest achievement was surviving my second year of the horticulture with plantsmanship course at the Botanics, and gaining my HND as well as my Diploma in Plantsmanship, with distinction. I memorized innumerable Latin plant names, drew dozens of floral diagrams, wrote a very long paper on the history of horticultural journalism, and completed myriad other assignments that flew fast and heavy.

I also traveled a lot in 2016, with international adventures to new countries as well as two trips back to the U.S. I happily got to see much more of Britain, including famous gardens the length of the country: Levens Hall, Chatsworth, Sissinghurst, Great Dixter, Newby Hall, Drummond Castle, Cambo, Shepherd House, Scampston Hall, Glasgow and St. Andrews Botanical Gardens, and more. And of course I fell deeper in love with Scotland, checking off the Isle of Skye from my life-long must-visit list.

It's been a great year, and I'm looking forward to many big adventures in 2017. Happy New Year!

Winter at the Botanics

After that second cup of tea I put on my wool long underwear and shearling hat and walked through the chilly streets of Edinburgh and down the Leith River to the Botanics. Because of its lower elevation and closer proximity to the sea, there wasn't as much frost in the garden as at home. Nevertheless, I walked around looking for photos, my only company the wood pigeons and a handful of visitors who had braved the cold.

It was nice to spend time in the garden in a visually creative way. I am there every week--sometimes multiple days per week--but for more than two years the focus of that time has been horticultural and taxonomic training, not art. Photographing in the frosty garden yesterday reminded me of one of the main reasons I want to work with plants--they are just so beautiful

Even on a day when weather conditions and the half-light of Scottish winter kept most people inside, fallen leaves and frozen foliage held my attention for several hours. I walked home in the four o'clock dark as snow squalls advanced from the east, grateful I'd seen the garden this day.

I keep thinking about an amazing BBC documentary I watched last week, called Forest, Field & Sky: Art Out of Nature, about artists who use nature as their medium. It featured David Nash, Charles Jencks, Julie Brook, my favorite Andy Goldsworthy, among others, and lots of artworks created in Scotland. It was one of the best and most inspiring films I've seen, so check it out if you can (it's also on YouTube though the quality doesn't do justice to the art). I revisited one of the Goldsworthy pieces at the Botanics yesterday, enjoying the surrounding warm-colored leafy gradient combined with the cool slate, and how the fallen leaves added an extra element--a stripe of orange--of which Goldsworthy would no doubt approve. 

Slate, Hole, Wall by Andy Goldsworthy (1990)

Jade vine: A color unlike any other in the plant world

The jade vine (Strongylodon macrobotrys) is blooming at the Botanics, and it's a must-see. This member of the Fabaceae family---closely related to your bog-standard garden runner bean---has turquoise flowers in a color unique in the plant world. These images aren't Photoshopped. The jade vine blooms are actually the color of a Caribbean sea, and, upon closer inspection, reveal dusky purples edging toward pink and navy blues.

Jade vine is native to the Phillipines, and must be kept above 59 degrees Fahrenheit to grow. Despite living in Scotland, albeit in a warm glasshouse, the vine at the Botanics is in fine form this year with more than 70 inflorescences reported by its caretaker. She told me she gave it a hard prune last year and was afraid it wouldn't bloom at all. Instead it's done the opposite. It's one of those plants that doesn't look real, and that's the most wonderful thing about it.



Brand-new Iris reticulata in the Alpine House

Tuesday morning began with an in-depth tour of the Alpine department at the Botanics for our Managing Plant Collections course. The Alpine yard, which is off-limits to the public, is the closest you'll find to a secret garden at RBGE. One ducks through a small wooden door in a Clematis-draped wall and crosses the stone threshold to another world full of tiny treasures in rockwork beds, glasshouses, and cold frames. 

Early spring is the best time to visit the publicly accessible Alpine House, above, which delivers the most concentrated spot of bloom in the February garden. The color on a rare sunny day is so spirit-lifting that a visit should be prescribed by the NHS along with its recent Vitamin D recommendations

Some very special Iris are blooming in the Alpine house right now: very cool new cultivars by Canadian breeder Alan McMurtrie. I loved the mixed up browns and blues, and sea green on an Iris is mind-boggling. It's so neat to see colors one doesn't usually associate with Iris reticulata on these brand-new cultivars.

Later that night, at home, I opened my February RHS Garden magazine to find a great profile of Mr. McMurtie and profiles and photos of the very plants I'd just seen growing: 'Spot-On,' 'Sunshine,' 'Sea Breeze,' 'Eyecatcher' and several others. You can read the article on Mr. McMurtie's site here.

The display of cultivars, such as these Iris, is controversial in botanical gardens. Some argue that botanical gardens should exist to safeguard straight species, often with an eye toward educating the public about these plants' threatened habitats while at the same time performing ex situ conservation. However, a lot of dedication, time, and research goes into the science of plant breeding, and those stories are educationally valid as well. 

Regardless of which side of the species/cultivar debate is right, it is still a great feeling to be studying in a garden that has access to some of the newest and most interesting things happening in the plant world, and working relationships with breeders making scientific breakthroughs. If I weren't at the Botanics, I would have just had to enjoy those Iris through magazine photos. But to see them in person brings them to life.  

Packwood House and the smirr: Part one

During today's rainy plant ident walkaround I learned a new Scots word to add to my collection of ways to describe horrible weather: smirr, a mist-like drizzle that coats everything. Now I know what to call this phenomenon whereby it seems to rain upward, from the ground, soaking pant legs as much as shoulders. 

The weather's been pretty horrible, with only a few days of sun since Nov. 1. Even the hardy natives are confessing clandestine trips to tanning beds for emergency Vitamin D top-ups. Instead of posting images of grey, grey, grey, let's take a trip back in time to last June, which was the last time I was outside and somewhat warm barring my trip back to the U.S. this autumn. And the kicker is I wasn't even in Scotland! I was much further south in England, on study tour with my class.

We stopped by Packwood House, in Warwickshire, and looking at these brightly colored and blooming garden photos is just what I need on this cold, wet night. 

Packwood House dates back to a humble farmhouse built in 1556. The property was home to the Fetherston family for 300 years before being purchased by Alfred Ash in 1904. The home stayed in the Ash family until it was signed over to the National Trust in 1941. 

Packwood House gardens are most notable for their collection of more than 100 yews (Taxus baccata) representing the "Sermon on the Mount. Each tree is clipped in a distinct fashion to represent, as my professor said, the diversity of humanity. The yew garden was designed in the mid-17th century by John Fetherston, and some of the shrubs are more than 50 feet tall. The head gardener, and our guide for the visit, explained the challenge of maintaining the yews on clay soil that's prone to water logging as well as compaction by the many visitors to the garden.

I found the yews the least interesting of all the areas at Packwood. Though they are technically impressive, I am not a huge topiary fan, and the dark and looming shrubs created a foreboding feeling in that section of the garden. Much more enjoyable were the bright borders and dry garden, which came into being in a trouble spot where more water-loving plants failed to thrive. 

The nearby borders made me rethink my feelings about purple. The Allium sp. were pretty impressive, and the color worked so well with the red brick behind. 

Here's one of the staff cutting a perfectly striped lawn with a cylinder mower. 

Pretty gardens are all good, but I'm always interested in showing the horticulturists who work so hard to keep them looking nice. All too often garden photography shows sterile perfection, with entire landscapes looking as though they'd sprung fully formed from the goddess Flora's green finger. But as anyone who's hefted a spade knows, gardening is hard, dirty, physically taxing work. I like to see the people doing that work, and their tools, which are just as beautiful to me as perfectly pristine, but empty, landscapes. 

Up next we'll venture further afield at Packwood House, visiting the orchard, forest follies, and the vegetable garden...Until then, I leave you with evidence of the weather: my winter twigs from today's walkaround. Two hours after getting home, the paper is still puddled! It's the smirr, I tell you, the smirr! 

Ferns on fire

Today we were treated to a great lecture on ferns by Dr. Heather McHaffie, MBE. Dr. McHaffie is a naturally enthusiastic teacher, and it was pure joy to be in her presence for a few hours. 

Near dusk, which is around 3:30 p.m. these days in Scotland, we went into the empty arid greenhouse for a magic trick. Dr. McHaffie had a squeeze-ball full of Lycopodium powder consisting of dry spores derived from fern-like plants. When lit by a match these oil-rich spore ignite into a glorious fireball. Lycopodium powder has been used for fireworks, flashbulbs, and magicians' tricks. We all had a go at shooting fire from our fingertips in what felt like a sacred circular rite.

The takeaway?

Ferns are great. 


Mushrooming at the Botanics

Yesterday was one of those "pinch me, this is my life?" moments that have come fast and furious this autumn.

The morning was spent in a fascinating lecture elucidating heathland ecology and management, which to a person from a land lacking in heath is especially interesting. The idea that the mysteries of a particular land can be unlocked by knowing their native plant species is intoxicating. I heard my name so often, as in Erica cinerea, Erica tetralix, etc., that I had mental whiplash.

After lunch a lovely veteran mycologist and researcher took the class mushrooming in the Botanics. As a class we picked more than a dozen, maybe two dozen, different species and passed them around, smelling and feeling in what I can only describe as communal sensory wonder. Our lecturer's joy in identifying each was infectious--we were all held in thrall as his eyes lit up with excitement and recognition at our finds. It's a look I've come to know as inherent to the many botanists and plantspeople I've befriended over the past year. It's a look that clearly says they are living a vocation and not just a job. And it's what drives me to join them in spending the rest of my life dedicated to a subject that I find so limitless and fascinating that I don't want to do anything else.

A good friend made a comment to me last summer when I told him I'd come home from working since 7:30 a.m. in the Botanics glasshouses only to spend even more hours joyfully tending my own garden. He said something along the lines of how lucky you are to have a job you want to do even when you leave it. This comment really struck me because although I have enjoyed most all of the jobs I've had, this is the first that I want to do all. the. time. And because a job is so much of a life, I have always wanted to find one that fits this bill. At certain points I wanted to give up, discouraged by people who tried to convince me to settle for mediocre employment and to just be happy for a paycheck, saying that "a job is just a job." I couldn't accept this, but for years I felt I was chasing an impossible dream.

Now I know I am not.

Benmore Botanic Garden

The second year of the HND/BSc at the Botanics has hit hard, and between the group presentations, endless Latin names, specialist project research, and revision there hasn't been much spare time to update the blog. I did, however, spend last spring and summer and even this fall visiting some pretty spectacular gardens in England, Scotland, and the United States. Eventually I will get around to sharing them here, but in an effort to be moderately timely let's start with one I went to last week: Benmore Botanic Garden.

Benmore is one of four gardens in the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh portfolio, and as part of our class on managing and designing plant collections we popped over on the Dunoon ferry west of Glasgow for a couple days. Benmore is the wettest of the RBGE gardens, with more than three metres of rain each year, and the garden spreads up a steep mountain slope. The weather, topography, and sheer size of the trees (e.g., Sequoiadendron giganteum, or Giant Sequoia; and Pseudotsuga menziesii, Douglas Fir) in this collection make gardening there especially challenging, necessitating heavy machinery and skilled arborists.

The garden had a taxonomic layout until 1980s, when geographic areas were developed beginning with the Tasmanian Ridge, followed by the Bhutanese Garden, Chilean, and Japanese sections.

The garden is known for its fine collection of Rhododendron sp., and Magnolia sp., but in autumn the brilliantly colored Acer sp. steal the show.

The fernery, nestled into a gorge above a stream and grotto, was built in the 1870s by James Duncan, then owner of the estate. After Duncan's bankruptcy and sale of the estate, the fernery lay in disrepair until 2008, when it was sympathetically restored and reopened the next year. More information on the fernery and restoration is here

The combination of original stone gable ends and modern steel and glass roof is compelling and one of the nicest updates of a historical structure that I've seen. 

The Enkianthus campanulatus were a new discovery and stunning. 

 I like this photo because it's a pretty honest representation of what studying horticulture in Scotland is like: walking around an absolutely magical the pouring rain. 

You'll get no complaints from me as the day it chucked down rain at Benmore the quality of light and fog on the mountainside made for some pretty good picture taking. And of course, all that rain makes for some of the lushest mosses I've ever seen. 

Finally, a little close-up of a lovely new-to-me tree, and one that's been a favorite through-line of several garden visits this autumn: the white-flowered Eucryphia.