Tuesday, 11 April 2017

Cherry Tree Arboretum

Magnolia 'Shirazz'
On Saturday Alastair and I went to Cherry Tree Arboretum on the Shropshire/Cheshire border near Woore. This is the private collection of John and Elizabeth Ravenscroft, former proprietors of Bridgemere Garden World, and has been planted across the 50 acre site over the past twelve years or so. Despite this youth it is one of the most interesting collections of trees in the country, concentrating on good ornamentals, especially Magnolia and other flowering trees in spring, and those with good autumn colour later. The magnolias and cherries stole the show on an exceptionally warm and beautiful spring day, but there was a great deal to see and enjoy beyond these, not least the beauty of the site, with collection blending into the countryside of old hedges and field trees.

Cherry Tree Arboretum is more than just a retirement hobby, as there is a very active nursery on the site, producing large numbers of beautifully grown young trees. The primary focus is on really good magnolias, but again they produce a wide assortment of unusual trees, most of which are seldom grown by other nurseries. The aim is for the nursery to bear the costs of running the collection and hopefully to be able to do so long term. Sales are wholesale only, though we were recently able to acquire a selection for the Yorkshire Arboretum, and the arboretum isn't open to the public, so we're very grateful to the Ravenscrofts for a chance to see it.

The upper part of the site has a more gardened feel, with beds of shrubs and trees; here Magnolia 'Tina Durio' is spectacularly paired with a Spiraea.

There is an interesting collection of rhododendrons and azaleas, like everything else grown in full sun and none the worse for it. This is the old hybrid 'Sir Charles Lemon', supposedly a chance wild hybrid that arose in seed collected by Joseph Hooker in 1849.

Magnolia 'Elisa Odenwald' with the arboretum spread out beyond it.

Magnolia stellata 'Jane Platt'

The curiously named 'Golden Pond', a lovely soft creamy yellow.

The magnolias and cherries were dominant on this occasion, eclipsing all the other great trees grown there.

Prunus 'Tai-haku' - well deserves its sobriquet Great White Cherry.

The curious old cultivar 'Kobuka-zakura'

and a delightful more recent selection, 'Shirayukahime'.

Bursting buds of Sorbus insignis.

I had not previously encountered Sorbus 'Matthew Ridley', a selection from Blsgdon, Northumberland, of unknown antecedents. The new leaves are very lovely.

The corky-barked branches of Ulmus minor 'Suberosa' give a slightly sinister outline against the sky.

Magnolia 'Sybille'  has immense white flowers - a superb selection from Arboretum Wespelaar.

Friday, 6 January 2017

Lembris Kephas Mollel 1972-2017

Lembris Kephas Mollel - a smile to lighten the world
Lembris Kephas Mollel, who died on Wednesday, was one of my field assistants when I was working on Kilimanjaro, Tanzania, between 1990 and 1994, and was someone I am very happy to be able to have called a friend.

A member of the Waarusha tribe, Lembris lived all his life in the small dusty village of Lerang'wa on the northwestern corner of Kilimanjaro, occupying a small homestead of traditional round huts and cultivating a few acres of maize and beans when the seasons permitted. When Charles Foley and I arrived to undertake a census of the Kilimanjaro elephants in 1990 he was one of the young men of the village to work for us as a porter on our lengthy transects through the forest, and on my return in 1992 he became one of my field assistants alongside Mtapa Abdallah and Obedi Daniel. In this capacity he helped carry the kit, set out quadrats, make camp and cook - we spent many nights huddled round a campfire together, eating an unappetizing meal of ugali and fried cabbage. He and Mtapa were with me on the occasion we walked unawares into a pride of lions and had to take evasive action into the (fortunately) giant heather trees (Erica excelsa). On another occasion he was deputed to take my parents for a walk in the forest; they came across some buffalo dung and my mother asked 'Where are buffalo now, Lembris?'  He said 'oh, far away' - at which point, inevitably, two buffalo burst from cover and dashed off in the other direction (also fortunately).

In addition to his help 'outside' Lembris also assisted Obedi in drying and managing my herbarium specimens, even mounting many of them onto cards, some of which are still to be found in the herbarium at Kew, and contributed to my ethnobotanical records of the uses of forest species. It was Lembris and Mtapa who guide me to the only known small stand of bamboo on Kilimanjaro (now Oldeania alpina,  which uses the Maasai word for bamboo, oldeani, to form the generic name) and, on my last day of the fieldwork, to the tree that was to give the clue to my thesis. This was a huge Juniperus procera, standing alone in broad-leaved forest; since it requires open bare ground to germinate and establish it was evident that the vegetation in that spot, far from being immutable climax forest, had been bare hillside about three hundred years previously.

Lembris (left) and Mtapa at the foot of the solitary Juniperus procera., August 1994
 After I left Tanzania we kept in touch and Lembris became a village game scout, largely trying to keep wild animals away from the crops. On one occasion he called me to let me hear the noise of a herd of elephants in a maize field - I couldn't actually hear it, but it was a lovely thought. Later he became the leader of an anti-poaching team based on West Kilimanjaro, funded by the Big Life Foundation, and head of the tracker dog team deployed to follow up poachers. He achieved a modicum of fame through this, and images and accounts are to be found on various websites.

Commander Lembris 
Inevitably we did not meet very often, but in 1997 Lembris helped porter for an Alpine Garden Society expedition to Kilimanjaro, and I would see him on the occasions I was able to visit Lerang'wa over the years. In 2009 I was presented with a sheep - as an elder I needed a flock - which was promptly turned over to Lembris's care. She bore a pair of twin lambs, but unfortunately they were all taken by a leopard.

Lembris and Lerang'wa village Chairman Joseph with my sheep, 2009.
 In 2014 while on patrol Lembris collapsed and was taken to the Aga Khan Hospital in Arusha, where a brain tumour was diagnosed. He was taken from there to the sister Aga Khan Hospital in Nairobi, one of the best in East Africa. The operation (funded by Big Life Foundation) to remove the tumour was successful but the damage was done and he never regained his full faculties. 25 years ago communicating with Lerang'wa was difficult and slow, but the sad news came by Facebook message the same day he died, and many Tanzanians have posted their tributes to him on friends' pages. He leaves his wife Anna, and their children Eliudi, Shedrack, Naomi, Meshak, Abednego, Elirha and Elia, to whom I send my deep sympathies.

Anna and Elia
A deeply religious man, and self-styled Mtoto wa Jesu, I can think of no better words to commemorate him with than the Epitaph from Gray's Elegy, though many other lines also apply:

Here rests his head upon the lap of Earth 
       A youth to Fortune and to Fame unknown. 
Fair Science frown'd not on his humble birth, 
       And Melancholy mark'd him for her own. 

Large was his bounty, and his soul sincere, 
       Heav'n did a recompense as largely send: 
He gave to Mis'ry all he had, a tear, 
       He gain'd from Heav'n ('twas all he wish'd) a friend. 

No farther seek his merits to disclose, 
       Or draw his frailties from their dread abode, 
(There they alike in trembling hope repose) 
       The bosom of his Father and his God. 

Kwa heri, Rafiki

Saturday, 31 December 2016

Plant of the Year 2016: Ampelodesmos mauritanicus

The arching inflorescences of Ampelodesmos mauritanicus developing in June.
 In the course of the year many plants have their season of excellence, coming up to prominence, doing their thing and retreating. Some have a longer season and catch the eye for longer; for none has this been more true this year than my clump of Ampelodesmos mauritanicus. I've known this grass for a while, and admired it in other gardens, but hadn't grown it myself. In 2014 I acquired a small plant, which has grown steadily into a significant tuft of dark green, pampas-like leaves - though only about 90 cm long  they are just as sharp. Last year it produced one inflorescence but this year a whole sheath of them appeared in June. They flowered in  July and since then have waved in the background on stems at least 1.8 m long, arching over plants and the path, giving a beautiful leitmotif to the garden for the past six months.

The modern country of Mauritania seems a long way from North Yorkshire, but in classical times Mauritania referred to the western portion of the Maghreb, in present day Morocco. The grass is found there and in southern Europe and presumably there is some variation in hardiness. Books say it is not entirely hardy in northern Britain, so we shall see how it fares long term (the past two winters having been very mild), but this year it has been a star.

The flowers opened in mid-July.

The flowering heads took their place among the summer profusion of flowers, here in July. The tuft of dark green leaves is just visible.

Catching the light  on a late August evening

- and on a frosty morning in November.

Still firmly arching and framing the border this week.

Friday, 30 December 2016

Garden People 2016

Volunteer: Mary Sykes helps collect Rhododendron blooms for the Harlow Carr show.

Plant Records Officer: Nicola Hall receives new labels from Kew, after a very long wait.

Tree planters: Will Hinchliffe, Tom Christian, Jamie Single from Airpots, David Knott, at RBG Edinburgh with Nothofagus alessandrii.

Irish head gardeners: Alex Slazenger (Powerscourt), Neil Porteous (Mount Stewart).

Botanist: Hugh McAllister, with Sorbus hughmcallisteri, at Ness Botanic Gardens.

Hortihorts; Alastair, Darran, Nick, Matteo, (unknown), Jon, Joseph, at Great Dixter Plant Fair

Students: Jack, Igor, Emily, with Pinus stylesii

Garden visitors: my open day, 18th September

Significant other: Alastair Gunn at Dove Cottage Nursery

Wednesday, 15 June 2016

Garden open on Sunday

View across the gravel beds.


On Sunday 19 June my garden at Kirkhill Farm, Settrington, will be open from 2-6 pm, as part of the Yorkshire Arboretum's open garden's scheme. Sixteen gardens are taking part, and there are several more to come over the next few months - see the programme on our website for full details of them all. So far I've been to them all - and now it's my turn! Despite the misgivings expressed in The Garden about the June gap the garden is looking well enough, I think, although a rabbit did get in for a while, and there is currently a mole...

I'm glad that my Iris sibirica "Tall Blue" seedling is in flower for the occasion.
Seed of my white poppies and quite an assortment of good plants will be for sale.

The garden will also be open on 7 August and 18 September.

Sunday, 5 June 2016

A weekend of orchid-hunting

I have wanted to see a wild Lady's-slipper Orchid in this country for over 40 years - but how wild are these?
After a week of cold greyness a fine weekend was to be made the most of, and I've spent much of it looking for orchids. Yesterday I visited a site on magnesian limestone just north of Pickering, and today I've been across to Gait Barrows National Nature Reserve near Silverdale in Lancashire, returning via Kilnsey Park in Wharfedale. Here are some of the orchids seen: 13 species, including those not in flower yet, plus three hybrids.

Early Purple Orchids (Orchis mascula) have done well this year, and the Pickering site had some of the longest 'long purples' I've ever seen. It was also abundant at Kilnsey Park.

This site is known for its tiny population of Neotinea ustulata, the Burnt-tip Orchid, which is tiny in stature too. I had not seen this species before, so it was a good start to the weekend. 

Just three plants were visible, in the shortest turf on a site that is being undergrazed and in quite a parlous condition. The colour of the sepals was noticeably different in these two.

Also growing in short turf in the open were a good number of Fly Orchids, Ophrys insectifera, always a nice plant to see. In addition Common Twayblade, Neottia ovata, Common Spotted Orchid and a butterfly orchid (Platanthera sp., indistinguishable in bud) were still in bud.

The highlight of the weekend was seeing the reintroduced Lady's-slippers, Cypripedium calceolus, at Gait Barrows. A visiting area has a number of clumps ranging from this stunner to eaten-off stumps, in areas demarcated by tape to reduce damage. They are the progeny of native parents, grown at Kew under the auspices of the Sainsbury Orchid Project, as part of the effort to re-establish this almost mythical plant back into the wild in suitable (often former) localities.

Every bit as gorgeous as expected!

Sadly thefts still occur, although nursery-grown stock is now freely available. The Gait Barrows site is amply publicised and signed, within an easy walk of the car park, so very accessible. The plants are still being gardened though, with each shoot trained through a presumably slug-repelling copper tube. Slug pellets are also visible near each plant. Success of the project will presumably be when self-sown youngsters are discovered away from the parents.

The limestone pavement of Gait Barrows is a well-0known site for Dark-red Helleborine, Epipactis atrorubens  It  was too early for it to be in flower, but good to see this clump. Broad-leaved Helleborine, E. helleborine, was also present in the woodland. Marsh Helleborine, E. palustris, was growing in the flush at Kilnsey, but is also weeks off flowering.

In the hay meadows Common Spotted Orchid, Dactylorhiza fuchsii, was just starting. Yhis is a small one, but very typical.

Northern Marsh Orchids, Dactylorhiza purpurella, with broad lips and unmarked leaves, were also present.

In consequence there are hybrids... D. × venusta, intermediate in flower colour and faintly spotted on the leaves.

Moving on to Kilnsey Park, behind the trout farm is a wonderful flush, full of good plants including Primula farinosa and Pinguicula vulgaris, but also lots of orchids including the Narrow-leaved Marsh Orchid, Dactylorhiza traunsteinerioides. This is typically rich purple (this one is exceptionally dark) with three rounded lobes on the lip and spotting on the leaves - but dactylorhizas often don't follow the books. Another new species for me.

Another specimen, showing the long spotted leaves expected in this taxon.

Many diminutive specimens of Early Marsh Orchid, Dactylorhiza incarnata subsp. incarnata, were present too. The looped markings on the simple lip and unmarked leaves, as well as the flower colour, make it easily recognisable.

A putative D. incarnata x D. traunsteinerioides

A perfect intermediate between D. fuchsii and D. incarnata,
D. × kerneriorum.

And to finish the weekend, Southern Marsh Orchid, D. praetermissa, most handsome of them all, at home in the Yorkshire Arboretum.