Trees to see

March 2, 2022

The rain came on suddenly, with a ferocity that made me think it was the first of the extreme weather events we are told to expect. Photos from California, where the three-year drought has ended in floods, should make us apprehensive. We were in the middle of the Yorkshire Arboretum at Castle Howard, and scuttled off to the tearoom for shelter, arriving soaked.

I had not been there since 1999, when the arboretum was ceremonially opened, with John Simmons, retired curator of Kew, as director. But I had seen its emergence since the 1970s as the brainchild of two Eton contemporaries, George Howard the owner and his full-time plantsman Jim Russell. Russell had owned Sunningdale Nurseries at Ascot, with its historic collection of rhododendrons, azaleas and much else collected in China. Graham Stuart Thomas was once manager. Waterers took over Sunningdale and Jim Russell moved north, with truckloads of rare plants, to live in the Old Dairies at Castle Howard and develop Ray Wood, once a formal garden on the hill nearest the big house, into a home for woodland rarities. I remember Jim choosing spots under dipping boughs of maples or spindles or rhododendrons to plant a precious new hosta or epimedium. He would come back the next year and divide it, again and again, until the solitary treasure had become a healthy clump.

The arboretum was the almost accidental outcome of Jim’s ambition, a major destocking by Hillier’s Nursery, and a serious mid-winter freeze. As I remember it, George Howard was persuaded to buy a long list of rare and unusual trees and the lorries arrived just as a big freeze began. Planting became a matter of urgency. Jim had sketched out a spacious place, almost filling a gentle valley by happy chance sandy on one side and clay on the other. He planned broad rides sweeping in curves down the slopes, to a lake at the bottom, organizing the trees more by type than by botanical categories. Jim was by nature a stickler, but time was not on his side.

Forty years later the plan is a triumph; a wood to wander in, learning the alternative beauties of trees you have never heard of as well as those you often see but rarely appreciate. It is presided over by John Grimshaw, author of New Trees, whose expertise and kindness saved my own tree book from botanical howlers. As editor of the authoritative new website of the International Dendrology Society (which started life in the 1920s as the immortal Bean’s Trees and Shrubs Hardy in the British Isles) you could say John’s word on trees is pretty final. Weather is not particularly gentle in Yorkshire, positively ‘inclement’ at times. (Does anyone actually say ‘inclement’, or is it just used on official pronouncements?) But if anyone doubts that 40 years is enough to create a mature arboretum the proof is here.

Garden breakfast

February 20, 2022

It was warm enough at breakfast time to leave the French windows of the kitchen open, and the scent flooding in was enough to put me off my yoghurt. The combination of daphne and sarcococca is almost a cliché of front gardens around here, ambushing you in waves as you walk by. There are two daphnes contributing to my breakfast ordeal: D. odorata, which at present has more flowers than leaves, and a D. bholua that arrived in a tiny pot, a seedling from the garden on Isola Madre in Lake Maggiore. She is seven feet high now, and challenging our little winter-flowering cherry, which I planted in its pot to keep it small enough

Iris unguicularis; not quite mauve….

. Apart from one cheeky root escaping by climbing over its rim (the effect quickly became obvious in lusty new shots above) the bonsai experiment has worked well.


While the back garden is almost excessively pink at present the front is near monochrome in mauve, though Tommy crocuses don’t quite match the colour of Iris unguicularis. The spot of scarlet in ours and many gardens in the street is the fruit of the doorstep plant, Nandina domestica. I’ve chronicled ours (many times, I fear) and its journey from the botanic garden in Kobe, as the seed of an unusual white-berried plant, to its routine red in England. The folklore about this odd (very odd) berberis with the air of a bamboo is the usual stuff about good luck, and in this case hospitality. What happens to Japanese houses – and their guests – where there is no Nanten by the door, (they are rare), I hate to think. It shouldn’t be this warm in mid-February, though.

Late Constable

February 13, 2022

‘Late Constable’ was the not-very-exciting title of an exhibition at the Royal Academy that revolutionised my view of Constable’s painting – and I could even add my way of looking at landscape. A number of the artist’s most famous paintings were there, the Haywain, the Leaping Horse, his view of Dedham Vale. Several were accompanied by his preliminary sketches; even full-size ‘six-footer’ first versions. It was comparing the two, or several versions, that compelled me to open my eyes, clean my specs, and concentrate on little details as well as the whole composition. The extraordinary value of the exhibition was that there were no ropes. You could put your face inches from the painting – and see far more than the customary viewing allows.

Constable was a master of mood. He painted atmosphere. Hadleigh Castle, a ruin by the Thames estuary, in his preliminary version is dismal, threatening, under a lowering stormy sky, the river in an angry mood. Next to it hung what were presumably the artist’s second thoughts; the same crumbling tower, but with catches of light as well as shade, a glimpse of a green meadow through an arch, a hint of sun from behind a cloud. And more than one spot of red.

I began to understand, dwelling on each painting in detail, how Constable must have gone over each one at the last minute with a fine brush dipped in red paint. A lock-worker’s waistcoat is about the largest area of red he allows himself. There is a story of how he and Turner tried to upstage each other at an Academy vernissage by adding an eye-catcher of red; one of them a buoy in the choppy sea.

In some paintings, the red touch is as unobtrusive as, for example, the tongue of a panting dog. In the Cornfield it is the waistcoat of the little boy lying down to drink out of a pond. The excitement of being so close to the paintings was to see how precisely, in a painting of a wide landscape, Constable zoomed in on minute details. You can read the body language of figures in the distance, mere specks of black a millimetre high. The artist who could use a broad brush or his palette knife to depict a storm remained in total control of every inch of his canvas.

The tommies are out at Kew

February 10, 2022

Stone Age

February 3, 2022

It’s been two years en route from Gwynedd to Hampshire – not bad going, perhaps, for a chunk of granite the size of a Bentley. We finally planted it last week; a stone that had been straddling a stream in Snowdonia for who knows how many centuries. It was a tricky and slippery bridge to cross, and finally collapsed into the water. The footpath demanded better. So we built a simple plank bridge (ceremonially opened and christened Pont Cleo by our granddaughter Cleo) and set about giving the very considerable stone a new role.

I have a thing about monoliths (not the only indication, friends say, that I inhabit the Stone Age). Years ago we brought a rather beautiful pillar of granite from Wales to dignify the garden at Saling Hall. This was a tougher proposition. Luckily Wyn Owen, our farmer neighbour in the sheep-strewn hills, is an earth-mover, in many senses . He bought his biggest tractor to bear, a monster weighing 14 tons with the name of Komatsu. To reach the bridge in the forest meant dispatching several dozen (out of thousands) of Sitka spruce. The way cleared. Wyn somehow plucked the stone from the churning waters, landed it like a colossal fish and dragged it, like Samson in chains, half a mile through the forest, sliding on the mud (the rain that February day never let up for an instant). Wyn lifted it on to a trailer at the roadside. “Blimey”, he said in Welsh, “that’s way over three tons”.

Wyn’s son Gareth, equally adept with powerful engines, volunteered to tow it down to the New Forest behind his Land Rover. All went well until he came to the Dinas pass that leads from the coastal valley to the interior. A steep climb. It was slow tugging, until near the top the engine died. Was that expression the Welsh for a blown gasket? Another Land Rover was needed for a retreat back to the farm.

There was stalemate then, as coronavirus started directing our movements. Our mighty brown rock slept on its trailer for almost a year, shining in the rain. Last winter Gareth found a friend with a lorry to bring the stone south to the New Forest. A borrowed forklift laid it gently by the drive under tall oaks whose bark bore it a clear resemblance.

Another year passed while we made a planting plan. It will be a sundial, we decided; or rather a gnomon. Its one straightish and sharpish edge will point due south. In the morning the east side will be (with luck) sunlit, and in the afternoon the west. So we will know when it’s lunchtime. The last stage, last week, was to dig a deep hole, measure the thick end of the stone for a bespoke concrete bed, and use a lorry-borne crane to pick it up, dangle it heavy-end down over its slot and gingerly lower it in. “4.6 tons”, said the crane driver. It all went to plan, and now it stands in its clearing among the oaks, bearing a faint resemblance to Gibraltar and telling the approximate time. It is tempting to carve an inscription: ‘I am a sundial, and I make a botch of what is done far better by a watch’.


February 2, 2022

I was talking with a robin sitting and singing on the rose above the wall (‘defending territory’, say the textbooks). ‘What are you going to do next?’ I asked him, before wondering if the idea of a plan had any meaning for him.

There was the cotoneaster beside me, and the daphne, the clematis and the rose. The pale buds of the white-flowering currant are just starting to swell. Every plant, every being is getting on with being; its next move, its development and its destiny, already ordained in its DNA. It is not wanting, or planning; it’s just living.

Accidents of all sorts will influence and determine its fate, but the blueprint is set in its cells. I still find it impossible to envision how the nucleus of every cell that make up the entirety of every living thing, from an ant’s toenails to a giant sequoia, has its destiny. Being alive is following this plan, of growth, of reaction and adaption to light (its strength and its sources), to moisture and nutrients, to stress of whatever kind. Every cell divides, and every separate divided cell carries the same instructions, is relevant to its role: to be a petal or to be skin or bone. The cell that grew to be part of a strand of wool on a sheep’s back is now living on, or rather existing on, with its life force cut off, as a thread in a sweater or a blanket. It will disintegrate with age, or wear out, or perhaps be destroyed by fire, but while it lives it follows its original plan.
The robin came down to earth just beside me.

In the jungle

January 19, 2022

In a recent Green Planet film David Attenborough strolls nonchalantly through a Costa Rica jungle, before introducing its constituents and inhabitants. The sequence instantly reminded me of an extraordinary evocation of a Malayan jungle by Isabella Bird in her 1870 book The Golden Chersonese and the way Thither. Miss Bird was a peerless (also fearless) explorer and vivid narrator. Her books on Malaya (the ‘Chersonese’) – which includes the first days of Hong Kong – on primitive Japan, on Hawaii, on the eastern U.S.A and Canada, on the Wild West (A Lady’s Life in the Rocky Mountains) on Persia, Kurdistan and Tibet are among the finest travelogues ever written. Her voice is confidential but her observation universal. She travels with me in my Kindle everywhere. Tune in and you will thank me for the introduction.

“Do not think of a jungle as I used to think of it, as an entanglement or thicket of profuse and matted scrub, for it is in these regions at least a noble forest of majestic trees, many of them supported at their roots by buttresses, behind which thirty men could find shelter. On many of the top branches of these, other trees have taken root from seeds deposited by birds and have attained considerable size; and all send down, as it appears, extraordinary cylindrical strands from two to six inches in diameter, and often one hundred and fifty feet in length, smooth and straight until they root themselves, looking like the guys of a mast. Under these giants stand the lesser trees grouped in glorious confusion, – coca, sago, areca, and gomuti palms, nipah and nibong palms, tree ferns fifteen and twenty feet high, the bread-fruit, the ebony, the damar, the india rubber, the gutta-percha, the cajeput, the banyan, the upas, the bombax or cotton tree, and hosts of others, many of which bear brilliant flowers.”

Miss Bird threads through this wilderness by night in a dug-out canoe, deafened by the racket, the shrieks, roars and crashes of the inhabitants, then lodges alone in a bungalow infested by snakes and surrounded by tigers, guarded by a policeman with a bayonet. If only the BBC film crew had been there.

New Year tingle

January 6, 2022

Kew on New Year’s Day has become something of a routine in this family – and judging by the queue at the gate, others too, though how much botany the occupants of the baby buggies take in is hard to surmise. The alpine house is always our first stop, to see tiny flowers of Fabergé quality that you will only see or hear of in such a collection. The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy claims the Creator puts his best designers onto designing the Norwegian fiords. I’m inclined to think their job was alpine plants.

Various obstacles prevented our usual perambulation: the funfair side of Kew is at its maximum in mid-winter. Paths are roped off; massive electrical installations and lighting rigs compete with its habitual botanical serenity. There were new smart little green and white trains shuttling about, and a demonstration of impressive fountain power was underway. The most unmoved part of the gardens, the most static through all the seasons, are the piney hillocks that represent the Mediterranean flora. Nothing stirs in this evergreen environment; the floor is soft with pine needles; citrus and rosemary, furrowed cork oaks, arbutus and broom maintain a trance-like inertia. This is not where I want to live. How dull, I always think, to be deprived of our seasons and their constant drama.

Very little is in flower in the first week of the year. Cyclamen give the eye a little jolt here and there, and on the rock bank Galanthus elwesii, the first and biggest snowdrop, wears a self-satisfied air. Camellias have tentatively begun their nearly six-month stint. The witch hazels were gathering a crowd; their low mounds of yellow and orange visible far off through the leafless trees. ‘Freesia’ says one visitor with her nose to the little spidery flowers. ‘More like boiled tripe’ says another. ‘Nothing like the oil we put on bruises’ was a third opinion.

By the time we left, though, I found myself tingling with excitement, with the anticipation created by a million buds full of promise. I went home feeling almost like a bud myself, preparing to burst and reveal the complexity of beauty quietly forming, cell by cell, in its predestined design. This one will unfurl as a leaf; this one contains a tiny embryo flower, intricately packed for the surge of spring to swell it open. The paltry potential of my garden, perhaps a hundred plants preparing their performance, is nothing compared with the infinite variety at Kew, yet my mental tour of what’s in store has me tingling all over again.

Hugh’s Gardening Books


Trees was first published in 1973 as The International Book of Trees, two years after The World Atlas of Wine….

Hugh’s Wine Books

Hugh Johnson’s Pocket Wine Book

I wrote my first Pocket Wine Book in 1977, was quite surprised to be asked to revise it in 1978,…

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