Hearing the name RHS Garden Wisley may conger up images of formal beds and luscious borders, but they are more than just a pretty face. Though the label “ornamental garden” has a bit of a stigma attached to it, gardens like Wisley have a place in the botanical world. Hidden away are common and rare species plants of unique genetics that could one day hold the key to bringing a species back from near extinction or help create a stronger growing selection for gardens and parks. This week I walked the Wisley garden grounds to find and document these unique individuals that have been overlooked or forgotten.
Botany is in the Science Department and for weeks they have been busy – and still are – working hard at completing the next addition of the Hillier Manual of Trees and Shrubs. This manual grows more massive every year. There is just so much information that the botanists have even been working on their weekends to meet the fast approaching deadline. I can only imagine the stress! Despite all this, the senior botanist kindly took time to create a list of plants of wild collected origins for me to inventory out in the garden. My job was to take photos and assess whether they are alive, dead, or existing. (A few times ‘existing’, turned into ‘mysteriously non-existing’.)
Every morning after gathering up the list of plants, maps, camera, and snacks – hey, you can get lost out there – I headed out to the gardens to find these “wild” plants. For the first half of the week I was looking for trees of wild origins in the Arboretum. These plants are wild in the sense that someone collected seed or cuttings from the original plant out in the woodlands of Chile or the mountain tops of China, and brought them home to be grown in a garden. The plants that grew from the seed or cuttings would be an example of direct wild origin. However, some of the plants on my list were the offspring of the original collected individuals, so they are of indirect wild origins.
When I encountered the tree, shrub, or plant that was on my list, I took at least three photographs: one of the label, one detail photo, and one of the entire plant. For example here is the label photograph of an Eucalyptus on my list:
Taking a photo of the label really just helps me keep track of what plants I had found and to verify that I have the right plant with the same accession number on my list. Next I would take photos of anything interesting, such as the leaves, flowers, seedpods, bark, etc.
Once I am done with the close-up photos, I take one or two of the entire plant. This is to help give the viewer an idea of the habit of the plant: weeping, upright, bushy, etc.
For the second half of the week I was looking for a mixture of trees, shrubs, and perennials on Battleston Hill. Battleston Hill is a large woodland style garden with a labyrinth of paths and beds planted with little secrets. This area of the Wisley is lushly planted and everything really weaves into each other. In this garden there is a large collection of Magnolias. Hopefully, I can make it back in time to see them and the woodland bulbs in bloom.
Quite a few species Rhododendron were on my list and many of them were the large leaved varieties from China, such as this Rhododendron rex:
On my list were a few cultivars as well. Many people think cultivars are hybrids of species plants: removed from nature and man-made. Though the majority of the time this maybe true, but there are many cultivars that are of wild origins, since ‘cultivar’ essentially means ‘a form of’. Take, for example, this beech tree:
Typically beech trees (Fagus sylvatica) are tall, upright, and spreading, but this particular cultivar, Fagus sylvatica ’Miltonensis’, is lower and weeping. Out of the entire population of beech trees there are definitely a few individuals that are bound to be different: shorter, thinner, droopier, redder leaves, etc – kind of like people. In this example, someone happened upon a weeping one in the woods and thought, “Hey, I like its elegant forlorn look. Hm, I’ll collect a piece of it and grow it in Milton Park”. Over time, maybe the park-goers started to ask about this tree and wanted one for themselves. Once popularity grew, the plant had to be differentiated from the rest of the Fagus sylvatica population, so it was named ‘Miltonensis’ (meaning ‘of/from Milton’). Tah-dah, a cultivar is born! (Well, I am glazing over the whole name registration process a little…) So still the same species, but just unique from the usual pack.
While completing this project for Botany, this gave me a good chance to wander and look at other plants in the gardens as well. On my way to my target beds sometimes I had to walk through the Orchard. It’s massive and filled with ripening apples and pears right now – so hard to resist munching on them. (They get picked and sent to the garden kitchens, or to the Plant Centre for sale.)
On a really misty morning, I took a “shortcut” though the Glasshouse Borders. It really gives the garden a whole different feel. There is no doubt that autumn is here to stay.
Another day, I encountered the chandelier of seeds on Acer cissifolium - a maple - swaying in the warm breeze and sunlight. Just beautiful in that low, autumn light.
Recently, mushrooms have been popping up all over the arboretum. It’s fun seeing the tight associations between species of mushrooms and trees. For example, Boletus and Amanita are commonly found under/near birches, while some of the shaggy mushroom species hang around conifers. Some fungi are bad for trees, but generally when you see mushrooms in the grass around trees it is a sign of healthy soil.
While rummaging through the bushes on Battleston Hill, I felt that I was being watched. I was! By the many little beady eyes of Actea pachypoda. This is a woodland wildflower from New England and in the US it has the common name of ‘doll’s eyes’.
At the top of Battleston Hill you can see the Trial Fields to the south. I will be working with the Trials team here in a week’s time.
Looking north from the base of Battleston Hill you can see the Mixed Borders from a different perspective.
I live in a cluster of houses with trainees who are working towards a 2-year diploma. One of the many things they have to do is learn the names and to recognize 40 plants every two weeks, on which they get tested: family, genus, species, and cultivar. On Thursday, my house volunteered to collect plants for the first identification test of the year and I happily joined in. This time all of the plants were growing in the mixed beds, but in the future they can be anywhere in the gardens. After 30 minutes of collecting with my housemates and few other trainees, we returned home and placed the little specimens in their own bottles of water. This brough back memories the plant identification classes that I took and TA’ed at UW and I was in heaven. (Okay that is a bit of an exaggeration, but hey, I think taxonomy is fun!)
To end on a bittersweet note, during that same mushroom walk on Tuesday evening, I visited a tree that one of the botanists said that would be blooming now. This is an US native tree that is extinct in the wild and named after our very own Benjamin Franklin: Franklinia alatamaha. Franklinia hasn’t been seen/found in the wild since the 19th century and it only survives in cultivation. Bittersweet isn’t it?
Well that was my week with Botany in a nutshell. I had a great time exploring the gardens outside in the (rare) sunshine. This week I go upstairs to the attic to work with Informatics. I’ll keep you updated, so see you on the next post!