Why plant lovers should visit: Scotland

It may feel counterintuitive to head north for an early spring, but Hannah Gardner is visiting Scotland in search of snowdrops and uncommon trees. 

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Dumfries and Galloway lies in the tranquil southwest corner of Scotland. Often overlooked in the rush to the Highlands and Islands, this lush, low-lying region has diverse natural beauty, a rich romantic history, traces of the poet Robert Burns and a mild microclimate, warmed by the Gulf Stream. Little-known historic estates with notable collections of uncommon trees, an impressive botanic garden and specialist nurseries, such as the late Michael Wickenden’s Cally Gardens, put this region on my horticultural map.
 

 

 

 

 

When to go

The Scottish Snowdrop Festival runs from late January to mid-March.

Where to go

Many country estates, botanic and private plantsmen’s gardens fling open their gates and light the fires in their tearooms in celebration of this diminutive woodlander. At Logan, a satellite garden of the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh, you are never more than about a kilometre from the sea. The garden lies in a sheltered hollow (its name means ‘small hollow’ in Gaelic) and encloses the picturesque ruin of Castle Balzieland. As well as snowdrops, it houses a dynamic collection of exotic plants, and cultivates them using experimental methods, such as growing Meconopsis sp. and rhododendrons in peat walls and colonising antipodean tree fern trunks that once arrived on these shores as ships’ ballast.

The majestic gardens and ruin of 16th-century Castle Kennedy occupy an isthmus between two lochs. This is a wide landscape of water, mature woodland, sweeping curved banks and 19th-century landforms that feel contemporary. It has a well-tended, enchanting walled garden where choice snowdrops such as Galanthus woronowii thrive under unusual mature trees and shrubs. As part of its festival, it opens a wonderful snowdrop route through private areas of the estate.

 

Plants to grow at home

I first encountered Polylepis australis growing in the walled garden at Logan, where they have a gnarled 40-year-old tree. I just had to stop and examine its abundance of extravagantly peeling bark. Thick, rough and an attractive cinnamon brown, it is densely layered for protection against low temperatures. Don’t be fooled by the name, though. The genus name is accurately descriptive of the many layers, but this is no Australian native. A maverick member of the rose family, it’s a wind-pollinated evergreen that originates in the central spine of the Andes. Thriving in mountain ravines at a higher altitude than any other flowering woody plant (up to 3,000m), its hardiness is not in doubt, but it does require shelter from high winds.

As a medium-sized garden tree it is seldom grown, but well worth seeking out. It has a characterful growth habit and dense pinnate foliage, and the year-round interest of its bark certainly attracts attention. Insects shelter in the papery rolls of bark, and birds, especially blue tits and wrens, duly follow to feed and nest. As an elegant evergreen, it is also useful for screening. It is a good alternative to Acer griseum and Betula jacquemontii, both grown for their bark despite their naked presence in winter.

Gardens to visit

Castle Kennedy Gardens
Stair Estates, Sheuchan, Castle Kennedy, Stranraer DG9 8SL. Tel 01581 400225, castlekennedygardens.com

Logan Botanic Garden
Port Logan, nr Stranraer, Dumfries and Galloway DG9 9ND. Tel 01776 86023, rbge.org.uk

Guides and maps

Stranraer and Glenluce OS Landranger Map #82 (Ordnance Survey, £8.99)
Dumfries and Galloway: Guide to 200 Walks and Climbs, by Robert Denison Walton (Dinwiddie, 1980)

 

Where to stay

For a stylish country house, look no further than Knockinaam Lodge, Portpatrick, Dumfries and Galloway DG9 9AD. Tel 01776 810471, knockinaamlodge.com

 

This article was taken from a longer feature in the February 2018 issue of Gardens Illustrated (257).

Words Hannah Gardner

Illustration Alice Pattulo 
 

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