I don’t know if it’s this year’s fantastic spring weather we’ve had, glorious blue skies, warm sunshine and very little rain or wind (well up until this last weekend anyway), that has made me notice the trees so much more than before but boy have they looked spectacular. Autumn tends to be the season for trees, with us salivating over their autumnal colour as the chlorophyll production wanes and stunning oranges, reds and yellows light up the countryside. But what has struck me over recent weeks is the amount of colour generated by trees in spring .
We walked along the Kennet and Avon canal from Bradford on Avon towards Bath on Good Friday. Looking across at the hillsides it was remarkable to me to see purples, pinks and oranges alongside the zingy vibrant green I would normally associate with trees at this time of year. I don’t know why I haven’t really paid this much attention before. Then on Easter Monday we visited Batsford Arboretum in the Cotswolds. Again I was blown away by the colour. It wasn’t just the fading daffodils and hellebores or the emerging herbaceous perennials, the trees were more than holding their own. Blossom is the most obvious way trees announce themselves in spring and this has been one of the best years I can remember for such an impressive display of frothy tree flowers. The combination of such a hot summer last year, when wood ripened and flower buds formed, with the lack of rain and wind have meant trees have been dripping in blossom. My own crab apple tree couldn’t have any more flowers on it if it wanted. It looks like a giant candy floss at the end of my garden. It’s also one huge humming mass of bees feasting on pollen.
What I have noticed more than ever this year are the unfurling leaves of new growth. At Batsford, the collection of acers in the sunlight looked as good as any autumnal colour. There were beeches with their reddish-brown corrugated leaves and the pink-tinged horse chestnut leaves. I particularly loved the leaves of this Japanese horse chestnut bursting out like Beaker from The Muppets.
Batsford has a spectacular collection of magnolias, from the dainty flowers of Magnolia stellata to the huge candy pink blooms of Magnolia campbellii ‘Darjeeling’. Magnolias can be amazing but lets face it they are at the mercy of the weather more than most plants. One badly timed frost and those pristine blooms can be turned to brown mush overnight, and that is it for another a year – the whole purpose of planting the tree in the first place ruined. Then along comes a spring with no frost and magnolias sing with their intriguing flowers. Magnolias are ancient plants, fossilised remains have been dated to 95 million years ago and there is something about them which means I can imagine them in a time when the planet was packed with dense vegetation and dinosaurs wandered around.
Malus spectabilis really did live up to its name and smelt divinely of citrus. Perhaps a bit on the big size for the average garden though.
Batsford itself has a fascinating history. One of the largest private collections of trees in the UK covering 55 acres it is now part of a trust which looks to educate and promote understanding of trees. Batsford works with the Royal Botanic Gardens at Edinburgh to conserve conifers and is home to a collection of endangered Chilean conifers. They also work with Kew and other gardens to grow species on the Red Data List conserving threatened species for the future.
The landscaping that forms the present day setting of the arboretum was set out by Algernon Bertram Freeman- Mitford, grandfather to the controversial Mitford sisters, in the late 19th century. It was his friendships with 3 directors of Kew Botanic Gardens and his time spent in China and Japan working for the Foreign Office which were the inspirations for the beginnings of the arboretum. Today you can still get a real sense of the naturalistic style he wanted to create when he swept away the more formal landscaped grounds, and the artificial stream, statuary, Japanese rest house and clumps of bamboo all point to a passion for the Far East.
Algernon’s son inherited Batsford in 1916 and spent the First Word War living there with his family until the running costs of such a large estate became too much. The new owner Gilbert Alan Hamilton Wills, who became Lord Dulverton, was a keen plantsman but it was his son, Frederick who, on inheriting the estate in 1956, set about establishing an arboretum and planted many of the trees we can see today.
It’s quite a privilege to have enough disposable income to indulge your horticultural passion and create something on such a scale as Batsford but I’m very much glad they did.
For more information on visiting Batsford Arboretum.