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19 Apr 2022

Around the world in our gardens

Written by Chris Wardle, Gardens and Designed Landscape Manager, Aberdeenshire and Angus
A view of a garden awash with colour in summer. A row of pink-flowering shrubs stands in the foreground, with tall blue delphiniums growing from the flowerbeds in the background, across the lawn.
Discover the plants of the world in our gardens
When you visit our gardens and estates you can travel the world! Gardens and Designed Landscape Manager, Chris, introduces us to some of the rare and unusual plants in our collection, from towering trees to flowering shrubs.

Our gardens are a treasure trove of plants from all over the world, just waiting to be discovered. The collections in our care have an important part to play in the conservation and preservation of many differing species and cultivars; some of them rare in cultivation and others that have historical importance.

Through the history of world travel and trade routes we have to acknowledge that many plant hunters (working for wealthy individuals or sometimes corporations) travelled the world and brought plant material back to the island nation that is the UK. As we have a generally soft climate with even temperatures and steady rainfall, many of these plants were suitably adapted to thrive in our climate.

One benefit of this has been that over the centuries although some of these plants have been lost to cultivation or deforested from the wild in their native habitats, they have continued to grow here in some numbers as a type of living library. This has now become an important conservation asset that can be repatriated to the wild.

New laws were introduced in 2010 to ensure the sharing of genetic material back to the wild and to provide continuity for access to biological material to ensure the protection of biological diversity. This treaty, called the Nagoya Protocol, was signed by almost 127 UN countries and is in action today. The National Trust for Scotland is also an active member of the International Conifer Conservation Project (ICCP) that ensures certain trees are grown and saved, to be reintroduced back to the wild at a later date.

Here are some examples of our plants that can be found all over the world.

Although ‘australis’ may make you think of Australia, Polylepis australis in fact comes from South America in central Argentina. It is one of the highest growing trees in the world and can be found at up to 3000m. Some young plants can be found at Crathes Castle. When mature it has the most amazing flaky bark.

The amazing plant Embothrium coccineum can be found lurking in a few gardens around the Trust. Sometimes called the Chilean fire bush, it has incredible vibrant red tubular flowers. In the wild it is pollinated by hummingbirds. A native of Tierra del Fuego (an archipelago at the southern tip of South America), it rarely makes a tree as it is browsed off to head height by llamas and alpacas!

Embothrium coccineum, the Chilean fire bush

Araucaria araucana: the monkey puzzle tree! Almost everyone will have seen these and will recognize the spiky tall tree that grows in many estates. In the wild in South America it is a declining and rare species as it has been deforested for timber. There is in fact more genetic diversity in the whole of the UK than in the wild. It is a key species that is being grown from seed and returned back to the wild.

At certain times of year across all gardens, Trillium is one of the most asked for plants. The Trillium is a native of North America as well as parts of Asia, and is a show-stopper in the spring. The name is taken from the three petals of the flower. A woodland plant liking deep rich woodland soils, it flowers for a short time but is stunning.

Trillium Sulcatum

Search closely and at many of our gardens and estates you will also find plants that seem almost unreal in the way that they grow: plants such as Meconopsis, the Himalayan blue poppy, or Kirengeshoma palmata, yellow wax-bells, from Japan. The incredibly bizarre Nomocharis hails from regions of Myanmar, India and China.

And sometimes standard garden varieties takes on a whole new meaning. Eryngium ‘superba’ is readily available, but one selected form grown and selected at Crathes is in a league of its own. The colour is intense and the flower itself is a double-double form!

Eryngium ‘superba’ at Crathes

Many of you will be aware of the cinnamon-coloured bark of the paperbark maple, Acer griseum. This small tree comes from central China, and was introduced to the UK in 1901 by the famous plant collector Ernest Wilson. Its has amazing flaky red-brown bark which matures and flakes more as it get older. Talking of acers, look out for the sugar maple, Acer saccharum. This native tree of eastern Canada and the USA is tapped annually for its sweet sap, which is distilled down to make the pure maple syrup we all love on our pancakes and porridge. A single tree can produce around 100 litres of sap in the spring, which when boiled down makes 1 litre of syrup!

A close-up of the branches sprouting from the trunk of a paperbark maple in Leith Hall garden. Its bright copper bark is peeling away in curls and ribbons.
Acer griseum, paperbark maple

Visit our gardens and search out the trees, shrubs and herbaceous plants that you can find. There are hidden stories from almost every continent behind the plants you can see. Be sure to ask a gardener about what you have found!