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25 Mar 2022

Crathes Garden blog #11: An enigmatic champion

Written by Susan Bennett, garden guide at Crathes Castle, Garden & Estate
A Portugal laurel tree grows in the middle of a garden, with a paved area directly surrounding it and then neat hedges and shrubs. It is almost mushroom-shaped, with a thick trunk topped by a dense, dark green domed canopy.
Our expert garden guide has been sharing a blog offering a behind-the-scenes look at what the team are working on in the garden at Crathes. Here, Susan takes a walk around the estate and shares the stories of some of the champion trees.

Although it had started off frosty, the first day of March quickly warmed up and people exchanged greetings with comments about spring as they soaked up the sun’s warmth. The next day was cold, windy and grey; winter had returned. The meteorological beginning of spring is indeed 1 March, but the astronomical beginning of spring, connected to the Earth’s orbit around the sun, is three weeks later, around 20 March. All we can be sure of in north-east Scotland is that spring is unpredictable. From woolly beanies to sunhats, from puffer jackets to T-shirts, we have no idea what we will require in the wardrobe. In Scotland we have always obsessed about the weather; as gardeners, we need to obsess about the weather – there is no escape. This year the weather has seemed to be a mix of wind and sunshine, with very little snow, frost or rain.

With a persistent thin wind, much of the last month has felt like winter; a good time to take in the wider estate and walk the trails. I knew I would find more evidence of storm damage and I hadn’t gone far on this particular day before I came upon the damage around the heronry. As a child, I would have been surprised to hear that herons usually nested in trees and their alien squawks would have added to that surprise. The heronry at Crathes was small but special – every heronry is special – so I am thrilled to hear from the rangers that they think some herons have returned to the trees that are left.

A pine woodland, with a large area of fallen trees lying in the foreground.
Storm Arwen damage near the heronry, February 2022

At the start of the Heron trail, near the main gate to the estate, are some unusual conifers, some of which are Champions. By ‘Champions’ I refer to those trees designated by the Tree Register of the British Isles (TROBI) as being in some way special. Of particular note is the elegant and rare coffin tree (Taiwania cryptomeriodes) which is a Country Champion for Scotland in terms of girth. This tree is native to Taiwan, Vietnam and China. It was introduced to Britain in the early 20th century and is thought to have been planted here at Crathes in the 1930s. Apparently it has two phases of growth, and most of the British trees are still in the juvenile stage with bilaterally flattened, spikey needles on pendulous branches. When mature – reaching over 15m in height – the branches become horizontal and the leaves scale-like. [1] In 2018 our tree was measured as 12m, so still a junior even if a nonagenarian. In the wild the tree is classed as Vulnerable by the IUCN, but it is now grown commercially in Taiwan and China.

Next to the coffin tree is the Japanese cedar (Cryptomeria japonica) after which the species name of Taiwania is given – the leaves are similar in young specimens. Cryptomeria does well in high rainfall areas such as at Benmore Botanic Garden, where the Champion Tree (height) for Scotland was recorded at 40.6m in 2019.

Behind these trees is another Japanese conifer (Thujopsis dolabrata), which is easily identified by its thick scaly leaves which have splashes of white stomata underneath. This tree is inclined to grow with several stems. We have no champion Thujopsis at Crathes but I like it because of the amazing white and green patterns on the underside of the leaf, which are only noticeable if you think to look.

A few metres further up the drive, the western yellow pine (Pinus ponderosa) towers above its neighbours. It is a County Champion for Aberdeenshire in terms of height and girth. Seed of this pine was sent to Crathes in 1959 and appears to have germinated successfully, producing 53 seedlings. None of these Victorian trees have survived – the height of this champion (30m) suggests it was planted in the 1930s. I was fascinated to find, under the tree, enormously long needles (20cm) growing in threes. In America, the wood is commercially important.

Across the drive, a carved kingfisher stands beside the Millpond. The large carvings were gifted to Crathes a few years ago and have been used to mark the various trails around the estate. The Kingfisher trail follows the eastern side of the Millpond and the Coy Burn, passing along the boardwalks that lead across marshy parts of the woodland. We do get kingfishers here, but I have not been lucky enough to see one.

At the moment the bridge and trail that cross the burn and cut through Miller’s Ward to the car parks is closed because of storm damage, but the trail continues northwards, initially following the burn then turning west round the fields to pass the start of the Otter trail and on to the car parks. Where the Victorian aqueduct passes the trail I see ancient oaks fallen like dominoes. I didn’t see much in the way of wildlife on this walk but the birds were busy singing. I wondered if the thrush I heard was a mistle thrush; it did sound rather mournful.

A wooden carved sculpture of a kingfisher stands in woodland.
The Kingfisher trail start point

Another day, I took the back road from near the West Lodge, past the ice-covered Ley Pond, to check some pinetum trees. These conifers were planted in the 1930s or 1940s by Sir James Burnett, 13th Baronet of Leys, who gave the estate to the Trust in 1951. Many, I think, died in the 1953 gale and more have gone in the last decade. As I approached, I could see that the two northern Japanese hemlocks (Tsuga diversifolia) were still standing. Both at 17m, they are County Champions for height. This hemlock can be identified by the notch at the end of the needles.

But what about the Huon pine (Lagarostrobos franklinii)? Was it hidden behind the hemlocks, or had it fallen? It was a huge relief to see it that it was still standing and looking good. This tree, which is endemic to Tasmania, is a Country Champion for Scotland for height (7m). In its native land it grows in riparian habitats. I have written about it in a previous blog post ‘Counting the cost’. Throughout the 19th century the Huon pine forests were exploited for their timber. By as early as 1882, they were so depleted that felling was banned, although illegal logging continued. Today the trees are regenerating well in Tasmania but the forests will take centuries to return to their original splendour because the trees are slow growing. The International Dendrology Society mentions our Crathes specimen as an ‘enigma’ for growing so well so far north and east in Britain.

A pine tree with lush green needles grows in pine woodland, where the surrounding trees are taller and barer-branched.
The Huon pine is an enigma to find growing at Crathes.

I took time to enjoy the fine view over towards Banchory and Deeside. A variety of young conifers have been planted in the foreground to add to the Crathes collection, each with a protective ring of netting. Lower down, an area of commercial forestry is fenced off to prevent deer damage.

The path by the Huon pine is closed because of storm damage so I moved on along the back road to take a look at another area of young conifers planted in the last 20 or 30 years. I didn’t expect to see much storm damage since the trees are not very tall. So I was horrified to find the young Huon pine, that looked so healthy last year, had blown over and snapped at the base. Thank goodness the champion survived.

Following a deer track I came to beeches and oaks beside an old wall. The sun lit up the mosses that covered the wall and I was content that the ancient oaks had survived the storm. The rusty maroon patterns of mature Scots pine bark added to my enjoyment. But before long I saw more ancient oaks fallen and twisted, and my spirits sank.

I realised I had inadvertently strayed into the closed Silver Birch trail. I ended my walk sitting on the viewpoint bench, enveloped in the scent of daphne, accompanied by the buzzing of bees, the drumming of the woodpeckers, and serenaded by a robin. Despite the disappointments, it had been a grand walk.

A curved bench in a resting area stands in front of a lawn, with a house in the distance. Beside the bench grows a tall shrub, covered in small pink-white flowers.
Viewpoint with Daphne ‘Jacqueline Postill’

I did wonder if spring might be on its way when, just this week, I spied my first lesser celandine of the year by the oak and hazel wood just to the south of the walled garden.

Spring was definitely confirmed in the walled garden where the chilling winds are kept at bay by the walls and surrounding trees: the Chionodoxa was spreading its magic throughout the garden; the Stachyurus praecox on the Aviary Terrace was dripping with flowers; the Pieris japonica ‘Rosalinda’ on the South Border was buzzing with bees; and the Cornus mas on the Yew Border was a picture.

One of the champions in the walled garden is regarded with great affection. The central Portugal laurel, Prunus lusitanica, is a Country Champion for Scotland for girth. We don’t know its age, but we do fear that, with its hollow trunk, it might not stand much longer. It is amazing that it survived the winter storms; every year is a bonus.


  • James and Steve have been working on the dipping pool. Caithness slabs are being cut to make a low wall round three sides of the pool to prevent run-off of gravel and nutrients during heavy rainfall. The leaves that have blown in will rot and encourage more wildlife. We watch a frog swimming about at the bottom of the pond. The one tray of carnivorous plants that was left out has fared well, but most have been overwintering in the mist house and will soon be re-positioned on the shelving round the pool. Next winter, more will be left out to take their chance. The iron railings – that match those at the viewpoint – have arrived and will finish the landscaping to make it safe.
  • Contractors have arrived to point the Croquet Lawn steps and Aviary Terrace wall. This job was delayed from last year.
  • The white display in the second glasshouse has been removed and the house cleaned. Hippeastrum ‘Magnum’ is now a star. Joanna and Emily had the scary job of removing the bulbs from the old ice house (it is full of water below, with cave spiders and their dangling nests above). Presently the bulbs are in the broadspan, but soon will be displayed in the show houses.

[1] The Trees and Shrubs Online website of the International Dendrology Society is useful for further information.

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