See all stories
26 Sept 2022

Crathes Garden blog #17: A passion for plants

Written by Susan Bennett, garden guide at Crathes Castle, Garden & Estate and author of Notes from Crathes blog
A view of the Golden Garden area at Crathes Castle, featuring a square of lawn surrounded by well-established conifers and shrubs. The castle can be seen in the background, with a white flag flying.
The Golden Garden at Crathes Castle
Our expert garden guide has been sharing a blog offering a behind-the-scenes glimpse at what the team are working on in the garden at Crathes. This month, she talks about the challenges, and rewards, of plant identification.

It’s a glorious sunny day when I happen upon Philippa and her PLANTS project team working on the plant audit. The Double Shrub Border and the Golden Garden are the areas under scrutiny. The team will soon head to Inverewe, but they will return to Crathes in the winter to research and finalise their lists from all the gardens they have surveyed.

The Double Shrub Border was one of the early areas to be planted in the then kitchen garden in the 1920s. James Burnett’s marriage to Sybil Crozier-Smith in 1913 resulted in Crathes becoming one of the great gardens of the world. James was a military man, trained at Sandhurst, who served in the Boer War, in India, Egypt, France and China. Having narrowly escaped death in the First World War, he returned to Crathes to indulge in his passion for collecting shrubs and trees from across the world. He inherited Crathes and the baronetcy on his father’s death in 1926, and, apart from a year in China ‘looking after British interests’, he and Sybil devoted their lives to Crathes and its gardens. Sybil was the designer of the two.

The garden that James and Sybil took over was very different to that which we see today. The southern half was a kitchen garden, producing fruit and vegetables for the family with surplus for sale. Initially, James found space for his young trees and shrubs in the borders surroundings the northern, ornamental half of the garden, but soon he had his eye on the kitchen garden. The Camel Garden and the Double Shrub Border were the first areas to be planted with exotics, some of which remain today. In 1937 he recorded in a notebook all the shrubs and trees he had planted at Crathes. By 1951, when Crathes was gifted to the National Trust for Scotland, the kitchen garden was limited to the area now occupied by the Golden Garden. Today, the garden is famed for its diversity of plants and its brilliant design.

One of the largest trees in the Double Shrub is Phellodendron amurense (or Amur cork tree), and we can be sure it is a Sir James original because of its size. At 13m tall, it is an Aberdeenshire champion tree; it’s a Scotland champion for its girth of 233cm. The flowers, which are small and green, are greatly attractive to bumblebees.

Almost opposite this tree is a long-established Viburnum rhytidophyllum, also one of the Sir James originals. William Wright Smith of the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh (RBGE) took seeds and cuttings of this viburnum to Edinburgh in 1936 and the descendants of the Crathes specimen still live on in that garden. The ancient-looking Viburnum henryi, which also grows on the Double Shrub, is likely to be another of the early plantings. In 1929 James received various packets of seeds from RBGE, which included some of V. henryi – the present shrub may be of that seed. The shrub that grows beside it, a low mound of tangled branches, has been a mystery for some years. I remember discussing it with the gardeners one winter, but I don’t think we came to any conclusions. It’s definitely not a viburnum because it has alternate leaves. This is a problem that the PLANTS team may resolve in their winter research.

We puzzle about the two mahonias – which one is wagneri? Eventually, Philippa decides that the low-growing one beside the path is correct. Following up about M. wagneri in Bean’s plant book [1], I find I am even more confused. A Mahonia pinnata var. wagneri seems to have arisen in a nursery in France in around 1863. I will spare you more confusion but to quote Bean: ‘M. x wagneri would be a valid name for hybrids of this parentage [M. pinnata x M. aquifolium], but these would combine the characters of the parents in such diverse ways that the name is of little use in garden nomenclature’. Any the wiser? Such are the joys of naming plants. All the same, I think of the audit as a dream job.

Plant names do change – sometimes because more historical information comes to light; protocol dictates that the first given name takes precedence. Now there is DNA testing to give scientific evidence of relationships, and everything is thrown into confusion. Then again, some plants are put together by the ‘lumpers’ who consider variation is normal within a species, and others are separated into new species by the ‘splitters’. And I haven’t even mentioned the hybrids and the cultivars.

A body does exist to try and give some definitive answers: the International Plant Names Index is a collaboration between The Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew, The Harvard University Herbaria and the Australian National Herbarium. The Index names plants down to subspecies but doesn’t consider cultivars. The International Society for Horticultural Science also publishes the International Code for the Nomenclature for Cultivated Plants. The thought of being responsible for all the plant names in the world puts the audit at Crathes into perspective.

Scientific names are crucial for us to know that botanists in India (for example) are talking about the same plant as botanists in the UK. Trying to remember all the names is another problem. Philippa and I ponder over a herbaceous plant looking past its best and finally Jeffersonia comes to mind. It’s on the database, so that sounds good. But I admit to confusing it with Diphylleia sinensis which grows on the South Border. Comparing the two, we can see how Jeffersonia got its species name of diphylla. Even without a Latin education I can see that means there are two parts to the leaf, hence its common name of twinleaf. Not surprisingly, the Jeffersonia comes from North America and the Diphylleia sinensis comes from China. Will I retain these names until next year? Maybe just talking and writing about them will help me out.

A plant with very large red-pink leaves grows in a flower bed, almost taking over the neat box hedge that lines the path side.
Diphylleia sinensis

Near to the twinleaf is a shrub that has also seen better days, for it is now not much more than a couple of twigs. Philippa consults the database and wonders if it could be Syringa tomentella. I am quite taken with this possibility because some years ago when I was struggling with syringas (lilacs) I was trying to locate this plant without success. Maybe the recent removal of some of the overgrown vegetation will enable it to recover. Ten years ago, the Double Shrub Border was crowded with shrubs and trees, but slowly much of the dense planting has been thinned and woodland spring plants such as primulas, fritillaries and trilliums lighten the pathway.

Whilst Philippa deals with the Double Shrub, Valeria and Niki tackle the Golden Garden. At the south-east entrance to the Golden Garden are two viburnums. At one time they were both labelled Viburnum opulus ‘Xanthocarpum’, but at this time of year anyone can see that one of the shrubs has yellow berries whilst the other has red berries. Another problem to sort out.

It’s now nearly two years since I puzzled over the mystery vine that grows on the Doocot Border (see my earlier blog post Mild November Days) and I was interested to know what the team thought about it. Ampelopsis glandulosa var. brevipedunculata has been mooted and is under discussion. Thank goodness I don’t have to decide! I’m beginning to think this dream job might be quite stressful when time is limited.

When I walk up towards the castle I see that the usual Horn of Leys pennant has been replaced by the Union Jack flying at half-mast. The Royal family is regarded with much affection on Deeside and I am reminded that the Queen, at that time Princess Elizabeth, used to sometimes visit Crathes where she and Prince Philip would be welcomed by Sir James and Lady Burnett. James died in 1953, a year after the Queen’s father, George VI.

A Union Jack flag flies at half-mast on Crathes Castle, fluttering against a blue sky with white clouds.
Crathes Castle in mourning


  • The Rose Garden project continues to move on at a pace. The beds and paths will soon be in place. James has decided that planting will have to wait until next year. He has ordered manure and topsoil for the beds. Over the winter there will be a settling down and more topsoil can be added in the spring, after which planting can begin. The plants have been waiting a while and Joanna has been potting on when necessary.
  • Mike and Steve have just about finished the hedge cutting. This week Steve has been cutting the apiary hedges. Bees don’t like machinery near their hives so the beekeepers closed the hives up for a day or two.
  • Joanna has been taking more cuttings to add to the many already doing well.
  • As a result of the rain and warmth of the last two weeks, there has been a glut of fungi.
  • The Millpond problem is not yet resolved. During the drought it dried up, but the last spell of rain has filled it up again.

[1] W J Bean, Trees and Shrubs Hardy in the British Isles, 4 vols, John Murray, 1980

Explore Crathes Castle

Visit now