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12 Jun 2023

Crathes Garden blog #25: Mostly native

Written by Susan Bennett, garden guide at Crathes Castle, Garden & Estate and author of Notes from Crathes blog
A close-up of a pale yellow peony flower, with a brighter yellow centre. A bee is drinking nectar from it.
Paeonia mlokosewitschii, affectionately known as ‘Molly the Witch’, near the Aviary Terrace at Crathes Castle Garden
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 enjoys a birdsong walk through Crathes Garden & Estate, and spots some horticultural treats along the way.

The family walk was looking unhopeful in miserable weather. By the time we got to the start, just a few miles above Torphins in the Corrennie hills, there was thick fog. Other than the occasional tree looming out of the mist, there was nothing much to be seen. Nothing to see, but plenty to hear: cuckoos, curlews and skylarks among others! With such an accompaniment the walk could only be joyful. Cuckoos, curlews and skylarks have been in serious decline; here at least they seemed to be in good health. Pondering on the soundscape of the misty moor, I thought it would be good to walk round Crathes Estate concentrating on the birdsong.

My skills regarding birdsong are shaky, but I knew someone who could help me out. Dave, our tree label volunteer, is an expert birder and particularly tuned to their calls. He can tell that a redpoll is flying overhead by catching its hard metallic trill. Recently, he heard a nuthatch at Crathes and finally managed to see it. Nuthatches are recent visitors to the North East, and this is a new record for Crathes.

A grey and orange nuthatch bird perched on the trunk of a tree
Nuthatch | Image: National Trust for Scotland

We started, in the second week of May, at the main Crathes gates. A wood pigeon was calling in the background, the rooks were coming and going from the small rookery near the bus stop, and a host of small birds – a feisty wren, a robin, great and blue tits, a tinkling goldfinch and the descending warble of a willow warbler – were readily heard. We walked up beside the millpond with goldcrests singing high up above us. Chaffinches, coal tits, blackbirds and chiffchaffs were added to the list. All these birds will nest at Crathes and need to feed youngsters. Will the unfolding leaves of the woodland trees host enough caterpillars? According to the British Trust for Ornithology, a great tit needs over 10,000 caterpillars per brood – all to be provided in the three weeks before fledging. It’s common for great tits to raise two broods a year. Judging by all the bird song, there must be millions of caterpillars in these woods.

Passing the giant sequoia we saw the many holes in the soft bark, likely to have been used as roosts by treecreepers. Sidetracked beside an area of young trees, we noticed the Brewer’s weeping spruce (Picea breweriana) and the Cyprus cedar (Cedrus brevifolia). Neither are common trees – the spruce is found above 3,000ft on the Oregon–California border; the cedar is similar to the Cedar of Lebanon, but smaller.

I was looking for native wild flowers. Wood sorrel and dog violets are common, and when we got onto the boardwalks the swamps were full of the aptly named marsh marigold (Caltha palustris). Along the Coy Burn, I am always hoping for a dipper, but no luck that day. Beside the bridge we heard the blackcap with its lovely, joyful song, and the disyllabic flight call of the siskin. A redpoll flew over, although I didn’t realise at the time. However, I had no problem recognising the crow cawing away in the woods.

Moving along beside the fields of oilseed rape, we heard both a song thrush and a mistle thrush. The song thrush makes a glorious sound and usually repeats its song, but the mistle thrush has a more mournful call. A yellowhammer called in the distance to the north – ‘a little bit of bread and no cheeeeese’ – and a swallow (my first for the year) flew by. The old barn beside the field should be an ideal place for the swallow to build its nest. Dave and I talked about the loss of habitats and suitable buildings for swallows and swifts to nest in. I remember the joy experienced when the screaming swifts returned each year to nest in our house in Moray – usually about 18 May.

The young larch cones, still with a touch of pink, along with the primroses beside the path and the greater stitchwort flowers (Stellaria holostea) gave us something else to consider as we headed round the fields towards the Crathes car park. Then, Dave picked out the distant song of the skylark and, nearby, a stock dove called – throaty, but more nervous than the wood pigeons. A little further along, he heard the call of the treecreeper followed by its song. It’s a pretty song and clear, although not commonly heard.

We were welcomed to the walled garden by a blackcap and a dunnock. The dunnock, or hedge sparrow, is quite a drab-looking bird, but its song belies its appearance. I have one singing in my garden every morning, and it is only recently that I realised it had such a lovely song. We didn’t hear the cuckoo at Crathes, but the gardeners and rangers report that one was cuckooing just a few days ago. The oystercatchers have now made a nest in the agapanthus pot in the Fountain Garden. This is not a good choice for a nest site – people always go too close to look and success is unlikely. Last year, the nest in the tall urn in the Red Garden was initially successful, with chicks hatching, but eventually they came to grief.

The walk took up most of the morning and my garden visit was brief. Joanna has been nurturing oak seedlings. Last October, she collected acorns from trees on the estate and planted them in pots left outside. The mice got at some but a fair few germinated. She has noted where they are from and from under which tree. The walnuts that Dave brought from the British Legion are doing very well.

In the Rose Garden I was amazed at how the grass has grown. The weather has been perfect to bring on that flush of green. Steve is taking great care laying the channel of cobbles, so that the water will run down the side of the path to the collecting drain. He told me that the cobbles were found when the winter floods swept away large quantities of soil near the millpond – it was then realised that they were the ones removed from the courtyard when the redevelopment for the café took place. The courtyard area with buildings is named as ‘offices’ on the 1838 estate map and is thought to have been the cattle yard of the Home Farm (the castle had a dual purpose as the family seat and a farm house). Steve has graded the cobbles, with the smaller ones in the middle part of the drain, but he is running out of small cobbles.

I headed through the native woodland area looking for more wild flowers. There was a wide sward of blue – a mixture of ground ivy and bugle. Both are of the Lamiaceae (previously Labiatae) or deadnettle family, but the bugle has a larger flower and shinier leaf. A distinctive insect resting on the bugle was a St Mark’s fly, so called because it is much in evidence around St Mark’s Day (25 April) each year. It drifts about in grassy places with its black legs dangling. It’s late to arrive this year, like most things, on account of the long cold spring, although at least we did not had late frosts.

On another day, this one hot and sunny, I walked up from the gate listening for more birdsong and looking for more wild flowers. A great tit greeted me, ‘teacher, teacher, teacher’, but soon I was lost without Dave to sort out the variety of songs. There are, however, two birds that I can only distinguish by their songs, as they look so similar: the willow warbler with its descending lilt and the chiffchaff which sings its name. Chiffchaffs put the emphasis equally on each syllable, unlike the great tit which puts the emphasis on the ‘teach’.

I am more comfortable with flowers. Bluebells, the English ones (Hyacinthoides non-scripta), mingle with stitchwort by the gate. The long dark blue corolla tubes, that hang on one side of the stem, tell me that they are not the invasive non-native Spanish bluebells (Hyacinthoides hispanica). These also grow at Crathes and have flowers that open more widely and grow all round the stem. Scottish bluebells, or harebells, come later in the year. I saw all the flowers I had seen the previous week (other than the marsh marigold) as well as forget-me-nots, alkanets, red campions, jack by the hedges and comfreys – though I’m not sure if it was the native species. In the upper layers of vegetation, broom, hawthorn, rowan and bird cherry caught my eye. Up near the gardener’s yard I found wild garlic (Allium ursinum) – great for cooking with, but definitely invasive in the garden. The attempt to banish it from the walled garden has been rather a failure.

It’s lovely to see the new Highland calf. The Highland cattle are a great draw for visitors, but they are also good for biodiversity as they trample the ground and eat some of the coarser grasses.

Back to the garden, James and Steve are still working on the paths of the Rose Garden and Helen (one of our volunteers) is finishing painting the arbours. Andy has found more small cobbles to enable Steve to finish the side drain; all that is needed now is to connect it to the main drain. Old grills and drain covers are being reused. The opening of the Rose Garden is planned for late July, by which time the plants should be settling in nicely.

In the Fountain Garden the oystercatcher was still sitting on her/his eggs (they take turns) and I was delighted to see more mining bees about. Some holes in the croquet lawn path look rather big, and I wonder if the oystercatchers have found a new food source.

A few changes have been made to the Evolution Garden. James decided that the dead cycads in the Pangea bed need to be removed and that he will not persevere with them. He has replaced them with Thuja plicata ‘Whipcord’, a low-growing cultivar of the giant western red cedar that I failed to realise was a conifer. The monkey puzzle trees in the cretaceous bed were only temporary and they have been replaced with Pinus parviflora ‘Fukai’, another gymnosperm. This cultivar of the Japanese white pine is slow growing, but will need to be well pruned if it is to remain in this bed. The tree ferns looked dead but may yet surprise us. Adapting to warming temperatures is difficult when hard frosts of winter persist along with summer heatwaves.

In the glasshouse, the voodoo lily (Amorphophallus) is in flower. It’s a smaller species than the A. titan, or corpse flower, which makes such a statement at RBGE and Kew. All the same, Joanna said it made a horrible stink when it first opened up. The smell of rotting flesh is to attract flies to pollinate the flowers, which are at the bottom of the spathe.

I headed up to the ranger’s office. The rangers have 11 properties to care for in the North East and are always busy. I met Bethany, the new seasonal ranger, and Olivia, a student volunteer. I learned that there have been two heron nests this year, next to the old heronry damaged by Storm Arwen. The heron trail that leads from the main gate to the castle is being developed for improved accessibility. There is a problem with the early part of the trail due to tree roots and a steep gradient, but ultimately the trail will be accessible for wheelchair users.

This year, I have a particular interest in meadows because I am trying to develop meadows in my own little garden. Up near the shop is a small meadow that has been developing for some years. The yellow rattle that is so important for parasitising the rank grasses is an annual, and so I am interested to see a thick carpet of it self-seeded amongst the grass. Recently, fox-and-cubs (Pilosella aurantiaca) has been dominant in this meadow, with some St John’s wort evident. Though fox-and-cubs is not a native, it is much appreciated by hoverflies and is one of the plants I am establishing in my ‘lawn’. It was also a favourite of Sybil, Lady Burnett. The meadow behind the viewpoint is a younger development. Last year it was dominated by a yellow dandelion-type plant, maybe a cat’s ear, but this year it looks as if the ox-eyed daisies may be serious competition. Ox-eyes are lovely in a meadow and I am bringing on seedlings to add to my lawn, but beware: they are inclined to seed everywhere and you may not want them in your flower borders. Down by the castle, where the bank overlooking the croquet lawn has been left unmown, a natural meadow is developing. I noted a cowslip the other week and forgot to check if the rabbits had been busy – rabbits love cowslips.

There was a seductive scent of honey wafting around the viewpoint that came from the Viburnum davidii, something I had not realised before.

As I left, I noticed what is probably one of the original drains leading from the courtyard. It looks just like an ancient version of the new one made for the Rose Garden, and I wonder if this was the inspiration for the design.

Next time I visit, I expect all the plants waiting for the frosts to go will be planted out, and Joanna will heave a sigh of relief as she passes on the responsibility of care to others. All the same, she feels a bit ‘empty nested’ at the thought.


  • The Millpond project will happen this summer. The water will be drained and much of the silt carefully removed. It’s hoped that the project will be finished in time for the autumn return of salmon from the sea.
  • Now that pesticides are no longer used, the paths are being hoed to keep down weeds. Kevin was careful to avoid hoeing the mining bee colonies.

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