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12 Aug 2022

Ferns and finds at Haddo House Garden

Written by Philippa Holdsworth (North Team Manager)
A narrow gravel path runs between a lawn and a flower bed bursting with colourful plants. Behind the flower bed is a hedge, and behind it is the grand Haddo House. Tree branches frame the top of the photo.
Haddo House Garden
As the PLANTS North team wrap up their work at Haddo House, it’s a great opportunity for Philippa Holdsworth (Team Manager) to reflect on the project and the path forward.

The PLANTS North team will journey through 13 beautiful National Trust for Scotland gardens over the next 3 years, and our starting point was Haddo House in Aberdeenshire in late June. After lots of preparation, it felt good to get underway as we explored the giant trees on the front lawns and recorded their botanical names and locations.

The Haddo garden contains several different components:

  • The formal terrace, which is a key part of the classic view of Palladian-style Haddo House
  • The long and elegant herbaceous border
  • The intricate beds in the Jubilee Border
  • The fernery
  • Lady Aberdeen’s secluded corner garden
  • The specimen trees on the lawns
  • The collection of conifers from the International Conifer Conservation Programme

We soon discovered the connection with North American species, as we learned that from 1893–98 the 1st Marquess of Aberdeen and Temair, John Hamilton-Gordon of Haddo House, had been Governor General of Canada. In the first group of trees we surveyed, we found a sweet chestnut that was not the expected Castanea sativa but was the American chestnut Castanea dentata.

Two women stand in front of a banner advertising that the PLANTS project is working here today! Tall trees surround them and courtyard buildings can just be seen through the trees in the background.
Philippa and Valeria at Haddo House

During our survey, we establish which records are available for each particular garden, to help with identifying the plants. Accession books, purchasing information, maps and garden projects can all help to provide detail on cultivars and where plants have been located at the property.

I was exploring the folder recording the development of the fernery, and was a little confused about why it started with the Victorian names of the plants, translated them into their modern names, then listed nurseries that stocked them. I was even more confused when I found a list of plates and crockery. It was Tim (the First Gardener) who enlightened me, and I felt foolish for not having toured the house. When the Hamilton-Gordons were leaving Canada in 1898, they were presented with a ‘Dinner and Tea Service representing Canadian birds, flowers, fruit and places of historic interest’. It was hand-painted by members of the Women’s Art Association of Canada and presented to the Countess as a farewell gift by members of the Senate and the House of Commons in Canada.

A collection of china plates on display. All are painted with illustrations of different types of ferns. All have a gold mottled pattern around the outside.
The Canadian tea service

The Head Gardener in 2017 had taken the tea plates painted with ferns as the basis for the planting in the fernery. They had sourced the names of the ferns and then worked out how they would be referred to in modern plant taxonomy in order to purchase them. We enjoyed our survey of the fernery, especially the intriguing variety in the planting. When our survey finished in nice time on our last afternoon, Tim took us into the house to see the dinner service on display.

Lesson from our first survey: understand the heritage of the property and garden in advance in order to better understand the planting.

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