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19 Aug 2022

From interview to Inverewe: 100 days of PLANTS

Written by Dr Colin McDowall, PLANTS Project Manager
A view across the walled garden of Inverewe Garden. The dark shapes of mountains loom in the distance, and in the garden visitors walk along the pathways.
Inverewe Garden, Poolewe
During our PLANTS (Plant Listing at the National Trust for Scotland) project, our project manager will share a behind-the-scenes look at what the teams are working on and reflections on progress. Here is Dr Colin McDowall’s first update.

As I write this we are in mid-summer, middle of the year, mid-season. It is a time both for celebrating the the garden at its best and for taking stock. It’s therefore also a perfect opportunity to reflect on the work of the PLANTS project team over the last three months.

In 1933, three months into his presidency, Franklin D Roosevelt gave a radio address in which he coined the term ‘first 100 days’. Since then, new administrations have regularly been judged on the impact of their first 100 days. Our project may not be as bold as Roosevelt’s action plan to tackle the Great Depression, but identifying trees, plants and flowers in every border, woodland and grotto of the 39 Trust gardens is a complex course of action in its own right! In this post I hope to share some of highlights of the first 100 days of our project.

April to May: From interview to Inverewe

I was delighted and excited to take on the role of project manager of the PLANTS project in April. The first few weeks were a whirlwind, learning the aims and objectives of the project and getting to grips with the preparation work undertaken over the past year by Dr Anna Florence, Curator of Plant Collections. I was immediately struck by the complexity of the project, but it was also a time of great excitement. With the help of Anna, Project Administrator Rob Hutchinson, and countless other Trust staff who shared both their time and their knowledge very generously, by the end of May two of the three Inventory Teams had been recruited and the schedule of garden visits provisionally agreed for the next three years.

8 people stand or sit around a stone urn filled with plants in a garden. A large house is in the background. There are 6 women and 2 men. All wear navy National Trust for Scotland fleeces.
The PLANTS project team at Malleny Garden

One of the highlights of my first weeks in-post was visiting multiple Trust properties to meet the garden teams. Since taking up the role, I have travelled over 2,000 miles across the length and breadth of Scotland. Trust gardens are delightful and diverse, from artist E A Hornel’s Kirkcudbright home of Broughton House, to the stately ancestral home of the Earls of Aberdeen, Haddo House, which was designed by William Adam. While the visits were crucial opportunities to build relationships with garden staff and to agree objectives, they were also the perfect excuse for me to tour gardens I had always longed to visit and to indulge my passion for horticulture. A word limit means I cannot recount every inspirational moment experienced on visits made to Drum Castle, Culzean, Threave and Broughton – to just name a few! But by way of illustration, allow me to transport you to Inverewe Garden.

This remote and wind-swept garden was established by Osgood Mackenzie in 1864. Carved out of seaboard rock and pebble beach outside the West Highland village of Poolewe, the garden contains an important collection of tender plants, some of which are found nowhere else in the United Kingdom aside from the South-West of England. I arrived on what turned out to be one of the wettest days of the year so far, with 109mm of rainfall. No true gardener will let a little bit of rain get in his or her way, so I donned my Trust-branded woolly hat, winter jacket, gloves and boots for a tour with Head Gardener Kevin Ball, who was quite happy in a summer jacket.

The warming effect of the Gulf Stream was soon evident in the plant life at least, as Kevin pointed out flourishing rare species of rhododendron (the tender Maddenia subsection), a huge Magnolia campbellii that only grows well in the milder parts of Britain and several white-flowered Eucryphias native to South America and Australasia. Despite the heavy rain we kept walking for hours through the 14 different areas of the garden, each with its own unique character. I was transported through jungle areas shaded with tree ferns (Dicksonia antarctica) and the Chusan palm (Trachycarpus fortunei), and pond areas growing moisture-loving plants including the enormous-leaved Gunnera (manicata).

At the garden’s highest point we reached a viewing area. Damage caused by Storm Corrie had opened out the shelterbelt to expose spectacular, and devastating, views across the loch. The fallen trees (some of which were originally planted by Mackenzie himself) were almost sculpture-like. As Kevin told me about the plants lost to the garden as a result of the storm, the magnitude of the loss became clear. Grief and mourning are highly evocative words, but seem the only appropriate ones to describe the impact on Kevin and his team. The relationship between a garden and those who love it is a visceral one. I was struck by the fragility of the plant kingdom, and by the importance of recording for posterity the plants we have around us now.

Read more: Storm Corrie at Inverewe

June: training and team building

June was by far the project’s busiest month. Process documentation was finalised, garden audits were scheduled, clothing and equipment were ordered, prayers that clothing and equipment would arrive in time were said and (thankfully) answered. Risk Assessment training took me to the Hill House in Helensburgh. It was my first visit to the unique building, designed and furnished by Charles Rennie Mackintosh and Margaret Macdonald. A steel box has been erected over the house to protect it from the elements. The contrast between this state of the art 21st-century conservation structure and the building it protects (which was revolutionary when it was built in 1900) made for a fascinating juxtaposition.

June was also the month of our first team meeting, bringing inventory managers and officers from across Scotland together in Edinburgh. Due to ongoing Covid restrictions, our interviews had been conducted online so it was a pleasure to sit down and talk face-to-face about the project and to set goals for the summer. Inevitably we used the team meeting as an opportunity to visit another garden, so a short drive later we arrived at Malleny Garden for group photographs. I had a real sense that the project was now getting started.

Read more: Meet the PLANTS project teams

With over 150 varieties, Malleny holds one of the largest collections of roses in Scotland, as well as the national collection of 19th-century shrubs roses. What better time to visit then, than in June, when they were blooming free and full all over the garden, their scents heavy in the air. We saw some favourites including Rosa ‘Stanwell Perpetual’ and Rosa ‘Paul's Himalayan Musk’.

A close-up of a shrub, covered with very pale pink rose-like flowers.
A rose (‘Paul’s Himalayan Musk’) at Malleny Garden

July: Let the audit begin

Upon winning the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1995, Seamus Heaney announced that he would spend some of his prize money on courses to enable him to identify the trees and plants around him on his daily walk in the countryside. I was reminded of Heaney’s desire to understand the natural world around him as the West Team headed out to audit gardens at Holmwood House and Culzean Castle, while the North Team went to Haddo House and Drum Castle.

The first audit I visited was at Holmwood House, an impressive villa located in the Southside of Glasgow and designed by Alexander ‘Greek’ Thomson. Despite growing up less than 10 miles away, it was a property I had never visited until this trip. I was immediately struck by the grand but warm atmosphere of the house, and the friendly and infectious enthusiasm of the property and garden team. As I approached the property from the car park, I was proud to see my team spread out throughout the garden, noting the family, genus species and cultivar of each plant they encountered.

My visits to each garden have consolidated and re-energised my love for, and knowledge of, plants. I have come across plants I have known and loved for years and others that I have never set eyes on before. I am enjoying spending so much time with some of the finest plant collections in the UK. There have been certain challenges, of course, such as my visit to Haddo House to help the team identify species of pine planted as part of the International Conifer Conservation Programme. Was what we were looking at Pinus contorta var. latifolia or Pinus banksiana? Pines do vary in appearance when examined under a lens – their needles may be long or short and clustered in twos, threes, or fives – but in the moment it is difficult to remember which is which. These situations were certainly a team effort and specialised books are relied upon to confirm identification – as well as the correct way to spell Latin names!

So, overall, the first 100 days of the PLANTS project have been an inspiring, rewarding and humbling experience. The team’s preparation work and their initial audits have been a success. We are constantly learning about new plants and refining the way in which we audit, and we look forward to what awaits us as the summer unfolds.