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21 Aug 2023

Sprouting success: year one of PLANTS

PLANTS project North team Philippa Holdsworth and Valeria Soddu
As we begin the next phase of our ambitious three-year horticultural project to meticulously document the plants across our 39 gardens, it’s a good time to celebrate the progress of the PLANTS (Plant Listing at the National Trust for Scotland) project so far.

Rooted in our vision to be responsible for nature, beauty and heritage for everyone, the project to catalogue our plant collections is allowing us to better understand how they can be protected for future generation, and also to uncover the stories of how they came to be in our gardens. Made possible by support received from our charity’s members and supporters, on its first anniversary the PLANTS project celebrates a total of over 25,000 plantings audited. Of our 39 gardens, nine have been visited during phase one, with the findings already uncovering some remarkable stories that help to piece together Scotland’s ties to global history.

As Scotland’s largest garden owner – which altogether are estimated to be home to over 100,000 plants – we believe that understanding the composition of our plant collections will significantly enhance our ability to manage the risks of plant disease, severe weather, storm damage, and the growing impact of the climate and biodiversity crisis. It will also enable us to preserve rare species and historic cultivars through propagation.

Significant findings from phase one of the project include the discovery of two giant redwoods (Sequoiadendron giganteum) residing in southside Glasgow’s Holmwood parkland, alongside a Himalayan deodar cedar (Cedrus deodara), illustrating the diversity of geographies represented in our charity’s gardens. The breadth of climates in Scotland allows for flora from across the world to flourish, as the team also audited a grouping of North American species, subalpine fir (Abies lasiocarpa) and mountain hemlock (Tsuga mertensiana), at Haddo House in Aberdeen, which nods to the 7th Earl (John Hamilton-Gordon) of Aberdeen’s time as Governor General of Canada.

The west of Scotland is renowned for its range of thriving microclimates which enable unique plant life to flourish, with the regional team carrying out work at properties including Culzean Castle, Broughton House, and Threave Garden. As with Haddo House and the Earl of Aberdeen, Broughton House showcases the links between former owners and the plants that still remain in the gardens today. The half-acre Kirkcudbright garden was developed by beloved Scottish artist Edward Atkinson Hornel – known for being a member of the Glasgow Boys and his colourful paintings – who bought the house next door to Broughton in order to extend his plot.

The PLANTS team discovered that some of Hornel’s original planting has survived by cross-referencing previous archive records with the age of the existing plants, which came to be a match. This is also supported by Broughton House’s archived letter from Hornel to a friend about how he was saddened to miss the first time the wisteria flowered as he was overseas. Wisteria is native to east Asia, and it was Japan that most influenced Hornel’s designs for his garden, as he had travelled there previously. Hornel and his sister Elizabeth, fascinated by the Arts and Crafts movement, created a Japanese-style garden with stepping stones across a pond accompanied by a glasshouse of Hornel’s own design and a variety of decorative trees.

The PLANTS project is led by Dr Anna Florence, our Curator of Plant Collections, and by Dr Colin McDowall, PLANTS Project Manager, alongside a team of experts. With the array of microclimates across Scotland and the scale and breadth of the Trust’s garden spaces, Anna, Colin and the team have relished the opportunity to showcase the rare and endangered plants and the countless stories of how they came to be there.

Curator of Plant Collections Dr Anna Florence said: ‘We are thrilled to get ready for the second year of the three-year PLANTS project. Over the past 12 months, we’ve had some amazing findings during the first phase of the project. Our gardens are truly unique in that they are home to a plethora of rare and exotic plants. Many of these species of plants are becoming endangered as the global climate crisis worsens that is why the work that we have been doing is of the utmost importance to ensure these species aren’t lost forever.’

Stuart Brooks, Director of Conservation and Policy at the Trust, said: ‘The PLANTS project represents a major investment in managing and preserving our plant collections, helping us to plan for the future of our gardens and plant collections and enable them to flourish. It’s also uncovering some fascinating stories.

‘We have already made some incredible discoveries that are allowing us to reintroduce species of plants that our gardens were once home to. We understand the significance and heritage our gardens have but also recognise the importance of them to our visitors as a landmark of long-lasting memories made with friends and loved ones. This ambitious project will help us to understand exactly what can be found in our gardens, establish its horticultural importance, and provide the information we need to best look after them, so that many more people can make memories to last a lifetime.’

“We are very grateful to our members, supporters and our PLANTS team that have made the intensive project not only possible but a great success during its first phase.”
Stuart Brooks
Director of Conservation and Policy

The PLANTS team will continue to categorise gardens throughout 2023, and will publish ongoing findings that confirm the fascinating stories of the horticulturists and plant collectors who originally designed and cared for these iconic gardens. This year the project will expand to Trust gardens across Edinburgh and the east, as the PLANTS team eagerly prepare to piece together the jigsaw puzzle of Scotland’s horticultural heritage.

Read more about the PLANTS project

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