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4 May 2020

The creation of the woodland garden at Brodick Castle

Written by Tim Keyworth, Gardens and Designed Landscape Manager, Ayrshire and Arran
Black and white photograph of a woodland garden.
The woodland garden at Brodick Castle, taken for an article in The Scotsman in 1939
The plant collection at Brodick has long been held in high regard by horticulturalists and enthusiasts from around the world. The woodland garden as we know it today was created a century ago.
Full-length portrait of a woman, sitting with her left arm leaning on an open book on a table.
Lady Marie Louise Hamilton, Duchess of Montrose (d.1957), Daughter of William, 10th Duke of Hamilton

In 1920, the Duchess of Montrose started to transform the woodland garden at Brodick Castle. The garden at this time was overrun with the invasive Rhododendron ponticum and not much remained of the original Victorian plantings in the policies surrounding the castle.

But the thicket of ‘common rhododendron’ proved to be the ideal shelter belt in which to establish new plantings of rare rhododendrons and a variety of trees and shrubs from across the globe.

Some of these plants were probably the first introductions to gardens in the United Kingdom. The Duchess was one of many people and organisations who helped to sponsor some of the most famous plant hunters of the day. The two with the strongest connections to Brodick Castle are George Forrest and Frank Kingdon-Ward. Both were intrepid explorers and exceptionally prolific at collecting plant material, which they sent back to Britain to be propagated.

Sepia-toned, black and white photograph of a man standing in a circular stone arch, with two dogs.
George Forrest

Growing rare and unusual species, and providing the conditions in which the plants could thrive, became more important than the overall design and look of the plantings in the garden. It’s largely thanks to the vision of the Duchess that the gardens boast such a varied plant collection today.

The Duchess had an important horticultural ally in this task – her son-in-law, Major Boscawen, whose uncle was Colonel Dorrien Smith of Tresco in the Isles of Scilly. In the late 1930s, a large consignment of plants was sent from Tresco Abbey Gardens to Brodick by boat. Many of these tender plants were planted in the walled garden and the ‘Tresco border’, which is located just beyond the lower wall of the walled garden.

Warm winters, high rainfall and good soil combine to produce very fertile growing conditions, and where shelter is provided from the often violent winter winds growth rates can be quite astonishing. Trees, shrubs and herbs that originate from most temperate regions of the world – particularly China, the Himalayas, New Zealand, Tasmania and Chile – all thrive here. Many plants grown outside at Brodick would need the protection of glass if grown elsewhere in Britain.

Close up of a Himalayan blue poppy growing in a flower bed, with trees and shrubs in the background.
The Himalayan blue poppy, Meconopsis betonicifolia, which grows in many Trust gardens today, was first discovered by Frank Kingdon-Ward

The gardens are home to three national collections of rhododendron. Two of them, Rhododendron Subsection Grandia and Rhododendron Subsection Falconera, include many of our large-leaved varieties. The other is Rhododendron Subsection Maddenia, which are tender, elegant and highly scented.

A further group of rhododendrons, the Horlick Collection, were gifted to the Trust in 1958 by Sir James Horlick of Achamore House on the Isle of Gigha. At one time, the garden at Brodick was known to contain over 360 different species of rhododendron!

Close up of the pale pink rhododendron flowers of Rhododendron Maddenia.
Rhododendron Maddenia

Rhododendrons can be in flower at Brodick at most times of the year, but the main flush of blooms usually occurs in late April and early May, when a walk through the woodland garden is a breathtaking experience. And although, unfortunately, you won’t be able to visit us this year to see the rhododendrons at their peak, we look forward to welcoming you when our places reopen.

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