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28 Apr 2023

The PLANTS project: giants of Drum Castle

Written by Philippa Holdsworth, PLANTS Inventory Team Manager – North
Box hedging lines white gravel paths in a walled garden. Shaped trees stand at path corners, and a stone urn with white roses is at the end of one path.
The 18th-century box garden
Drum Castle is one of the oldest properties in Royal Deeside, and hosts a diverse plant collection. The PLANTS project North team has just finished their seasonal audit of the garden, and took the opportunity to find out how the plant collection relates to the history of the estate.

Drum Castle sits on a site which has strategic importance dating back at least to Roman times, close to a ford across the River Dee. In 1323 when King Robert the Bruce granted the lands to William de Irwin for his years of loyal service, he also gave him his private badge of 3 holly leaves, and the accompanying motto: Sub sole sub umbra virens – flourishing both in sunshine and in shade.

After 650 years of ownership by the Irvine Lairds, the 24th Laird made an agreement with the National Trust for Scotland which came into force in 1976. Since then, in conjunction with the Irvine Clan, the Trust has planted many hollies in recognition of its significance to Drum. Holly (or Ilex, its botanical name) is one of the few native hardwood evergreen trees in the British Isles. It adapts readily to different conditions and is a pioneer species found on the margins and cleared areas of forests.

Two of the biggest Ilex specimens at Drum frame the entrance to the historic 16th-century chapel. The trees tower over the chapel, with thick trunks showing off the silvery smooth common holly (Ilex aquifolium) bark in contrast with the dark green glossy leaves. This beautiful, secluded venue is popular for weddings, with the castle a special venue for dining.

Another beautiful and secluded location is the pond garden, and here the PLANTS team met many of the splendid conifers in the Drum garden collection. The lower end of the pond is dominated by a beautiful western hemlock (Tsuga heterophylla), and there is another in the statue border nearby, which had also been recorded as a Tsuga heterophylla but the leaves are distinctly different. The team have correctly identified it as Tsuga chinensis, commonly referred to as the Taiwan or Chinese hemlock. Identifying plants accurately is just one of many challenges the PLANTS team encounter when cataloguing the plants in the Trust gardens. The foliage of Chinese hemlock is very similar to that of western hemlock, but T. chinensis has nodding shoots and the stomatic bands are paler and more sparse.[1]

The holly theme continues as you head from the pond garden to the walled garden, passing down the avenue of holly ‘golden king’ (Ilex x altaclerensis ‘golden king’). The walled garden is a Garden of Historic Roses, with each of the 17th, 18th, 19th and 20th centuries having a quarter of the garden given over to styles and rose cultivars from the period. Hollies feature here too with the common holly’s (Ilex aquifolium) dark foliage providing a foil to the roses, in standard form and in topiary columns.

Taiwan or Chinese hemlock (Tsuga chinensis) overhangs the statue in the pond garden

The slow growing forms of the older hollies are perfect for the ancient historic setting of Drum, and are companions to some very special and ancient trees in this beautiful estate.

Plant Listing at the National Trust for Scotland (PLANTS) is the biggest horticultural audit project undertaken by the Trust and aims to celebrate, protect and better understand the flora and vegetation across our gardens and designed landscapes.

Read more about the PLANTS project

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