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31 Mar 2023

The PLANTS project: spring highlights

Written by Philippa Holdsworth, PLANTS Inventory Team Manager – North
A close-up of a pale pink/purple rhododendron flower, with darker purple spots going deep into the flower on one of the petals.
Rhododendrons in bloom | Image: c WaldWiese, Shutterstock
Many of us take pleasure in spring flowers, like crocus and daffodils, that emerge reliably around this time to bring us some new seasonal cheer. However, before the daffodils emerge in force, we can find other early treats in flower in many of our National Trust for Scotland gardens.

Early rhododendrons

A close-up of a purple rhododendron flower, which is made up of a cluster of large 'cones'. The plant's dark, waxy green leaves can be seen in the background.
Rhododendron sutchuenense | Image: c WaldWiese, Shutterstock

There are over 1,000 species in the genus Rhododendron and many more cultivars. They vary widely in terms of size, habit, colour and flowering-time; you can find a rhododendron flowering in Scotland somewhere in every month of the year.

At Crathes, the PLANTS team have been enjoying the blooms of an early species called Rhododendron sutchuenense, which is flowering in the woodland garden. It has large trusses of very vibrant mauve or magenta flowers above equally large leaves, making it really stand out at this time of year. This species was first collected in China around 1890, where it enjoys conditions of mixed woodland at high altitude.


A close-up of two tiny dog's-tooth violet flowers, growing straight up from the ground. Their delicate purple petals point up, whilst the stamen points down to the ground.
Erythronium dens-canis | Image: Dusan Vainer, Shutterstock

In shady, moist woodland corners, like the Pond Garden at Drum Castle, you can find Erythronium dens-canis, or dog’s-tooth violet. First you will see the interesting spotty leaves emerging, then the dainty flowers open and add a real splash of interest to the spring woodland floor or border.

Like many early flowers, this grows from a bulb – its name relates to the shape of the bulb. The other part of the name is not so helpful, since it is not related to other plants you might know as violets. This is where botanical names are beneficial and why the PLANTS team work with botanical names when recording plants throughout the National Trust for Scotland gardens. The binomial (two-part) names give us accuracy and overcome regional differences in common names.


A close-up of a lime-green hellebore flower, with lots of chunky buds behind it.
Helleborus foetidus | Image: Marineke Thissen, Shutterstock

We have come across a beautiful variety of hellebores in the few gardens we have visited so far this year. They flower in winter and early spring and are quite at home in winter chill. They have long been known as a valuable source of nectar for winter-foraging insects at a time when it can be scarce. At Drum Castle, most of the hellebores are what used to be known as Helleborus orientalis. However, so much inter-breeding has taken place – and the details of most hellebores’ parentage are so unclear – that they are now known as Helleborus × hybridus. Plant enthusiasts breed evermore beautiful hellebores. At Branklyn Garden, there is a collection of Helleborus × hybridus ‘Ashwood Garden hybrids’ from Ashwood Nurseries, given in memory of a volunteer. These are an astonishing range of colours, in particular with strong colour on the reverse of the sepals.

Our native hellebore Helleborus foetidus (or stinking hellebore) is the shortest-living hellebore – it rarely lives longer than three to four years. Yet, it is a good, all-round plant, starting with attractive, deeply divided leaves, which are a dark green. It has been the subject of studies by the Spanish National Research Council regarding winter nectar. Hellebore nectar contains natural yeasts, which have been shown to ferment the nectar. This produces heat and raises the temperature within the flower a few degrees above the ambient temperature. This keeps the nectar available in cold weather and also helps to attract bees to the flower. [1]

After spending the winter processing data gathered in last year’s surveys, the PLANTS team are now back out surveying gardens and cataloguing plants. In the near future you will find the North team in Crathes, Haddo and Drum gardens, and we look forward to seeing you there.

[1] Carlos M Herrera and María I Pozo, ‘Nectar yeasts warm the flowers of a winter-blooming plant’ in Proceedings of The Royal Society, 2010, vol. 277, pp. 1827–34

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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