A global garden

This month’s travel theme is very apt for the gardener as so many of the plants we know and love come from all over the world. For Head Gardener Dan, growing plants from around the world here at Winterbourne is his own way of exploring countries he’s yet to visit. So read on as he takes you on a tour of our plants from around the world.

Many years ago, I travelled to Japan with a Winterbourne colleague to study the temple gardens of Kyoto. We marveled at the brilliant cherry blossom of course, and perfectly manicured domes of verdant moss, but we also marveled at how familiar so many native Japanese plants were to us and our own gardens at home.

There are several reasons for this – in part a comparable climate  – but perhaps the main reason is simply an enduring admiration for Japanese gardens by British gardeners, and a subsequent desire to try and recreate them at home, using now-familiar plants like hostas, maples and camellias, that were first cultivated in Japan thousands of years ago.

Many of these plants were smuggled illegally out of Japan and later collected by known plant-hunters after Japan was forced to open its borders to the outside world in the 1850s.

We had our own Japanese garden devotee here at Winterbourne as well of course. Our final private owner, John Macdonald Nicolson, was well known for his passion for oriental style and introduced a number of features to the garden inspired by the region, notably the Japanese Bridge leading to the Woodland Walk, and the Japanese Tea House overlooking the Sandstone Rock Garden.

As it happens, with the Sandstone Rock Garden being planted with so many Japanese maples, ferns and dwarf azaleas – plants we traditionally associate with Japanese gardens – the whole area does have a certain oriental flare, even though John’s Japanese Tea House was not a particularly good replica

Nevertheless, you can see Japanese plants all over the garden. Perhaps the next obvious place to look is the Asian section of the Geographical Borders. Here, you’ll find one of my favourite trees, Cercidiphyllum japonicum. This is often commonly called the katsura tree, but I call it the ‘candy floss tree’ because in autumn, when its deciduous leaves turn yellow, orange and pink, they smell deliciously of burnt sugar, a scent that can carry all the way through the garden.

A quick walk around the rest of the Geographical Beds reminds me of how indebted we are as gardeners to the flora of so many other countries, and how many different places I have yet to visit.

I would love to see huge stands of monkey puzzle trees in the South American Andes, alpine screes in the alps, and the eucalypt forests of Australia. For now, I’ll have to settle for trying to grow a small portion of these plants here, in Birmingham, with our garden a little window into lands I’m yet to explore.

Dan Cartwright
Head Gardener