Trees at Colesbourne Park


The fabulous leaves of the Oregon maple, Acer macrophyllum

Colesbourne Park, about 20 minutes from me by car, is known for its snowdrops, and a visit to Colesbourne to see them in flower, and perhaps buy a choice variety for the garden, is one of the few things I can think of that makes February bearable.
Colesbourne is featured in my book, Secret Gardens of the Cotswolds, and I've visited several times since then, but I've never been at this time of the year. However, this year owner Sir Henry Elwes has decided to open the arboretum to the public, so I was invited for a private tour with Sir Henry and his head gardener, Arthur Cole, who trained at the Royal Botanic Gardens in Edinburgh.
The reason Colesbourne has such a wonderful collection of snowdrops is down to the current owner's great-grandfather, Henry John Elwes, who was an eminent botanist and plant collector. It is said that if Kew didn't know the answer to a query, they would write to Colesbourne, where 14 glasshouses, each with a different climate, housed Henry's plants which he gathered from all over the world.
He discovered Galanthus elwesii, the snowdrop species named after him, in Turkey in 1874, in the mountains near what is now Izmir. Bulbs were his passion, but from 1900 to 1913, he collaborated on Trees of Great Britain and Ireland with Augustine Henry.
Anyone who loves plants knows that part of the key to getting something to grow well is to try to replicate as far as possible the conditions that the plant enjoys in the wild. Henry travelled all over the world gathering information about trees - and gathering a few specimens as he went. One of these was a tiny seedling of Cryptomeria japonica (Japanese cedar), which he brought back in a cigarette tin on the Trans-Siberian railway.
It is recorded as being planted by the ice house at Colesbourne in 1901 - and you can still see it there today.


The cryptomeria brought back by Henry, left. On the right is a katsura tree, Cercidiphyllum japonicum
It was always Henry's dream to have an arboretum at Colesbourne, but sadly, his Cotswolds estate did not offer the ideal growing conditions. The soil is alkali - Cotswold limestone - and late frosts can defoliate new shoots. Despite this, eight of his trees are now the largest of their kind in the British isles, and bear the title of Champion Trees. Among these is the rare Corylus avellana 'Heterophylla', with its nettle-like leaves.

Sir Henry Elwes, the current owner of Colesbourne, with the leaves of Corylus avellana 'Heterophylla'

Then there are other specimens which, while not champions, are certainly breathtakingly beautiful. We tend to think of Abies nordmanniana as an upmarket Christmas tree which doesn't drop its needles, but the specimen at Colesbourne demonstrates how beautiful it can be when full size.
The branches of Abies nordmanniana catch the autumn sunlight
One of my favourite stories concerns the Platanus orientalis (below), whose sprawlng branches  look as if they are supporting themselves on their elbows. This is said to have been taken as a cutting from a tree growing on the grave of a Chinese emperor.


Personally, I love conifers but I sympathise with anyone who says they find it difficult to identify each species, never mind the cultivars. Here's a failsafe tip from Sir Henry with regard to the Douglas fir, one of the best trees for timber. According to legend, there was once a great fire in the forest, and all the animals fled the encroaching flames. The mice, being tiny animals with short legs, couldn't hope to outrun the fire, and asked the Douglas firs for help. The trees told them to climb up inside the cones, where they would be safe, and if you look at a Douglas fir cone, you can always see what look like the back half of tiny mice hiding under each scale.

Can you see the mice? Under each scale of a Douglas fir cone, there is what looks like two back legs and a tail.


Native plant purists, please look away now. This beautiful specimen in the churchyard at Colesbourne is a Turkish hazel, Corylus colurna, and its symmetrical shape is one of its features. It has all the benefits of the native British hazel - catkins, nuts and an unfussy attitude to soil types - but whereas the native hazel can grow in a somewhat chaotic, multi-stemmed manner, this species always develops a neat pyramid shape on a single trunk.
Sir Henry recommends it as an ideal tree for urban or park planting, but says that some local authorities don't like the idea that it is not a native species.
He feels we ought to be broad-minded about what we plant, and given that our trees are under siege from what seems like an endless barrage of new diseases or pests, I agree with him. 

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