There a few plants that flower so gracefully and add so much to the garden for a brief period than the elegant Magnolia. To see them thrive is one of the joys of moving from managing a garden in the North east of Scotland where they struggle to the West where they flourish in our milder climate. There is nothing more disheartening then watching a Magnolia bud up, about to break out in to flower, only for a sharp frost to snatch away its splendour for the season.
Astonishingly the Magnolia has been traced as far back as 100 million years and is thought to be one of the most important plants in evolutionary history. It once thrived over many continent and countries, but it is now only indigenous to China and the southernmost parts of the United States. The earliest drawings known of the plant date back to Aztec times and it has been traditionally used in herbal medicine. The Magnolia takes its name from the French botanist Pierre Magnol, who was one of the first people to properly record this plant in around 1700.
Today there are thought to be somewhere in the region of eighty species of which half are classed as tropical.
Here are a few of my favourites:
Magnolia campbellii ‘Alba’
The Campbell Magnolia. There are a few of these at Brodick Castle. The best example is down by the pedestrian entrance not far from the Horlick collection. A pure white form, it can be seen from the bay. Very large flowers followed by rather striking seed pods. They are a feature but are weird and gruesome looking enough to be frequently used at our Halloween event. Large, broad leaves with a noticeably fuzzy underside.
Magnolia campbellii ssp. mollicomata
This one is very similar to the standard Campbell Magnolia but has a few noticeable differences. The tree has a slightly more open growth habit, the flowers have a slightly purple tinge and the buds are a bit hairier. This one is a particularly fine specimen because from the Middle rhododendron walk you look down on its showy blooms perfectly.
Otherwise known at the Chinese Magnolia. This is a large shrub with a bushy habit. It comes into its own later in the season. The flowers are cupped shaped and fragrant, with a red and yellow centre. It is, in my opinion, a really classy plant. The easiest one to find at Brodick is in the walled garden.
If you are tempted in to growing this truly remarkable species, consider the following before you buy. They tend to like acidic or neutral soil, a sheltered spot is required and they are very hard to prune. If you think a species of Magnolia may outgrow your space then pick a smaller one as they don’t tend to recover well from being cut back hard.
I would recommend a visit to the National Trust for Scotland’s gardens in Ayrshire and Arran to see many different Magnolias at their best just now.
Having written about a plant that is clearly a class act, I thought I should write about one that is fast becoming our biggest challenge at Brodick castle. The plants Latin name is Griselinia, rather than calling the shrub grisly in the title I very nearly called it ghastly but that would be far too harsh. Aesthetically it isn’t a bad looking plant and it can be very useful. It has rounded glossy leaves in nice shades of green and originates from New Zealand, from which it gets its common name the NZ broadleaf or privet. It is used predominantly in gardens as shelter in mild coastal areas and can be kept as a nice hedge. It is also a firm favourite of the flower arranges. Griselinia has a reputation of being a bit fickle. It doesn’t like being moved and won’t tolerate anything too cold. The plant is fast becoming an invasive at Brodick and is one that we are really struggling to control. This is more remarkable as having researched the problem it says that it very rarely sets seed. I have also spoken to other Head Gardeners about this who have it growing in the gardens they manage and none have reported it being a problem. The conclusion that I have come to is that Arran must just have the perfect micro climate for this plant to set viable seed in which to spread itself rampantly. It has really started to take hold since the removal of the Rhododendron ponticum shelterbelt after the devastating plant disease Phytophthora (sudden oak death) hit the gardens within the past decade.
Griselinia is easy to pull out if you can do so while the plants are very young, it is the sheer scale of the garden at Brodick and the ground that is covered by this plant which contributes to the problem. The estate team have started a programme of removing the larger plants from the garden as to try and stop the seed cycle. This is in part really opening the garden up, but I feel that this is crucial to try and control it at this point. As a gardener who keeps bees, I tend to only use chemicals when desperately needed, but the glossy leaves are such on this plant that even with a wetting agent roundup does not stick and has insignificant effect in halting the plants invasion!
It is important to take a plus out of any situation and in this case there is now plenty of room in which to expand the rare and tropical planting!