A season of new beginnings at Bodnant Garden

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Signs of spring are all around. Daffodils are out in the meadows, glades and woods, and in the formal garden bulbs are carpeting beds and borders with bright bursts of colour; iris, crocus, scilla and even the first tulips. Hellebores are everywhere, and the early herbaceous perennials such as blue pulmonaria and yellow primrose are lighting up shady spots under trees.

Evergreen camellias have been in flower for some weeks and other spring shrubs are now following their lead; early rhododendrons are an especially welcome sight and a promise of things to come. Take a walk at Bodnant Garden this Easter time and experience the joys of spring – here are just some of the sights you can enjoy right now:

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Pulmonaria ‘Blue Ensign’ and Heleborus x hybridus ‘Ashwood Garden Hybrids’

Bodnant Garden January 2015 Web Size - Joe Wainwright-55

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Rhododendron cilpinense and Rhododenron ‘Praecox’

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Corylopsis glabrescens and early native primroses

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Viburnum carlesii ‘Juddii’ and Pieris japonica

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Chaenomeles japonica

Chaenomoles japonica and Camellia JC WIlliams

Camellia JC Williams web

For more details about Bodnant Garden call 01492 650460, check out our website nationaltrust.org.uk/bodnant-garden or find us on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram

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Have pith helmet, will plant hunt

downloadWe’ve dusted off the pith helmets this half term for a trail and exhibition to celebrate a famous plant hunter close to Bodnant Garden’s heart… and maybe inspire a new generation of explorers.

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Ernest ‘Chinese’ Wilson was a botanist at the turn of the 20th century. A passionate plantsman, he graduated from Birmingham Botanical Gardens to travel inhospitable regions of China, bringing back to Britain the seeds of exotic trees, shrubs and flowers. In the early 1900s Lord Aberconway of Bodnant was a sponsor of the expeditions by Wilson and other plant hunters, which filled our garden with thousands of ‘new’ plants.

These plants – from magnificent UK Champion Trees to lilies, clematis and poppies – now form part of our historic, horticultural collection. Many have tales to tell; Wilson having encountered avalanche, war, disease and all manner of adversity to bring them to Bodnant Garden. And so, inspired by Wilson’s spirit of adventure, we’ve recreated an expedition of our own to inspire our younger visitors (but with the Health and Safety aspects covered.)

Ernest’s Tree Treasure Trail takes families around the garden tracking some of Wilson’s discoveries – which can be found in the living form of trees and shrubs, some more then a century old, grown from seeds brought back from his travels.

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A mature Handkerchief Tree at Bodnant Garden

One of the most famous is the Handkerchief Tree (Davidia involucrata) which Wilson tracked down against the odds. This tree, with its delicate, paper-tissuey ivory flowers, had been first spotted by French botanist Armand David in 1869. His specimens were lost when his ship sank on the return journey. Tasked by Veitch Nursery in 1899 to find the tree, the 22-year-old Wilson set off armed with just a simple cross on a hand drawn map covering hundreds of square miles of the Yunnan region of China.

Find the spot he did – only to discover the tree had been felled. However he continued searching and found a grove of more, from which he collected a batch of the large, hard-shelled seeds. Back home at Veitch Nursery, gardeners sowed the seeds, but a couple of years later threw them onto a compost heap when they failed to germinate. The following year the precious seedlings popped up through the compost – and some were despached to Bodnant Garden where they have thrived.

Our tree trail takes in these and other Wilson finds, leading to the Old Mill in The Dell which has been transformed by events officer Charlie Stretton and our volunteers into an expedition base camp. Here children can see what life was like for intrepid explorers like Wilson, warm up in front of the ‘camp fire’ and collect their own Davidia seeds to take home and grow.

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The exhibition will remain in the Old Mill after half term, including pictures and stories from Wilson’s life and work. Come along and find out more about his incredible legacy which can be seen at Bodnant Garden throughout the year.

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Bodnant Garden events and engagement officer Charlie with our Handkerchief Tree seeds

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Young volunteer Gethin tending to some of Wilson’s plants

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Young visitors enjoying the base camp in the Old Mill…especially trying on the pith helmets and Wilson moustache

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For more details about Bodnant Garden call 01492 650460, check out our website nationaltrust.org.uk/bodnant-garden or catch up with us on Facebook  or Twitter.

Recognition for our rare rhododendrons

If you’ve ever walked around Bodnant Garden and wondered what the green plant labels mean…they are reserved for special rhododendrons, those unique to Bodnant, our Bodnant Hybrids.

We’ve recently had news that the conservation body Plant Heritage has approved this group as an important new National Collection – to give them their full title, Rhododendron Hybrids Bred at Bodnant Garden 1927-1983. This takes our number of National Collections to five – we already hold collections of Magnolia, Eucryphia, Embothrium and Rhododendron forrestii.

It’s a big deal – the collection reflects Bodnant’s place in the great British history of rhododendrons. It also highlights our quest to save these hybrid plants, some of which are ‘lost’ to records and some even nearing extinction.

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This is something close to the heart of Bodnant Garden’s taxonomist Alison Clarke (seen right) who has been working for several years to nurture our hybrids and safeguard their future.

Bodnant Garden played a lead role in the story of rhododendrons in Britain. These ‘exotic’ new plants began trickling into Britain in the late 1800s but it was in the early 20th century that they really made their mark. Bodnant Garden’s owner Henry Duncan McLaren, second Lord Aberconway, was active in sponsoring the expeditions of plant hunters such as George Forrest, Ernest Wilson, Frank Kingdom Ward, Joseph Rock, which brought back to our large country houses, parks and gardens quantities of these and other Asian plants, like magnolias.

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Head gardener Frederick Puddle and Lord Aberconway

The first rhododendron came to Bodnant Garden in 1910. Legend has it that head gardener Frederick Puddle at first didn’t believe they would be hardy enough to grow in North Wales – thankfully he was proved wrong! They acclimatised so well that Lord Aberconway and Mr Puddle went on to develop a successful breeding programme.

Rhododendron griersonianum 01Their hybridisation programme started during 1920s. Many of the early rhododendrons offered a new colour palette and range of genes to work with. Those that were most used at Bodnant Garden included Rh. wardii (the first strong yellow), Rh. cinnabarinum (which introduced orange shades), and the reds for which the garden became so famous, including Rh. forrestii and Rh. griersonianum (seen above). Nearly half of all hybrids registered were reds – the Bodnant Bloody Reds.

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Rhododendron wardii and Rhododendron cinnabarinum

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Rhododendron ‘Elizabeth’

One aim was to extend the flowering season by using particularly early and late flowering species; also to produce stronger plants by crossing tender plants with more hardy species; another reason was to produce smaller plants suitable for the domestic market, the most famous example being Rh.‘Elizabeth’ – still one of the most popular rhododendrons in the UK.

Alison says: “Over 300 hybrids were raised and registered to Bodnant. To date we have 115 varieties in the garden. Some exist only as a singular specimen. Those under threat of extinction are being actively propagated.

“Sadly today there are only perhaps ten or so that are widely available to buy. Some of the most well know are Rhododendrons Elizabeth, Cilpinense, Vanessa Pastel, Fabia Tangerine and Matador. We are actively searching for the others both in the garden and elsewhere, including nurseries selling them and other gardens which may have them.”

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Rhododendron Fabia Tangerine and Rhododendron Vanessa Pastel

Many of the ‘missing’ plants are thought to be still in the garden but have lost their labels so we are working with metal detectorists from Mold Historical Society to help find labels. In future DNA analysis may also help identify plants thought to be missing hybrids.

Meanwhile we are actively propagating ‘at risk’ hybrids using alternative methods such as grafting, layering and micro-propagation, and hope to one day restart a Bodnant Garden hybridisation programme.

Our registration as a National Collection will raise the profile of these special plants and hopefully encourage more people to grow them, helping to safeguard their future.

For more details about Bodnant Garden call 01492 650460, check out our website nationaltrust.org.uk/bodnant-garden or catch up with us on Facebook  or Twitter.