Bodnant is a garden for all seasons…but May is a bit special, a time when the garden is at its most dazzling. The sudden burst of rhododendrons, along with other flowering trees, shrubs and herbaceous plants, all combine to make the garden explode with colour. That’s before we even mention the Laburnum Arch, the garden’s most famous and most visited attraction, which crowns the season with its breathtaking golden display at the end of the month.
I am now enjoying my fourth spring working at Bodnant Garden and am still taken aback by the intensity of the spectacle at this time of year. Hardy surprising, when you consider that this kaleidoscopic show is the result of a century or more of plant collecting and husbandry; from the towering magnolias introduced at the turn of the 1900s, to the thousands of rhododendrons brought here and bred here in the 1920s and 30s, the gnarled and twisted old wisteria which drape walls and pergolas, the swathes of tulips, iris and lilies planted by generations of gardeners and, to give Mother Nature her due, the carpets of English Bluebells which cross meadows and glades.
If you’re visiting this Bank Holiday weekend you are in for a real treat. If not, sit back and take a tour here:
As you walk through the entrance gates, prepare to drop your jaw at the upper garden. The Range Borders are a riot of hot-coloured herbaceous plants emblazened against a backdrop of sweeping manicured lawns, giant conifers and of course rhododendrons upon rhododendrons upon rhododendrons. Take it all in as you walk from the Puddle Garden to the The Round Garden and Winter Garden (which is still full of interest mid spring.) And of course if you’re here at the end of May/beginning of June when the Laburnum Arch is flowering, put your sunglasses on and bask in a stroll through this 180-foot tunnel of light.
Above: Bodnant’s famous Laburnum Arch and our rhododendrons
Below: On The Range borders Helianthemum ‘Henfield Brilliant’, Tulipa ‘Queen of the Night, Trollius cultorum ‘Orange Princess, Bergenia ‘Sunningdale’, Allium hollandicum ‘Purple Sensation’ and Paeonia delayvii.
Crossing the Old Park meadow you move from the finery and formality of the upper garden to the cool, laid back lushness of The Shrub Borders. Bluebells run through the grass of Chapel Park and The Glades and under the dappled shade of trees are beds filled with native and exotic shrubs, underplanted with herbaceous perennials – if you’re lucky you may see the first tissue-papery bracts of the Handkerchief Tree (Davidia involucrata.) Continue to the Yew Dell where you’ll find a wonderful collection of old rhododendrons, among them many Bodnant hybrids.
Above:Bluebells in Chapel Park and old rhododendrons in the Yew Dell
Below: Enkianthus campanulatus, Viburnum x judii, Exochorda x macrantha ‘The Bride’ and Davidia involucrata in the Shrub Borders
Below: Take your pick of paths to the Far End
Continuing from the Yew Dell you can take one of the paths to the Far End – through a 140-year-old arboretum of native and foreign trees, or following the River Hiraethlyn upstream passing a series of pools and water features – both of which bring you to the Skating Pond, a lake lined with weeping willows. This area only opened to the public in March and has a natural, tranquil character quite different to the rest of the garden. There are some exotic trees for sure – Asian magnolias, acers and conifers – but the natives blend the whole scene into the valley landscape beyond. Look out for the enormous Royal Ferns (Osmunds regalis) unfurling along the water’s edge, some of which we think may be a century old.
Above: Clumps of Royal Fern by the lake at The Far End
Below: The Waterfall Bridge in The Dell
Returning to The Dell downstream along the River Hiraethlyn the mood becomes more dramatic; as you pass the Waterfall Bridge the valley sides steepen, water now rushes through a narrow channel over rocks and boulders and the eyes are drawn skywards to the canopy of giant conifers. Beneath the breathtaking collection of trees, some of them UK Champions because of their age and size, rhododendrons light up the shade. One to look out for (you will smell it before you see it) is Rhododendron luteum with its intense perfume.
Above: Layers of conifers and rhododendrons in The Dell, underplanted by hostas, astilbes, ferns and the distinctive cerise Primula pulverulenta
Below: Maianthemum racemosum, Rhododendron luteum
When you get to The Old Mill stop and take it all in, look up and admire The Rockery which cascades down the valley side (seen left)…and take a breath before starting the climb back up to the upper garden! A short, winding walk brings you back into sunlight and open spaces. This is where you’ll see the grandeur of Bodnant Garden at its best – looking across the Italianate Terraces to the Conwy Valley and Carneddau mountains beyond.
Above: The Pin Mill seen from the Yucca Garden
Below: Clematis, wisteria and climbing roses on terrace walls
Perennials are filling out beds in the White Garden and Pink Garden, wisteria and clematis are now climbing walls and pergolas and the first climbing roses are even in bloom, setting the scene for the show to come (and talking of things to come, you may notice some empty beds nearby – these are under renovation as we speak – watch this space.) Near the Lower Rose Terrace take a look at the newly renovated Gentian Bed, which has some miniature gems to wonder at, such as the contender for one of Bodnant’s tiniest rhododendron, Rhododendron campylogynum ‘Myrtilloides’ (seen below).
Summer is when the terraces really take on their starring role in the garden, with the glorious display of roses, water lilies, herbaceous perennials and hydrangeas. That said, bucking this trend is the Yucca Garden which is providing a splash of hot colour right now, with vibrant euphorbias billowing out of every nook and cranny. While you’re here take a side-step from the Terraces along the Prim Path, opened just last year, and discover the Himalayan primulas now settling in there (seen above). This will bring you out at the North Garden, home to another wonderful collection of rhododendrons, and to the Alpine Garden on the Top Rose Terrace, which is full of dainty sun-loving curiosities like this Pulsatilla turczaninovii (seen below).
Whichever route you take around Bodnant Garden, however much or little of the garden you cover, there will be something to surprise and delight you right now, that we can promise. Added to the floral factor we’ve also got some special events on over the Bank Holiday weekend and Half Term week which follows. There’s music in the Pin Mill on Sunday May 24th, with the Conwy Clarinet Trio playing from 2pm, an open day at The Poem mausoleum on Tuesday May 26th and family activities running every day through the Half Term week. Don’t forget dogs are welcome every Wednesday evening through the summer too, at our late night openings from 5-8pm.
Of course a garden is not just for Bank Holiday it’s for life…and if you’re visiting we hope you’ll take away some lasting memories.
Compiled by gardener Fran Llewellyn. For more details about Bodnant Garden call 01492 650460, check our website nationaltrust.org.uk/bodnant-garden or catch us on Facebook or Twitter.