Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Tortworth Arboretum

By Bruce McDonald

With just a few days to go before our trip to Tortworth, on Sunday 31 May, the weather forecast was dire - would it go ahead? In the event the weather relented and we enjoyed a day at this amazing arboretum led by the irrepressible Tony Titchen, an ideal guide for this collection as he had been involved with the identification and cataloguing of the trees in the past. We had invited members of our other groups and were delighted to be joined by representatives from Bristol Naturalists, Gloucester Naturalists and Friends of Dyffryn Gardens.

For those unfamiliar with the location, the arboretum is in the grounds of the Tortworth Court Hotel near Wotton under Edge and a convenient 45 minute drive from Cardiff. There is plenty of history to this place as Tony pointed out. As far back as Edward I's reign (1272 - 1307) the manor of Tortworth belonged to Sir Nicholas Kingston. The Veel family held it for 200 years when it included a deer park; then the Throckmortons and finally the Ducie family who owned it for 350 years. The house itself was built between 1849 and 1853 by the 2nd Earl and was designed by Samuel Teulon. During the Second World War the building was used first by Royal Navy as a training establishment when it was referred to as HMS Cabbala. Next, American servicemen took up residence and it was at this point that some of arboretum trees were lost due to the spillage of vehicle oil. In 1991 the house was bought by Phillip Stubbs but a disastrous fire caused widespread damage. The structure was then purchased by Four Pillars Hotels and their restoration is what you see today.

And now to the purpose of our visit: the arboretum itself. Whilst some mature trees predate the arboretum it was the 3rd Earl who started planting in 1853 and created an arboretum which at the time was a rival to Westonbirt. Our tour started with a Robinia pseudoacacia (below) but this was the contorted form 'tortuosa'. Robinia originates in the Eastern and mid-Western USA arriving in Europe in the 17th Century.

Then a Blue Cedar, Cedrus atlantica, the form 'glauca' of the Atlas Cedar from the Atlas mountains of Morocco and Algeria. Tony pointed out the characteristic short needles which contrast this cedar with most others. And then a massive Southern European Plane, Platanus hispanica, often referred to as a London Plane. The girth was impressive although, as with many of us, the bulk had shifted downward in old age.

A Dawn Redwood, Metasequia glyptostraboides, followed, discovered in China as recently as 1941. This can be confused with the Swamp Cypress, Taxodium distichum, alongside which it is often planted but a simple key is the opposite foliage of the Dawn Redwood and alternate of the Swamp Cypress. The first Champion tree to grab our attention was a Nikko Maple, Acer nikoense with distinctive trifoliate leaves.

A Shagbark Hickory followed (above), Carya ovata, from North America, and one of 7 different species but distinguishing them can be tricky. However it usually (but not exclusively!) has 5 leaflets whereas the Mockernut and Shell-bark Hickory - the other two with large leaves - usually have 7.

An Oriental Spruce (above), Picea orientalis, was obligingly sporting some cones - Tony reminded us to look out for the unusually short needles on this tree. Many of the trees were supporting Mistletoe including species which were quite unexpected such as the Red Oak, Quercus rubra. A stream marked a valley fault line with acid soil to one side and the other alkaline, helping to enable such a wide variety of tree species to flourish.
Although the rain had held off Tony marched us under the umbrella-like cover of a Crimean Pine, Tilia euchlora, making it a perfect place to shelter from adverse weather (above). A Common Walnut, Juglans regia, provided Tony with an opportunity to use his penknife test to reveal the interrupted pith in the twigs. And a close relative of the familiar Sycamore and similar in appearance was Van Volxem's Maple, Acer velutinum var. vanvolxemii. - a rare tree coming from the Caucasus in the late 19th century. Under it were hundreds of small seedlings - a propagation opportunity if ever there was one. Another rarity followed, Chinese Zelkova, Zelkova sinica, with orange-pink bark.
Next, and sporting the largest leaves we were to see on a tree that day, was an Amercian Lime (above), Tilia americana, and yet another rarity, although it was discovered in North America as far back as 1752. The photo illustrated the size of the leaves as the ruler help alongside was 30 cm or 12 inches long.

Tony took great pains to describe our next tree as the Tree of Juda, Cercis siliquastrum, and not the Judas Tree although it is commonly called the latter. A tree originating in what might loosely be called Judaea is a more logical name than yet another of the many varieties of tree on which Judas is supposed to have hanged himself. Distinguishing this from the not dissimilar Katsura is helped by the fact that the Katsura has opposite leaves and the Tree of Juda alternate.
Sophora japonica was next in line with the common names of the Pagoda or Scholar's Tree. This has similarities with the Robinia that was the first tree on our quest although the latter usually has spines and round-tipped leaflets. An American Blackjack Oak, Quercus marilandica (above) took us nicely up to lunch. With most of our brains and notebooks full to overflowing, how might we cope with the afternoon session?
After a brief pause and cup of tea in the hotel for some we assembled around what must be one of Tortworth's crowning glories, a mighty Caucasia Elm, Zelkova carpinifolia (above). The photo was taken in December and shows the scores of stems twisting up from the ground. Another unusual feature was that the suckers around the base had been trained to form a protective hedge.

The umbrella form of a Pendulous Beech, Fagus sylvatica var. pendula allowed ample scope for the whole group to assemble within its protective canopy (above), before we moved on to a smaller tree with prominent spines, Aralia spinosa, commonly known as the Devil's Walking Stick (below).
Next, an English Oak, Quercus robur, but this was an uncommon variety with variegated leaves. And as if we had not already encountered a plethora of rare trees our next specimen is described as 'very rare' and this was the Chinese Cork Oak, Quercus variabilis, with, as the name suggests, thick, corky bark.
A Willow-leaved Pear, Pyrus salicifolia (above), was showing off some of its small, inedible fruit but our final meeting was with a small tree or large bush that many will have encountered, the Corkscrew Hazel, Corylus avellana var. contorta (below). However this one was different from those that most of us will have come across as it was an 'original'. The story goes that it was first discovered in a hedgerow in Gloucestershire and the 3rd Earl of Ducie was a recipient of one of a number of plants propagated from suckers and distributed to private collections. The Corkscrew Hazels that are available in garden centres at modest cost will all have been grafted as the bush will not grow true from seed or cutting. It also has a popular name, Harry Lauder's walking stick supposedly because the great music hall entertainer often appeared with a crooked walking stick.
With our thirst for trees now well sated our gentle stroll back took us past a pets' cemetery (below), a tunnel of Wisteria (below) and a pudding stone to be greeted by a lively, colourful and exuberant Indian wedding taking place at the hotel.
Our thanks, as ever, to our guru for the day, Tony. If you are tempted by this and love trees why not pop in and wander round the grounds. The hotel will not mind but note that dogs are not allowed. Next year we are planning a return trip to Pontypool Park with Tony as our previous visit was largely washed out. Watch this space for details.
Text and all photos: Bruce McDonald




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