Nuts Fir Trees

Albert Camus said “Autumn is a second spring when every leaf is a flower”, and certainly the lake area looks particularly colourful at this time of year.  Let’s look at a few of the more interesting and unusual trees around the grounds.

A special family-significant tree we have at Mount Stewart is the rather droopy looking Fitzroya cupressoides or Alerce (larch in Spanish)the largest tree species native to the Andes mountains of central Chile and Argentina.   Also known as Patagonian Cypress and used as building material, particularly for roof shingles as it is impervious to moisture.  It is now illegal to cut down these trees, so valuable the wood was used as a form of local currency in Chile.   Presented to us by the Metrological Office in 2005 our tree celebrates the 200th anniversary of the birth of the father of weather forecasting, Vice-Admiral Robert Fitzroy, grandson of the 1st Marquess of Londonderry.  Fitzroy was captain of HMS Beagle and made two voyages on the ship surveying and mapping for the British Navy.   On his second journey he was accompanied by Charles Darwin and together they named and sketched landmarks, flora and fauna discovered on the five year voyage.  This is why you will find Stewart and Londonderry Islands at the far end of the Beagle Channel.  In 1992 a Fitzroya cupressoides was dated as 3,622 years old, wonder if our baby commemorative specimen will live as long?


Fitzroya cupressoides or Alerce (Larch in Spanish)


Australia is the next country we visit to learn about the Wollemi Pine, an evergreen tree reaching 40 metres tall.  Its distinctive dark brown knobbly bark, is said to resemble Coco Pops.  The dramatic discovery of an evolutionary line thought to be long extinct is even more remarkable with these tall and striking trees.  Growing only 150 km from Sydney, this pine was discovered by an officer of the New South Wales National Parks in a deep, undisturbed wilderness canyon of the rugged Wollemi National Park. See if you can spot our baby one, now about 2 metres tall.



Wollemia nobilis


The Bunya Bunya tree is revered by the Aboriginal people of Queensland, and is also known as the “false Monkey Puzzle” as  its spiky leaves are similar.   It produces huge cones as large as footballs and the nuts can be roasted, boiled, or beaten into a paste like hummus.   The wood has been used for the acoustic boards of guitars and is valued by cabinetmakers and woodworkers.  Growing to about 30 metres tall, the Bunya tree can live for 500 years.  This junior one is on the North Lawn sheltered by an azalea.


Araucaria bidwillii


A perennial question from visitors is “what is that tall tree on the lawn?”.  Well it is a Sequoia giganteum or redwood and it is fascinating to think that from something the size of a tomato seed these statuesque trees can grow to over three hundred feet tall and 22 feet thick.  Ours is about 30 metres high and hopefully will continue to grow, though it probably won’t be as tall as it might be in the Pacific North West.   Wellbeing depends on favourable climatic conditions, shelter from other trees, tannin in the bark that makes the tree resistant to insects, and thickness of  the bark which protects the inner core from fire.   There are several methods of measuring the height, the simplest one if you don’t want to climb to the top with one end of a tape measure between your teeth, makes use of your thumb and a stick.   See me at my next talk for a demo.


Sequoia giganteum


OK, OK, it’s another redwood but I always think of Jumbo as my elephant tree and lots of other kids see the resemblance too.  Find it at the junction of the lake path and tennis court walk.  


The Elephant Tree


This very pretty Katsura or Caramel Tree is one of many commemorative trees planted by members of the royal family at Mount Stewart. Prince Charles planted this one in May 2010, hasn’t it done well?  The species is endangered in China, similar to cherry scones in National Trust tearooms.  A perfect autumnal specimen for leaf peepers, it gives off an aroma of candyfloss when the leaves are turning, hence the nickname.  Find it near the sundial, looking like a burning bush amongst the greenery.


Cercidiphyllum japonicum


We have a few of these feathery leaved cypresses, introduced by John Tradescant to Britain in 1640.  The Bald or Swamp Cypress trees prefer damp places, the green one has its toes in the lake just before you cross over the first little bridge and the other now, showing its autumn colour, is beside the Rock Walk.  The tallest known individual, near Williamsburg, Virginia is over 44 metres tall, and the stoutest known with a diameter of 521 cm, is in Louisiana, while the oldest is over 1620 years old. Most famously associated with mangrove swamps of the Everglades, it is one of the few deciduous conifers found growing in the UK.   In autumn, fine feathery needles are shed just after they produce a stunning display of what Lady Edith described as “russet foliage”.

Squirrels love the seeds but have to wait until the tree is 30 years old and mature enough to produce them.


Taxodium distichym


A Chinese proverb says the best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago, the second best time is now.  Why not choose one for your own garden for future generations to enjoy?   Hmmm – better not pick the redwood….






Some of our garden plants have less than flattering names, with odd reasons why they should be so called.  And Lady Edith’s garden books reveal some that she wanted to order like Wong Bok Cabbage, Giraffe beans, and Granite State Musk Melon.   Here are a few of our present collection to consider as you walk around the grounds.

Skunk Cabbage, phew..


Found in swamps and wet areas of the Pacific Northwest, this plant was introduced to Britain by David Douglas of fir tree fame, and flourishes where our stream enters the lake.  In flower it looks like a giant canna lily with cabbage style leaves, but is aptly called Skunk Cabbage because of its malodorous smell.  It can emit heat and will melt snow around itself in early springtime.  The leaves are composed mostly of water and in autumn turn black and dissolve, a process which happening just now.   Find some up at the stream, take a sniff and see if you want to plant some beside your clothes line, and if you want to learn more take the Skunk Cabbage Discovery Trail next time you visit California.

Bear’s Breeches, ouch…


This is Acanthus spinosus, the spiky one in the Italian border that caught out my investigating forefinger.

Memo to self:  Carry plasters in rucksack, or desist from touching plants with thorns.  A cousin plant, Acanthus mollis, not quite so prolific in flower  but with much more friendly and voluminous leaves (hence the breeches) is the model for the decoration at the top of Corinthian columns.  Introduced to Britain by the Romans, both plants were used as poultices, after boiling, to relieve burns, sprains, gout and baldness. May not need the Band Aids then.

Pokeweed, poisonous…..pokeweed-poisonous

The pinkish peduncles or fruit-bearing stems of Pokeweed are such a lovely colour,  but unless you are a songbird don’t eat the black berries as they are poisonous.   The plant is properly called phytolacca americana, being a north American plant. Elvis recorded a song Polk Salad Annie, the story of a serially unfortunate southern girl (a ‘gator got her granny and her mother was in a chain-gang) whose destitute family ate polk or poke sallet, a dish free from the forest. Sallet is an old English word meaning cooked greens, not salad.  Poke juice was once used as ink and dye, and so another name is inkberry, and native Americans  used it as a laxative and to induce vomiting.  Given her luck, it’s a wonder that poor Annie survived her “mess of sallet”.

Dogwood, barking up the wrong shrub?dogwood

Dogwood seems like an inelegant name for this lovely shrub, but it could have easily evolved from the Celtic word dag, dagga, or dagwood.  Dagge was a useful pointed tool, dagger, or arrow and as dogwood is extremely hard this is a reasonable assumption.  But because of the name, many an unfortunate pet was bathed in water boiled with bark (there’s a pun in there somewhere) in an ineffectual attempt to cure mange.  I fell in love with the shrub while driving in Springtime along the Blue Ridge Parkway, when the bracts were appearing like clouds of butterflies amongst the bare branches of the trees. Bark-free branches were used as toothbrushes by pioneers and modern products include roller skates, tool handles, and golf club heads.  Our June pink variety is Cornus kousa Miss Satomi.  I can’t help feeling that Lady Edith, being a lover of faery legend, would have rejoiced in the Cherokee story of the Dogwood People, a tiny race of forest dwellers who did good deeds without expectation of reward.


Together with her tales of Formorians, Pookas and Leprechauns, Lady Edith had her own odd plant names in The Magic Ink-Pot stories.  In The Enchanted Steed chapter we come across Stinking Willie, Witchbane and Bloodwort, all with stories of their own.

I’m currently keeping an eye out for Stinking Willie as this is where the leprechauns hide their gold, not at the end of the rainbow

(don’t tell anyone).




Leave No Trace

I’m just back from a busman’s holiday in the western USA where I was enjoying the late summer wildflowers and noticing the first hint of an autumnal tint in the top branches of the aspens.aspens  aspens2

Its a fact that when you work in the gardens at Mount Stewart you look for plants on your travels that you think Lady Edith may have fancied.  I came across a few in the Boyce Thompson Arboretum in Arizona, a fabulous cacti collection where they use small agaves as border plants and clump together barrel cacti with great effect.cacti

This Boojum, Fouquieria columnaris, or candle tree is on my wish list, how about a couple of these at Tir N’an Og?  Its name is taken from Lewis Carroll’s poem, The Hunting of the Snark, and it can grow to a height of 70 feet producing creamy yellow flowers with a honey scent in summer and autumn.boojum-tree

Our own octopus plant, Schefflera actinophylla is being cooked in Alan’s nursery at the moment but I fancy this Octopus agave would draw equally admiring glances.


At Mount Stewart and the National Trust we have many things in common with America’s Best Idea, National Parks, especially when it comes to matters of conservation.  A quote attributed to Chief Seattle goes, Take only Memories, Leave only Footprints, which sort of chimes in with our own motto, Forever For Everyone. footprints

Here at Mount Stewart we hope visitors will take away lingering memories, stunning photographs, and that they and their families will leave only their footprints as a legacy of many happy visits.



Our gardeners, as well as being able to operate a trowel, spade or bamboo cane, also have to be able to cope with lots of different machinery.

This is Jonny, aloft in the cherry picker, tackling the ramblers enveloping  the Chapel  windows.

Earlier in the year a Tuesday gang tackled weeds at the north front of the house, tidying up outside the visitors’ entrance. They were pretty good with gloves and a bucket.

The Sunk Garden has had a good trim all round the hedges and they now look lovely and neat, how does Stuart get those edges so straight?

Our topiary figures need a good trim from time to time.  Rachael does a little fine tuning with her nail scissors and you can see the difference below between before and after.

A Manley went to mow, in this instance Michael, who does a great job keeping those stripes straight in the Sunk Garden.


The garden is looking very tidy at the moment, so well done to everyone.    And huge congratulations to all who gained their LANTRA tractor driving certificates a couple of weeks ago.   Report and photo from the County Down Spectator.


Leavin’ on a Jet Plane

Rachael is our resourceful gardener whose job, as well as fine-tuning the topiary and tending the Lily Wood, is to look after the South American Border.   Often overlooked, this area of the garden is like a giant rockery that runs between the sundial and the Polemarch gate, and has some rare plants.  So, with the nation’s attention fixed on South America at the moment I thought we should give it some consideration.

First up on the podium:

This gnarly tree from the tropical high Andes is the rare Polylepis, derived from the Greek words poly (many) and letis (layers) referring to the multi-layered dark red exfoliating sheets of bark on the trunk and branches, sometimes more than an inch thick.  The bark protects the tree from low temperatures and fire.   The tree has tiny leaves that conserve water, and tiny reddish flowers.  Growing at high altitudes, Polylepis forests are shrinking but are important for sheltering several critically endangered species of birds, and Peru has a conservation programme in hand.

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Mitraria coccinea, the Chilean mitre plant, or bottle plant, has a red, slightly fat tubular flower, and prefers sunny mornings and shade in the afternoon so is suited to perfection in our border.  It will scramble and climb, is good for hanging baskets, and can also be used as a house plant, how about that for diversity?
This is Fuchsia microphylla, a tiny flowered, small leaved plant, just like the big one only in miniature.  Its origins are in the woodlands of Mexico and Central America.  Although appearing delicate this shrub is hardy and will flower until the first frosts.  After the penduous “Lady’s Eardrops” fade, they are replaced by black bull’s eye fruit.  It too is happy in our border with dappled sun and shade.

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We have several of these spectacular Fascicularia bicolour in the border with spiny leaves turning from green to red in the centre and a member of the  bromeliad (pineapple) family.  The rosette in the centre will become tubular three-petalled flowers that occur in succession, starting from the outside ring and working inwards, each lasting only a few days, from late summer to early autumn.  From Chile, they tolerate our cold conditions in well drained soil, and can grow in rock crevices or tree stumps.
And finally our Colletia paradoxa a spiny, bizarre plant with leafless stems (called cladodes) that look like a jet plane, or some say an anchor or crucifixion cross.  We can look forward to tiny white bluebell shaped flowers in autumn with a scent of almonds, but don’t get too close, those spines are sharp, as my forefinger can testify.   Silhouetted against the sky we have a whole fleet of Concordes taking off!  Flying down to Rio?

Rachael has cause to be proud of her work.   Give that girl a Gold Medal.






Richard of York Gave Battle in Vain

Mnemonics are useful; this I learned when going for piano lessons.   Every Good Boy Deserves Favour, All Cows Eat Grass, etc.  I was seven and this information stuck, unfortunately the music didn’t.  My teacher had a handy ruler and I wasn’t enamoured of practising, so exit red-knuckled child, secretly elated as I preferred badminton.  However, as every seven year old knows, the above title is the mnemonic for the colours of the rainbow, (and you get a bonus history lesson), and because it has been so wet recently I thought it appropriate to feature the seven colours.   Red, Orange, Yellow, Green, Blue, Indigo, Violet.  Here we go:

Our Red hand features scarlet tulips, salvias, or pelargoniums depending on the season or what we think the rabbits won’t eat.
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Orange lilies always provide a bright life to a dark corner, but can be harmful to felines.   So remove that bouquet from the windowsill where Top Cat likes to have a snooze.   Even a brush of pollen on his coat will make him ill when he grooms himself.

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Giant Yellow dandelions make a great show in the Italian Garden, wonder what size the puffballs will be?

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The Greensward on the north lawns sets off the mansion house to perfection.  A reminder of earlier days is the presence of a commemorative urn placed by the Dowager First Marchioness, Lady Frances, second wife of Robert, 1st Marquess of Londonderry.

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Blue Agapanthus can be seen in different areas and this is a lovely group in a corner of the Sunk Garden.  The name comes from the Greek Agape meaning love, and anthus, meaning flower, hence flower of love.   They come in white, pink and other shades of blue, and also in dwarf species suitable for pots.

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Indigo is next and these flowers for sale at the moment in the shop are Agastache Astello Indigo.This is a half hardy perennial with mint-scented flower spikes which are long-lasting and irresistible to bees and butterflies.  Ideal for gravel gardens and wildlife borders, and both flowers and leaves can be added to cakes or whipping cream for a hint of anise flavour.  (The Indigo plant itself that gives its name to the colour made a popular dye and was used by Levi Strauss for his famous blue jeans, perfect for that faded, distressed look that we all love.)  Agastache is a ‘wonder honey plant’ and produces copious amounts of nectar, so is very important for commercial honey production.  It is estimated that just one acre of flowers can support over 100 hives.
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Dame Edna would be proud of our Violet Gladdies in the Italian Garden, they have just bloomed and are the most lovely colour.  These South African flowers do well in Moonee Ponds, and come in a great variety of colours.  Easy to grow anywhere, but may need a stake in less sheltered areas, put the stake in when planting to avoid piercing the corm.  If you plant over a number of weeks they will bloom over a longer season and  make great cut flowers too.  Gladioli, or sword lilies, are the flowers for your 40th wedding anniversary, and the flower of August.

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So, that’s just a selection of colourful plants, there are many more in rainbow hues in our wonderful gardens.   Come rain or shine, come and see them, and your mnemonic?  FYFAMS: Find Your Favourite At Mount Stewart.




Thumbs Up for Mairi

The little sculpture by Margaret Wrightson of Lady Mairi as a child is a popular attraction for shutterbugs in the Mairi Garden. Before this area was cultivated and completed in 1925, Lady Mairi’s pram was parked in this area for her snooze in the fresh air. Now her image sits atop a fountain on a seat of cockle shells from which cascades water into the pool below. Visitors like to make a wish and throw pennies into the pool, where ‘Mairi, Mairi, Quite Contrary’, is written around the retaining wall. This line was adapted from the familiar nursery rhyme, one of a number of ancient verses published in Tommy Thumb’s Pretty Song Book in 1744, the year Mount Stewart was purchased by Alexander Stewart.


Approached by one of several flagged paths you can see that the garden is in the shape of a Tudor Rose, a reference to the Women’s Legion, founded by Lady Mairi’s mother, Lady Edith during the Great War. Planting is mainly blue and white, perhaps a nod to the blue and silver chequered counter on the family coat of arms, a hangover from when the name Steward meant you looked after the affairs of an estate.


Plants and shrubs include magnolias from Japan, abutilon from Chile, the Ribbon Gum, necessary to the diet of koala bears in Australia, and pittosporum beloved of flower arrangers everywhere. Our Fuchsia excorticata, from New Zealand, is popular with Polynesian ladies who use the blue pollen as eyeshadow. Its flowers are greenish when ready for visiting birds, but after they have been pollinated, they turn red to tell birds to stop coming. How wonderful is that? The pungent odour of eucalyptus trees grown from seeds brought back from southern Africa by Theresa, wife of the 6th Marquess, in 1894, a tall monkey puzzle and vines contribute to the exotic feel of a secret retreat and a sheltered sunshiney corner to sit and contemplate the scene.


You might choose the bench that commemorates Queen Elizabeth’s Silver Jubilee in 1977, the year we opened the mansion house to visitors, or venture into the coolness of the little summerhouse designed by Lady Margaret Stewart. During Lady Edith’s open days and garden parties, a fortune-teller would sit here and read your palm.


This lovely little building has a dovecote on top and is mentioned in Lady Edith’s book, ‘The Magic Inkpot’, when Lady Helen is gathering her pigeons together to go to market. In olden days dovecotes were a sort of larder. If you wanted to impress visitors your cook could go out and catch a squab or two for a pie. In addition to being symbols of peace, in Roman times the pigeon was used to carry results of sporting events, such as the Olympic Games, and, as well as being symbols of peace, this is why white doves are included in the opening ceremony. Keep an eye out for them in Rio de Janeiro next week.


John, on the left, is one of the volunteers we have to thank for keeping things in order in the Mairi Garden. He is the one man Thursday Gang and happy in his work as you can see from the big smile on his face. On days off he likes nothing better than a busman’s trip to other gardens.

On the right we have the Wednesday Twosome, Trevor, who patiently answers my queries, and Newbie Volunteer Pete who is brushing up on his gardening knowledge. A fantastic team who obviously enjoy keeping those pretty maids all in a row.