VIP Plants Tree

Inside a cupboard in the Entrance Hall of the house used to be kept a set of croquet balls and mallets, and outside is the croquet lawn. Garden Croquet was a popular game for weekend visitors staying at big houses like Mount Stewart in the 1920s and 1930s (nowadays P Diddy is a fan as is John Prescott.) A sort of awkward sort of way to hit a ball and during the occasional game organised during event days, I usually ended up with bruised shins and a very low score – no wonder one team gets the black and blue balls. In Alice in Wonderland they used flamingo mallets and hedgehog balls, but I think I’ll stick to the putting green at Donaghadee where my score is not much better but at least my ankles remain intact.

In addition, country house weekends at Mount Stewart offered tennis courts, and a golf course near the Temple, as well as fishing brown trout in the lake, sailing, riding, or swimming in the pool across the road. You might even get taken up for a spin by the 7th Marquess in an aeroplane to admire the garden layout from the air. Wet days could be spent doing jigsaws, playing cards, reading in the Study, being entertained by one of Lady Mairi’s plays, or a singsong with composer Duncan Morrison playing the Bechstein. But if you were caught doing nothing, whether prime minister, prince, or famous author, you could find yourself sawing logs or trundling a wheelbarrow for a dungareed Lady Edith.

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Amongst the many famous people who came to stay probably the most prestigious were King Edward VII and Queen Alexandra who visited in July 1903. Their daughter Princess Victoria wrote candidly in the visitors’ book, ‘…beautiful place, but very damp….’ so presumably she got stuck into the jigsaws. There is no record of them playing any sports, but I suppose you could say they did a bit of gardening as the Royal Couple planted the two beautiful purple beeches, Fagus sylvatica f. purpurea, chosen for the occasion by Theresa, wife of the 6th Marquess. Both are in full colourful leaf just now on either side of the drive, the larger King’s tree bordering the croquet lawn.

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You can see the commemorative plaque with the date underneath, set in between the huge roots. In Celtic mythology Fagus was the God of beech trees. In days gone by, beech leaves were used to relieve swellings if you boiled them to make a poultice. And appropriately as this tree is beside the croquet lawn, the hardness of its wood makes it highly suitable for making wooden mallets! Bet the flamingos are relieved.

Ellen

Pretty in Pink

When I wrote the Tuesday Bluesday blog a couple of weeks ago, I didn’t realise that it should have been about pink blooms. Apparently, in Thai and Khmer traditions, days of the week have lucky and unlucky colours, so if you were born on a Saturday, like me, your lucky colour is purple, and in Thailand you may see people wearing a purple tie or scarf in honour of that day (sorry to say I am now old enough to wear purple.) Anyway, the colour for Tuesday (Lady Edith’s birth day) is pink and that has decided me on today’s photos.

Our Calico Bushes, Kalmia latifolia, come in two shades, pink and pinker. They are related to the Rhododendron and from a distance you might mistake them for such, but up close you can see the crimped shape of the buds and close cluster of the smaller flowers. There are several bushes in bloom just now on the west side of the lake.

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This tiny Fuchsia megellanica alba, found on the way to reception, is a delicate pink, a change from the more usual red ones, don’t they look like ballerinas? Fuchsias, from Argentina and Chile, are quite hardy and unlike some of our more exotic species will grow almost anywhere in Northern Ireland. Have you seen the fuchsia hedges lining the roads along the Antrim coast? Discovered in Hispaniola in the 17th century and named after the German botanist Leonhart Fuchs.

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Couldn’t do a pink theme without one of our glorious pink roses. This one, Silver Jubilee, has huge blooms and is at the bottom of the steps from the terrace down to the Italian Garden. The fragrance is soft and sweet, just like baby powder.

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And finally, the water lilies by the jetty have popped out, some a beautiful shade of pink with their green leaves making a perfect foil for the petals. An interesting fact is that the ribbed structure of giant water lily leaves, growing up to 3 metres in diameter, was the inspiration for Sir Joseph Paxton’s plans for the Crystal Palace. He stood his 9 year-old daughter, Annie, on a floating leaf of the Victoria amazonica to demonstrate its strength and went on to replicate the design in iron and glass for the Great Exhibition venue in 1851. While we don’t recommend putting children on any of our leaves, we are happy to see the occasional frog having a sunbathe, or in the case of this week, a shower.

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Ellen

The Friday Gang (three quarters of)

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If you want to see people who are happy in their work, visit the Spanish Garden on a Friday morning. Here you will find The Friday Gang, ie Joe, Wendy, and Heather here in the photo, minus Joan who is extra smiley at the moment as she is on her hols. The system of giving groups of volunteers specific responsibility for a certain area of the garden means that they can keep an eye on the development of the plants under their care, they feel a sense of ownership, and they get to know the conditions really well. You can see Joe is really keen as he insisted on holding onto his bucket. Favourite shrubs are the wisteria, the Grevillea, and the daisy-like Feverfew.

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The Friday Gang have another reason to smile – on a rainy day they have the Pavilion to run to and shelter in, even though they are sharing it at the moment with mummy and daddy house martins who have built their nest under the eaves.

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Other new critters to arrive are the Golden Orfes, goldfish to you and me, difficult to photograph under water without a special filter and living up to their name as no sooner did I aim the camera than they scooted orfe to hide under another lily pad! Perhaps they thought I was Henry the Heron coming to look for his lunch.

Ellen

In Excelsa Deo

Stop Press! You simply must not miss the display of our New Zealand Christmas Trees, Metrosideros excelsa, two of which are in full bloom at Tir N’an Og. A eye-popping Santa-worthy crimson blossom takes your breath away, especially when you are reminded by fellow garden team member, Louise that the advent of the bloom means it is only 23 shopping weeks to Christmas!

Metrosideros excelsa

Sometimes referred to as the Antipodean Holly, branches are used for seasonal decoration in New Zealand. For the Maori people, a gnarled twisted pohutukawa on a cliff top at the northernmost point of New Zealand is the place where the spirits of the dead begin their journey to the traditional homeland of Hawaiki. The spirits leap from the headland and climb down the trunk of the 800 year old tree, descending into a cave which takes them to the underworld on their return journey. Sort of chimes with Lady Edith’s Celtic mythology ideas, and our trees fittingly sit atop the hill of Tir N’an Og. Must look and see if there is a hidden cave at the roots……..

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Talking of roots, the trees have interesting aerial or, adventitious roots, dangling from the branches like birds’ nests. In botany ‘adventitious’ refers to structures that develop in unusual places, and so I learn yet another new word……perhaps Santa could leave a gardening dictionary in my stocking this year?

Ellen

Mistaken Identity

It’s on days like this I wish I had taken botany instead of humanities at Uni, because in the middle of one of the parterres in the Italian Garden is what I confidently decided was a blue thistle, but on further investigation discovered it is actually a sea holly, Eryngium amethystinum. Obviously nothing to do with the red-berried Christmas variety, it is instead a member of the carrot, dill and parsley family. Its shoots and leaves can be eaten as a vegetable and the roots taste like chestnuts. Must put it on the menu for this year’s celebration, wonder if Lisa would notice it missing? I can always blame it on the rabbits.

Trivia Alert! Sea Holly is the county flower of Liverpool and grows on the sand dunes of the Wirral. Ours in County Down is a nice little blue wildflower, the Scilla Verna, also a coastal plant.

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Ellen

Poppies & Pipers

Edith, Lady Londonderry, agreed wholeheartedly with Gertrude Jekyll’s adage – ‘Paint while you plant, and as you work, design’, and so she set to work and painted with her trowel, especially in the Italian Garden. Her gardening diaries show colour washes of orange, red, magenta, purple, vivid blue, and peach sweeping across from the sunrise on the east to sunset on the west. This week the gardens are surely at their painted and designed best with vigorous growth and colour in every bed. The vivid orange of the poppies, pink senecio, the little daisies on the steps, make for a Kodak moment every time you turn your head.

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In the sunshine today with the air buzzing with insects, the scent of the roses, giant gunneras fringing the Dodo Terrace, and red nasturtiums against the dark yew trees, it was hard to decide just which shot through the viewfinder was the absolute best.

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Tall white alliums and tinkling of the water spouts and fountains lent a cooling frisson to the whole scene and I thought of the many summer garden parties on the lawns, held for charity in Edith’s time with groups of tables and chairs and delicate china teacups held with extended little fingers, music playing in the background. It must have been enchanting and the perfect excuse to wear that darling muslin tea dress with a Gatsby girl cloche hat in summer straw. One could have one’s fortune told, visit Lady Mairi’s menagerie, watch the holidaying Spanish royal children help with the fashion show, and imagine staying for the weekend in that long, low, grey mansion to be awakened in the morning by Her Ladyship’s Piper on the terrace, and a maidservant with early morning tea. Hmmmmmm….if only.

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Ok, one can dream, but the good news is that nowadays tea and cake can be enjoyed in our newly refurbished tea room (you may find the  lemon drizzle rather yummy).

Ellen

Double Meaning

Every so often you come across a new word, useful in completing The Times crossword, on wet days playing Scrabble, or just in our gardens to show off to the visitors. Our Garrya elliptica evergreen shrub offers such a word, dioecious, from the Greek dioecy ‘two households’, meaning that there are separate male and female plants. Although both produce catkins, the male catkins are considered more attractive, a trait this plant shares with peacocks, stalk-eyed flies, and David Beckham. Where is this wondrous plant? Well, otherwise known as the Silk Tassel Bush which should give you a clue, it is the large shrub to the right of the gate leading from the Italian Garden into the Lily Wood. A popular plant with visitors, it was introduced to Britain in 1828 by Scotsman David Douglas from the Pacific North West of America and named after a deputy governor of the Hudson’s Bay Company, Nicholas Garry.

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An edible climbing plant which is also dioecious (and delicious at the same time) is our Kiwi fruit vine, just coming into bud at the moment. It’s a plant with an interesting pedigree. Discovered in 1900 by plant hunter Ernest Wilson in China, hence Chinese Gooseberry, it was taken to New Zealand by Miss Isobel Fraser, headmistress of Wanganui Girls’ School and re-named Kiwi Fruit. Then the fuzzy brown skinned fruit was exported to California after the Second World War and known as Melonette. The largest producer is now Italy where they stick to Kiwifruit. Our vine is quite productive with the fruits ripening in early autumn, and the story goes that Edith, Lady Londonderry, never one to waste produce, harvested it and had the fruits made into jam. It was set on the table every day, but according to Lady Mairi, no-one ever ate it.

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Another of our trees which fits the description of dioecious, is the Ginko biloba, a living fossil. It was able to withstand the Hiroshima bomb and six are still growing at the site of the blast, consequently in Japan the tree is now known as the Bearer of Hope. It is the national tree of China and they clearly understand its virtues as a herb. The list of uses is very long, supposedly because individual trees can live for up to three thousand years; using ginko leaf extract for asthma and bronchitis was described in 2600 BC. The leaves are said to be effective in treating freckles. But be warned, the nuts are probably not to be safely consumed, and will interact with some medicines, so don’t try this at home! The leaves are a nice fresh green shade and such a pretty fan shape, find it in the Lily Wood.

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Ellen