At our property update meeting last week it was lovely to hear how well our various events had gone throughout the season and to learn about more exciting days to come leading up through Christmas, and the spring and summer months next year.  As this is the last blog of this season I thought I would leave you with some of our lovely autumnal colours.

Come and see us – the gardens are still amazing and the mild weather has helped some of our more tender plants to stay in bloom

12    The Sunk Garden is still a riot of colour and the misty sunshine this morning gave it a really seasonal air.


An evergreen climber from Chile that is an old hand in the garden has flowered early, its little purple and white blossoms peeping out between luxuriant hanging tendrils.  Don’t think it will be quite warm enough to produce the sausage-like fruits that are such a delicacy in Chile, but we keep hoping!   It’s a Lardizabala biternata or Zabala Fruit and is listed by Lady  Edith in the 1956 edition of the garden guidebook so has been growing on the pergola for at least sixty years.  Find it at the north west corner.   Much admired by the keen gardeners who attended the recent Burma Fundraiser.

4     We have lots of colourful fungi too at this time of year, how about these for a tasty omelette?  Perhaps not, as I am sure  you are aware what looks like something edible may be poisonous, so best be on the safe side and buy mushrooms from your local costermonger.

Some plants are edible.  These nasturtiums look great in a salad, both peppery leaves and flowers, and the asters would look great in a vase on the table.  These make a great show under the yew trees in the Italian Garden.


The Pergola looked so nice today in the sunshine I couldn’t resist taking yet another photo.

The Lake is just gorgeous at the moment, take your camera and have a walk around.


Up by Tir Nan Og there is still plenty to see too.  Have a look at this rather special Schima Khasiana from China, a member of the tea family, still in bloom.   One of my favourites, I call it the fried egg plant.


Really sorry to say another season has come to an end. My thanks to Lindsay and Lauren for their help in posting the blogs, and to our (award winning) gardening team who exhibit great patience in answering my many questions.  So, time to wrap up and take a break.   As you can see from this skelfie, I’ve been working my fingers to the bone.




Our wonderful garden team at Mount Stewart was recently nominated by Peninsula Mowers (an agricultural machinery repair and training company in Greyabbey) as an exemplar in staff training and development, and we won!  A total of 17 awards in different categories were presented to Northern Ireland’s businesses and individuals who are outstanding in their field.  After seeing off stiff competition from some of the biggest and best in Northern Ireland, we picked up the prestigious ‘Farming Life and Danske Bank’ LANTRA (land based industries) award for ‘Commitment to Staff Training and Development’.

Garden Manager, Paul Stewart accompanied by members of the Mount Stewart gardening team attended the presentation ceremony featuring keynote speaker, Minister for Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs, Michelle McIlveen, at Belfast’s Ramada Hotel.


Representatives from Peninsula Mowers of Greyabbey and LANTRA, and garden team members Paul, Neil, Anna, Rachel, and Jonny looking very clean and tidy.  No wellies or garden gear here, don’t they clean up well?

Garden Manager Paul has arranged and devised a number of training programmes ranging from back to work placements, training and employability skills for the long term unemployed to bespoke heritage garden apprenticeships working in partnership with the local South Eastern Regional College, Peninsula Mowers, and other gardens in Northern Ireland. Most of these initiatives have largely been funded by a wide variety of external bodies and supporters such as the Pilgrim Trust and Ulster Garden Villages.


Paul with John Henning, Danske Bank, Paula Smyth, LANTRA, Graeme Huston, Johnstone press.  Afterwards he spoke of his pride in the team at Mount Stewart.  Paul said “A trained and engaged workforce who are on board with our vision is essential in developing our business and being the best we can be in all that we do. The staff have bought into this vision and have been instrumental in mentoring and developing our trainees, volunteers, less experienced members of staff and indeed each other. They are a great team and we are very proud to achieve this award. Recognition for staff development like this can only help the reputation of National Trust in general and Mount Stewart in particular as an employer of choice in Northern Ireland.  They are a very professional and multi-talented bunch and this award is recognition that they are leading the field in Northern Ireland in terms of people development in the land management industries.”

Photos courtesy of LANTRA.

Of course we can always use more volunteers – why not join our award winning gardening team – all you need is an interest in plants and a good sense of humus.



The thing about Mount Stewart is that the house and garden are closely entwined, and inside the mansion you will find lovely flower arrangements and an intriguing collection of beautiful bowls full of sweet smelling pot pourri. However, when researching Pot Pourri for this week’s blog, I was rather disconcerted to discover that a literal translation from the French is Rotten Pot. I would rather have the definition that lists ingredients like dried rose petals, herbs and spices, so that the stew that has gone a bit off becomes a more appealing melange of fragrant blossoms, essential perfume oils and spices displayed in a pierced or open container.

Certainly pleasantly scented surroundings, both outside and in, are what made a stay at  Mount Stewart special for Lady Edith’s many summer guests.  Her Ladyship had her own special recipe for the mixture, and Lady Rose tells us of constantly searching for the absolutely correct essence of vetiver oil used by her grandmother in order to recreate the pot pourri of those days when the house was full of visitors.


In Lady Edith’s little drying room tucked away off the black and white stone hall we can see a very practical pair of wellington boots, a walking stick, measuring jugs, baskets and trugs, and the drying racks that were used to process the petals.  Best picked when the dew has evaporated, the petals, or whole buds as used by Lady Edith, should be dried until papery and then tossed with other fragrant ingredients like lavender, orris root, rose oil, or vetiver oil. Little organza sachets wait to be filled and given as gifts or sold in support of Lady Edith’s many charities.


Lady Edith used whole stalks of delphiniums and small rosebuds; according to her notes once collecting over 300 rose blooms in a day.


They may have been similar to today’s pink free-flowering Rosa Raubritter, or the double blooms of the white Dundee  Rambler, and most importantly, they had to be fragrant.  Our current project in the gardens is to reinstate the rose garden  as it was when Lady Edith was collecting petals and buds for her mixture.


Huge decorative ceramic bowls full of the recipe were placed all around the house to the delight of guests, many of whom  remarked on the fragrance of the Mount Stewart rooms in their thank you letters.


Lavender was a key ingredient in the pot pourri recipe.  Lady Rose continues the tradition with this lovely little blue-themed basket, combining dried lavender with delphinium petals, perfect for a bathroom.


This little note on the reverse of a photograph of Queen Mary and Princess Alexandra refers to the “delicious” gift of pot pourri.   Hope it didn’t end up in the palace casserole.


Volunteer Outing to see the Brent Geese

Nine intrepid twitchers from our volunteer team met at Harrison’s for a soup and sandwich lunch before getting our wellies on, and, led by Gemma and her trusty ‘scope, we tramped across the lough shore towards Chapel Island.


At the moment there are around 22,000 Brent Geese on Strangford Lough.  Family groups wheel overhead before they land, exhausted from their long flight from Iceland.  Still more to arrive.


Eel Grass is the favourite food of the Brents, and on Strangford there is plenty for all.


As well as Brent we spotted a kestrel hovering, bluetit, wren, plover, widgeon, lots of swans and a bar tailed godwit.


Homeward bound across the low tide of the lough.


Our footsteps mingled with those of the geese.


Thanks Gemma for arranging the lunch, the tides, the weather and a lovely day out.


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.