Gardening: Snakes in a Sussex garden: Wellingtonias, birches and yews with wrap-around reptilian roots, are flourishing at Wakehurst Place, says Anna Pavord

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The Independent Online
I went down to Wakehurst Place in West Sussex, Kew's garden in the country, last week, on the anniversary of the great October storm of 1987. I bent a knee in front of the survivors, gazed on the last traces of the victims, and admired the new planting carried out under the guidance of Wakehurst's young deputy curator, Mark Flanagan. About 15,000 trees and large shrubs were lost here on the night of the storm, and the resulting mayhem took four and a half years to sort out. The new Wakehurst will lead visitors on a walk through the temperate woodlands of the world: trees from eastern Asia on this side, a Himalayan glade on that.

In the past, botanic garden collections have tended to be grouped in families - all the beeches in one place, all the oaks in another. This new arrangement will more closely mirror how plants grow in their natural habitats, and make it easier for the staff to ensure that each plant has the soil and growing conditions that suit it best.

Of the survivors, Stewartia sinensis was one of the most beautiful, a small tree introduced at the turn of the century from central China, and named - by a taxonomist who could not spell - after John Stuart, third Earl of Bute. Its bark was its most obvious asset, a curious greyish, pinkish, brownish plum, smooth and slippery as the finest leather, flaking in large patches to reveal paler colours beneath.

It held itself well, too. You become more critical of this aspect of trees when the leaves fall and you see the bare bones. Some, like the birches, carry their nakedness well, making a fine netted web of twigs silhouetted against the sky. Others, such as some cherries, need their clothes to hide an ungainly structure.

In high summer, the stewartia's structure, even its bark, would be eclipsed by its flowers, creamish white and fragrant, which hang like little cups from the leaf axils. Its size suggests that Wakehurst was one of its first homes in Britain, and that it was probably planted by Gerald Loder, who had the estate for 35 years from 1902 (his wife, fed up with his obsession, burnt all his plant records after his death).

Even full-grown, as this one is, the stewartia is a small tree, wide spreading but not tall, which - given the right soil - would make a handsome winter feature in a town garden. It likes the same kind of growing conditions as rhododendrons: lime-free soil, dappled shade, roots cool under a mulch of leaves. The leaves, in shape, are no more than leafish, but they turn a good rich colour in autumn.

The biggest survivors of the storm are the wellingtonias, tall narrow cones of trees, which can reach 260ft. All their strength seems to go into their trunks, which are immense. The bark is a reddish-brown, soft and very thick. The branches are mere afterthoughts, drifting weakly around the monolithic core, fortunately disguised with evergreen foliage.

It is the rare trees with unpronounceable names that get the star treatment in a botanic garden. But a group of common yews gave me as much pleasure as any of the rarities because of the extraordinary way they were growing.

If you go down the rock walk towards Bloomers Valley, you pass huge outcrops of yellow sandstone like the abandoned building blocks of a gigantic wall. Being soft and porous, they sop up water and the yews had capitalised on this by wrapping their roots over the surface of the rock. The roots look like a seething basket of snakes, all a rich, dark oxblood red.

One of the chief advantages to Kew of having this out-of-town garden is that the growing conditions are so different. Kew's soil is dry and fast-draining. It does not suit the acers, birches and willows that thrive in Sussex. Birches were a speciality of Wakehurst's last curator, Tony Schilling, and there is a big planting of them between the house and Bethlehem Woods.

The variations are enormous, even between trees of the same species: here, the Himalayan birch, Betula utilis. Some had pinkish-brown bark, some Persil-white. A wide shift in colour apparently also occurs in the wild. Trees spreading away from one side of the Kali Gandak gorge in central Nepal are white-barked while those on the other side tend to be amber-brown.

Some trees were still carrying a full crop of bright green leaves, some had turned yellow, some had shed their leaves altogether. The variety 'Silver Shadow' has large, drooping, dark-green leaves; 'Grayswood Ghost', named after Grayswood Hill, the house in Haslemere where it first grew, is distinguished by the high gloss on all its foliage. All had the elegant finesse that distinguishes this family.

The best of the white-stemmed birches, B. jacquemontii, now seems to be treated by botanists as a type of B. utilis. Whatever tag it is given, it is a good tree with long catkins in spring. These birches are relatively fast-growing, like most of the tribe, reaching about 20ft in five years, but the outline is slender and this is one of the few trees that benefits from being planted quite close to others of its kind. A small grove of, say, three birches works better than one on its own. They are not long- lived: 50 is a goodish age for this tree.

Both B. jacquemontii and its 'Silver Shadow' variety appear on the list that the Royal Horticultural Society has made of plants it considers worthy of an award of garden merit. So do four kinds of Betula pendula. Only one of these, called 'Youngii', is as determinedly lachrymose as a weeping willow, making a broad- headed, domed tree with all the main branches bending to the ground.

It makes a shorter, fatter shape than the variety called 'Tristis', which weeps as an afterthought, the branchlets drooping from the branches like bead curtains. The bark is not as white as B. jacquemontii and, as the tree ages, the trunk cracks, creating dark fissures between the paler flakes.

Birches suggest a certain style of gardening, a style based on informal curves, relying on shrub beds rather than herbaceous borders. They do on most soils, whether damp or dry, but I think of them as heath trees, heather swirling round their feet. They have the wide-spreading surface roots that one associates with trees that are used to working hard on poor soils to feed themselves. In the garden, this does not make them generous neighbours.

Wakehurst Place Garden, nr Ardingly, West Sussex, is open daily (10am-4pm), admission pounds 3.30. For a list of events celebrating National Tree Week (25 November to 5 December), contact the Tree Council, 35 Belgrave Square, London SW1X 8QN (071-235 8854).

(Photograph omitted)

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