Westonbirt Arboretum: 170 years of passion, planting and second guessing autumn colour
Guest blog post: Westonbirt, The National Arboretum is hosting Autumnwatch Live for the next three weeks. Westonbirt's Katrina Podlewska looks at its history, from millionaire's plaything to world class tree collection.
Autumn leaves at Westonbirt © FC Picture Library
The history of Westonbirt, The National Arboretum has been shaped from a legacy of Victorian fashions, a wealthy family, globe-trotting and death-defying plant hunters and landscape design.
What started as an arboretum in which to house specimens collected from around the world is now a world class tree collection which receives more than 350,000 visits a year.
A fashion for plants
Robert Saynor Holford, founder of the Arboretum © Emery Walker/Westonbirt School
Robert Stayner Holford inherited Westonbirt aged 31 in 1839. At this time creating a grand country estate was the height of fashion for the wealthy elite. Holford set about developing an estate that he could enjoy with his family and show off to his friends and competitors.
His wealth was considerable. He inherited £1m and six estates from a bachelor uncle. Legend says that he also found a wheelbarrow full of gold in the cellar of one of these estates. Whether that's true or not we don't know but he ploughed a vast amount of his wealth into creating his arboretum, populating it with plants collected from Europe, China, Japan, Chile and other temperate climates.
Blooms the size of dinner plates
His son, Sir George Holford, took over the arboretum in 1892 and continued his father's work. He was responsible for many of the original maple plantings, but also took an interest in creating hybrid rhododendrons for his collection.
The hybrids, created through selective breeding, were designed to produce bigger or brighter flowers than the smaller garden varieties of rhododendron that existed elsewhere. Today these spectacular huge blooms greet Westonbirt's visitors each spring.
Some of these historical plants still exist today and are being propagated through a special air layering technique to make sure these valuable hybrids aren't lost once the originals die.
If you're visiting look out for small black sausage-like packages wrapped around the branches of some of the rhododendrons. This is the air layering technique which tricks the plant into thinking it is under ground, producing new roots from its branches.
Diaries and records
A great advantage to this project and others are the records collected by the curators and head gardeners of the past.
Many diaries and planting records have been found and transcribed over recent years. These have helped the team discover more about particular plants, such as the rhododendrons, as well as chart seasonal variations in weather and spring or autumn colour. These records tell us what was planted and where. They have helped, amongst other things, to populate our interactive map.
Westonbirt's first curator, WJ Mitchell, shows in detailed diaries the seasonal variations experienced between 1927 and 1947. These diaries contains touching quotes showing just how devoted Mitchell was to the arboretum.
On the 26 January 1929, Mitchell wrote: "On this date, one of the worst snow storms since 1927, did an enormous amount of damage in the Arboretum and Silk Wood...the worst loss is the remarkably fine tree of Acer carpinifolia... it was 31ft high and 46ft through, a wonderful specimen and it will be greatly missed."
The attraction of autumn
WJ Mitchell devoted several diary pages each year to autumn and Sir George used to invite friends to take part in autumn 'colour parties' around the arboretum. Autumn has always been Westonbirt's star attraction.
In his diaries, Mitchell tries to conclude the conditions required for good autumn colour, but is continually questioning his theories.
His findings generally show that if spring is late, autumn is generally late and vice versa, and that a wet and dull summer could lead to poor autumn colour.
However in autumn 1936 he wrote: "There has never been a better all round colour than this autumn this is making a very bold statement... as to what these conditions are, it is difficult to say with any certainty, up to this year I have always thought a wet and sunless summer not conducive to good colouring, but after this summer and autumn I shall modify this opinion."
The activity of guessing the timing and condition of autumn colour still puzzles Westonbirt's team nearly 80 years later.
This mystery and the beauty of autumn is something we explore in our autumn colour watch blog. In my next contributor blog post for Autumnwatch, I'll look at the many ways in which we help to connect people with trees.