Work brought me to Edinburgh this week. I could not pay a visit to one of my favourite cities in the world without a visit to ‘The Botanics’, as they are known locally.
Situated just north of the city centre, the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh extends over 70 acres of gently undulating terrain around Inverleith House, an austere pile built in 1774 for a gentleman called James Rocheid. The site is well wooded and surrounded by genteel villas from the Georgian, Victorian and Edwardian periods – the sort of properties with generous, picturesque gardens that make middle class folk go oooh! and ahhh! There is a comforting feeling of maturity about the garden, which has been established here since it was moved in 1820 (prior to this, the garden had changed location within the city a few times). Although it doesn’t possess the size or notoriety of Kew, it’s an especially well-managed and attractive botanic garden that carries out Internationally important research and conservation work. I wish it were on my doorstep as I’d be there everyday. (Benmore, Logan and Dawyck are Regional Gardens of the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh and also appear on my botanical bucket list.)
For me, the highlights of the garden are the rock garden and the woodland gardens – upper and lower – both fine examples of their kind, maintained to exacting standards. I find exacting standards very pleasing, especially when someone else has achieved them.
I was just too late to enjoy horticultural spectacles such as the flowering of Cardiocrinum giganteum (giant Himalayan lily) and Meconopsis ‘Slieve Donard’ (Himalayan blue poppy). A couple of solitary blooms lingered on to assuage my disappointment.
The gardens’ immense collection of rhododendrons includes 70% of all known rhododendron species. Only R. serotinum, with its huge, white flowers that look like they’ve been fashioned from parachute silk, remained in bloom today. Next time I need to visit in April or May to enjoy these superstars of the plant world.
Not far from these Himalayan treasures, I discovered another plant of comparable beauty; Notholirion bulbuliferum. It looks a little like a lily or a fritillaria, but botanists have awarded it a genus of its own, Notholirion, which basically means ‘not a lily’. The bulbs produce a small rosette of narrow leaves before sending up flower stems around 1m tall. The plants die after blooming, but not before producing offsets. Notholirion bulbuliferum’s strong spikes of pinky-purple bells appealed to me so much that I am keen to grow this one at home. Apparently it does well in a pot, which is something of a prerequisite if we’re going to get along well.
The garden’s glasshouses are also treat, but sadly they have been closed in advance of a major new development called the Edinburgh Biomes. The scheme involves the construction of a new 20-metre-high glasshouse, with multi-level walkways – I am imagining a scaled-down version of the cloud forest conservatory at Gardens By The Bay in Singapore. The completed building will act as a welcome centre for visitors. New glasshouses for scientific research will also be built, as well as an educational building, a horticultural support building, private plant nursery and polytunnels for temporary plant housing.
On this occasion I also spent time in the demonstration gardens. Having an allotment has broadened my interest in gardening beyond the purely ornamental, and I enjoyed this space with its neatly planted beds of vegetables, herbs and annual flowers. The focal point is the Botanic Cottage, a building saved by the public from demolition in 2008 and rebuilt at Inverleith. Botanic Cottage was originally built between 1764 and 1765 and functioned as a home for the principle gardener, main entrance to the gardens and classroom for medical students. Left behind when the gardens moved from Leith Walk, it suffered many depredations until finally it was almost burned down. It now sits resplendent in its new setting, approached along a paved walk, flanked with colourful annuals.
I’ll end my perambulations at the magnificent rock garden. The best way to visualise these, if you cannot visit yourself, is to imagine that someone has taken a particularly immaculate golf links, carefully adorned it with rocks and then spangled the rough and bunkers with precious alpines. The grass paths are velvet-smooth (also very pleasing to me) and there are enticing little steps and rocky cut-throughs everywhere. It’s huge fun to walk about, a landscape in miniature, bringing together plants from similar environments all around the world. The one thing they have in common is a need for sharp drainage and not too much competition: often small, alpine plants are easily overwhelmed by more brutish members of the plant kingdom.
I make that last statement with some caveats, since Tropaeolum polyphyllum, a cousin to our garden nasturtiums, has made itself very much at home in one portion of the rock garden. It’s a sight that will make many a gardener weep, since it’s not always quite so obliging. It’s the first time I’ve seen normally rampant Campanula poscharskyana losing a battle for supremacy. After flowering the whole plant will wither and die back to underground tubers, which will rest quietly before reshooting next spring. Tropaeolum polyphyllum is native to the central Andean ranges of Chile and Argentina, where it’s known as ‘soldadito grande de la cordillera’ (great soldier of the mountains).
Three hours was just enough time for a leisurely stroll, including time for a cup of tea and an obligatory mooch in the shop. Whilst browsing, I surprised myself by discovering a book I’d never seen before, about a garden I have never heard of – Li – on the West Coast of Scotland. With the short time I have left on my journey back to Broadstairs, I shall be making myself familiar with another of Scotlands beautiful and varied gardens. TFG.
Ten ‘Must Grow’ plants from my visit to Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh
- Meconopsis ‘Slieve Donard’ – the famed blue Himalayan poppy would never be happy in the warm, dry, chalky conditions I could offer it at home, but one can still dream of growing such marvels.
- Crocosmia pearsei – a stunning crocosmia with large, arching, lava-orange flowers. According to the Pacific Bulb Society ‘this species does not respond well to cultivation’ so I may have to satisfy myself with photographs of this one.
- Acanthus dioscoridis var. perringii – a compact and slow-growing acanthus with fierce prickles and unusually large, chunky spikes of flowers. Likes it hot, dry and sunny.
- Notholirion bulbuliferum – this is a rarely cultivated bulbous plant from the Himalayas. Exactly why, I don’t know – it’s certainly not for any lack of good looks.
- Papaver apokrinomenon – with a name designed to twist one’s tongue in every conceivable direction, this is to all intents and purposes a diluted orange-squash version of our classic field poppy. However, most attractive with silver foliage, blues and other pastel shades.
- Pisum sativum ‘Rosakrone’ – a ridiculously pretty and productive pea with pink and white bicoloured flowers. Pods are produced towards the top of the plant making them especially easy to pick if you don’t like bending.
- Tagetes patula ‘Strawberry Blonde’ – I’ve seen this French marigold in seed catalogues and haven’t been convinced, but based on the plants growing in the demonstration garden, I quite like it.
- Tropaeolum polyphyllum – a hardy, trailing or slightly climbing nasturtium with glaucous foliage and canary-yellow flowers. Needs summer-dry soil and deep planting is recommended in order to guarantee hardiness. One of those plants that’s ridiculously happy when it’s happy, but that quickly vanishes if its not.
- Tropaeolum speciosum – sometimes known as the ‘Scottish Flame Flower’ – this herbaceous climber is most often seen growing through dark yew hedges. The scarlet blooms of Tropaeolum speciosum appear like cuts and gashes on their smooth faces. This is another climber that will make it known whether your satisfying its needs, either by spreading everywhere (as at Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh) or promptly disappearing. It likes to be cool at the root and enjoys sun, which makes one wonder why it seems to favour growing conditions in Scotland over the rest of the British Isles.
- Idesia polycarpa – I am currently flirting with trees that have fabulous foliage, despite having nowhere to grow them. This ‘wonder tree’ from the Far East produces long bunches of reddish berries resembling peppercorns or red currants. I like it for the spade-shaped leaves that have red petioles. Sadly much too large for a small garden, but one for the extended bucket list.
If you would like to visit The Botanics yourself, please check their website before venturing forth. At the time of writing, entrance is free but pre-booking is essential. Catering and toilet facilities are limited but adequate. TFG.