Troy Hightower

Royal Botanic Garden-Edinburgh and Howick Arboretum: Two Botanical Gems

June, 2013

How many people can claim the title of Queen’s Botanist? When the queen in question is Elizabeth, only one: Professor Stephen Blackmore, whose other title is Regius Keeper of the Royal Botanic Garden, Edinburgh. Oh, and with a recently awarded CBE, he is a Commander of the Order of the British Empire – commonly known as a knighthood.

I became acquainted with Sir Stephen through his participation on the Board of Advisors of Quarryhill Botanical Garden in Glen Ellen, where I served on the board of directors for several years, and I had the pleasure of visiting him at RBGE, which is locally known as The Botanics, in Edinburgh.

RBGE is arguably one of the most important botanic gardens in the world. The Edinburgh garden dates to 1670 and covers 70 acres near the heart of the city with three additional gardens in outlying areas of Scotland. The living collection contains over 15,000 species of plants, collected over 300 plus years, an herbarium collection with over 3 million plant specimens, and the largest collection of wild-origin Chinese plants outside China.

The main garden, where I was given a tour by Director of Horticulture Dr. David Rae, comprises fabulous distinctive areas including the Chinese hillside, a wild garden area similar to Quarryhill; a fantastic Rock Garden and Stream, home to over 5,000 alpine plants; the riotous 150-meter-long Herbaceous Border and Beech Hedge; the Queen Mother’s Memorial Garden; the Scottish Heath Garden; a woodland garden of shade-loving shrubs and flowers, and a large Arboretum of mature trees.

Stunning floristic displays occur through much of the year, and as we wander the garden we wind through swaths of blooming rhododendrons, azaleas, trilliums, primulas, peonies, iris, tulips and lots more. The Arboretum sprawls through the garden, featuring mature specimens that are hundreds of years old in many cases.

The garden’s Pinetum contains many species of conifers—pine, spruce, fir, larch—that have been collected over multiple centuries. These can have terrific color in new foliage and emerging cones.

Returning the second day after my tour and subsequent lunch with Sir Stephen I explored the acres under glass in the Glass Houses, with ten distinct climatic conditions ranging from arid desert to cloud forest tropical and containing thousands of species from cacti to orchids. The 1824 Palm House is a stunning example of Victorian glass house architecture and contains both tropical and temperate palms.  

Two hours south of Edinburgh, and over the Scottish-English border, the historic estates of the Earls of Grey lie on the rugged Northumberland coast overlooking the frigid North Sea. Howick Hall is the seat of the current Lord Charles and Lady Clare Howick. Charles Howick has been a member of the Board of Advisors of Quarryhill for years, and has collected plants for Howick Arboretum in the wilds of Asia on joint expeditions since 1987. A charming and delightful man, Charles spent most of a nicely sunny June day showing me the estate and gardens.

The low-lying Bog Garden, our first stop, is a lovely secluded spot which contains trees and shrubs as well as woody and herbaceous plants, mostly from Asia, but also New Zealand and Europe: rodgersia, primulas, salvias, roses, deutzias and berberis.

The Borders and Rockery are adjacent to the historic Hall, built in 1776 (notable year, that). These are classic English gardens and contain many herbaceous perennials such as lupins, delphiniums, poppies, germaniums, lilies and mallows, shrubs for structure, and a number of roses, which Charles says can be problematic due to the relatively cool summers given proximity to the North Sea.

Silverwood, a woodland garden planted in the 1930’s by Charles’ grandfather Lord Grey, features winding paths through a mature wood awash with both species and hybrid rhododendrons, some as large as trees, in a riot of shades from white to pink to lilac to salmon to crimson. 

We break for lunch in the Earl Grey Tea House, where Lady Clare joins us for sort of classic tea-room fare of pate, salad and toasted cheese sandwiches. She divides her time between estate management, charitable works, raising and riding horses, and judging horse events, and is an avid cricket fan as well. Charles often tells the story of Earl Grey Tea, which was blended for the 2nd Earl to suit the particular water at Howick – it is made distinctive by the herb bergamot, which was added to counter the lime in the water. The 2nd Earl never trademarked the blend, which Twinings has sold for decades, and thus the family has never receiving a penny from many millions of pounds Sterling in sales.

After lunch we enter the Arboretum by the old stone Church. The Arboretum is the work that Lord Howick undertook in the mid-80’s after retiring from banking. It covers 65 acres extending from Howick Hall itself a couple of miles all the way to the North Sea. There are over 11,000 trees and shrubs from 1,800 species in what is one of the largest collections of wild-origin plants in Britain - almost all collected in the wild by Charles himself on expeditions to Japan, China, Korea, Nepal, India, North America, New Zealand, Chile and Tasmania. Charles tells me he has three years of expeditions mapped out to Russia ahead of him, in collaboration with RBG Edinburgh and Kew Botanic Garden in London.  I think he’ll be collecting plants in the wild until he just physically can’t.

We take the Long Walk, which follows Howick Burn out to the sea, and I recognize many trees and shrubs: birches, many maples, magnolias, rowan, wild roses, berberis, cotoneaster and the burnt-sugar fragrant (in fall) katsura. Returning, we hike the just-mowed field above the pond and watch a pair of swans and their young brood paddle lazily around.

Back at the Hall, we look for Lady Howick in her private walled garden, which she occasionally opens to the public with an entrance fee of one Pound--the fees used for the upkeep of the family Church, called St Michael and all Angels. She’s not deadheading roses or pruning, but instead we find her in the kitchen preparing Moussakka and watching a cricket match on the telly. Offering a cup of tea to fortify me for the drive back to Edinburgh, Lady Clare asks what type I’d like, and I fortunately have the presence of mind to declare “anything except Earl Grey!”


some images courtesy Howick Hall