Two weeks ago, I had the chance to give a talk to Friends of Kew at Wakehurst Place, Kew’s sister garden in Sussex, in the beautiful setting of the 16th century Mansion.
The talk was part of a monthly event called Wakehurst Social, which also involved a tour of the garden with a very knowledgeable guide. Despite the poor weather of this spring, it was still a good time to discover their two of their long-standing National Collections (awarded in 1989) : Skimmia and Betula.
Skimmia is a small genus of evergreen shrubs coming from Asia, with tiny but very fragrant flowers, and distinctive berries. Despite it being a popular genus in gardens, 39 cultivars are not widely available in the trade and considered as threatened. 2 of these are only growing at Wakehurst, although I couldn’t spot them in the Collection.
A striking cultivar, ‘Wakehurst White’, was discovered as a seedling at Wakehurst Place, and is now commercially available. But beware : this is a female cultivar, it will need a male plant nearby to produce its white berries!
Wakehurst Place is also home to one of the most comprehensive collection of Betula, with 103 taxa. Birches are known for their diversity of shapes, from the drooping branches of B. pendula to the upright, multi-stemmed habit of B. utilis var. jacquemontii ; but at this time of the year, it’s the trunk that sparks attention.
Bark lovers, this is for you :
There is a lot of natural variation in birches, which has given rise to hundreds of varieties. But many of these are not widely grown, partly because their propagation can be difficult. More than 60 cultivars have been flagged as threatened by the project, 6 of which are growing at Wakehurst, such as the rare Betula pendula ‘Birkalensis’.
If you’re interested in birches, the first and long-awaited monograph on the genus will be released this month by Kew Publishing. Written by Kenneth Asburner from Stone Lane Gardens in Devon, one of the National Collection holders who sadly died in 2010, and Hugh A. McAllister, birch expert, the book gives a detailed account of birch taxonomy, identification and horticultural uses. And profit from the sales will go towards the preservation of Stone Lane Gardens and its collections.