Quercus shumardii leaves

Autumn in Cambridge Botanic Garden

I love visiting Cambridge University Botanic Garden but this year that’s not been possible, so I thought I’d take a virtual tour using images I took in November a few years ago.

The original Botanic Garden was founded in 1762 in the centre of Cambridge and grew plants used for teaching medical students at the University. It moved to its present site in 1846 and now holds a collection of over 8ooo plant species from all over the world, to facilitate teaching and research. The garden also provides a beautiful place for everyone to enjoy.


Has an apple ever fallen on your head?

Once you enter and take the main path into the garden it’s not long before you come to a small unremarkable tree. Unless you notice the information panel and realize its interest, you will probably pass by without a further glance. But, in the autumn, if you have a vague idea of its identity, and you see a big apple on the ground and another still hanging on the tree, then you stop and take notice. We all know the story of Isaac Newton’s ‘eureka moment’ when an apple fell on his head and he understood gravity. But is the story true?

Sir Isaac Newton's apple tree in Cambridge Botanic Garden
Sir Isaac Newton's apple Infomation sign
An apple from Sir Isaac Newton's apple tree

The Royal Society has in its archives a document, Memoirs of Sir Isaac Newton’s life, by William Stukeley, written in 1752. By the wonders of modern technology we can find it online and read Stukeley’s firsthand account of Newton telling the tale.

“After dinner, the weather being warm, we went into the garden and drank thea, under the shade of some apple trees; only he and myself. Amidst other discourse, he told me, he was just in the same situation, as when formerly, the notion of gravitation came into his mind. Why should that apple always descend perpendicularly to the ground, thought he to himself; occasion’d by the fall of an apple, as he sat in a contemplative mood. Why should it not go sideways, or upwards? But constantly to the earth’s center? Assuredly, the reason is, that the earth draws it. . . .”

Not quite the bang on the head that we imagine but it seems the story is, essentially, true!
Take a look at the document here.

Take a well-trodden path

Opposite the apple, there is another tree I’ve often admired for its huge pinnate leaves, but at this season it was the strings of fruits that drew my attention.  Pterocarya fraxinifolia, with the common name of Caucasian wingnut, is in the Juglandaceae family and is a hardy, fast-growing tree, happiest in deep, moist soil.

Pterocarya fraxinifolia fruits
Holly with berries
Mediterranean garden

Returning to the main path, I soon passed a holly, bright with red berries reminding me of the season to come. When the path divided I resisted the temptation to go into the warm glasshouses and turned instead into the Mediterranean Garden. This is a favourite of mine. It’s full of interesting plants, not as colourful as other parts of the garden but beautiful in a quiet way, and an ideal prelude for what was to come.

Now for the autumn fireworks!

Moving out onto the lawn I wanted to see what autumn in Cambridge Botanic Garden had to offer. This wonderful oak was the first tree to hit me. Quercus shumardii, native to the USA, is a small to medium-sized tree with deeply cut, dark green leaves, up to 20cm in length. I imagine it’s a beautiful tree throughout the seasons but in the autumn those leaves are fabulous!

Quercus petraea is not on quite the same scale but I thought the mottled, deep yellow and brown leaves were very attractive. This is the sessile or durmast oak, one of the UK’s two native species, replacing the common or English oak on damper soils in the north and west. The acorns have no stalk, hence the name, but the leaves are long-stalked and somewhat larger than those of the English oak.

Then there’s Fagus sylvatica, the common beech, well-known to us in the southeast of the UK. We love to see the new foliage emerging in the spring – there is nothing quite like the soft colour and texture of those leaves. And in the autumn those are the leaves we like to kick high in the air when we’re out for a walk in the country. Who can resist?

Quercus shumardii tree in Cambridge Botanic Garden
Quercus shumardii leaves
Quercus petraea, sessile oak
Fagus sylvatica, common beech
Fagus sylvatica, common beech

A Greek and a ghost

The Tree of Hippocrates, under which the ancient Greek physician taught medicine at Kos, is reputed to have been an oriental plane tree,  Platanus orientalis. It is native from southeast Europe to northern Iran. As you can see the leaves, deeply divided into slender, pointed lobes, turn deep yellow and bronze in autumn, and the spiky fruit clusters hang on long stalks well into the winter. It is considered one of the most magnificent of all large trees.

Betula utilis ssp. jacquemontii ‘Grayswood Ghost’ is a very long name for a beautiful tree, grown for its attractive form and striking white bark. The RHS describes it as having “some yellow autumn colour.” Might I suggest this is more than “some”. It is stunning! 

Sunshine through the leaves of Platanus orientalis, oriental plane
Betula utilis ssp. jacquemontii 'Grayswood Ghost' leaves
Platanus orientalis, oriental plane, with fruit
Betula utilis ssp. jacquemontii 'Grayswood Ghost'

Catching fire!

Along a small side path I’d never walked before, I found these two marvels of the autumn in Cambridge Botanic Garden that take leaf colour to another level. Acer palmatum, Japanese maple, introduced to western cultivation in the 1820s, is at its best in a moist but well-drained soil, sheltered from cold winds, especially from the east. The species has given rise to many choice cultivars all of which have palmate, five or seven-lobed leaves.  Acer palmatum ‘Osakazuki’, with its leaves turning from green to fiery scarlet in the autumn, is considered to be the most brilliant.

There was even more fire power from a very large shrub close by,  Cotinus coggygria x obovatus ‘Flame’. Almost certainly a hybrid between the Eurasian Cotinus coggygria and C. obovatus from US, it has large pink flower clusters in the summer, making the ‘smoke’ for which the genus is renowned. But it is in the autumn that this plant really shows its colours when the green leaves turn brilliant orange-red before falling.

Acer palmatum 'Osakazuki'
Acer palmatum 'Osakazuki' leaf
Cotinus coggygria x obovatus 'Flame'
Cotinus coggygria x obovatus 'Flame' leaves

A bit of calm in The Winter Garden

After all that bright colour, The Winter Garden provided a calming interlude. I have often visited this garden in February, when Daphne bholua ‘Jacqueline Postill’ in full bloom entices you in. There are coloured stems of every type, perfumed blossom, evergreens, and snowdrops, and if you’re lucky enough to have some sunshine as well, there is no better place to be. Come winter, this Acer griseum will be bare of leaves and showing off its glowing bark, and the Rubus thibetanus ‘Silver Fern’ will be a mound of pure white stems. The  Ozothamnus leptophyllus ‘Ward Silver’ will still be a shining silver, and all the leaves of Bergenia ‘Bressingham Ruby’ will have turned a deep, deep red.

Acer griseum Paperbark maple showing bark
Ozothamnus leptophyllus 'Ward Silver'
Cornus alba 'Sibirica' and Bergenia 'Bressingham Ruby'
Acer griseum Paperbark maple in its autumn colour
Rubus thibetanus 'Silver Fern'

And a final fling

Returning to the trees, the afternoon was hurrying by and there was still more to see. This magnificent tree is  Fagus sylvatica Purpurea Group, which we usually refer to as copper beech. In spring and summer, it is a glorious sight and now in autumn, the leaves turn all shades of orange-brown. I’m not sure it’s very different from the green variety at this time of year – maybe a little darker.

I have never heard of this next tree,  Zelkova serrata, but I think the autumn foliage is delightful with its deep yellow leaves tinged with pink. It is in the Ulmaceae family and is allied to the elms. The species, native to Japan, Korea, eastern China, and Taiwan, grows into a medium-sized tree of graceful, wide-spreading habit. Numerous cultivars have been selected and some of them, together with the species, are grown by a number of nurseries in the UK. I wonder why it hasn’t caught my attention before now.

However, the bright red fruit of this rose certainly caught my eye.  Rosa filipes ‘Kiftsgate’ is well known to many gardeners for its vigorous growth and huge panicles of sweetly scented flowers, which are replaced by these gorgeous shiny hips.

Metasequoia glyptostroboides, the dawn redwood, was only known from fossil evidence dating back 100 million years and thought to have been extinct for 5 million years. But in 1946 some survivors were found in a remote village in Szechuan province in China, and seedlings from these trees are now growing in Cambridge. In autumn the pale green feathery foliage turns a very pleasing bronze colour, and with its size and pyramidal shape, it’s very hard to miss. See the full story of the Cambridge redwoods here.

Fagus sylvatica Purpurea Group, copper beech
Fagus sylvatica Purpurea Group, copper beech
Fagus sylvatica Purpurea Group, copper beech
Zelkova serrata
Rosa filipes 'Kiftsgate' hips
Autumn in Cambridge Botanic Garden View across the lake

Time to go

The sun was disappearing fast and it was getting chilly so it was time to go. I took one more look across the lake and left the way I had come in, for a walk back to the city.

Metasequoia glyptostroboides, dawn redwood, in Cambridge Botanic Garden

Find some useful information

Cambridge University Botanic Garden. Visit the website and find out all about this excellent garden.

The Royal Society website.

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