The Amazing Winter Garden at Anglesey Abbey
I have visited the Winter Garden at Anglesey Abbey, a National Trust property in Cambridgshire, on several occasions and always enjoyed it hugely. During a spell of icy weather in the winter, I decided there would be no better time to look through the photos I had taken and remind myself of this fabulous garden.
Whilst doing so, I was also reminded of how little I knew about some of the plants I had seen. So let me take you on a virtual tour to see the plants and what I’ve found out about them.
The journey begins
The approach to the garden is lined with beautiful dark green evergreens and you might catch a glimpse of hazel catkins, reminding you that spring is not far away. As you come out of the green tunnel and start down the path you pass huge pollarded salix underplanted with sarcococca, giving off its perfume if you’re lucky enough to have a warm day.
But even this doesn’t prepare you for what you are about to see.
The Winter Garden at Anglesey Abbey is very long and narrow with a path snaking along its whole length. The plants grow up to the very edge and this closeness and height, together with the clever design, give the garden a very intimate atmosphere.
Let’s get on our way
As you walk along, turning this way and that, there will plants to entice you every step of the way. Some with coloured stems and bark, others with beautiful flowers, often sweet smelling, evergreens providing a backdrop or ground cover, and, beneath it all, some tiny gems. Let’s take a look in more detail.
Brightly coloured stems
It is often the brightly coloured stems and bark that we notice first in a winter garden. Here are just some of the ones I saw in the Winter Garden at Anglesey Abbey.
Prunus serrula is a very well known and popular tree. It benefits greatly from people’s desire to stroke, and so polish, the smooth, coppery-brown bark. Here it is planted almost on the path, right in temptations way, so not many can resist. But they will be in good company because, apparently, famous gardener and plantsman, E. A. Bowles used to encourage visitors to his garden to stroke the bark of his tree to keep its gloss. Prunus serrula is native to western China and was introduced to Britain by Ernest Wilson in 1908.
Cornus, dogwood, is the mainstay of many winter gardens and at Anglesey this one, which I think is C. sanguinea ‘Midwinter Fire’, is used to great effect in large plantings that glow as though they really are on fire. Another, with rather more subdued colouring, is C. stolonifera ‘Flaviramea’. It has yellowish green stems and I thought this combination with snowdrops was very attractive.
Salix, willow, is also used for its colourful young shoots. Here at Anglesey Abbey the plants of Salix alba var. vitellina ‘Britzensis’, with orange/scarlet stems are huge – they must have been cut hard back for years. They are underplanted with drifts of Sarcococca hookeriana var. digyna.
Fraxinus, ash, is not a plant you often see grown for its winter stems. I have seen one like this before, at the Sir Harold Hillier Garden in Hampshire, and it was labelled Fraxinus excelsior ‘Jaspidea’, a form of the common ash with golden yellow young shoots. This might well be the same plant. I think the black buds against the golden stems are amazing.
Acer griseum is a magnificent tree for the winter garden. It is another Ernest Wilson introduction, this time from Central China in 1901. The specific epithet griseum, meaning grey, is a little misleading, referring as it does to the underside of the leaves. We must rely on its common name, paperbark maple, to explain the feature for which it is famous. The bark flakes and curls back like paper to reveal the cinnamon-coloured, smooth bark beneath. Like the cherry above, this tree cries out to be touched, but this would remove the very feature that we all admire. Which is why this specimen is planted well back from the path out of harm’s way!
Some ghostly stems
To compliment the brightly coloured shrubs and trees there were some in a more subdued hue.
Acer davidii ‘George Forrest’, a snake-bark maple, has an attractive green and white striated bark. The species is native to China and was first described and named after Armand David. It was brought into cultivation in 1879 and this form introduced by George Forrest in 1921-22.
Acer palmatum ‘Sango-kaku’ was another acer that caught my eye when I saw it silhouetted against a pale blue sky. Also known as A.p. ‘Senkaki’, this coral-bark maple, is a small tree with very slender, delicate young branches in a delightful shade of red. Should this have been together with the more brightly coloured stems? I don’t think so because this plant has a much more subtle colouring and stature. Here, at Anglesey Abbey, it has been underplanted with Sarcococca confusa for an added hit of perfume while you gaze up into the branches.
Acer negundo was the third acer to attract my attention but is different again from the other two. It is a fast-growing, large tree, native to N. America, where it is widely spread. It was cultivated by Bishop Compton at Fulham as early as 1688. At Anglesey it is pollarded to encourage long, straight, pale-coloured stems, which I thought were very effective, especially when they caught the low winter sun. I was given the name A. negundo but whether or not this is the species or one of its cultivars that is described as having young shoots with a white bloom, I do not know.
The flowers are screaming to be allowed in!
As well as plants with colour in their stems and bark, there are many winter-flowering ones too. Although you actually have to be there to appreciate it, they also often have a glorious perfume.
The plants most widely grown are either forms of H. mollis or hybrids between these two Asian species, which have been raised in a vast range of colours from red, through orange to various shades of yellow. The flower has a calyx of four sepals, maroon-coloured inside, four strap-shaped petals with, what Graham Stuart Thomas describes as, “an eye-like glint in the centre from the yellow stamens”, again four in number. But, of course, it has another feature so important for the winter garden – its perfume, which is variously described as warm, spicy, or sweet and which carries far on the air.
There are six known species of chimonanthus, but only one, Chimonanthus praecox , is widely grown. It is native to Central and S. China, where it has been grown in gardens for hundreds of years, for its winter flowering and sweet perfume. It was introduced to Britain in 1766. The flowers of the species, which grow on bare stems, have yellow almost transparent outer tepals surrounding smaller, purplish, inner ones. But, the plant that I saw at Anglesey Abbey had no such purple centre so I think it must be C.p. ‘Luteus’ .
Viburnum x bodnantense, another plant grown for its winter perfume, is a group of hybrids between two closely allied species, V. farreri and V. grandiflorum. Viburnum farreri is native to N. China and was first introduced to Britain by William Purdom in 1910, and later by Reginald Farrer, after whom it is named. Viburnum grandiflorum, with a native range from NE. Pakistan to Tibet and Assam, was introduced in 1914.
The cross between the two was first made at the Royal Botanic Garden, Edinburgh in 1933 and repeated at Bodnant, Lord Aberconway’s famous garden in North Wales, in 1935. The first-named clone, ‘Dawn’, which received an Award of Garden Merit from the RHS in 1984, is the one that is usually grown and is probably the one I saw in the Winter Garden at Anglesey Abbey. It has clusters of pink flowers, fading to white, and a glorious scent during mild spells throughout the winter.
I have written a whole post about all the different species and cultivars so, if you’d like to know more, take a look.
Now for the understory
In the shelter and protection of all these shrubs and trees there are the more delicate but colourful additions to the winter scene.
Ribes laurifolium, a very unusual gooseberry relative, was introduced from W. China in 1908 by Ernest Wilson. It is a dioecious shrub with large leathery leaves and very small, pale, greenish-white flowers in nodding racemes. The male plant is more ornamental than the female, with larger flowers in longer racemes, at about 5 cm. The plant I saw had spread across the ground at about 60cm in height. I have seen it described as scrambling, as a dwarf plant suitable for the rock garden, as not showy but interesting, and welcome for its early flowers. Not an exciting prospect – until, that is, you see it through the eyes of a plant hunter.
Roy Lancaster, a plantsman with a long and distinguished career, has travelled to China on several occasions. In 1980 he was a member of the Sino-British Expedition to the Cangshan, a range of mountains in west Yunnan, where, on one particular day, he found Ribes laurifolium growing as an epiphyte on an evergreen oak at 10,000ft.
He recounts that he had seen this shrub growing in the garden of Amy Doncaster, another fine plantswoman, in Hampshire. “Here, in a shaded moist situation, it has reached 2m on a wire frame and excels itself in March”. Seeing this plant in the wild also reminded him of his student days at the University Botanic Garden in Cambridge, where he first encountered it, and where it was often used as a teaser in the plant identification tests.
I love these connections between plants, places, and people. I find that knowing some of the stories about a plant makes growing it even more enjoyable.
Crocus is a genus of perennials in the family Iridaceae, growing from corms, with a vast native range from the Mediterranean to Xinjiang, in China. According to the Royal Botanic Garden Kew’s Plants of the World Online, there are 252 species. I have no idea which species or cultivar this one, which I saw at Anglesey Abbey, is but I’ve included it here because it was so stunning. I have only seen it there on one occasion even though all my visits have been at around the same date, which reminds us that flowers at this time of year are more dependent on the weather than the calendar.
Iris unguicularis, the Algerian iris, is native to NW. Africa and E. Mediterranean, growing in rocky places among low shrubs. To give it similar conditions in cultivation it needs planting in a warm, sheltered, and dry location and many growers recommend placing it at the base of a south-facing wall. It forms clumps of narrow, grass-like evergreen foliage, from which rise buds opening into flowers in shades from lavender-blue to purple depending on variety.
Iris unguicularis ‘Mary Barnard’, with the Royal Horticultural Society’s Award of Garden Merit, is a very popular dark purple cultivar. The beautifully fragrant flowers can start blooming as early as September and continue intermittently through to spring. Is this the plant I saw in the Winter Garden at Anglesey Abbey, I wonder?
I was amazed to find that this plant is held in such high esteem by so many authors. I think I must start with E. A. Bowles. Writing in 1914, in a chapter entitled Early Irises in ‘My Garden in Spring’, he begins, “Suppose a wicked uncle who wished to check your gardening zeal left you pots of money on condition you grew only one species of plants: what would you choose? I should settle on Iris unguicularis, as in summer one could get whiffs of other folks’ roses and lilies and all the dull season enjoy the flowers of this beautiful iris.”
He then continues for several pages describing it in amazing detail including its culture, how it should be cut for the house, and how to keep slugs and snails away.
Graham Stuart Thomas also sings the praises of “one of our most precious winter flowers” in his ‘Colour in the Winter Garden’, and Beth Chatto described their “fragile loveliness”. But the last word must go to Dan Pearson in an absolutely beautiful piece in his Dig Delve Magazine.
I regret that I do not grow Iris unguicularis but am now determined to find a plant to enjoy.
Eranthis hyemalis, winter aconite, is a tuberous perennial in the family Ranunculaceae. The flowers are solitary, golden yellow, 2-3cm across, held above a ruff of bright green leaf-like bracts. The basal leaves grow after flowering. It has a native range from SE France to Bulgaria, where it grows in damp woods, copses, and orchards. In cultivation it enjoys similar woodland conditions under deciduous trees, where it will spread when happy.
Apparently, it is sometimes difficult to establish especially when the knobbly tubers are allowed to dry out. This is a plant, which, like the snowdrop, prefers being moved ‘in the green’. I hear that some gardeners rate this little yellow gem more highly than the first snowdrop!
Helleborus is a genus in the Ranunculaceae family, with fifteen species and a range in Europe from W Britain through to Caucasus, NW Africa, and China. Various hybrids between species have been produced but the one most often grown is Helleborus x hybridus, to give it its correct name, although the colloquial ‘Oriental Hybrids’ is more often used. I think this is what I saw in the Winter Garden at Anglesey Abbey.
These Oriental Hybrids, derived at least in part from H.orientalis, are now available in an enormous range of colours, shapes, and forms: white, cream, pale and deep pink, red, shades of purple, almost black, green, and yellow, plain, spotted, dusted, and picotee, star or saucer or cup-shaped and everything in between, single, anemone-flowered or double. I think you can understand why they are so popular and, in some cases, addictive!
Cyclamen is a genus of twenty species of tuberous perennials in the Primulaceae, growing in countries around the Mediterranean. They flower at different seasons depending on the species but all have solitary flowers with 5 reflexed petals in shades from white to pink and red, and leaves that vary from rounded or kidney-shaped to heart shaped.
Cyclamen coum is one of two cyclamen I saw in the Winter Garden at Anglesey Abbey. It grows in the wild around the Black Sea, from Bulgaria to the Caucasus Mountains and Israel. It is very variable in the wild, with many subtle variations of flower and leaf size and colour across its range.
In cultivation it also covers a wide range of forms, some of which have been selected and named for a particular characteristic. There are silver, pewter or plain leaves, crimson, magenta or pure white flowers and anything in between.
And they will self sow. Generally, they don’t self-pollinate so Graham Rice advises buying two plants as near identical as possible so that, when they cross, the seedlings are most likely to be similar. Assuming, of course, that that is what you want. You might prefer a tapestry of different colours and patterns, in which case, you can put distinctly different forms together and watch what happens.
Cyclamen hederifolia has a native range from southern France to Turkey growing in woodland and scrub in dappled shade. It flowers in the autumn and the leaves develop after the flowers and last throughout the winter. Again the leaves can vary in shape, size and pattern and it was a patch of a particularly fine form that caught my eye at Anglesey.
Anglesey Abbey is famous for its snowdrops. But they must wait for another day because we haven’t got time, we are nearly at the end of our tour.
The Winter Garden’s pièce de résistance
As you near the end of the Winter Garden at Anglesey Abbey, as you reach the last bend, if you’ve visited before, you look forward to what’s round the corner. But if you haven’t been before you will be delighted by the beautiful surprise.
It really is an amazing sight and, if it’s not too crowded with people, you will be able to linger a while and take in the view of these shining white trees.
They are trees of Betula utilis subsp. jaquemontii and I think there must be at least 100 of them. This is the name according to the Royal Botanic Garden Kew’s Plants of the World Online but I have also seen it referred to as B. u. var jaquemontii. Known as the Western Himalayan birch, it would seem to be variable in the wild but the form we grow has this very distinctive white bark.
It is a vigorous deciduous tree growing to about 18m with yellow-brown male catkins to 12cm long that open in early spring and ovate leaves that turn yellow in the autumn. It is a very amenable plant and will grow in a wide range of situations, any aspect, in sun or partial shade, whether sheltered or exposed, in any moist, well-drained soil of any pH. It is sometimes grown as a multi-stemmed tree or grouped together in a copse as here at Anglesey.
These trees create a full stop, bringing to an end the experience of the Winter Garden – and our tour.
Find some useful information
Anglesey Abbey is a National Trust property in Cambridgshire famous for it’s Winter Garden but well worth a visit at any time of the year. Find out more.
Trees and Shrubs Online The International Dendrology Society’s ambitious project to create a modern, web-based encyclopaedia of woody plants hardy in the temperate parts of the world.
Books are a good way to find lots more detail:
The Hillier Manual of Trees and Shrubs
Colour in the Winter Garden by Graham Stuart Thomas
My Garden in Spring by E.A. Bowles
Travels in China by Roy Lancaster
The Gardener’s Guide to Growing Hellebores by Graham Rice & Elizabeth Strangman
Cyclamen by Christopher Grey-Wilson
Beautiful gardens. See why I think gardens are so important.
The Sir Harold Hillier Winter Garden Take a tour round another winter garden.
All my posts If you’ve enjoyed reading this article and would like to see some more, browse all my posts and see what interesting things you can find when you look at the detail.
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