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Westonbirt Arboretum

The arboretum of Westonbirt near Tetbury in the Cotswolds, Gloucestershire (England) is the biggest and most important arboretum of England. This English woodland garden contains a large collection of decideous trees, conifers, and shrubs: about 3,000 species have been planted of which a large part is very rare or are the biggest specimens of their kind in Europe. Westonbirt has been planted in such a way that it is also an enjoyable place that is well worth a visit even if strange species do not interest you that much.

 

Westonbirt is well maintained, with a parking lot, a modern visitor centre and the like. The planting of the arboretum was started in 1829 by Robert Holford, who was then the owner of Westonbirt Estate. Westonbirt was later expanded by his son George Holford. Nowadays it's property of the British Forestry Commission, that has opened it for the public. Also the royal botanic gardens of Kew make use of Westonbirt to plant certain species that are not well suited for the London climate or for which there's no room left in Kew.

 

Left
The entrance of Westonbirt from the side of Westonbirt Mansion (that is now a girls' boarding school). The entrance is garded by two impressive giant sequoias (Sequoiadendron giganteum). There's a nice story to be told about them. In 1854 Robert Holford and his wife each planted a giant redwood of about a foot high (the price was £8 back then, about three times a workers monthly wage). It is said that Robert was annoyed that the tree planted by his wife grew better than his did and now almost two centuries later, this still holds true!

Right
A view of a rather young part in the woodland garden. This is something that is often forgotten: even trees die one day and gardeners have to think early enough about the succession of the old growth trees. A healthy garden or park should have young, fully grown, and old trees at the same time.

 

 

The images about show a giant sequoia (Sequoiadendron giganteum). Or wait a second, are there three giant sequoias to be seen?
Something strange is going on with this tree! The lower branches of the original, central giant sequoia have rooted and have become large redwoods themselves. This behaviour is quite normal for Thuja's and the like, but for a giant sequoia it's a very strange sight. Apart from a giant redwood in the botanical garden of Cambridge, England, I have never seen this with any other giant redwood.

The Wollemi Pine Wollemia nobilis
In 1994 the botanical world was shaken: a park ranger who was canyoning in a rugged and remote part of an Australian national park, descended into an almost unaccessable, deep valley. He came into a strange, archaeic looking forest, and because he did not recognise the trees that grew there, he took some samples with him.

The botanists he showed the samples, could not believe their eyes: after some research, the park ranger appeared to have seen living specimens of an ancient tree that was thought extinct for at least two million years! This species already existed when the dinosaurs still roamed the earth and, without any doubt, can by called a living fossil. The spectacular find of the Wollemi Pine (Wollemia nobilis) was compared by botanists to the discovery of small dinosaur still alive.

Only about 100 specimens appeared to live in and near the canyon, and because of the extremely critical condition of the species and the botanical importance, it was rapidly decided to keep the location of the trees undisclosed. Even now botanists are only brought their by helicopter, while their obliged to wear blindfolds.

 

It was decided that the best way to keep this extremely rare and unique tree safe for the future, was by breeding them on a large scale and to spread the species in botanical gardens everywhere around the world. In 2005 the first propagated small specimens were sold by auction house Sotheby's for hunderdthousands of dollars. In the royal botanical gardens of Kew the first European specimen was planted, guarded by a steel cage to prevent theft by enthousiast collectors.

 

Starting from 2006 the first specimens were sold in Western Europe. Price for a single small plant: hundreds of pounds. In 2007 the price was already lowered to 97£ (in Belgium the trees cost 97€, which is considerably cheaper).

Ever since 1994 when I've read about the discovery, the Wollemi Pine has been very intruiging to me. But no, I won't spend hundreds of pounds or euros for such a tree, especially since the license and patent business around it smell like shameless commerce. I've had to restrain myself not to strike some cuttings from the Westonbirt Wollemia (in spring 2007 already 2 m tall) or to take a little plant from the shop home with me.

I'm convinced that, starting from 2008, the price will become very democratic and then I'll definately buy one, maybe earlier. With all my enthousiasm for botanical rarities and extinct faunas and floras, I can't hardly wait.

 

The images above (which I unfortunately did not take myself) show a number of fully grown Wollemia nobilis in the Australian canyon where they were discovered. The tallest amongst them is 40 m tall. The species was named after David Noble, the park ranger that discovered them. By the way, the specimen in Westobirt was planted in April 2006 by David Noble himself.

Wollemia nobilis belongs to the Araucariaceae, a plant family from the southern hemisphere (in evolution dating back to Gondwana) to which also the Monkey-puzzle (Araucaria araucana), and the Norfolk Island Pine (Araucaria heterophylla) belong.

An Australian movie about the Wollemi Pine.

Lime coppice
But back to Westonbirt in the English countryside: the images below show the oldest tree in Westonbirt.

 

You only see a some lime shrubs? You're right. This large thicket of lime stems is a relic of an earlier age when the woodland was intensively managed to provide wood for fuel and other domestic use. The regular cutting of trees back to ground level is known as coppicing and was a well established practice as far back as Anglo-Saxon times. Over hundreds of years of repeated cutting, the stump (or stool, as it is known) gradually spreads outwards in a ring until it reaches the proportions of this one. Despite its modest height, all the stems are part of one enormous plant that has been estimated to be over 2,000 years old.

The Japanese maple
Westonbirt is known for its large collection of maples, including the Japanese maples (Acer palmatum). This is a Japanese-Korean shrub to small tree of which the leaves can have a wide range of flaming colours. Especially the Japanese are very active in selecting new cultivars with all kinds of green, yellow, red, or purple.

   

The image on the left shows tree Japanese maples: a taller green one, a red one, and a low purple maple. Used as signature trees, Japanese maples (that are also popular as bonsai trees) can be an enrichment of an informal garden.
I have never seen Westonbirt in the autumn, but then the arboretum must be exploding with colours when all these maple species and their cultivars start showing their typical intense "Indian summer" and autumn colours.

 

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