Caught by the River

Shadows & Reflections – Bernard Schofield, Country Bizarre

27th December 2009

In which, as the year comes to its end, our friends and collaborators look back and share their moments;

Ventnor Botanic Gardens

2009 and another great gardening year – of inspiring gardens seen and admired including my all time favourite paradise, Ventnor Botanic Gardens on the Isle of Wight. Before I expand on that, a word or two regarding us gardeners – those who are real obsessives that is. These days it seems to me we can be very roughly divided into two definable groups with quite differing focuses of interest. On the one hand there are those, the clear majority I would say, whose ruling passion is in garden making, that is focussing on garden design, function and style, together with all the paraphernalia that feeds those appetites such as outdoor lighting, garden furniture, decking, fancy water features and so on, and of course patio accessories including the now obligatory barbecue. Then there are those gardeners, of which I am most definitely one, whose consuming passion is a love of plants, whether individual species or whole genera, where the collecting of seed, sowing, nurturing, taking cuttings and dividing are pleasures beyond bounds. We rejoice when our plants flower and fruit, frustrated when they succumb to infestations and disease, saddened if they stricken and die. Whatever the size of our gardens we cannot but help fill every space with plants – we rip up the decking, consign the patio to the skip, even dig up the lawn to cram in more and more treasures – and when everywhere is choc-a-block, we resort to pots. Yes, plants are addictive!
The sheer diversity of the plant world is mind-boggling and only accentuates the plant gardeners’ addiction. As do the extraordinary facts, statistics and folklore relating to much of the world’s flora. Like the fact that from a tiny embryo dot no bigger than a mustard seed springs the world’s largest living organism, the giant Sequoia tree. Or Wolffia augusta, a duckweed less than 1mm long in which a bouquet containing a dozen of its flowers will sit comfortably on the head of a pin. Or the Coco-de-mer Palm of the Seychelles Archipeligo that produces individual seeds the size of a rugby ball, or the Raffia Palm of tropical Africa whose leaves can reach an astonishing 80 feet long. But these extraordinary plants are not just fascinating statistics. They are living miracles that inhabit planet earth.
However, I digress. This is after all Shadows and Reflections and this piece is about a visit made to one of my most favourite places in the UK, the alluring and utterly splendiferous Ventnor Botanic Gardens. Britain has its fair share of botanic gardens and we are well served in the South, with wonderful collections at Cambridge, Bristol, Oxford (the UK’s oldest), Wales, and of course Kew, the jewel in the nation’s crown. Yet none compare to Ventnor which has the power to draw me there time and time again.. So what makes this most intimate of gardens so special? The fact that it’s free is a miracle in itself and one huge plus when considering the arm and a leg it costs to visit Kew and some of the other gardens. Then there is its location, situated in a unique micro-climate in the heart of the Undercliff, an extended area of landslips sheltered from northern winds by yet more cliffs, a mile or so along the coast from old Ventnor town. And of course there are the plants. Situated on the site of the old Royal National Hospital of Diseases of the Lungs, there are several principle collections here of species from around the world including Japan, South Africa, New Zealand, Australia, Mediterranean and the Americas. The variety of species here is undeniably impressive and the genius behind this grand project is curator Simon Goodenough, ably supported by a brilliant head gardener, Chris Kidd, several fulltime gardeners and a band of dedicated volunteers.
Early September 2009, mid morning. Autumn is here but it still feels like high summer. With an exquisite sky of pure duck-egg blue bearing a leftover pale ivory moon and the whole expanse smothered in voluminous creamy clouds skittering westwards above our heads, we strike out across high cliffs from the comfortable sanctuary of the Island’s best known watering hole, The Spyglass Inn. The coastal path meanders, dips and rises every so often, revealing breathtaking views whenever it breaks cover from banks of summer spent wild parsnip bearing flat clusters of black shiny seed now entwined by the invasive tendrils of old man‘s beard. Thistledown breezes about us. Red valerian, prolific on the Island, bears its ruby inflorescences from every rock crack and crevice while huge bunches of ripening blackberries flushed every colour between scarlet and purple hang to our right from bramble banks smothering everything in its way. On our left, a dramatic drop to the rocks below edging the tranquil sea where ferry ships from the great Solent ports criss-cross with those returning from Brittany. Eventually we reach a diversion and we kiss goodbye to the coastal path proper and drop down into Steephill Cove, the prettiest bay on the Island and arguably one of the loveliest in all England. Then, fighting the urge to just collapse on the tiny beach beneath the most clement of skies, we instead climb a flight of cardiac arrest-inducing steep steps to the cricket green to rejoin the coastal path where, no more than fifty paces later, we reach the botanic gardens.
Just walking in here gives me goose-bumps. From this eastern entrance we find ourselves immediately in a dingly-dell area, the sun casting gorgeous shadows among mature trees and shrubs, leaves illuminated, and the sweet and earthy aroma of plantlife and growth. Every time visited there are new treasures to discover, like earlier in the year, springtime, where we explored in great detail the Mediterranean Garden, a wild and dazzling site bursting with Verbascums, Lavenders, and of course Echiums, the botanic gardens’ giant-spired signature plant whose many species grow in profusion. Today, though, we made our way towards the newly opened Arid Garden (by Prince Charles this year, no less). To reach it, first we wander dreamlike between the Long Borders. At this time in the garden year they are well worn but still beautiful creations. The many salvias such as S. gaurenitica, S. uliginosa, and the sublimely beautiful S. leucantha, are coming into there own and though some of the classic english border perennials are past their best, droves of colour-demented Dahlias, dusky Amaranthus, hot Potentillas, serene Geraniums, steely Echinops, vibrant Hemorocallis, sunny Anthemis and countless other glories make up the kaleidoscopic delight of these lovely borders. Many we recognise, but here and there, a gem as yet unknown or undiscovered.
On, then, through what is now left of the woodland garden sadly savaged by storms, up and along by the big hothouses and so to the Arid Garden up by the Westgate where many rare and unusual plants from around the world have now been planted. Beneath a palm lined avenue are succulents, cacti, bulbs and countless other species to make up what is destined to be a great garden in maturity. Opununtias, with their characteristic Micky Mouse-eared spiny fleshed structures are well represented, as are many Aloes, but there are other inclusions such as various spectacularly luminously orange Kniphofias (red hot pokers), many Agapanthus, all of which fit in perfectly. It’s a brand new garden, everything is as yet young and on the small side but give it a few years and this is going to be a brilliant space.
Good God – so far we have taken over two hundred photos!
Really rare plants here? Loads of course, it is a botanic garden after all, notably the many rare trees. We search out Picconnia excelsa from Madeira, maybe the only one in the UK and almost certainly extinct in the wild, Liriodendron chinense, originally from one area in China now destroyed by logging, and the tongue twistingly named Lyonothamnus floribundas subspecies asplenifolius, commonly known in California as Ironwood because of the awesome strength of its timber.
We did tons more that day. We checked out the specimen meadow, the newly planted herb garden, and our favourite South African collection. There was lunch in the café, a visit to the library, and an impossible to resist purchase of several additions to our garden from the Plant Sales.
Ventnor Botanic Gardens – it really is a grand day out.