Dear Readers, we’re entering that time of year when most of the real ‘weeds’ have disappeared, but I was so taken by this plant that I saw in my Aunt Hilary’s garden that I thought I’d give it it’s moment in the sun. The scent was so strong that I could smell it before I saw it, and it reminded me that I’d actually seen this shrub before, during my walk along the route of the Mutton Brook.
Now, this plant is one with a very particular history. We can date it back to 1935 when Charles Puddle (what a splendid name!) the Head Gardener of Lord Aberconway at Bodnant Gardens in Wales decided to experiment with a bit of hybridisation. He took Viburnum Farreri, an extremely fragrant viburnum that grows in Northern China….
…and crossed it with Viburnum grandiflora which, as the name suggests, has large flowers….
to get Viburnum bodnantense, named for the estate.
The history of Bodnant Garden itself started in 1874 when it was founded by Henry Davis Pochin, an industrial chemist who invented the process which culminated in producing white soap as opposed the the brown bars that had existed previously. Then it came into the family of Laura McLaren (Baroness Aberconway). The family funded numerous plant hunters who scoured the world for new plants, and the garden still holds the national collections of Magnolias, Eucryphias, Embothriums and Rhododendron forestii. Three generations of head gardeners in the Puddle family (Charles was the middle one) helped to create what Henry Nicholson (husband of Vita Sackville-West) described as ‘ “… the richest garden I have ever seen. Knowledge and taste are combined with enormous expenditure to render it one of the wonders of the world“. It was given to the National Trust in 1949 and attracts a quarter of a million visitors every year, many to visit the Laburnum Arch which is the longest in the UK.
What are Viburnums, though? Our native Viburnum is the Guelder Rose, and it’s easy to forget that these decorative varieties also have berries, and can be useful for birds. There are about 130 – 175 species, and they have recently been moved from the honeysuckle family (Caprifoliaceae) to the moscatel family (Adoxaceae) which, in addition to the tiny woodland plant that the family is named for, also includes the elders. This molecular phylogeny business has thrown up some strange bedfellows, and certainly keeps us gardeners on our toes.
The long, straight stems of Viburnum were used as arrowshafts in prehistory (some species of the plant have the vernacular name ‘arrowwood’. Poor old Ötzi the iceman, found in the Alps on the boundary of Austria and Italy in 1991 and believed to have died over 5000 years ago, was carrying 14 arrows, their shafts made of dogwood and viburnum. He also had an arrowhead buried in his shoulder, which just goes to show how dangerous these high mountain passes were.
The Bodnant Viburnum has a lot to recommend it, if you have room – the scent is divine, it flowers through the winter on its bare branches, offering nectar to late insects, and the flowers are elegant, especially when glimpsed against snow, or an azure winter sky.
And finally, a poem. This is not, I suspect, about a Bodnant Viburnum, but I rather like it anyhow. See you what you think. The poet is Steve Xerri, and I love his description of his early life as a poet. I am very glad that he is able to be a full-time poet and potter now. So few of us follow our passions. Maybe more of us should.
“He started writing for his school magazine, took verses along to his college poetry reading group as a student, contributed pieces to his students’ magazines when he was a teacher, and in his days as a designer would sneak into a spare office at lunchtime to compose more poems, which were destined to languish in his desk drawer.”
Might we two always
have known this place
with its twayblades
and viburnum, the mottled
leaves and purple spikes
of its sheltering orchids?
Did moments fall
dense as these do,
in a tent of stillness
anchored to these trees?
And were we maybe
this same flesh
on different bones,
bodying other versions
my foolish questions :
hard else to tolerate
up these hill paths,
slowly getting slower,
in hopeful search
of greened-up shoots
Photo One By Sten Porse – Own photo, taken in Jutland., CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=867692
Photo Two By Magnus Manske – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=10223627
Photo Three By BodnantGarden – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=40101243
Photo Four by CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=99361
Photo Five by By Wierer, U., Arrighi, S., Bertola, S., Kaufmann, G., Baumgarten, B., Pedrotti, A., Pernter, P. and Pelegrin, J. – PLoS One, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=86987267