Author: Elaine Taylor

A Himalayan Garden

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A Himalayan Garden
Elaine Taylor

Inspired by Heather’s description of the restoration work going on at Harewood House, near Harrogate, Yorkshire, a party of Hardy Planters crowded into the coach on Sunday morning, 27th May and set off with expectations running high. Many of us thought we knew the gardens of Harewood; my recollection dated back 15 years at least, when we admired the Victorian south parterre re-instated to the designs of Sir Charles Barry. But the walks below here were simply entitled ‘shrubberies beside the lake’, and the visitor was not encouraged to explore beyond the set path. What lay beyond? Did we need a machete and a passport? The weather was decidedly hotter than normal.

On arrival we fortified ourselves with copious refreshments and climbed up to the conference room; Trevor Nicholson as head gardener greeted us and presented a picture of the exploration and persistence which has resulted in the opening of a new attraction at Harewood – the Himalayan Garden. Serendipity is the coming together of happenings which produce a surprising outcome.

And so it was here: John Sales was historic gardens advisor at the National Trust, and in retirement he came to advise the 8th Earl on new possibilities, from 1998 to 2004; Trevor Nicholson, already a climbing enthusiast, made some memorable visits to the Himalayan region and western China between 1999 and 2003; Lord Harewood was inspired by his grandmother, the Princess Mary’s love for the rock garden which she and his grandfather created together in the damp valley at the foot of the lake. All this synergy fuelled a deeper and deeper exploration into the nature of a Himalayan habitat; together they planned to reproduce the habitats needed for Himalayan plants:

A sub-tropical zone where bamboo, bananas and ginger plants grow.

A temperate zone where many rhododendrons grow among evergreen oak and spruce and where lichens and mosses cover ground and plants; the shrubs thrive in high humidity, a temperate climate, and a highly organic, acidic soil. Most importantly they need shelter from wind and from sun.

A sub-alpine zone where sunny, damp meadows lie at the foot of great screes and are watered continually by springs coming from melted snow; to reproduce this we can create a bog garden on the fringe of woodland.

An alpine zone where snow covers plants for many months keeping them dry, then sun and wind attack them during a short summer, keeping them close to the rocks. This most difficult habitat is the challenge which every alpine enthusiast has to embrace in order to grow the tiny jewels which are so highly valued.

Expanding the layout of the existing rock garden made in the 1920s and 1930s, John Sales has developed a route where the visitor is led from one habitat to another. We entered into the Gorge, where over 200 tons of stone have been assembled to create a dramatic Open Sesame; alpine plants from the higher altitudes stud the great boulders like jewels – rings, necklaces and brooches shine out from the pink-grey rock-face. Trevor tells me that more of these have been planted since our visit; Gentiana, Adonis, Saxifraga, Androsace, Leontopodium and the tiny Primula petiolaris and P. whitei will accompany several species of orchid. The Himalayan Foxtail Lily, Eremurus himalaicus, a lovely white rocket spire, has been planted on the surrounding slopes which display conifers and shrubs from high altitudes; we admired the glowing, deep red bark of Betula albosinensis and the Bhutan Pine, Pinus wallichiana introduced in 1823. Princess Mary and the 6th Earl sought advice from the Royal Botanic Garden, Edinburgh and benefited from the expert guidance of Sir William Wright-Smith; at this time the RGB was receiving seeds and herbarium samples from some of the well-known plant-hunters of the day, George Forrest, Frank Kingdon-Ward and Reginald Farrer.

We progressed deeper into the valley led by gardener Jim Hatfield, to witness the vibrant colours of candelabra primulas mingling and shining like a great sari spread across the ground; here and there were groups of Himalayan poppy – Frank Kingdon-Ward’s sensational discovery was Meconopsis betonicifolia – in shades of blue, pale, Wedgwood and turquoise. In the distance was the sound of splashing water, for here the stream carries away water from Lancelot Brown’s long, curving lake, and his signature feature, the waterfall, increased in volume with our every advancing step.

In this dense, warm and moisture-laden zone there are stands of bamboo and trees resembling those from sub-tropical climes, but the Chusan Palm Trachycarpus fortunei is fairly hardy and a new planting of the bamboo Fargesia robusta will be cold-tolerant and non-invasive. Here also is the banana Musa basjoo introduced in 1889. It was a pleasure to linger on the bridge across the waterfall and look down on the steps, sparkling with foam in the sunlight; I imagined the thrill felt by those adventurers who pushed their way through jungle, then scrub, across scree and rock-face until they came to a ravine; the way across might have been just a swaying net of knotted liana ropes. The 6th Earl sponsored one of Frank Kingdon-Ward’s expeditions, and in his book Land of the Blue Poppy Frank wrote:

Convinced as I am that with its wonderful wealth of alpine flowers, its numerous wild animals, its strange tribes, and its complex structure it is one of the most fascinating regions of Asia, I believe I should be content to wander over it for years. To climb its rugged peaks, and tramp its deep snow, to fight its storms of wind and rain, to roam in the warmth of its deep gorges within sight and sound of its roaring rivers, and above all to mingle with its hardy tribesmen, is to feel the blood coursing through the veins, every nerve steady, every muscle taut.

To reach the other side of the stream is an adventure in itself; some of us took the low road and crossed the waterfall bridge; the more nimble-footed did a hop-step-and jump over the stepping stones, and yet a third division marched north to cross by the new, arched bridge made of local green oak. On this side the topography changes, slopes become steeper, paths zig-zag between majestic trees; here dappled shade gives the best conditions for those aristocrats of the woodland garden, rhododendrons. Sir Joseph Hooker made the pioneering expedition into Himalayan regions in the 1840s and his books lit a spark which grew into a forest fire. The sheer glamour of the huge trusses of flower excited garden owners and made them long for some woodland and acidic conditions; those who could afford to became the great collectors and breeders of the many new hybrids – the Rothschilds of Exbury, the Williams of Caerhays, the Aberconways of Bodnant. At Harewood the Lascelles also collected new species, and now these number over fifty; the hybrids number another thirty. On display here are two of Hooker’s introductions, R. wallichii with trusses of lilac-mauve, and R. thomsonii a deep crimson. Peter Cox writes of it in Larger Rhododendron Species (1979):

A species of many virtues with its fine, dark red flowers, often brilliantly glaucous young leaves and lovely peeling, smooth colourful bark; honey from its nectar is sweet and Tibetans sometimes eat the flowers.

A stunning discovery among the woodland ‘floor’ was the sight of two kinds of Arisaema, A. griffithii and A. nepenthoides; both Cobra lilies resemble a snake coiled ready to strike its prey, and whilst they were introduced in 1855 and 1824, only recently have they achieved a following among fans of the weird, the green and the unassuming. Of the 600 kinds of plant which thrive here in optimum conditions, it is only possible to highlight a few. And other seasons bring new stars onto the stage.

The final coup de théâtre in our journey was the Stupa, created in 2004/5, sponsored by the 8th Earl and supervised by master builder Lama Sonam Chophel from Bhutan. These buildings represent the spiritual path suggested by Buddhist teachings, and many of them occur across the Himalayas where people gather to talk, play and walk around the tall, tower-like structure; it symbolises peace and tranquillity. Our journey through the very varied zones of this dramatic region certainly filled me with a sense of wonder and admiration.

An abridged version of an article first published in the North West Group Newsletter Autumn 2012
and subsequently in Cornucopia Issue 32.
© Copyright for this article: Elaine Taylor

This article was taken from a copy of Cornucopia that was published in 2013. You could be reading these articles as they are published to a national audience, by subscribing to Cornucopia.

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