Like most visitors, my trips to Colesbourne Park are generally spent with eyes firmly cast downwards. The garden is well known for its snowdrop collection and in January and February little else gets a look-in. Yet, at this time of year, with the snowdrops still safely underground, it pays to look up. Only then can you appreciate Colesbourne’s other collection: its trees.
Champion trees, endangered species, the unusual and rare, the Colesbourne collection covers all these and more. Indeed, the garden works with Kew and others to offer a home to special trees, such as the coffin tree, Taiwania cryptomerioides, which is endangered in the wild.
“We play our part in conservation as a host to endangered trees,” explains Head Gardener Arthur Cole. “We’ve got a bit of a world view here.”
The garden is also trialling the Lutece elm, the result of a breeding programme to find something resistant to Dutch elm disease.
“When we planted it 10 years ago, it was one of only three in the whole country,” comments Sir Henry Elwes, the current owner of Colesbourne Park. “I think it may be the tree of the future.”
The arboretum was started by his great grandfather, Victorian planthunter Henry John Elwes with a Wellingtonia the first tree to be planted. It’s a collection that is still being added to, although Sir Henry concedes that he is running out of space.
As we walk around the garden, he points out some of the more unusual trees. There’s the cut-leaf beech, Fagus sylvatica ‘Asplenifolia’, with finely cut foliage quite unlike the commonly seen beech.
A beautiful lime, Tilia henryana, that’s getting tinges of pink on its foliage, was planted to mark Sir Henry’s 75 birthday and a Dawn Redwood marked his 21st.
The Serbian spruce, he tells me, can get to 100ft-tall but remains slender, like a giant rocket pointing skywards. Already, his tree is beginning to tower over others nearby.
Then there’s a champion weeping birch that at 100 years old is 40 years older than most birch, and the Thuja plicata ‘Zebrina’ named for its zebra-like striped foliage.
Meanwhile, the unusual cut-leaf hazel, Corylus avellana ‘Heterophylla’, was found on the estate and has what Sir Henry describes as “nettle-like” foliage.
One of the rarest trees is a Californian nutmeg, which produces seed on average once every 15 years.
“They’re devils to germinate,” says Sir Henry. “We had 120 seeds one year and only three germinated.”
He’s had more success with other trees and several are ‘second generation’, including a Siberian elm raised from cuttings when the original tree fell down.
“Every arboretum has its celebrity, its film star and this is one of them,” says Arthur, pointing to a large oriental plane. Walk under its twisted branches and it’s easy to see why. Moss covers some of the beautifully marked bark and the branches curve and turn, creating a living sculpture.
Like many of Colesbourne’s trees, it also has a great back story having been grown from a cutting taken from a tree on an Emperor of China’s tomb by Henry John Elwes in 1902.
Similarly, a Japanese cedar, Cryptomeria japonica, was collected as a seedling in North Japan and transported back in a cigarette tin on the Trans-Siberian railway. Records show it as planted 20 yards from the Ice House in 1901 where it is still growing.
Elsewhere, a foxglove tree, Paulownia tomentosa, was given to Henry John by planthunter Ernest Wilson. The original blew down about 20 years ago but two root suckers have now grown into fine trees.
And Arthur points out some Irish yews with pride; all Irish yews can be traced back to a tree given to his ancestor in Northern Ireland in the early 18th century.
It is stories such as these that make the trees at Colesbourne more than just a botanical collection and a guided tour so entertaining.
• Colesbourne Park Arboretum is open on September 16, 17, 22, 23 and October 21 and 22, 2017, from 12.30pm to 4.30pm. Entry is £7.50 for adults, children under 16 enter free. Free guided tours by Sir Henry Elwes and Head Gardener Arthur Cole start at 1.30pm and continue throughout the afternoon. For more information, visit the website.