Old Yew, New Yew, Renew Yew

Although in the UK the yew tree (Taxus baccata) is often called English Yew it is, in fact, very widespread in its distribution growing throughout Europe as well as parts of Africa, Iran and Asia. It can live to a great age and there are several, mostly growing in churchyards, that are thought to be a thousand or more years old. One such tree grows in the Chiltern village that I lived in before moving to the Cotswolds; it is enormous having a girth of over 5.5 metres.  Despite being a British native that has grown naturally in the wild for thousands of years, yew woods are very rare – I can only think of two (although there must be others): one in the Chilterns behind Watlington Hill and the other in Sussex.  One of the reasons for this is that yew was the favoured timber for making longbows – by 1294 yew stocks were so depleted that imports were being sourced from mainland Europe.

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The yew forest at Kingley Vale, Sussex, England – one of the finest examples of this rare habitat in Europe [photo credit: Ben Shade]

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The huge girth of the ancient yew in the churchyard at Ibstone , Chiltern Hills, England

Yew is unusual in that the individual plants can be male, female or a combination of the two.   All-male trees release huge clouds of pollen whereas all-female produce none and can be identified by their glowing red berries.  It has even been known for individual trees to gradually change sex with all-male specimens becoming all-female and vice versa.  Although the pollen clouds can be extremely irritating if caught in one, in the average garden situation where mature trees are less likely to be found the pollen release is much more limited.

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The glossy red flesh is the only part of yew that is non-poisonous. It’s still not advisable to eat it!

In its natural condition yew is a spreading, evergreen tree, wider than it is tall.  However, for many centuries it has been clipped and shaped into hedges and topiary for which its regular, and when treated in this way, tight growth makes it ideal.  It responds well to being kept low, say around 45cm, or can be stopped at any height required.  Likewise, it can be clipped into neat cubes, intricate spirals as well as the ubiquitous peacock beloved by stately homes.

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Yew topiary at Hidcote, Cotswold Hills, England

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Intricate yew topiary at Farmleigh Gardens, Dublin, Ireland

One of the characteristics of yew is its ability to send out new growth from old branches and even from its trunk.  This can be readily seen when the branches are parted or the main stems are exposed.  To maintain a clean trunk these growths should be pruned away before they become established.  With hedges and trees it means they can be reduced in size as drastically as you might wish although it is important to bear in mind that a heavily pruned tree may never be restored to a thing of beauty.

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Yews ability to regenerate from old wood means that it can be pruned as hard as you dare

If reshaping trees is a skill difficult to master, restoring overgrown or gappy yew hedging only takes courage although for best results it may take a few years to achieve perfection.  Begin this process by removing all growth back to the trunk on one side only.  The hedge will now look ugly but new growth will soon sprout and the following year or in year three the other side of the hedge can be given the same treatment.  Apart from the benefit this staggered pruning has to the health of the yew another advantage is that the screening from the unpruned side means there is no loss of privacy.  The height of the hedge can also be reduced at the same time as side two cutting 6-12 inches below its required finished height to allow for regrowth.  By year five, if not sooner, the hedge will be a manageable, healthy screen once more and will continue to be so for very many years.

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The first stage in regenerating an old yew hedge

As with all plants, especially those that are long-lived, careful planting is essential to give them a good start.  Yew copes with most soil types including chalk but hates waterlogged or compacted soils.  Whatever the soil, enrich with good quality compost or well-rotted manure; if any parts are excessively damp create a low bank at least six inches high to ensure the roots establish in the marginally better drained soil.  Pot-grown yews can be planted at any time of the year providing the ground isn’t frozen; the best time is mid-autumn and spring when the soil is warmer. The optimum size for quick establishment is 2-3 feet and this size also makes planting a hedge quite economic too.  With a bigger budget larger plants may be purchased.  These in the photo below are over six feet high and create an instant hedge when planted closely together.  Because of their size they are usually ‘root-balled’ and only available during the cooler months.  The hessian and wire mesh root ball should be left intact as they quickly decay once planted although the wire collar may be released if it fits too snugly against the stem.  In windy situations they may require staking; they will certainly need careful watering for the first two years of their life.

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Rootballed yew waiting to be planted – they will make a fine, if somewhat costly, instant hedge

However you chose to use your English Yew, whether as hedging or as topiary, there is one common rule to clipping and that is accuracy for nothing looks worse than a formal hedge or piece of topiary that does not have clean, sharp lines.  The ideal time for clipping is August although spring is the time for restoration pruning.  One word of caution – all parts of yew are highly toxic if ingested.  It is essential that clippings are disposed of carefully for it can be fatal if livestock such as horses have access to them.  Yew clippings from regularly clipped hedges can be sold for use by pharmaceutical companies to make cancer treatment drugs.  In the past, when I was the Head Gardener of a large country estate with extensive yew hedging, we secured a not-inconsiderable amount of money over time which the estate donated to cancer research charities.  I believe that, for 2020, collection has been suspended but hopefully it will be resumed in future years.

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A beautifully clipped yew hedge creates the perfect backdrop to any garden – Kiftsgate Court, Cotswold Hills, England

 

 

 

 

On The Verge of Extinction?

In the present climate of anxiety and fear that is sweeping the world, and with the daily news being dominated by coronavirus, it is very easy to wish to be spirited away to a remote and sparsely populated desert island. Although it may seem unlikely that such places still exist, Pitcairn Island in the South Pacific is open to immigrants and offering free land upon which to build a house. With its benign climate and a population of just fifty people the dream could become a reality. Sadly, however, from the day when Fletcher Christian, the mutineer of the Bounty landed and populated the uninhabited island in 1790 its history has been one of almost continuous suffering. It is, in part, because of this history of trauma that the island’s immigration scheme has been largely unsuccessful.

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If you fancy living on a Pacific island click on the link at the bottom of this page

The Pitcairns consist of four islands, all of which are home to some unique flora and fauna. Shadowing the story of its human history, some of these endemic species are now also on the brink of extinction. One that has fared even more badly, is the now extinct abutilon that shares its name with the islands, Abutilon pitcairnense, a small shrub. Although lost to the islands in 2005 it is fortunately being conserved and propagated in botanical gardens – the image of the one below can be found in Ireland, in the glasshouses at Glasnevin, Dublin. From these plants, cuttings were transported to Kew Gardens, London and it is hoped that it may be possible to re-establish the plant in its native habitat sometime in the future.

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Abutilon pitcairnense

Although it is not possible for the Pitcairn abutilon to be grown other than under very specialist conditions, other abutilons can be grown quite happily in the UK. Some are reasonably hardy whereas others benefit from the frost protection of a greenhouse; they can even be grown as a large house plant. The closest in appearance, although the flower is nowhere as refined, is the somewhat blousy cultivar ‘Canary Bird’. It is quite floriferous and grows readily from cuttings.

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Abutilon ‘Canary Bird’

A rare plant that can be purchased to grow at home is the ‘Cabbage on a Stick’, Brughamia insignis. Once only found on the Hawaiian islands of Kaua’i and Ni’ihau the last known sighting in the wild was in 2014. A relatively short-lived perennial its sweetly scented flowers require pollination by a hawk-moth now also extinct. Without the moth to fertilise the plant its survival depends upon hand pollination.

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The ‘Cabbage-on-a-Stick’ – Brighamia insignis

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Moving from the Pacific to the Indian Ocean, Hibiscus boryanus is a critically endangered shrub in its native Mauritius. With its exotic, scarlet flowers its fate is happier than others for it has been grown widely in warmer climates as a garden shrub up to 8 feet in height. It is one of the parents from which the familiar house plant, Hibiscus rosa-sinensis, was bred.

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Hibiscus boryanus

The Botanic Garden of Glasnevin holds many collections of rare and interesting plants, both tender and hardy. They are well worth exploring when paying a visit to Dublin. Apart from numerous glasshouses the grounds are set along the banks of the River Tolka, itself the home to kingfishers and many other birds.

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Glasnevin Botanic Gardens, Dublin, Ireland

If you fancy emigrating to the Pitcairn Islands then take a look at their website by clicking here. There is much fascinating history recorded on the site telling how the islands developed after the Mutiny on the Bounty.

For more information on visiting Glasnevin Botanic Gardens, click on the link here.

A Year in Review: Jan- Jun 2015

So another year has gone by and as New Year’s Eve fast approaches it is time to reflect on the one past and look forward to the one to come.

I try to visit Exmoor National Park as often as possible for I consider it to be “home from home”.  I spent a lot of my youth and early adulthood there on a remote farm not realising that I was witnessing a way of life now gone.  With the benefit of hindsight I wish I’d taken many more photographs but, in the days before digital, films were both precious and expensive.

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In January, I made a special trip to take a look at the new headquarters of the Exmoor Society in the pretty, little town of Dulverton. The enlarged space that they now have has meant that they it is now much easier to access the archives and seek information.  If you are planning a holiday on the moor, it is well worth visiting.  Click here to find out more about my day there.

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February found me walking along the edge of a precipice and seeking an elderly great-aunt, fortunately not at the same time.  I met Ba-ba (how she got this name is still a complete mystery) once as a boy when she was in her late nineties and she left a lasting impression on me.  With everyone else that knew her now dead (I’m now the ‘old’ generation) I’ve been trying to research her.  Despite the post creating a lot of interest it ended sadly without much success.  Perhaps, this post might reach someone who knows who she was.  To check out the detective work so far take a look here.

Gt Aunt Baba (Frances White) 90th bithday about 1965

The Precipice Walk in Snowdonia, although not overly strenuous, is not to be attempted by the faint-hearted.  Travelling clockwise, the path clings to the edge of the drop before turning back on itself alongside a more gentle and peaceful lake.  If you’re afraid of heights go anti-clockwise for a delightful, if somewhat short, walk and turn around when you dare go no further.  Alternatively, sit back in your armchair and take a look at the photos here.

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A much longer walk, completely different in character, was described in two March posts.   Dartmoor is another national park in the West Country but much harsher than Exmoor.  Despite its bleakness now, in the past the climate was kinder, confirmed by the large number of Neolithic remains there.

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The walk starts at  a pub where according to tradition the fire has never been allowed to go out in the past two hundred years.  Our path crosses the moor to the village of Postbridge, home of the famous medieval stone clapper bridge.    The second part of the walk follows the river before continuing across the moor, taking in beehive huts dating back to 1500AD before arriving at the Grey Wethers stone circles.  The twin circles are about two thousand years old.  Reaching the stones is described here.Grey Wethers Stone Circle (2)   copyright

The history of the United States and Ireland are intertwined by mass emigration.  In April I visited New Ross in the south of Ireland and the birthplace of John F Kennedy’s great-grandfather.  Fifty years after JFK’s visit his sister came to light…  Well, read here to find out exactly what she did.  The image below might give you a clue.New Ross (6)   copyright

I stayed with the Irish theme in May and wrote about the lovely village of Castlelyons where a friend spent her early childhood.  Well off the tourist trail when you red about the place you’ll wonder why.  In the meantime, we had the place to ourselves.

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June is a lovely month both for walking and also for garden lovers, with hedgerows and gardens smothered in rose blossom.  Continuing the theme of elderly ladies and ancient times the month’s post explored the history of Rosa de Rescht – fascinating for the mystery it holds.  Incidentally, even if you a hopeless gardener (and no-one is completely so) this is the simplest of roses to grow…

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Castleyons – an Irish Gem

The small village of Castlelyons in Co. Cork, Ireland appeared deserted when we drove into it and as we seemed to be the only car on the road there was no fear of being run over when taking the photo below. As if to confirm its silence the main street was dominated by the ruins of an old Carmelite abbey.Castlelyons   copyrightCastlelyons (2)   copyright

Little is known of the origins of the abbey for there are few surviving written records. It is thought that it dates from the beginning of the 14th century although the existing ruins are from a hundred years later.

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The size of the nave is huge measuring over sixty feet in length and twenty in width. It is separated from the chancel by the tower which although very ruined still has its complete spiral staircase which can be climbed – but not for the faint-hearted. The chancel which is also very large (over fifty feet in length) is where the altar would have been placed. A number of grave slabs survive some of which still have visible markings.Castlelyons (7)   copyright

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The cloister, where the monks walked and meditated, is less complete but the turf square and parts of columns gives a sense of the place. The monastery was dissolved during the Reformation and passed into private hands. Now it is a national monument.Castlelyons (12)   copyright

A mile or two from the abbey ruins is the Castlelyons Graveyard at Kill-St-Anne. At its centre is a mausoleum built about 1747. The interior is circular with just one marble monument to James Barry, Earl of Barrymore and carved in 1753. External steps lead to a crypt below.

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Close to the first lies a second mausoleum, also built in the eighteenth century, for the Peard family, local landlords. Their earliest grave (dated 1683) lies elsewhere in the churchyard and commemorates Richard Peard, an ensign from Devonshire in England.Castlelyons (20)   copyright

The church – or more accurately churches – lie in ruins for a more recent one was built within the original. They date from the eighteenth and fourteenth centuries respectively. The remains of the bell tower and gothic arches are from the earlier date, the elaborate stone window which are in the later ruins are reputed to have belonged to the original church. Whatever the truth of this tale, the result is beautiful and romantic.Castlelyons (23)   copyright

The churchyard is a haven for wildlife and native flowers flourish beside mown paths. Beside the old cemetery is another, newer one still in use and equally well-maintained as were the old abbey ruins and the village itself. Castlelyons maybe off the beaten track but it is well worth making the effort to visit. It is rural Ireland at its very best.

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Much information has been gleaned from information boards within the village and also the Castlelyons village website – link here. Apart from details of its history the website shows that despite its small size, the village social life is thriving.

2014 in Review: the first six months

So another year is almost over and it certainly has been a busy one for me.  Living and working in the spectacular Cotswold countryside, a classified area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB) is a great treat and one of which I never tire.  It’s also nice to go off exploring other places so 2014 found me in other parts of the UK and  Ireland too.  One of the first places I visited, however, was only twenty miles down the road but light years apart in reality!

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typical Cotswold countryside

Like many people that live close to tourist attractions I don’t often visit the ones on my doorstep but last January found me walking the streets of Oxford.  I hadn’t come to explore the colleges but the covered market which dates back more than two hundred years.   The history of the market and the building is fascinating and is well worth making the time to visit – especially if you like a bargain.  To read more about it and to see other photos click here.

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One of the fathers of ecological writing died tragically young and in February I matched quotations from his work to images I had taken (to see them, click here).  My favourite was noticed by the Society that bears his name and reprinted in their journal.  I felt very honoured!

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Wild and rugged scenery is often best appreciated over cake and coffee and at Watersmeet in Exmoor National Park you can do just that.  Two rivers collide spectacularly besides the Victorian fishing lodge that is now owned by the National Trust and run as a café. March found me walking through beautiful scenery as well as indulging myself and the link to this remote but very accessible place is here.

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Dublin, the capital city of Ireland is a favourite place of mine and in April I visited the Casino Marino, one of the most impressive and perfect neo-classical buildings in Europe.  Everything about it was designed to deceive so although you only see one window on each side you actually have – well, click here to find out what plus all the other deceptions the Georgian architect managed to fit in.

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Planting trees is a long term project for they rarely mature during the life of the planter.  Of all the hundreds I have done in my professional life none has given me as much pleasure as this particular one.  I have waited for years for it to flower and in May it did so for the first time.  I felt quite emotional – it was a case of finding a handkerchief.  Take a look by clicking the link here.

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The Cotswolds are world renowned for their ‘chocolate box’ village scenes and Lower Slaughter must be one of the contenders.  Despite its name it is a beautiful and tranquil place to visit for it has everything from crystal clear trout streams to olde-world stone cottages to a mill complete with working water wheel. If you choose the right time to explore you can have the place to yourself.  To learn more click the June link here.

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