GIANTS OF THE FOREST STRETCH FOR 8 ACRES AT SCONE PALACE
Pale rays from the low winter sun glisten through the needle-coated branches of a plantation of towering conifers. In places, huge trunks almost blot out the sky. These giants of the forest stand proudly, a spectacle of height, colour and texture.
This is no commercial conifer forest, but the 168-year-old Pinetum at Scone Palace in Perthshire. On a bright, crisp day when the light is crystal clear and the air fresh and cool, the colours are both rich and vivid. The chill winter setting provides the perfect backdrop for the warm russet hues of the giant redwood’s massive trunk, the dark green needles of the grand fir and the bright green feathery foliage of the Western hemlock.
The eight-acre Pinetum is home to approximately 230 trees covering 71 different species. Today, it is split into two parts, an original 19th century planting and a newer late 20th century set of trees. Not surprisingly, the older and bigger trees dominate the more recently planted younger and smaller trees nearby.
There are two distinct avenues of noble fir and Western hemlock, but today’s visitors are free to wander at will among the trees. The ground underfoot is a close-cropped grassy carpet with a sprinkling of cones and fallen twigs.
Most, but not all, are evergreens, never shedding their foliage even when temperatures drop to their lowest. They vary enormously in height, colour, girth, bark and foliage. Some are instantly recognisable, such as the monkey puzzle, Araucaria araucana. These resemble huge cacti, with short, thick branches, dark brown bark and overlapping, glossy, dark green, triangular leaves. Others, like the East Himalayan fir, Abies spectabilis, are less well-known. Their spread-out branches, dark grey, deeply grooved bark and upright dark purple cones mean they are, however, equally eye-catching.
Fashion for trees
Pinetums were first created in Britain in the mid 1800s when they were regarded as a status symbol. The one at Scone was started in 1848 by the 3rd Earl of Mansfield, whose descendants still own the estate.
“People with big enough estates and gardens would vie to have certain trees and plants in their collections back then,” says Brian Cunningham. He has been head gardener at Scone since 2011. “They all wanted to be first to have a brand new variety that had only just been discovered.”
These species, unknown in Britain at the time, were brought back by a series of intrepid Victorian plant hunters.
“We still have 10 of the trees originally planted, so that makes them around 175 years old,” says Brian. These include Sitka spruce, noble fir, giant redwood and Western hemlock.
A second section, just over an acre in size, has been planted in phases to the north of the original, beginning in the 1970s. For the most part, trees in this section are considerably shorter and slimmer than the venerable giants behind them.
A walk along the eastern side takes in a 36ft (11m) high Jack pine, Pinus banksiana, with reddish bark, long, light-green needles and smooth cones curling round the branch. Of similar height are neighbouring Chinese white pines, Pinus armandii. In their native country they are regarded as emblems of longevity and immortality, and are often used as bonsai.
One of the most eye-catching species in the junior Pinetum is the Japanese red cedar, Cryptomeria japonica. Its bark is reddish-brown and in winter its soft feathery foliage turns to a deep burgundy-purple.
Both sections of the Pinetum are now full. New trees are only planted to replace those lost to old age, disease or to winter storms.
All shapes and sizes
Winter does not diminish the sheer splendour of the Pinetum. The variety and magnificence of the collection swiftly dispels any notion that conifers all look much the same. Each species bears a highly individual stamp.
On the outskirts of the original planting stands a Japanese umbrella pine, Sciadopitys verticillata. Despite being dwarfed by a nearby giant redwood, it is impossible to overlook this tree. In the winter the foliage takes on a bronze hue. Its reddish-brown bark is hidden by thickly-packed branches that run all the way to the foot of the tree. The shiny needles grow in the shape of an upturned umbrella, with 4in (10cm) long cones at the centre.
The formidable presence of Scone’s giant redwoods, Sequoiadendron giganteum, inspire awe. The first was planted at Scone in the 1870s and is the oldest in the UK. Standing more than 145ft (44m) high, it has a girth of more than 36ft (11m). These trees are great survivors, capable of living for several thousand years. This is partly because the distinctive textured bark with its many tones of auburn and green is both spongy and thick, giving great protection in times of fire in its native American forest.
Beyond the giant reds, the familiar Christmas tree shape of the noble fir, Abies procera, is easy to pick out. Its bark is furrowed and reddish-brown and the uniform blue-green needles lie in rows at a diagonal to the twig. The purplish-green cones can reach 10in (25.4cm) in length.
An avenue of Western hemlock, Tsuga heterophylla, runs through the heart of the plantation. Less familiar than the noble fir, they have an elegant triangular shape and drooping growth at the top of the tree. Delicate, feathery needles deepen in colour with age from bright green to a lustrous dark shade. The bark of this tree is deeply grooved and reddish brown. Woody, oval-shaped cones growing in abundance from the ends of the branches are among the smallest in the pine family, measuring less than 1in (2.5cm).
Nearby stands one of the younger trees, protected from hungry deer by a fenced enclosure. This is the Lijiang spruce, Picea likiangensis, and stands just 3ft (1m) high at present. One of the fastest growing spruce, it is expected to reach 100ft (30m).
Just outside the avenue stands an imposing Western red cedar, Thuja plicata. Its long, straight trunk was perfect for carving into canoes, resulting in it being highly prized by Native Americans. The Scone example stands 115ft (35m) high. Its most recognisable feature is the reddish or sometimes grey fibrous bark which strips off in long strands. Light green leaves look like flattened plaits and the small, elongated cones are the colour of cinnamon. This tree propagates itself by layering, meaning that branches can form their own roots when they touch the earth. Left alone, the trees grow naturally to create close family groups.
A few steps further on is a Serbian spruce, Picea omorika. This was discovered on the country’s Tara Mountain in 1875 by Serbian botanist Josif Pancic. Slender and elegant, it is not too fussy about soil type and does not require much pruning as it grows. Its foliage is dark green with short, rigid needles and the cones are egg-shaped with leathery, fine-toothed scales.
Home for wildlife
The Pinetum is an inviting place for a variety of wildlife in winter. It provides shelter and food for red squirrels. The occasional roe deer and woodpeckers can often be heard as well as seen. However, the winter visitor that causes most excitement is the hawfinch. Britain’s biggest finch is very shy and hard to spot. Numbers have been in serious decline in recent years. A study carried out over the course of five winters at Scone by local enthusiasts concluded that more than 100 hawfinches regularly overwinter in the Pinetum. Some migrate there from Europe, but others make it their permanent home. This may be because the habitat has been largely undisturbed for decades.
There can be few places more peaceful but inspiring for a winter walk than this lovely Pinetum. It may have started life as a landowner’s proof of his wealth and standing, but today, it has an environmental importance. Visitors enjoy the rare, unusual and magnificent trees. And their presence in the Pinetum means they will continue to thrive into the future.
Words: Gilly Fraser Photographs: Mark Mainz
The feature on Scone Palace Pinetum appeared in the Jan / Feb 2017 issue of LandScape.
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