Plants of the week - December

06th December 2019

Plants of the week - December

Our team are always on the look out for new developments in the gardens. Each week, our Living Collections Manager, Graham, will be sharing some points of interest with us.

6. December

Abies nordmanniana

Now we’re in the period of Advent with thoughts turn to the upcoming festive season this week’s Plant of the Week is Abies nordmanniana, the Caucasian or Nordmann fir, a popular choice for Christmas trees. It’s favoured for its attractive and aromatic foliage - reminiscent of the Christmas tree smell of our childhoods - and especially for its soft needles which are retained through to Twelfth Night if watered adequately.

Abies nordmanniana’s names are derived from its being indigenous to the Russian Caucasus, areas around the Black Sea, Turkey and Georgia, but it was named by botanist and entomologist Christian von Steven after his fellow Finn, zoologist Alexander von Nordmann (1803–1866), a director of Odessa Botanical Gardens.

If left uncut this large evergreen conifer typically grows to 55–60m in height with a trunk diameter of up to 2m featuring whorled branches and large cones which break up whilst attached to the tree.

In addition to ornamental use in parks and large gardens the Nordmann fir has been used in Europe to mitigate anticipated forest decline caused by climate changes, and its soft white wood is used for general construction and paper.

13. December

Cornus capitata

The evergreen Cornus capitata is a species of dogwood also known by the common names of Bentham's cornel and Himalayan strawberry tree which can grow to 12m in height and is bushy in character. In summer it produces smallish green flower clusters surrounded by cream-white bracts but in early winter it’s the striking pendent fruits which are of interest in sustaining wildlife. These red fruits are fleshy, 25mm in diameter, featuring a number of seeds and a tough skin with a faint strawberry vanilla scent. Some plants produce sweet tasting fruits and others unfortunately more bitter ones, they all get eaten; those not taken by birds can be made into preserves.

Originating from the low level woodlands of the Chinese Himalayas Cornus capitata is naturalised in areas of Australia and New Zealand and grown elsewhere as an ornamental species. They like fertile, humus-rich, well-drained, neutral to acid soil in either sun or partial shade and can tolerate maritime exposure.

We have four specimens, three of which are of known wild origin, collected in Bhutan in the early 1990’s and now planted in the Sino-Himalayan section of our conifer conservation Pinetum. The specimen pictured is located amongst the Rhododendrons on the Main Drive, between the House and Lime Tree Avenue.

20. December

Taxus baccata

With winter solstice being on Saturday, this week’s choice for Plant of the Week is Taxus baccata, the common yew, regarded as the tree of the final day and associated with immortality and long life. Sacred in some Wiccan traditions, myth and folklore, the yew symbolises both death and rebirth, aligning with the solstice’s sun being reborn out of darkness.

A conifer native to Europe, northwest Africa and southwest Asia Taxus baccata enjoys longevity, one specimen in Perthshire is estimated at 2,000 – 3,000 years of age, but generally trees reach 400 – 600 years. With the exception of the berry’s flesh all parts of the yew are highly poisonous owing to their containing taxine alkaloids which induce cardiac arrest or respiratory failure; ingesting as little as 50g of leaves can be fatal to a human and one victim of yew poisoning contracted the toxin from inhaled sawdust. Gloves are highly recommended when handling yew as the toxins are readily absorbed through the skin; there is no known antidote to yew poisoning so beware!

Similarly to rowans yews were traditionally planted in churchyards, and their wood was used in the making of longbows; Robert the Bruce sourced yews from Ardchattan Priory near Oban for weapons used at the Battle of Bannockburn.

This yew tree grows to the right of the 45 Avenue, towards the Wee Garden, and is thought to be between 200 and 300 years old.

27. December

Blechnum cycadifolium

As we’re in the season of pantomime – oh yes we are! – this week’s plant hails from Robinson Crusoe Island, part of the Juan Fernandez islands in the Pacific, off Chile’s west coast. The island was named after Daniel Defoe’s literary character, inspired by Alexander Selkirk who spent four isolated years there in the early 1700’s.

Blechnum cycadifolium is an evergreen fern whose fronds can grow to 2m in length, shiny mid to dark green in colour, leathery in texture with brown coloured scales on their underside. Its name “cycadifolium” is from its foliage and habit resembling cycads which have stout, woody trunks and crowns of large, rigid, evergreen, pinnate leaves. The species tolerates temperatures down to −5ºC with little damage but continued low temperatures and lack of winter sunshine reduce its survival chances.

Our plants are located in the Wee Garden, they were sourced from the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh in 2009 and measure just over 1m in width.