On May 1st, we visited Glenarn Garden in Rhu. Our previous visit was in 2021, two years before and almost to the day.
The garden occupies a hillside site and offers a range of environments which seem to favour, amongst other genera, Acers and Rhododendrons. If you take the West Highland Line north from Glasgow Queen Street, you’ll see Rhododendron ponticum everywhere so it looks that this damp, sheltered and mossy land should be a good place to grow species from mountain foothills. The big stars of this garden are the Rhododendrons, many of which are hybrids raised in the garden by previous owners. There are some huge plants but these major specimens were resting in 2023 after a bounteous display in the previous season. We bumped into Mrs Thornley who somehow manages to maintain this enormous project; she was holding a stem of large blooms from a scarlet-flowered species, gathered in reconnaissance for the local Rhododendron show, and told us that we were visiting in a quiet year. No matter – there was still much to see. The collection clearly blooms over an extended period with some species over and others in bud at the time of our visit.
I have no Rhododendron expertise at all. I could find you a Rhododendron luteum with my eyes shut – the fragrance is intoxicating – but I’m struggling after that. I think this one is the Himalayan species R. barbatum.
I can read tags though – these are R. Avalanche and R. Brocade Plus, both real performers.
In the absence of identifications, this post looks a bit like a plant catalogue without the useful text pages but I hope you can enjoy the opulence and range of form and colour offered by these plants.
Scots featured prominently amongst the Victorian plant hunters and the estates of Argyll and Bute benefited from their searches. The Ardkinglass Woodland Garden near Cairndow boasts some champion trees (and Red Squirrels). The late Beatrice Colin set her final novel The Glass House on a local estate; the pursuit of the elusive Snow Tree (a Rhododendron, surely?) is woven through the narrative.
A set piece garden like Glenarn can offer quiet corners in which a different aesthetic prevails. The Erythroniums and Triliums (I’m very fond of both) are still a formal planting but mark a transition into a more modest range of colours and forms.
And then there are the serendipities where the gardener might be intending to clear some self-sets (but hasn’t got there yet) or has decided to let a wild thing prosper, or where a heavy dew or a shower has transformed a leaf into a bejewelled spectacle. I’ve seen a leaf like this before – I think it might be Meconopsis betonicifolia, a big favourite.
I like this “interplanting” of Alchemilla mollis and (an unknown) Primula – I’m told that the former plant “is valued for the appearance of its leaves in wet weather. Water beads on the leaves due to their dewetting (the process of retraction of a fluid from a non-wettable surface it was forced to cover) properties. These beads of water were considered by alchemists to be the purest form of water. They used this water in their quest to turn base metal into gold, hence the name Alchemilla. The Latin specific epithet mollis means “soft”, referring to the hairs on the leaves.” Imagine being the alchemist’s lab assistant and collecting those beads of water by the litre.
Nearby, I found this perfect hart’s-tongue fern reaching slowly for the light.
Glenarn has some excellent trees. I really enjoyed this Whitebeam starting to open its leaves, and the early Acer foliage.
I do have a name for this Acer – pensylvanicum, what a beauty.
We’ve seen few visitors on either of our visits and the main sounds have been of birdsong. I made this short recording while Faye fired up the Cornell Merlin Bird ID app. We’ve a Robin and a Blackcap according to the app and then, rather surprisingly, a Peregrine falcon (which did the decent thing and flew over our heads to put the matter beyond any doubt).
Glenarn Garden is a very special place – next year may be one for the really big Rhododendrons following their rest. I wish Mr and Mrs Thornley many more happy years of cultivation.