Bubbling clouds of violet and indigo
Charles Quest-ritson explores an exemplary collection of hydrangeas that relishes the particular climate of its Devonshire home
It used to be said that the gardens of Devon and Cornwall were wonderful only in spring, when their rhododendrons, azaleas and camellias flowered. It was not until their owners realised that most tourists come to the West Country in July and August that they discovered hydrangeas, whose cool blues and purples they now plant in quantity to attract the ‘grockles’. No such stricture can be laid at the door of Marwood Hill, near Barnstaple, a true plantsman’s garden on a massive scale with hundreds of good plants to discover at every season ( Country Life, February 24, 2016).
Hydrangeas “sparkle in the sun... like French petticoats in sky and lilac”
Marwood Hill was planted by James Smart (‘Jimmy’ to his many friends) with immense knowledge, energy and enthusiasm. He started in 1960 and was still planning and planting up to his death in 2002, by which time, the garden, through several expansions, extended to 20-plus acres on both sides of a steep valley. the stream at the bottom was dammed to create three lakes and Dr Smart planted shelter belts to break the force of the Atlantic gales—the hills around Marwood are often topped by beech trees whose shape has been blown sideways by wind.
Michael Haworth-booth (1896–1986), a friend of Dr Smart’s, was, for many years, the world expert on hydrangeas and it was as a result of this friendship that the best of cultivars came to be planted at Marwood Hill. Hydrangeas prefer cool, wet weather and, even in the moist climate of north Devon, they keep their colour better if planted in dappled shade.
the ph of the soil (shale, known locally as ‘shillet’, with clay underneath) varies between 5.5 and 6, which means that most hydrangeas are blue, rather than pink. the aluminium that is responsible for the blue colouring is more accessible in acid soils than alkaline; on chalk soils, their flowers are always pink.
Dr Smart planted his hydrangeas all over the garden, often in the same hole
Marwood Hill Hydrangea Collection, Marwood, Barnstaple, Devon
as a tree. ‘This does save space and provides another season of flower in late summer,’ he wrote, but, inevitably, the trees grew and started to suck the soil of water and nutrients. Some 10 years ago, therefore, his long-serving head gardener, Malcolm Pharoah, now retired, decided to move many of them to a position where they could be massed on either side of the main walk up the hillside, across the valley beyond the lakes.
Their blues and purples are a great attraction in July and August, first espied from near the entrance gate, so that they beckon visitors to come and explore the far side. The garden’s enthusiastic visitor leaflet informs us that the hydrangeas ‘sparkle in the sun… like French petticoats in sky and lilac’. Be that as it may, they are complemented by eucryphias and the even more intensely blue agapanthus, both of which give of their best in the same season, and the National Collection of astilbes (more than 120 cultivars) is also in flower around the edge of the lakes.
Most hydrangea species—wild hydrangeas—have a circle of ray florets surrounding the fertile flowers in the middle of the corymb or panicle. Forms of Hydrangea macrophylla have been discovered or selected over the years that have a larger proportion of ray florets. These are known as ‘mophead’ hydrangeas as opposed to the simpler ‘lacecaps’.
The mopheads are sometimes called Hortensias and represent what we think of as ‘typical’ hydrangeas—at their most
Marwood Hill is a true plantsman’s garden on a massive scale
impressive when grown in pots under glass and liberally fed with fertilisers to produce huge heads of flowers in spring.
Some 700 mophead cultivars are known all over the world and about 50 lacecaps, to which should be added the many excellent cultivars of H. involucrata, H. aspera, H. quercifolia and H. arborescens that have been introduced in recent years. Corinne Mallet’s National Collection of hydrangeas in Normandy counts more than 1,200 cultivars and the popularity of the genus as a whole is definitely on the up.
It is the mophead macrophyllas that make the great display at Marwood Hill. Strong-growing Altona has large, dense heads bursting with deep blue-purple florets; Ayesha is different from all other hydrangeas because its pale-blue petals are crimped like the individual flowers of a lilac. Some people say they can also detect a lilac-like scent, but others
write this off as auto-suggestion. Nevertheless, it’s an interesting curiosity.
Générale Vicomtesse de Vibraye, named for the wife of a French army officer who was recalled for duty in 1914 at the age of 69, is a great favourite: vigorous and early-flowering with abundant pale-blue florets. Enziandom is another winner—its large, deep-blue florets are among the most striking. Frau Katsuko, by contrast, has white edges to its florets and is usually as much pink as blue at Marwood Hill.
Blue Bonnet is a large, spreading shrub with a multitude of mid-blue florets, but those of Parzifal are fewer and larger, with an attractive pink tinge to their edges. Mr Pharoah is particularly fond of Merveille Sanguine, a violet mophead whose new leaves are also deep purple, and of Frillibet, whose sky-blue flowers have frilly edges and a white centre.
Not all the hydrangeas here are macrophyllas, whether mophead or lacecap. There is a fine collection of H. quercifolia forms (the leaves have excellent autumn colour, too) and many of the new forms of the white-flowered species H. paniculata. Some have florets that take on a pink tinge as they age—vanille Fraise is a particular success because it opens white, but turns a fine strawberry pink; the dense conicalcluster flowers of Phantom start off green, then turn pale pink and finally deep pink. Great Star, by contrast, has only a few sterile florets, but they are enormous.
The gifted new head gardener, Joe Reardon- Smith, has set to renewing and reviving Marwood Hill, starting with the areas near the entrance and around the house. He was responsible for introducing the striking herbaceous borders at Parham in West Sussex, where he was head gardener, and his eye for colour and succession is already showing impressive results. He manages with two gardeners and several part-time volunteers.
Visitor numbers are rising and the garden is close to the RHS garden at Rosemoor; half a day at each makes a day well spent—and not just for grockles. Marwood Hill Gardens, Marwood, Barnstaple, north Devon (01271 342528; www.marwoodhillgarden. co.uk). The gardens open daily from March 1 to September 30, 10am–5pm
Lacecap and mophead hydrangeas illuminate the late-summer garden
Clockwise from above: James Smart often planted his hydrangeas in the same hole as a tree—in this example, bright azure Hydrangea macrophylla Ayesha cradles a eucalyptus; H. macrophylla Mariesii Lilacena is blue on the garden’s acid soil, with lilac ray florets; and H. macrophylla Parzifal’s bold globes of violetwashed mauve
Clockwise from left: Hydrangea macrophylla Ayesha; creamy H. paniculata Great Star; and ruby-wine tinted H. Preziosa