Bub­bling clouds of vi­o­let and in­digo

Charles Quest-rit­son ex­plores an ex­em­plary col­lec­tion of hy­drangeas that rel­ishes the par­tic­u­lar cli­mate of its Devon­shire home

Country Life Every Week - - Athena - Pho­tographs by Clive Ni­chols

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

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