This month our guest blog comes courtesy of the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh. We follow Kevin Reid as he takes the Bonnie Botany Tour which comprises the trio of regional gardens that complete the full RBGE.
To many, the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh (RBGE) evokes visions of the 79 acres of the Inverleith Garden with the iconic elegance of the Victorian Palm House: the national collection of living plants from the four corners of the world boasting colour all year round and the expansive lawns where visitors relax and toddlers take their first tentative steps.
However, RBGE is actually one national collection across four locations. The Bonnie Botany Tour (BBT) links the quartet of botanic gardens in Edinburgh, Benmore near Dunoon, Logan near Stranraer and back via Dawyck near Peebles – altogether a 380-mile scenic route. The BBT first featured in Martin Dorey’s book Take the Slow Road Scotland (Route 13) and, as well as the ideal way to explore our fantastic gardens, the tour also offers stunning landscapes, culture and the best of food and drink along the way!
As I work for RBGE, hiring a Roseisle Campervan and doing my own version of the Take the Slow Road ‘workation’ seemed the ideal way to make an overdue visit to the staff in our regional gardens.
The famous Rest and Be Thankful had only reopened the day before departure following extended closure due to a landslide. It was still only tentatively passable in single file though heavy rain and low cloud.
The murky weather obscured the head of the pass, so I ploughed through before dropping down along Loch Fyne and the wooded shores of Loch Eck to arrive at Benmore and enjoy supper in the dwindling sunlight. I had just enough time to settle down for a wild camping night, warm and cosy in the campervan with the sound of the rain on the roof lulling the traveller over into a deep and restful sleep.
Benmore Botanic Garden
The morning was grey and damp with a moody sky that makes the majesty of Benmore Botanic Garden and its many fine mature specimens, from the Orient and the Himalaya to North and South America, look all the more impressive.
The 120 acres of Garden clings to its hillside setting showcasing a stunning array of colour. The rich yellow foliage of the Betula alleghaniensis makes a vivid first impression of what is to come, with the iconic 150-year-old cathedral-like Redwood Avenue standing 40m tall at the entrance.
A favourite of Peter Baxter, Curator at RBGE Benmore, is Betula maximowicziana. This largest leafed birch was collected in Japan and bears foliage which turns a clear yellow. By stark colour contrast nearby is the rich red and scarlet Acer rubrum, while Benmore hosts an amazing collection of some forty two species of Japanese and Sino-Himalayan acer which are a must see as autumn transitions to winter.
The most intense area of autumn colour at Benmore is in the vicinity of the pond. The dominant tree on the island is Cercicphyllum japonicum. Exploring further past the amazing Fernery perched high above the path, the Younger Walk takes the visitor on a journey into the Himalaya. With spectacular large leaves and large fruit ranging the spectrum from yellow to orange are S. hedlundii, S. thibetica and S. vestita, growing in the Bhutanese Glade.
The climb to the upper slopes of the Chilean Rainforest in autumn will be rewarded with the beautiful rich yellow foliage of Nothofagus Antarctica and stunning panoramic views over the Holy Loch and the Clyde beyond. The horizon points the way to our next Garden, the exotic paradise of Logan on the Rhinns of Galloway.
Logan Botanic Garden
The Sound of Soay ferry from Dunoon starts the next stage of the adventure. I first cross the Clyde then head south along the A74, the journey hugging the rugged coastline and offering fine views of Ailsa Craig, coastal hamlets perched on the shore and rich green pastures behind. The Sands of Luce campsite offers a ‘superpitch’ stopover to enjoy all the hook-up facilities of my luxury ‘mobile office’, and to relax and enjoy the sun going down over the stand.
Located on the south-western tip of Scotland, Logan Botanic Garden enjoys an almost subtropical climate. The Garden is warmed by the Gulf Stream which enables plants from Australia, New Zealand, South and Central America and Southern Africa to thrive outdoors including palms (some over 100 years old, along with tree ferns and even bananas!)
Richard Baines, Curator at Logan, advises “autumn at Logan extends well into November. The Garden boasts a wealth of autumn flowering bulbs such as Watsonias, Gladioli and Nerines that form carpets of pink around the walled garden pond. Exotic Cannas from South Africa, commonly known as the Indian Shot plant, produce vibrant red flowers against banana-like foliage until the first frost arrives”.
Logan feels like an exotic oasis, from the oriental carp cruising the pond in the walled garden to the amazing 5-metre tall willow sculpture dinosaur Loganosaurus rex – you will easily forget you are on the south-west coast of Scotland.
Dawyck Botanic Garden
Edinburgh-bound on the A75 through the rolling Scottish Borders affords an overnight stop at Glentress within easy reach of Dawyck Botanic Garden. Here, autumn colour is provided by different species of Acer. The Japanese maple Acer palmatum turns a magnificent fiery red, as does the Nippon maple Acer nipponicum. While the Acer griseum (paper-bark maple) has an amazing ability to change colour from yellow to red with an unusual russet bronze peeling bark to boot!
Graham Stewart, Curator at Dawyck, advises “autumn is a time for scent and texture too, and the Japanese katsura tree (Cercidiphyllum japonicum) emanates a rich butter candy smell as the leaves turn in autumn, a smell which seems so out of place it never ceases to amaze. Its layers of crisp and crunchy leaves are a must for children to experience, wading through piles of leaves is considered a rite of passage when growing up!”
Japanese rowans (Sorbus commixta) are a must at this time of year too, with such a plethora of changing colour that they appear to imitate glowing embers, truly a spectacle to behold!
I wrapped up the trip all too soon and headed back to where I started. I reluctantly returned the van to the Roseisle team – wishing I had just a few more days…until next time!
Kevin Reid is the Director of Horticulture and Learning at the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh. The quartet of gardens which make up the RBGE are all open for visitation and tours, with fascinating collections. The Edinburgh garden also stays open throughout the winter.
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Call: +44 (0)131 653 5023⠀