This is the third in a six-part series about how Perthshire Big Tree Country is helping to save internationally threatened species of conifers. Felicity Martin visits the grounds of Hilton Dunkeld House Hotel to see how a historic designed landscape is being revitalised by planting a new generation of conifers collected from the wild.
30 May 2014
Conserving designed landscapes
Dunkeld – at the heart of Perthshire Big Tree Country
The historic legacy of the past plant hunters, as explored in Part 2 of this series, is visible in designed landscapes all around Perthshire, no more so than at Dunkeld, where the ‘Planting Dukes’ of Atholl had their summer home. At one time, they owned most of the land from Dunkeld to Blair Atholl and established forestry plantations over much of it, but their major landscape enhancements – to create attractive vistas and delightful woodland walks – were focussed around their residences.
Over a span of several centuries, they built four successive houses near the River Tay at Dunkeld. The first two were beside Dunkeld Cathedral and the third, a grand palace never completed and later demolished, was in the parkland beyond the cathedral. A model of it is on display in the Cathedral. Their final one, built further upstream in the late 1890s, is now the Hilton Dunkeld House Hotel.
The hotel has an enviable position, overlooking the fast flowing salmon river and surrounded by a 280-acre woodland estate that has been developed over four centuries. In the 1730s, James Murray, 2nd Duke of Atholl began reshaping the landscape by laying out terraces and planting trees on a large scale, a pattern continued by his successors.
By the mid 1800s, many tree species discovered in the New World – often by Perthshire plant hunters – became available and the dukes were among the first to try planting them. Putting seedlings of Douglas fir, grand fir and western hemlock in the ground must have been an act of faith. They would know of David Douglas’s descriptions of vast groves of these trees growing in north-western America, but would have no idea if they would thrive in Highland Perthshire.
If you walk around the grounds of the hotel today, you will see that their efforts were justified. Those same trees are now the most striking part of the landscape, rising high above the rounded canopy of the broadleaved woodland. Many of the specimens, now over 150 years old, are champion trees, for instance the Douglas fir near the cathedral, which has the largest girth for that species in Britain and Ireland.
The next generation of trees
The designed landscape is an asset that the Hilton is keen to conserve, as General Manager Mike Metcalfe explains.
“The surrounding woodland estate provides a wonderful backdrop to the hotel and a venue for many outdoor activities, from walking and fishing to archery and quad biking. However, it needs constant maintenance, especially following recent severe storms, which felled a record-breaking Colorado fir, blew the top out of a giant redwood and caused much other damage.
“We are delighted to be working with the iCONic project to continue the tradition of tree planting, including experimenting with species little known in Perthshire. Our work will ensure that in another hundred years this remains a stunning environment where the natural beauty of hills and crags is complemented by the grandeur of mature trees.”
To see the work the project is doing, I explore some of the paths around the woodland estate with iCONic project officer Tom Christian.
Just behind the cathedral, we enter Cathedral Grove, home of the oldest and biggest conifers. They are an impressive sight, despite the storms, with elephantine boles supporting soaring canopies. The iCONic project has helped to tidy up the grove and plant replacement trees that could be the record-breakers of tomorrow.
The grove is also providing shelter for specimens of some of the world’s most threatened conifers, including Alerce and Chilean plum yew. In addition, many unusual trees that have reached maturity are being replaced, such as Veitch’s silver fir and the hiba tree from Japan. One of best examples in Perthshire of the hiba, a beautiful conifer from northern Japan, was growing on the river bank until recently, when it blew down.
Evolution of designed landscapes
Tom tells me that the iCONic project also has plans for the adjacent parkland.
“Up until the mid 20th century, all the fields were dotted with parkland trees, but now there are only two old beech left. We would like to reinstate the idea of parkland trees and have in the nursery a lot of Cedar of Lebanon. They can be difficult to accommodate as they grow into very big trees, but they lend themselves to parkland setting such as this. So in autumn 2014 we plan to scatter 15 to 20 in cages throughout park. Once the trees are mature, they should look fantastic set against the cathedral ruins and will be well spaced to leave views to the craggy hills beyond.”
Nearer the hotel, we come to the American Garden, which was originally laid out with beds of flowering shrubs that over the past hundred years have been superseded by planted trees.
“Here we are continuing the tradition of tree planting, but with an American theme,” Tom says. “The species we’ve put in include Fraser fir and swamp cypress, as well as one of the world’s rarest conifers, Florida torreya.
“Before the last ice age Florida torreya had a larger distribution up the eastern seaboard of the United States, but glaciation knocked it back into a refuge in Florida and it never got back out again. It is restricted to the banks of just two rivers.
“Somehow, a fungal pathogen, probably of Asian origin, got in. The same thing happened to the remnant populations of Florida torreya as happened to elms in the UK. Whole big trees were killed, leaving stumps that regenerate and throw up growth. Trees do not reach reproductive size before dying.
“The species has been saved by cultivation. American conservationists propagated cuttings from every remaining stump in a nursery. They distributed these around an international network of botanic gardens, including the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh. In turn, we have propagated and distributed them, with two coming to Dunkeld.
“Who knows what use this tree could have to mankind in future? From the next door genus Taxus, the yew family, they have distilled taxol the most potent anti cancer drug ever found in the plant kingdom. So maybe this contains something yet to be discovered.”
Planting for the future
We continue through mature mixed woodland, planted long ago in a classic style with European larch, European silver fir, beech and oak, with paths laid out for recreational walks.
Behind the hotel we reach the foot of King’s Seat, site of an ancient hill fort. The lower slopes, planted with commercial timber, are being heavily thinned and planted through with Serbian spruce, which will grow in a more naturalistic setting, reminiscent of their native habitat.
Further upriver we come to what Tom believes will be a ‘flagship’ planting when it matures. We look down from a natural terrace onto a river flat where twenty coast redwoods have been planted through a thinned stand of mid-aged sycamore. In time, iCONic hopes to at least double the number, to forty or more of mixed ages.
The tallest tree in the world is a coast redwood and the species is known to be very long lived, but it is endangered in the wild. Most of the old growth forests, whose massive trees provide nesting sites for the unusual and threatened seabird the marbled murrelet, have been lost. Given time, the natural amphitheatre at Dunkeld could provide a spectacular array of these giants, now sadly rare in their native California.
In next month’s article we will look at how the iCONic project is cultivating trees from collected seed and cuttings, and will visit some forest sites around Perthshire where threatened species are growing.