Agnes Stevenson

LARGE parts of Scotland are transformed when rhododendrons, camellias and a host of other flowering shrubs cover hillsides and woodlands in an extraordinary display of vivid colour every spring and summer. We like to think of this are one of our natural wonders, a ravishing show that has visitors heading west, to the mild and damp coastal areas where it’s at its best. But the plants that sustain it are, for the most part, native to other parts of the world, introduced by a hardy breed of Victorian and Edwardian plant hunters who risked their lives on remote mountain hillsides and amongst warring tribes.

Yet something extraordinary happened when these introductions got their roots into Scottish soil, they flourished more strongly than they had at home and gardeners with space to indulge their passion for these exotic arrivals embraced them on a large scale, creating a style of gardening that has gone on to inspire landscapes around the world.

Someone who knows these gardens and the stories behind them is Kenneth Cox, a third-generation plant hunter and nurseryman from Perthshire. In 1919 Kenneth’s grandfather, Euan Cox, returned from an expedition to Burma with the renowned plant collector Reginald Farrer, laden with seed of rhododendrons, conifers, perennial and bulbs. With these he established the woodland garden at Glendoick House, which is still the family home. Kenneth’s father, Peter, founded Glendoick Nursery in 1953, specialising in rhododendrons and during the 1960s and 70s, when China and most Himalayan countries were closed to plant hunting, he headed east with his friend Peter Hutchison to the Caucasus and Arunchal Pradesh in north-east India.

As soon as China reopened in the early 1980s, Cox and Hutchison were back in the wild, with the 1982 Sino-British Expedition to Cangshan the first of many sorties into Yunnan, Sichuan, Tibet and north-east India and by 1995 Kenneth was accompanying them.

Besides collecting and breeding plants, Kenneth has also found time to explore many of the finest woodland gardens around the world and his new book, Woodland Gardening: Landscaping with Rhododendrons, Magnolias and Camellias is the first to set out the origins of this style of gardening and track its global spread from these shores.

He said: “Scotland is one of the key countries in the story of woodland gardening; the cool damp climate is ideally suited to rhododendrons, Meconopsis and many other woodland plants.”

Notable gardens in the north of Scotland include Inverewe, Attadale and Blackhills. Central Scotland boasts Glendoick and Branklyn, while the south has Dawyck, Glenwhan, Corsock, Castle Kennedy and Logan.

If you want to visit them, go now while the rhododendrons are in flower, azaleas perfume the air and meconopsis are unfurling silken petals in astonishing shades of blue. Here is Kenneth Cox's pick of the best

Inverewe, Wester Ross

We may wonder what possessed Inverewe founder Osgood Mackenzie to attempt to garden on such an unpromising site as Am Plock on Scotland’s north-west coast. Inverewe’s story, told in Mackenzie’s autobiography A Hundred Years in the Highlands, shows him as a determined fellow with patience and the foresight to realise that, without shelter, nothing would grow. Over a 15-year period he planted three species of pine and Rhododendron ponticum, followed by alder, birch and rowans, in order to establish extensive thick mixed windbreaks.

By the early years of the 20th century, woodland was well established, and the site was suitable for the new rhododendrons and other plants then being discovered in China by Ernest Wilson, George Forrest and Frank Kingdon Ward. Mackenzie particularly loved the ‘big-leaved’ rhododendron species such as Rhododendron falconeri and R. hodgsonii, which he planted alongside everything else he could find room for: Agapanthus, tree ferns, cabbage trees, Watsonia, Correa, Abutilon, Oleander, Leptosperpum, Metrosideros and much more.

Inverewe can thank the Gulf Stream for its favourable climate, as it's very far north – 57.8 degrees, north of Moscow, on a latitude with southern Alaska.

Inverewe Garden, Poolewe, Achnasheen IV22 2LG

Corsock House, Dumfries and Galloway

The 20-acre garden at Corsock House contains a collection of fine mature trees and rhododendrons, planted by three families: the Dunlops in the 19th century, the McEwans in the early 20th century and the Ingalls since 1951. The top of the garden is bounded by a 40-acre loch created by damming the river which runs down through the curving wooded glen, at the bottom of which is a water garden with several ponds, a fountain, azaleas and Japanese maples as well as a trellis pagoda as a focal point. Along the river are classical statues and follies and an unusual trompe l’oeil bridge which disguises the retaining wall of a dam. The fact that the plants are not allowed to obscure Corsock’s design is a key element of its success. Corsock has particularly good autumn colour.

Corsock House, Castle Douglas DG7 3DJ

Dawyck Botanic Garden, Scottish Borders

One of the three outstations of Scotland’s Royal Botanic Garden, Edinburgh (Logan and Benmore are the others), this is an outstanding collection of plants, carved out of a beech wood on a steep hillside above the River Tweed not far from the border. The

highest point of the garden is at 250m above sea level. Of the four gardens of the RBGE, this is the coldest; indeed this part of the Borders, in an inland valley far from the sea, has one of the harshest climates in Britain. The garden is particularly suited to plants from

the cold northern Chinese province of Sichuan and to North American conifers. Significant collections in the garden include Rhododendron, Abies, Juniperus, Picea, Pinus, Berberis, Betula, Prunus, Sorbus and Spiraea and a collection of Scottish rare plants.

June is best for azaleas, underplanted with carpets of Meconopsis. The Scrape Burn rushes through the valley, bridged in several places. Near the burn you will find several of Dawyck’s famous trees, including the UK champion Austrian pine, Britain’s oldest Picea breweriana, and the original slender upright Dawyck beech, whose offspring are grown all over the globe.

Dawyck Botanic Gardens,

Glendoick, Perthshire

Most of the plants which Euan Cox collected in Burma turned out to be rather tender, and hard winters took their toll, but some of Glendoick’s plantings from the 1919 expedition remain, including handsome specimens of the plants that were named after Euan Cox, Juniperus recurva var. coxii and Berberis coxii. The new woodland garden at Glendoick needed plants but money was tight so Euan obtained plants wherever he could: spare seedlings from RBG Edinburgh, a gift of Rhododendron sutchuenense from plant-hunter Ernest Wilson, plants from J.C. Williams at Caerhays and a wagon-load of semi-mature rhododendrons from the Loders at Leonardslee in Sussex. Cox described the creation of his Glendoick woodland garden in his book Wild Gardening (1929), and he was a shareholder in George Forrest’s last expedition. Glendoick’s compact woodland garden is roughly triangular in shape, on either side of a swift-flowing burn that tumbles over waterfalls.

The main challenges in this part of Scotland are late frosts and Armillaria (honey fungus), which lives on decaying tree stumps, many of which died of Dutch Elm disease. Plants don’t grow as large or as lush as they do on the west coast, so Glendoick has remained relatively open and not overcrowded but it has always been a challenge

to accommodate all the new material, both wild collected species of many genera and hybrid rhododendrons and many other plants.

Glendoick, Glencarse PH 7NS

Branklyn, Perth,

Only 8 miles from Glendoick, Branklyn was created in the 1940s and 1950s from orchard fields by John and Dorothy Renton, with plants grown from seed collections from plant-hunters such as Ludlow and Sherriff. Branklyn is a 1-hectare (2-acre) site, intensively gardened, and one of the world’s best examples of the woodland gardening approach on a small urban site. Graham Stuart Thomas, one of Britain’s greatest gardeners, was entranced by it in the 1970s. Branklyn has enjoyed a renaissance in recent years under the guidance of now retired head gardener Steve McNamara, and now plantsman Jim Jermyn. In the last 20 years they have controlled or removed trees and shrubs which had grown their space, augmented the fine collection of rhododendrons, alpines and herbaceous and the famous rock garden has been restored.

Branklyn was one of the first gardens to use peat walls to create terraces for acid-loving plants, and these have recently been replaced using peat blocks from sustainable sources in Sweden.

Branklyn’s woodland effect is provided by a combination of the borrowed landscape of the surroundings and the mature trees in the garden, including a double Eucryphia glutinosa, Embothrium, Hoheria, the famous groups of Acer palmatum and Betula albosinensis var. septentrionalis and a huge fastigiate hornbeam. This garden is a masterclass in underplanting ericacaeous shrubs with envy-inducing carpets of woodland bulbs and perennials Erythronium, Trillium,

Epimedium, Meconopsis, Primula, Anemone and lots more. The winding paths and undulating beds, packed with plants, make the space seem larger than it is, and of all the gardens on this sort of scale, Branklyn best illustrates how the precepts of woodland gardening can work wonderfully well in a relatively modest-sized property.

Branklyn Garden, 116 Dundee Road, Perth PH2 7BB

Woodland Gardening by Kenneth Cox, £40, plus £10 postage and packaging. See