About > Story of the Collection

By Edward  Amory, Owner, Chevithorne Barton (2018)

Alice and I, together with our children Ludo, Lily Sam and Zac, are now living at Chevithorne Barton and trying to get to grips with the extraordinary legacy left by my father. We will continue to expand and support the oak collection, and the garden will in due course be open more frequently for everyone to enjoy his remarkable trees and my great-grandmother’s planting. We are learning slowly about looking after the Quercus, the excitement of newly germinating acorns and the tragedy of trees lost to bad weather and snow which has fallen three times this year. We are beginning to think, as my father suggested in his note below, about how we should edit and curate the collection as the oaks grow larger, throwing their shadows further and beginning other projects around the garden. We’ve been very lucky to have a great deal of help and support from many kind and knowledgeable people. Like the garden, this website will evolve in the future. But it remains above all a tribute to my father’s vision. 

Edward Amory

 

By Michael Heathcoat Amory, Founder of the Oak collection at Chevithorne Barton (2009)

 

 Chevithorne Barton

Chevithorne Barton is a late Elizabethan manor-house deep in the Devonshire countryside. It is on a south facing hillside surrounded by gardens, orchards, woods and fields. It has fairly high rainfall and good soil and several streams and leats which are useful in dry weather. Its name derives from 'Ciffa's Thorntree', and is mentioned in the Domesday Book. The core of the current house was built for the Francis family in 1610, although several parts have been destroyed and rebuilt since then. It was bought by Sir John Heathcoat Amory in 1905, and he handed it to his youngest son, Ludovic, my grandfather, when he married in 1911. His wife was Mary 'May' Stuart Bannatyne whose family owned a successful milling business in Limerick, but whose father lived at Haldon Hall near Exeter.

The garden was an important part of their plans for the house from the moment they bought it. Letters that Ludy, as he was known, wrote to my grandmother from the front line during the First World War contain constant references to the garden and their ideas for it. In October 1917, he wrote: 'I wish I'd seen our Michaelmas daisies at their best. I always love them with the little Jap anemones.' But he was killed in August 1918, and all of her three sons - including my father, Gerald - met the same fate during the Second World War. My grandmother was therefore alone at Chevithorne Barton for large periods of her life. Partly because of her rather tragic history, she threw herself into gardening and developed a notable plantswoman's garden with the emphasis on rock gardens, herbaceous borders and plants that grow well in woods. She planted some fine trees and shrubs notably a large tulip tree and a Magnolia ×veitchii which can be seen flowering from three miles away in the spring. Her generation of gardeners included Margery Fish and Lanning Roper, who reputedly got some of his early inspiration from her garden.

The garden in 1960

In 1960, Lanning Roper wrote an article in Country Life about the gardens at Chevithorne Barton, which he said: 'embody all the elements with which my ideal garden is endowed.' He went on to praise: 'an abundance of flowers which grow with an exuberance and luxuriance which gladden the heart of every gardener...the highly successful integration of the garden not only with the house and farm buildings, around which the gardens are laid out, but with the lovely Devon landscape...[and] lastly the ample water'. He noted the 'lily pond embraced by two curving flights of flower carpeted steps, a gently flowing stream with reflections of purple nuts, golden laburnums and the apple blossoms of the orchard through which it flows'.

Above all, he loved the 'controlled abandon that makes this garden romantic, informal, completely satisfying and above all else unique.' Roper then went on to give a full - and fulsome - description of the garden, which it seems worth quoting at some length because it explains the garden that I inherited when I moved to the house in 1967, and describes a basic structure which I have kept and which has stood the test of time. To the east of the house, Roper described: 'a series of terraces. The stone work of the steps, paths, walls and garden house on the top terrace are so overgrown with erigerons, campanulas, thymes, and endless other rock plants that all rigidity has been lost and there is a mellow softness, not only of the structural lines but of the stone itself, with its coating of moss and lichens'.

The terraces had been built by hand in the 1930s, closely supervised by my grandmother. A photograph from the time, shows the work in progress, as she created a complex terraced garden from a grassy slope. Continuing down the hill, Roper described how 'an iron gate reveals a charming vista of shrubbery and orchard on the slopes beyond. A path leads down the slope, first through masses of peonies, heathers, hydrangeas, azaleas and berberis growing in the shade of laburnums, lilacs, amelanchiers and apple trees, in pleasant contrast to the intensively gardened area of the terraces'.

Further down the hill, Roper reached 'an enchanted woodland garden', 'not large in extent but owing to the simple plan of the winding paths and open vistas it seems far larger than it is. There is a delightful mixture of larch, pines and silver birch'. Next to the wood was the kitchen garden, of which the centre piece was 'wide central herbaceous borders flanking a well kept grass panel path, which terminates in a handsome Italian well head, flanked by slender poplars, planted against a tapestry of mixed beach hedge'.

In the 1970s I took out the herbaceous borders but my wife, Arabella, and I have since reinstated them with 'espaliered fruit trees' and relocated the 'neat blocks of vegetables and soft fruit' to another location to the west of the house. Roper clearly loved the garden, with its 'wealth of flowers and rich scents...roses, honeysuckle, cherry pie and mignonette...great drifts of anemones...huge white chalices of magnolias and the green architectural splendour of a large well placed yucca'.

This was the garden that, as May's only grandson, I inherited at the age of 25 in 1966. To begin with, I rather resented the legacy, and in particular the cost of the two or three gardeners whom she employed. However, as time went on, I got more and more enthusiastic but the emphasis switched to trees and shrubs and in particular we planted magnolias (including yellow ones and michelias) rhododendrons, hamamelis, eucryphias and many others.

The start of the collection

The first named oaks were planted nearly ten years later in the garden which then amounted to about five hectares (12.3 acres). It was not long before it became obvious that the garden was not big enough so the planting area was extended to orchards, small woods and fields adjacent to the garden, which had the effect of virtually encircling the house. From the beginning, some trees were planted deliberately in exposed positions but in full sunlight, while others were planted in sheltered conditions, very often with restricted sunlight. Some are planted in damp or well watered positions, some on dry banks. There has been no real pattern as to which has worked best, but some of the best specimens of delicate Mexican oaks have occurred in the old Rifle Range, in full sunlight but exposed to wind, especially from the south east, yet also benefiting from a leat which runs along the whole length of the Rifle Range and which leaks just enough to provide a natural irrigation system in dry summers.

To begin with, the oaks were planted in a somewhat random fashion but over the last ten years, more trouble has been taken to visualise how they would look when mature, and in the newer planting areas sightlines have been left so that the visitor will be able to look through the oak plantings at the hills and features beyond. However it is difficult to plan in detail as the trees grow at many different speeds and shapes. This becomes doubly unpredictable with oaks which have not been grown in this country before.

From the start, it was decided to collect not only species but also hybrids and cultivars and in addition some Lithocarpus, which are closely related to oaks but are largely confined to the tropics. This implied a large number of individual trees. I have worked on the principle that many of the hybrids are better than their parents, and as we have the space, they should be tried. I try to plant two of each species and one of each hybrid but sometimes more have been planted for particular reasons. The sites vary in height from about 100 m to 200 m (328 to 656 ft), mostly south facing in deep slightly reddish loam, much of which is neutral but there are patches which are more acidic. Rainfall is around 86 cm (34 in) a year which is low by Devon standards but higher than in counties further east. Most oaks, including the desert ones, seem to cope with the rainfall although several of the white oaks grow very slowly while others grow exceptionally fast. Dr Owen Johnson, of the Tree Register, who visited the garden in the summer of 2007 found six Champion oak trees, including three Mexican species: Quercus candicans, Q. affinis and Q. acherodophylla, all of which have grown quickly and also very straight. Some of the Chinese species have also grown exceptionally fast, notably Q. schottkyana as well as the Mexican Q. sartorii.

There have been some casualties along the way. We tend to lose one or two established trees each year either through wind or a poor root system sometimes aggravated by too much growth too quickly. About half the oaks now flower with us but comparatively few yield viable acorns. This will improve as they mature and should produce some interesting hybrids. When young, the oaks have to cope with rabbits, squirrels, sheep, roe and red deer and the occasional caterpillar. Several oaks from semi-tropical areas such as coastal Mexico and southern China have been planted. A few (for example, Quercus insignis and Q. uxoris) cannot take any frost and several others can suffer from frost damage, or probably more precisely, windchill which can cut them back to ground level. If one can get a tree to grow to about 3 m with a reasonably thick bark, it has a good chance of surviving and, as we have had relatively warm winters for the last ten years, several marginal oaks seem to have become established.

The winter of 2008/9 was particularly difficult. First we had unusually hard frosts in October which affected the autumn growth of several of the species, then we had a very cold spell over Christmas and the New Year followed by a major snow storm on the night of February 5th. It started at 9pm and by the following morning there was over a foot of wet snow. There was also a high wind which caused a large accumulation of snow on many of the trees and particularly on the evergreen oaks. The result was that about fifteen of these trees suffered damage, ranging from being snapped off at the base in one case, to broken branches in others. However there was one minor miracle. We have one decent example of Quercus crassipes, which dates back to 1995 and is about 5m (16 ft 4 in) high. It is perfectly shaped, with a 10 inch (25.4 cm) diameter trunk. In the February 2009 storm it was bent double with the upper branches frozen to the ground. The following morning I released these branches but the tree remained bent double. However, on the following day it had reverted to its upright position and does not seem to have suffered any permanent damage.

Building the Collection

Early on we experimented in germinating acorns. This was under the expert guidance of Roy Gynn, a renowned gardener who knew the garden well and came, in retirement, to advise us at Chevithorne. He had green fingers and showed us how to germinate by hanging acorns in paper bags on the wall of the summer house, out of reach of the mice, in spring. We had surprisingly good results, which encouraged us to collect acorns from various unusual oaks taken from sites around the country.

Our system for germinating oaks has steadily become more sophisticated and we now have a very good success rate. More than half the collection has come from acorns we have germinated ourselves. These in turn have come from collectors, often based in England, who have been prepared to make trips to oak-rich countries such as the wilder parts of China, Mexico and Japan.

Over the last ten years we have germinated a lot of seedlings of oaks collected all over the northern hemisphere, some rare, some not so rare. Obviously only one or two of each species find their way into our collection. This has thrown up a large number of spares which have been given to friends, acquaintances and visitors. I can count about forty different gardens in the UK where the oaks are now growing. They range from the north of Scotland to the tip of Cornwall, from West Wales to East Anglia and from sea level to 366 m (1,200 feet) in Perthshire. In general, the success rate has been high, which helps to make the point that many of these introductions will grow satisfactorily anywhere in the UK. A small number have also been given to friends in Continental Europe, for example, Charles Fisher is growing Quercus mexicana near the Mediterranean coast, west of Montpelier, and Caroline Horsley is growing Q. affinis and Q. fabri near St Tropez.

The first oaks we bought came from Hillier Nurseries, soon followed by an introduction to James Harris of Mallet Court Nurseries (Curry Mallet, Somerset), who in those days was known as Acer Harris, but was in the process of switching the emphasis of his nursery to oaks. He has supplied us with many unusual oaks over the years including two wonderful Quercus candicans, and he and his wife, Primrose, have been firm friends. We also used Burncoose Nurseries (Caerhays, Cornwall), Susan Cooper (Worcestershire) and Dulford Nurseries (Cullompton, Devon) and later on, among others, Bluebell Nursery (Ashby de le Zouch, Leicestershire), Junkers Nursery (Taunton, Somerset) and Nick Macer of Pan-Global Plants (Frampton-on-Severn, Gloucestershire), who collects seeds for many of his own plants.

Quite early on I helped finance, for the first time, an expedition to look for seeds in the wild. One of the participants was Michael Hickson, at the time, the knowledgeable and influential Head Gardener at Knightshayes Court. His successor at Knightshayes, John Lanyon, who has now left that position, is also an excellent gardener with a profound knowledge of plants. The National Trust has recently decided to bring up to date their list of the vast array of plants and trees in the National Trust gardens. Some estimate that the combined collections of the National Trust properties are the biggest collection anywhere. The endangered plants will be reproduced at Knightshayes using various techniques including hot grafting. As we are next door to Knightshayes, and helped by the family connection, we have built up a mutually satisfactory way of collaborating and co-operating to the advantage of both gardens. Michael Hickson went to Mexico in 1994 and came back with a good selection of acorns, not all of which had names, at least in the early stages, but several trees from this introduction are now over 12 m (39 ft) high, thus helping to prove the point that many Mexican oaks grow exceptionally well at Chevithorne Barton.

Around the same time we made contact with the Sir Harold Hillier Gardens and met for the first time Allen Coombes, who has, I believe, introduced more oaks into this country than anyone else. He combines this with great knowledge which he shares unselfishly and he, more than anyone, has had a seminal influence over our collection.

We have also been given unusual oaks or acorns by our friends and acquaintances, who had collected them, bought them, or sometimes found they had the wrong climate or garden for them and therefore could give them away. For example John Ifold has given us a purple-leaved cork oak which was a chance seedling from a packet of seeds, obtained from Sheffield Seeds. It will be interesting to see if it stays purple as it grows as I do not think a purple cork oak has been recorded anywhere before. Those who have given us seedlings of unusual oaks include Ian Bond, Hugh Cavendish, Carol Gurney, Arabella Lennox-Boyd, Henk Maille, Eike Jablonski, Richard Storey, the late George Clive and the late Jo Earle. Those who have collected acorns for us in far away places include Shaun Haddock, the late Bill Legge-Bourke, Myles Bessborough, Dorothy Holley, Colin Chisholm, and Jim Edwards to name a few. Other friends tried germinating spare acorns of ours using slightly different techniques, and sometimes had success when we failed. For example, Alison De Ramsey at Abbots Ripton grew a good Quercus polymorpha from seed and gave the plant back to us.

In the early 1990s the International Oak Society was formed, bringing with it contact with oak enthusiasts all over the world. Several of them have helped us collect oaks including Guy Sternberg the Society's president in the early days, Eike Jablonski and Shaun Haddock, whose collection is in France and who personally found Quercus baloot in the mountains on the Afghanistan/Pakistan border. Then there were the continental nurseries, which in many cases have trees in their lists which are unobtainable commercially in the UK. Under this heading comes Baumschule Döring (Ahnatal, Germany), Boomkwerkerij Pavia BVBA (Deerlijk, Belgium), Boomkerkerij M. M. Bömer (Zundert, The Netherlands), Pépinièrs Daniel B'stard (Saint Philbert en Mauges, France), Firma C. Esveld (Boskoop, The Netherlands) and others. Sometimes the continental oaks are listed under a synonym which has caused temporary confusion, but almost invariably the continental plants are of good size and quality. There are two or three nurseries in Italy, such as Vannucci Piante, which specialise in larger trees: the only ones we have bought were to plant each side of our oak Millennium Bridge designed by Martin Lane Fox. They were about 5m (16 ft 4 in) high when planted, look remarkably well, but have hardly moved since we bought them, indicating that it is really not worthwhile buying large trees except perhaps to disguise an eyesore.

By no means least are the other collectors such as Michael Heseltine, who has an unparalleled and splendid collection of trees and shrubs at Thenford in Northamptonshire, of which oaks are only a small part. We have co-invested in seed hunting expeditions, swapped and given each other plants over the last fifteen years or so to our mutual advantage. Other collectors include the late Bill Legge-Bourke, Lloyd Kenyon, Tom Methuen-Campbell, Tom Hudson, and Christine Battle. All of them started collecting later than us but have brought energy, knowledge and enthusiasm to the oak world and all have built substantial and interesting collections. Christine, in addition, not only paints oaks quite beautifully but makes the time to organise the acorn hunting trips which seem to be becoming more numerous and successful every year. Then there is James MacEwen who combines considerable erudition with a remarkable visual memory. He is also an excellent photographer and he has built up a collection of over a hundred species of seedling oaks in his minute London garden.

Most of the rarities and oaks which are difficult to establish have been acquired from specific expeditions where the main purpose was to find the acorns of known species. Not everyone is capable of leading these expeditions, which are often to remote places and usually in considerable discomfort. Here again Allen Coombes has been in the forefront, particularly in Mexico, often accompanied by his knowledgeable wife, Maricela. Further expedition leaders include Keith Rushforth in the Himalaya, Tony Kirkham in China, Béatrice Chassé in the United States, Shaun Haddock and Anke Mattern in Japan, and others. These journeys often led to acorns being collected, which eventually became trees that have not been grown in the UK before. Even if we know how these oaks grow in their natural habitat, they often grow differently in Devon, and at very different speeds. Tom Methuen-Campbell and Tom Hudson, one on the Gower Peninsular and the other on the south coast of Cornwall, have taken part in these expeditions either as leaders, participants or backers. They have virtually frost free gardens, a definite advantage with oaks from the warmer parts of the world, and as a result, both have most interesting collections. Very recently, Henry Keswick gave us some acorns from an expedition he had sponsored to China's Dulong Valley (between Myanmar and Tibet).

The result of all this has been, and continues to be, a significant increase in the number of potentially available species of Quercus and Lithocarpus and their various hybrids and forms. Our collection has the scope and the space to increase considerably in the future. Global warming may help, as many introductions are on the borderline in terms of susceptibility to the English winter and especially spring frosts.

In summary we have tapped all available sources to build up the collection. As commercial sources run out, we increasingly rely on plant and seed collectors. However, there seems to be no lack of volunteers to go to the wild, high and often inhospitable parts of the northern hemisphere, where the rare and obscure oaks tend to live: and then, of course, there is bureaucracy; more and more countries are protecting their natural environment and who can blame them. A modern seed collector has to know his way around the regulations of the country he is operating in. Often one needs a local partner and the ability to give something in return for taking away some acorns.

In March 1992 the collection was recognised by the National Council for the Conservation of Plants and Gardens (N.C.C.P.G.) – now known as Plant Heritage –and we were awarded National Collection® status, one of two such collections, the other being at the Sir Harold Hillier Gardens.

It is important that a National Collection® has proper records of its plants: in particular where the acorn or plant came from, whether it was wild collected, who collected it, the name under which it was received, and even what height it was growing at. From the start and until recently, Janet Richardson dealt with this crucial role even though she lived over a hundred miles away. She also represented me at various International Oak Conferences and brought back valuable contacts and very often desirable acorns from the 'seed exchange' held at these conferences. She has played a vital and time-consuming role.

The oaks are usually planted in their final position when they are three or four years old. If they are planted in open ground where no trees or shrubs have grown in recent years, we sprinkle in a handful of Rootgrow™. The beneficial bacteria and fungi in this seem to help the oak to keep growing, reducing the chance of a sulk, during which the tree hardly makes any progress, and which can last up to five years. We protect the trees as much as we can from the cold and some of the marginal oaks under 2 m (6 ft 7 in) are covered in netting for the three coldest months in the year. Not all species produce elegant upright trees and on some we leave the low branches. Over the years the oaks have required pruning and shaping. Most look better as a tree than as a shrub, but there are exceptions. Quercus pontica, for example, looks better as a shrub with multiple stems, and others, for example, Q. monimotricha, develop naturally into a low mound. I believe it to be true that the more experienced you are, the more ruthless you are as a pruner. Certainly the most ruthless pruners who have been allowed near our trees are Tony Kirkham of Kew, and Michael Hickson, who have much expertise and experience. Both are capable of pruning 60% of the branches off a tree in one go and it has to be admitted that the tree invariably looks better for its haircut the following year. We tend to be more cautious and would not normally prune more than 25% of the branches in one go but we may prune a tree many times before we are satisfied with the shape.

The collection now

By the beginning of February 2009, we had 382 differently named oaks in the collection. This included 225 species, subspecies and varieties and 157 other forms made up of 58 hybrids and 99 cultivars such as variegated and purple-leaved versions of a species. This is against a background of perhaps 500 known species. Geographically, and bearing in mind that Quercus come from all over the Northern hemisphere (with the exception of one or two oaks in Borneo and one from Columbia and Panama) our European coverage is fairly comprehensive as is our collection of oaks from the Near East, which includes Turkey and the Caucasus.

In the Far East, where there are a large number of oaks, we have fair representation from the more northerly parts such as Japan, Korea, the Himalaya and Northern China, but much less representation in the hotter areas and almost no representation from Indo-China and Borneo. Further, it is fair to say that most of the oaks in these areas could not tolerate our climate except in the greenhouse.

We have fairly good representation from the United States, where there are around 90 species of oaks. We also have about 75 Mexican oaks, if one includes naturally occurring hybrids and oaks that are also found in the south of the United States. There are more different species of oaks in Mexico than in any other country. No one knows exactly how many, but there are certainly 160, and probably more like 200, as the country has not been comprehensively searched. It is significant that Allen Coombes collected two new species during his recent expedition to Mexico. We have recently obtained Quercus humboldtii whose natural distribution is Panama and Colombia. I believe it to be true that we have more Mexican oaks at Chevithorne than there are in any single collection in Mexico.

South of Mexico, going towards the Equator, we also have a few species from the mountain regions of Honduras and Guatemala.

We also have three oaks which from experience we have to keep in the greenhouse in the winter. They are Quercus cubana (Cuba never has a frost), Q. insignis and Q. uxoris from the semi-tropical rain forests of Mexico.

The genus Lithocarpus is closely related to Quercus and considered by many people to be covered by the name oak. Lithocarpus mostly come from the hotter parts of East and South East Asia except for one rather distinct species now renamed Notholithocarpus densiflorus, which comes from southern Oregon and California. We have a small collection of several different species mostly from China and Taiwan. Two of them have been growing satisfactorily at Chevithorne for ten years or so but the others have only been planted out in their final positions for the last three years. In spite of finding the winters rather cold, they are looking remarkably well. Several of them have grown at an above average speed and look as if they will make good trees in due course.

The future

From the outset, I intended the collection to be as comprehensive a collection of oaks as our climate allowed, bearing in mind that although we live in Devon, Chevithorne Barton is over 25 miles from both the north and south coasts and around 150 m (492 ft) above sea level. It is also rather damp by southern England standards (rainfall is about 35 in / 88.9 cm a year). We also get our fair share of snow and a fair number of early and late frosts. The latter can be mitigated against by careful planting but in most years they do affect quite a number of oaks, many of which tend to put on growth early in the spring or late in the autumn and are therefore more susceptible to subsequent cold winters.

At present, many of the oaks are still small, but in fifty years time, the garden and surrounding landscape at Chevithorne will have changed profoundly. My grandmother's plantswoman's garden will have evolved and be framed in the context of a landscape dominated by mature oak trees. Our oaks grow at different speeds, sometimes faster and sometimes slower than in their countries of origin. A traditional English oak will still take more than a hundred years to reach maturity, but some of the American oaks will be mature in less than fifty years. A few of the Mexican oaks are currently growing as fast as bamboos ? between 1 m and 2 m (3 ft 6 in to 7 ft 2 in) a year, but for how long we do not know, and it may leave them weak and unable to withstand the strong winds that seem to be becoming more frequent.

When they are young, the trees benefit from being planted relatively close together for shelter, although they need full sunlight as well. Several have had to be moved from sheltered to sunnier positions. As they grow older, some will have to be thinned out to ensure that the remainder have room to reach their full potential. So, wherever possible, we like to have several specimens, especially of rarer and more vulnerable trees.

Several decades after embarking modestly on our oak project, I feel that in some ways we are still just starting out. There is much more to do, both in looking after the oaks that we already have to give them the best chance to thrive, and in expanding the collection to the limits of what will grow here. And we have come to be grateful that we are in Devon because the combination of relatively warm winters, reasonably high rainfall, and strong, deep, loamy soil seems to suit nearly all the oaks we are trying to grow. In other words the range of oaks we are growing is unusually diverse. Climate change may well play a part in setting our parameters, although whether that means warmer weather, or merely more variable and extreme conditions, remains to be seen. Whatever happens, I hope Chevithorne's oak collection remains very much a work in progress for many years to come.