Highclere’s “American Garden”

Biking up the hill of the main drive to the Castle at the end of a morning circuit of the park with the dogs, I am always glad finally to see the banks of dark green rhododendrons. With more energy than I possess at this point, the dogs run off towards them and disappear into the tangle. They are quite deaf to my calls as I carry on through the black gates and then turn back to pedal through the longer grass towards “Jackdaws Castle”.

This is a classical, pillared Temple built about 1743 on raised ground to the east of the Castle. The mass of rhododendrons screening it, also shelter a collection of azaleas. In fact this whole green lawn was once full of herbaceous beds filled with plants brought back from travels abroad.

What is really remarkable about this profusion of acid soil loving rhododendrons and azaleas is that Highclere Castle sits on a chalk escarpment which therefore really only encourages lime loving shrubs and trees. They were first planted by the 2nd Earl of Carnarvon (1772 -1833), an enthusiastic horticulturist who was ably aided by his younger brother William Herbert, a botanist. In order to grow these plants, Lord Carnarvon arranged to have huge pits dug out in this area of the park. Then cartloads of humus rich acidic soil were collected from down by a lake in the north part of the Park to backfill what must have been an area of about one or two acres in order to provide a suitable environment.

The 2 nd  Earl of Carnarvon also collected seeds, notably from America, and raised the plants here in his nurseries with Mr. Carton his gardener, with further help from an eminent botanist J.R. Gowan Esq.

The gardens gradually became noted for the many fine achievements of these gentlemen and the new hybrids they raised. To quote a Gardening Magazine from the time: “the most striking crosses have been effected between “R. arboreum and the hardy species ….which are really splendid”. In 1831, he raised about 1,800 seedlings by crossing the flowers of R. ponticum and R.maximum which he gave to many friends as well as desiring that they might be distributed among the wider community of nurserymen. Various notable azalea successes were also achieved in particular, a cross of Azalea calendulacea and Azalea nudiflora var. rubescens. As a result of all these efforts, this part of the Castle garden became much admired in Victorian times and was known as the American Garden.

During the two world wars, most of the gardens were grassed over but some of the azalea beds remained, although increasingly overgrown. In November 2015 I decided to spend a few hours each weekend armed with a fork and long shears pulling out brambles to see what lay underneath. All the dogs happily snuffled around digging as well, if for a different purpose. Sometimes it seemed overwhelming, sometimes really satisfying and I have continued this year, now aided by two of our gardeners. We have progressed as far as digging out the bramble roots. The help from the gardeners’ has hugely aided this project and at long last we have real progress!

What a joy it is now is to be able to see again the shape of these aged Azaleas, to think when they were planted and I fuss around them, looking for other old beds full of the right soil which you can sometimes see as indentation in the grass. Perhaps we can clear the grass and augment the collection. I have much reading to do but will enjoy researching and absorbing the letters and notes.

I hope they will be a mass of colour for our May week celebrating literary heroes and gardens which would also be an excellent time to begin to identify them. I leave you with the thought that If any of you have an Azalea Altaclarense, (Highclere in Latin), then you have a little bit of Highclere!

Comments
61 Responses to “Highclere’s “American Garden””
  1. Georgia Mcgarraugh says:

    Beautiful plants! What a treasure to look at! Thank you for sharing!

  2. Margaret says:

    Your blog is fascinating and I love your beautiful pictures! (I loved visiting two years ago the most!!!!)
    I have a question — are jewels connected with Highclere? I don’t remember reading about gems.
    Curious in Dallas, Texas

    • Lady Carnarvon says:

      Almina, the 5th Countess had some beautiful jewellery..that was always easiest to sell to keep going and pay for something!

  3. Jeana Hayes-Carrier says:

    After visiting this past December, and walking these lovely grounds, this information is even more exciting.
    On this snowy, December day in Massachusetts, I’m now dreaming of gardening.
    Jeana

    • Lady Carnarvon says:

      The azaleas with Bella are slightly anticipating their season in May but they do make me smile ..

  4. Natalie Graham says:

    I’m right in the middle of Azalea country here in Charleston, SC! They are amazingly beautiful when in full, rich bloom in the spring. There are, of course, Azalea Park’s all around the area, including one up in Summerville, SC that has banks and banks of gorgeous shrubs that put on a glorious show. It’s so fun to read about your own ‘Azalea Park’! And so nice to see that the hard work you are putting in is going to allow those ancient bushes to show off to full effect again! I’d be right there with you clearing out the overgrowth if it was possible. I love all things gardening.

    Cheers from Azalea Central over here in the States! 🙂

  5. Anita Sisson says:

    Not far from my home in Atlanta, Georgia, there is a splendid garden called “Gibbs Garden.” https://www.gibbsgardens.com/
    In just a few weeks, there will be over 20 Million Daffodils blooming. Next time you make it back to the states, you must plan a visit to Gibbs Gardens. Jim Gibbs traveled for 15 years covering the nation and the world viewing gardens of every style and decided that he wanted to design and build a world class garden. He spent six years looking for a suitable site with a strong source of water and beautiful mature trees covering a rolling topography. It was truly “a dream come true” when he found the most beautiful site in the nation to construct the garden. The property is 292 acres and the house and gardens include 220 acres, making it one of the nation’s largest residential estate gardens.

  6. Jennifer Schiller says:

    Dear Lady Carnarvon:

    Beautiful post! Thank you so much for taking the time to show us this splendid aspect of Highclere. It makes me even more eager for spring here in the cold Colorado Rocky Mountains.

    Cheers,
    Jennifer Schiller

    • Dear Lady Carnarvon,

      Thank you for the lovely respite of reading your blogs! I, too, live in the cold (but sunny) Colorado Rockies, and miss azaleas. Just a note on world affairs, I run the Moondance International Film Festival in Boulder, Colorado, now in its 18th season, and have wanted to make a difference, as you, too, do so well, and in some small way help the immigrants & refugees who are currently banned from entering the US, & to encourage others to make similar efforts:

      The 2017 Moondance International Film Festival is now offering free competition submissions for filmmakers, writers & music composers from Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria and Yemen, the seven countries whose immigrant and refugee artists and others have been illegally banned from entering the United States.

      http://www.moondancefilmfestival.com

  7. Jean says:

    I love rhododendrons and azaelas. They grow profusely in our area of NY of which we have lakes all around and much acid soil. I am so glad you are resurrecting these beauties in your landscape. The visitors will be astounded. We have a Lilac festival here each year whereby visitors come from all over the world. Flowers, like music, are a univesl language. The more you share of Highclere the more connected I feel and the smaller the pond between us. So much fun romping and gardening with the dogs. We had a St. Bernard once who liked to pick tomatoes off the vine and a St. Bernard/German Shepherd who loved to lay in the flower beds – all 140 lbs. of him.

    • Lady Carnarvon says:

      Thank you – and Bella in the top photo is very partial to strawberry pots, peaches and pears , she potters off and nicks anything within reach!!!

  8. Mayvis Schwab says:

    Thank you for this post and taking the time to share life at Highclere. I appreciate it very much.

  9. Doreen Mc Kenna says:

    Gardens are always such an uplifting thing. The enrich their environment with colours and texture. Nice to the fruits of your labor. Thank for the pictures.

  10. Catherine Splane says:

    Dear Lady Carnarvon: Thank you for the wonderful description and history of the gardens, park, landscaping, and temple on Highclere’s grounds. Seeds from America, how awesome. Your prose is so readable, so clear, just wonderful. More on this would be very nice. But, I must say that the most delightful and heartwarming words are about YOUR BELOVED DOGS. I remember my own with humor, amazement, and utter delight at their actions. Constant entertainment. Thank you again for your beautiful descriptions of activities at Highclere. More in future?

  11. Barb Voigt says:

    Reading your story tires me out and energizes me at the same time. I attended the Garden Party on September 10th but the rain precluded spending much time walking the grounds. I’d love to fly over the pond this spring to see the garden. My friend from England flies back to Alton in February for a short visit but I won’t be able to join her this time. The highlight of the Garden Party was meeting you and the Earl. You are both special.

  12. David says:

    Spring has come a bit early here in Florida. Our azaleas are almost in full bloom (our bushes are only 70 plus years old). We do have wild rhododendroms growing on a property in the Great Smokey Mountains. They should be in full bloom by June. Thank you for the beautiful pictures. Hoping to see many more over the next few months.

  13. Paula says:

    Thank you for sharing your life and the beautiful gardens around Highclere…our next trip to England must include a stop-over.

  14. Peggy Helbling says:

    Dear Lady Carnarvon,
    We live in Windermere, Florida, a few miles from Disneyworld. We’ve already had warm weather and our Azaleas are blooming, heavily. Then we will have a few days of cold weather and process slows down. Followed by February’s “in like a Lion and out like a Lamb” and we will see mini-burst of color throughout Spring.
    I really enjoy your blog. I hope it brings you as much joy in writing it and keep up all interested in Highclere Castle.

    • Lady Carnarvon says:

      I do enjoy writing them and I also really appreciate your and “fellow repliers” comments, thank you

  15. Amanda says:

    Beautiful colors! You have lovely gardens there – and the weather looks nice too! I’d love to see more posts on your horses and dogs in the future as well! Such a beautiful place you live in! Thank you for sharing all the wonderful history and photos of the castle.

  16. Carol Powell says:

    I have one regret about my day at Highclere last August…that I didn’t get over to that area of the grounds. I was near Jackdaws Castle and was about to walk there next, but then realized that it was almost time for the Afternoon Tea for which I had tickets. And I didn’t make it there again before my friend and I left the castle. I used to admire those colorful bushes when I saw them in the distance on Downton Abbey; now hearing that the area is called the American Gardens make me even sadder that I missed it. Well, I’ll just have to come to England and Highclere again as soon as circumstances permit, and this time the American Gardens will be the first place I go!

    • Lady Carnarvon says:

      May is the best time to see them and that is why I am holding a week of Castle and Garden tours then – whilst I try to highlight other themes (ie Capability Brown or this year Jane Austen) it is a great time to organise garden tours. The thing there are fair distances to walk and I pick and choose where to go! My bike is very useful as it is a bit quicker.

  17. frank corso says:

    What a delightful blog!
    Thank Your Ladyship for posting!

  18. Alison says:

    Your post transported me to a time when dressing a house with flowers required growing your own, not calling the local flower shop, a time when enjoying the best fruits, required employing the best gardener. Such a fun post!

  19. Stephanie Lish says:

    While I can fully appreciate the determination of a well-traveled gardener who has been captured by the beauty of azalea and rhododendron, still I am so fascinated by the bold approach employed to amend the soil of such a large area. Wondering if and how frequently more humus had been added or if the original application still renders the soil sufficiently acidic?

    Two years ago we (living on Long Island, New York), cut back a beautiful salmon-colored 50 year old azalea that had begun to wane. It seems to have been rejuvenated by this seemingly drastic action. I’ll be excited to see how your project fares!

  20. Carol Sawyer says:

    Houston has been dubbed an “Azalea City!”
    Please come for the Azalea Trail
    March11-13
    Glorious time here!
    And! Happens to fall during the HOUSTON Livestock Show and Rodeo–
    Your horse awaits you, Lady Carnarvon!!
    Carol & Tom

    • Lady Carnarvon says:

      I know – and my husband wants to come too! I would like to bring our son. as well.. more planning

  21. Kris Mitchell says:

    Absolutely beautiful! Enjoyed your gardens last July when I brought my mom to see the castle. Just gorgeous! Wish I could have been there longer!

  22. Mary says:

    Lady Carnarvon, did someone else in the family raise holly cultivars? I am finding a series of Ilex x altaclarensis at this one website in particular. I was actually looking for the azaleas when I found these.

    http://davesgarden.com/guides/pf/b/Aquifoliaceae/Ilex/x%20altaclarensis/cultivar/0/

    Interesting, I thought!

    Happy gardening!
    Mary

  23. Barbara Warren says:

    So enjoyed hearing more about the garden aspect of Highclere. Good luck with all you endeavors, gardening and otherwise!

    • Lady Carnarvon says:

      Thank you – I just forget everything when I am trying to get that stubborn tangle of bramble out!

  24. Catherine Splane says:

    Why do we never see your 7th dog? There is a 7th dog as I thought you had mentioned? Please correct me if necessary.

    • Lady Carnarvon says:

      I do have 7 !! Bella is in the top photo -she is just the most special person – but the spaniels are so quick off the mark that one often has slipped off.. they do tend to have their own agendas and quietly slip off if I have stopped to talk to someone.

  25. Lori says:

    Like always I enjoy all of your blogs.Although I don’t live in or around Highclere.I enjoy reading your blogs about the castle. Maybe someday I will be able to come visit Highclere castle. Please don’t give up on your blog writing, as I really do enjoy reading them.

  26. Jane Hrabak says:

    Lady Carnarvon,
    I always love seeing and reading about the newest activities of your magnificent four legged friends. They look so happy and I’m sure running along with you as you ride brings them great joy. My Father always had both black and golden labs when I was growing up. My memories of hunting with my Dad will last forever. But I digress- I must take my hat off to you in your green thumb. It’s one thing to ‘begin’ the huge undertaking of such an enormous ‘garden’ , but to have it in such well kept condition after so many years only means to me that you take great pride in what you have- and hold it most dear.
    It’s so nice that you share not only your home but the whole estate with the public who are curious and come from a distance, often, to see both.
    My husband and I will be in Ireland in the Fall, our first trip across, and we are Very excited. I wish we could make a side trip, but we’ll be with a ‘tour’, so maybe another time.
    Thank you again for continuing to share so much beauty with us. – Jane H.

  27. Lady Carnarvon says:

    Just with any garden – you just have to start. Every so often the garden becomes exhausting as it is a lot to juggle but I do think exercise helps my head and creates a feeling that something is possible.

  28. Melissa Scarbrough says:

    Dearest Fiona,

    How wonderful it was to be welcomed so warmly to Highclere Castle on December 11, 2016 for the Sing For Peace event to benefit the Syrian refugees. I’m finally back home in the states after spending a wonderful Christmas in Norway and New Years in France. We toured Versailles on New Year’s Eve, but nothing we saw compared to the beauty of Highclere Castle and the surrounding countryside.

    To meet yourself, Lord Carnarvon, and the 103rd Archbishop was indeed a great honor. How I enjoyed our time together, and the time I spent wandering the grounds, and touring the Castle. it was such an education to me, and has expanded my horizons and interest so much so that I am now a hopeless Anglophile. I meant to ask you when we were talking about how you manage to keep the grounds so green in the middle of December? I couldn’t tell if you had overseeded, or had a type of grass that I am unfamiliar with.

    Being from Warren County Tennessee, our grand county has long been known as the cradle of the plant kingdom. There are a greater variety of plants growing in their natural state here in Warren County than in all of America or Europe. Our county is part of the 9300 square miles that make up the Highland Rim of the Cumberland Plateau, which joins The Great Smoky Mountains, the oldest mountains in the world. Warren County’s nursery and floriculture business is naturally the largest in the state, and runs deep through my own family tree. Several American Presidents have come to our county to personally select everything from Tulip Poplars to be planted at FDR’s Hyde Park Estate, to a pair of Hollies planted at The White House by President Jimmy Carter. I hope to be able to present some specimens you may desire to Highclere Castle, in honor of your continued philanthropic endeavors, and your love of horticulture.

    I am in close contact with Patsy, and our friends in Nashville are very excited about the possibility of you visiting here again. I had a great conversation today with our local PBS events coordinator, and we are busy otherwise planning an exciting, and hopefully pleasurable, time here for you here in September.

    Thank you again Fiona. Our visit to Highclere Castle enriched our lives exponentially

    Joyful!
    Melissa

  29. Stella says:

    Thank you for posting another interesting subject and beautiful photos. I am another person who can hardly sit for spring. I love flowers, birds, and beautiful gardens.

  30. Stella says:

    Can you explain the meaning of Jackdaws?

    • Lady Carnarvon says:

      The Temple known as Jackdaws was built in 1743 by my husband’s direct ancestor (Robert Herbert). Behind it, leading east, old maps show an avenue of trees called Jackdaws. Perhaps there there were quite a few jackdaws around there … it might have started as a nickname! I am not really sure. At one point there was a roof on the folly but now it is just a rather lovely pillared folly. xx

    • Stella says:

      Thanks for your reply. It is a beautiful spot and so old. I bet you like walking with your dogs over to jackdaws temple to enjoy the scenery.

  31. Anita Conrad says:

    You truly embody. the spirit of Highclere in Alminia. Your Grace and willingness to share and continue to embellish the castle and grounds for generations to come is appreciated. Thank you for your endeavors and congratulations on your many accomplishments.My children and I first became fans through King Tut, then discovering the castle. A match made in mummys and Englishmen’ s adventures. Thank you for continuing your work.
    Highest personal regards, Anita B. Conrad, Georgia, USA

  32. Ann C. Flood says:

    Dear Lady Carnarvon,

    I am enchanted by your beautiful flowers. Your gardens must be at heir peak in May. I visited Highclere in July and the grounds were gorgeous. To see the flowers at their best must be a treat beyond compare. When I saw your lovely photos I had to pass along my compliments. Happy Spring to you and everyone at Highclere Castle!!

  33. Mary Ann Herron says:

    I just love this story! I love gardening and would love to be able to go on an azalea hunt with such a history behind them. The colors must be so gorgeous over the hillsides – so satisfying to do and see come alive. Someday if I ever get to visit, I will be running to Highclere! Thank you for these stories and sharing your wonderful home.

  34. David Charles DuBois says:

    Thank You once again for sharing!

  35. Toni Thomas says:

    Springtime at Highclere must be such a magical time. A garden bursting with buds ready to bloom and share the glory of the colors inside. I look forward to our trip to Highclere in June and hope to see you as well Lady Carnarvon.

    • Lady Carnarvon says:

      We have not yet issued any open days in June on our web site – we will try to do so in February.

  36. louise theroux says:

    thank you for this dream , i`m going to London in july this year ,so my dream is to visit in person the highclere castle

  37. Lady Carnarvon says:

    I hope i will be here when you come!

  38. Carrie Engler says:

    You really must plan a visit to Leu Gardens in Winter Park, Florida (minutes from downtown Orlando) as they have a marvelous garden to stroll. It includes a great variety of Azalea which generally are in full bloom during February and depending on our winter (ha!) sometimes into March. My Mother is a Certified Master Gardener and spends more time in her garden than anywhere! It would be a pleasure to give you a tour of the grounds at Leu Gardens. My Mother-In-Law often visits from London and it is always on her “places to see” list. I believe you’d really enjoy your visit. The Winter Park area itself is bursting with Azalea. There is even a tiny spot which is lakeside called Kraft Azalea Gardens. It’s more of a secret garden but in bloom….wow!

    We are hopeful that your considered dates of late June will go forward this year as we are over visiting family and I would love to tour the grounds and walk the American Garden. Sadly, we miss your July summer dates as we depart on the 8th.

    Your blog really brings Highclere to life! Thank you for taking us on a tour through your eyes and sharing your family home. Such history and beauty!

  39. Holly Oates says:

    I was watching Jeopardy here in USA and your family was the answer to the Final Jeopardy question. So proud to have known the answer myself. The jist of the question was which 20th Century British royalty said to Mr. Carter “Can you see it?” Or something close to that — I do t remember the exact quote. I’ve enjoyed your blog — I’ve learned a lot about your family’s history and life across the pond. Enjoy your weekend! God bless!

  40. Leslie Richman says:

    What a wonderful process you’ve undertaken with the azaleas! I had no idea that such a familiar flower to me in North Louisiana in the United States was also a key player at Highclere Castle. So lovely! We look forward to the azaleas coming in Springtime every year.

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