Lord Cavendish Speaks About the National Collection - Holker Hall

Lord Cavendish Speaks About the National Collection

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The collection I inherited some 30 years ago had only a modest representation of the Styracaceae family. There was and remains a splendid specimen of Styrax japonicus; there were one or two Halesias and a very fine Styrax obassia, subsequently lost in a storm.

We were fortunate to be given the Kew form of Styrax japonicus in the mid 90s. Since then, to the collection has been added:

Still conspicuously missing from the collection is:

I believe our acquisition of Pterostyrax corymbosa and P. hispida complete that section of the family, as do Sinojackia rehderiana and Sinojackia xylocarpa complete theirs. As far as I know, all the Halesias are represented.

Of course there are numerous members of the Styracaceae family known to botany, but which are not capable of being grown in the British Isles.

2004 saw two very exciting additions to the collection. The first, a generous gift from Michael Lear of the National Arboretum of Ireland, of Melliodendron xylocarpum which is coming through its second winter and originates in the forest ravines of China. It promises to be a stunning plant.

The second addition of last year which we owe to the generosity of Nick Macer of Pan Global Plants is Huodendron tibeticum.

With the passing years I have come to understand that ownership of a big garden with a historic collection does carry responsibilities. Many of our plants are large and only a limited number of gardens can play host to them. All botanical gardens, public parks or gardens such as ours open to the public need therefore to share the task of conserving the stock of unusual trees and shrubs.

I can find no explanation for the fact that many lovely and interesting plants have come so close to extinction. The obvious reason that such plants are difficult to propagate is not really born out by the facts. There does appear to be historical evidence throughout Europe that plants simply go out of fashion.

Another threat, it seems to me, is the lack of encouragement that is on offer to the specialist collector. Since the great British Horticultural Events are no longer a natural destination for the small cash-strapped plant specialist, where can they go, and where can their plants be seen and understood? Perhaps the biggest worry is outside our control and relates to the enormous economic pressure falling on some of the developing countries where many of the world’s best plants originate. Anecdote suggests that in such places, there is habitat destruction on an appalling scale.

The NCCPG scheme is therefore a lifeline for huge areas of plant life. It is possible to imagine that the importance of plants will increase in medicinal terms if, as looks to be the case, antibiotics have only a limited road to run. This is not to suggest that there is going to be a sudden shift to alternative medicine, but it appears to be increasingly recognised that a hugely valuable reservoir of untapped knowledge remains locked away in the complex systems of our planet’s plant life.

The importance of the NCCPG cannot be overstated; but what direction should it take? In my view the way forward is to manage the National Collections as in the past with a very light touch. I remember being mildly rebuked for not planting all the Styracaceae plants in one area to ease the task of students trying to identify them. On reflection, it was understood I hope that such an approach would be wrong visually and horticulturally.

These are beautiful plants of infinite variety. They have subtle scents, some are memorable for their habit in all seasons. Some of them are elegant in the way they carry their fruit. Most of them have been valued by simple people in the distant lands where they evolved. All of them have a story. They deserve better than to stand in line to be inspected by students!

The risk of we, as collection holders neglecting our unofficial responsibilities is real. However the solution is not to make the terms of collection holding more burdensome but to spread the risk. I am alarmed to find that we are the sole holders of a Styracaceae collection; notwithstanding the fact that some prestige, not to say exclusivity attaches to the honour of holding a National collection, it is, I believe simply too risky. I would welcome there being three or four people sharing the task.

A serious purpose achieved with the minimum of formality keeps us, it seems to me from behaving like the inhabitants of Midsomer. Our way is by magnitudes better than theirs; long may it continue.

It is no exaggeration to say we feel honoured to have been entrusted with this lovely family of plants; they give us endless pleasure. I sign off on a note of relief mingled with caution. I delayed starting this piece as we were experiencing the worst storm in living memory. In the Holker gardens some thirty trees and shrubs have been lost; none of the Styracaceae were among the casualties; will they escape next time?