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Heaven on Perth: a priceless collection of rare alpines in Scotland

I have just had an intimation of heaven on the edge of Perth in Scotland. I am not expecting a full heavenly view in the longer term, but I will settle for this preview: visit it and see why. Branklyn Garden, two acres in size, is home to thousands of the plants which, in the south, are items in my dreams.

I go to sleep in a haze of Tibetan poppies, white-flowered celmisias from the Antipodes, daphnes of the choicest kinds, blue gentians galore. They now have a Scottish setting as they are wondrously happy at Branklyn: they are only a fraction of what this garden contains.

It is open from April 1 to October 31 and is easily accessible from Perth’s railway station. Despite the clatter from a road along the River Tay, alpine plants cascade down Branklyn’s hillside against a background of rare maples, rhododendrons and a birch tree with pink bark, grown from seed found in south-west China by the great plant collector Joseph Rock. The garden goes straight into my top five in Britain.

Branklyn is celebrating two landmarks this year. One is its 100th birthday. In 1922, the site was bought by John and Dorothy Renton when it was a simple expanse of orchard. John was a land agent with a fine eye for property and Dorothy was a lady of vision, resolve and imagination. First, they built the low house that is still on the site. They then built a hard tennis court. Three years later, the tennis court was uprooted and turned into a huge rock garden, exemplifying the fashion for mountain landscapes and alpine plants that had been flourishing in Britain for a generation.

Dorothy was the practical genius. She raised seeds of plants sent by great plant collectors in Asia, especially by that Scottish pair, Ludlow and Sheriff, who were active in the 1930s on the borders of Tibet. She had a knack for finding what rare plants like, making Branklyn a place of beauty and, in her words, “a home from home for plants”.

To make their huge rock garden, the Rentons arranged transport for boulders being quarried on nearby Kinnoull Hill. They also arranged for local prisoners to be sent out on day release. Just as the Isabella Plantation in London’s Richmond Park was cleared for gardening by prisoners, so prisoners helped move the rocks for Branklyn’s garden and fixed them into place. These gardens ought to inspire us, as gardening is a way of making prison life constructive.

Gardener Jim Jermyn (left), retiring this year, with Robin Lane Fox amid Galloway Skies blue Himalayan poppies

For 40 years, until their deaths in 1966 and 1967, the Rentons made a superb, ever-evolving garden. John contributed to the design but deferred to Dorothy as the active gardener, a role in which she showed exceptional talent. The Rentons are a fascinating match for that other husband-and-wife team, Harold Nicolson, more the designer, and Vita Sackville-West, the planter and gardener at Sissinghurst Castle in Kent in the same decades. Vita, I am sure, would be the first to rank Dorothy Renton far above her. She had a way with rare plants that even Sissinghurst’s queen bee could never grow.

For the past six years Branklyn has benefited from another exceptional talent. Please look closely at this week’s picture, the one that may seem to be of me and another man of advancing years, both looking childishly happy in front of some tall blue poppies. It is far more than that. My companion is the current genius of Branklyn, who will be retiring from the main role there this year.

He is Jim Jermyn and we are rare survivors, as we are British apostles trained in Munich’s botanical garden, in my case in the mid-1960s, in Jermyn’s in the mid-1970s, when Munich’s huge alpinum, our workplace, was at its peak. We had just been swapping memories of our German mentors and recalling how we were taught to protect lovely Primula vialii with a layer of branches off a larch tree in November so that it would live from year to year.

Jermyn has had a unique formation. In his youth he worked with three geniuses of alpine gardening: Will Ingwersen at his nursery in West Sussex, Wilhelm Schacht in Munich, formerly alpine gardener to Boris, tsar of Bulgaria, and Jack Drake at Inshriach in Scotland, whose catalogue of rare primulas and so much else was my envious reading as a boy.

Drake inspired Jermyn to take over a nursery himself. For many years he ran Edrom Nurseries in Scotland, also a haven for plants from high altitudes. He eventually sold up and moved to manage Branklyn on behalf of the National Trust for Scotland.

The photo reflects his provenance. In front of us is a fabulous group of blue Himalayan poppies, seedlings from Jack Drake’s famous selection called Galloway Skies. Galloway Skies is just one of the hundreds of rare and heavenly alpines that Jermyn brought with him from Edrom when he took on the garden. How delighted Dorothy Renton would be that her plantings have been afforced by the heir to such skill. They include wonders that are otherwise lost to cultivation.

Flame-scarlet embothriums
Flame-scarlet embothriums

On arrival at Branklyn, I admired some fine blue corydalis, unprepared for what would follow. I climbed the steps to a viewing point and was swept away by a mixture of Scotland and Munich at their best. The colours of the flowers have been sensitively blended. There are next to no weeds and the surfacing of grit is carefully chosen.

I will give you a taster by the terrace, where Jermyn’s wife Alison runs an excellent café. I marvelled at a big potted blue paraquilegia, a Himalayan legend, and at a mature specimen of ice-blue Pulsatilla Budapest, a Drake discovery so lovely that it was stolen at an RHS show after winning the highest award. Fine-leaved Adonis vernalis was beside it, a glory of Munich in the 1960s and vilely difficult to raise from seed.

Beyond were yellow and purple-hooded flowers of special Roscoeas, including rare Roscoea wardii, found in the wild by legendary botanist Frank Kingdon-Ward. The blue meconopsis poppies are lovely, as is Primula prolifera, which proliferates among some of them. Other meconopsis are yellow or red in flower.

The canopy is excellent, from flame-scarlet embothriums to white-flowered hoherias and eucryphias in late summer. I have hardly started, let alone on the daphnes, saxifrages, ice-blue ramondas and all the lilies, seed-raised Lilium mackliniae to the fore.

Go late in May next year, a peak, or wait until September and enjoy autumn gentians and autumn colour. I pray that the National Trust for Scotland realises what a priceless collection of plants the Jermyn-afforced Branklyn now contains. The succession to him is a major responsibility, for which expert alpine selectors must be heeded. National Trust gardens tend to homogeneity, but there is nothing alive now to compare with Branklyn. It is a haven for plants raised in Scotland and first collected in the Himalayas and beyond, often by Scottish collectors. Rationalised dilution would be an irreparable eco-tragedy.

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