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Kent Alpine Gardener's Diary

This entry: 03 April 2014 by Tim Ingram

Sylvan delights - The Blean

Sylvan delights - The Blean

Visit any Alpine Show and a good proportion of the plants on display will not be alpines - instead they will be woodland plants, in a sense honorary alpines that you meet walking through the woodlands on the way to the mountains. Many of these are are marvellous garden plants, generally easier to please than most true alpines themselves, and they share with the latter small size, intricate detail and an individual beauty. In both nature and garden though they form more complete communities and provide some of the loveliest of all  times in the gardening year right through from late winter to early summer when the tree canopy leafs out, light levels decline and most understorey plants cease flowering and often retire underground.

Ecologically plant communities become relatively stable, heading towards climax-type vegetation based on climate, place, species diversity and many other factors. In the UK where our flora is relatively impoverished and few if any regions of true undisturbed wilderness remain, woodlands have more subtle attractions than the drama of China and Japan, N. America and even much of continental Europe, home to so many really choice woodlanders grown in our gardens. Leaf through 'Perennials - Volume 1' by Roger Phillips and Martyn Rix and a whole panoply of early flowering plants meet the eye; hellebores to epimediums, cardamines to violas, geraniums, tiarellas and polygonatums, as just a few! Almost all of these can make superb plants in the garden and are real features in our garden too: often their greatest appeal is the way they combine and intermix as different species self-sow and develop. I would like to look at this in a future entry but for now will turn in a different way, to an example of woodland near to us in Kent where less is more.

All that's Past

Very old are the woods;

  And the buds that break

Out of the briar's boughs,

  When March winds wake,

So old with their beauty are -

 Oh, no man knows

    Through what wild centuries

Roves back the rose. 

(Walter de la Mare)


The Blean in Kent to the north and west of Canterbury is one of the largest areas of ancient woodland in Britain, covering over 11 square miles. Unlike Walter de la Mare's poem, however, it has a long recorded history and has been managed in different ways for well over a thousand years. Wood has been used simply for fuel, for charcoal for forges, tanbark for leather making and coppice for hop poles. Much of the woods grow on heavy acid clay of little agricultural value. London clay contains brown nodules of copperas (iron pyrites) which is washed out at the coast and was collected and weathered to provide green ferrous sulphite crystals. These were used as a mordant to bind vegeatable dyes to fabric and also combined with gallic acid (from oak galls) to give intense black ink. Gunpowder, famously produced where we live at Faversham, was made by mixing sulphur with potassium nitrate and charcoal. All of these things have influenced the way The Blean has developed and have resulted in a wonderful diversity of interest and continuing management to maintain the richness of plant and animal life. Many different people contribute to this, sometimes and inevitably in conflicting ways, and come together under the umbrella of The Blean Initiative and The Blean Heritage and Community Group. Much of my description comes from this fine guide to The Blean which is aimed at informing people of its history and guiding them as to its future. Local people like ourselves benefit immensely, and the following describes a walk through the woods this spring as the wood anemone, A. nemorosa, carpets the floor in extraordinary profusion.

This walk used to begin along a narrow fairly unfrequented track away from the main forestry roads, but times change and this is now being cleared and opened up. Managing a woodland like this has some resemblance to an established garden, where after 20 or 30 years old trees and shrubs might be cut down and cleared and new plantings developed. Coppice is generally cut on this sort of timescale, traditionally in compartments or cants, in rotation, and the resulting higher light levels than in established woodland encourage flowers like the anemone, bluebells and birds and butterflies such as the Nightingale and Heath Fritillary.

Pollarded trees tended to mark ownership boundaries across the woods, and half-pollards markers of the compartments or cants. This tree, which is so distinct just before entering the area full of woodland anemone, must be a reminder of these earlier practices.

From here the woodland becomes an almost complete carpet of Anemone nemorosa growing with bluebells and brambles. Old pollarded trees like the one below now grow slowly and are widely spaced, and probably also on poorer soil than elsewhere, and as a result the anemone is amazingly rich. Younger pollards show the typical proliferation of basal shoots and are a good indication of how one might go about developing a woodland garden.

This small part of our garden includes a cobnut, crab-apples, magnolia, Azara microphylla and the shrubs Corylopsis and Hamamellis, to provide the same sort of feel for a wide variety of plants.

The anemone is an indicator of ancient and long managed woodland because it rarely reproduces from seed and spreads largely and slowly by vegetative means. One estimate of the relative proportion of sexual to vegetative reproduction puts this at 4.4%. This is perhaps quite a surprise but other plants such as the snowdrop often behave similarly, and the result is very little apparent variation. In the case of the anemone the rhizomes are long lived and increase from seed only slowly maintains a level of genetic diversity in the population. The seed of anemones, like many woodland species, resents drying out and needs moisture in the soil after it is shed to allow the undeveloped embryo to complete its development, followed by cooler conditions, before germination can occur. In such a situation relatively few seeds will actually germinate and establish, and spread to new areas by seed is limited. Almost all of the anemones are white, often flushing soft purple-pink as they age, and only very rarely more strongly coloured. The example below is the strongest coloured plant we found right next to the path.

Many years ago we were given a good example of a strong purple-pink plant which was found in Westwell Woods near to Ashford, and this we have distributed as 'Westwell Pink'. Even so the flowers do vary markedly in size and form, some narrower petalled, some broader, showing that variation does occur steadily from seed.

In other woodlands more variation may be found occasionally and gardeners have capitalised on this to give the much greater range of woodland anemones found in cultivation.

The above area is very rich in the anemone with a lighter population of bluebells; in another part of the woods, probably much drier in summer, bluebells virtually completely exclude any anemones.

And in yet another, where it is warmer and more sunny, there is a more even balance between the two with the bluebells flowering simultaneously with the anemone.

These subtle and not so subtle differences as you walk through the wood are fascinating and in a few places give wonderful mixes of plants including celandine and other species. Woodland like this is rare and extraordinarily beautiful, and where history and management in the past has been the result of small scale enterprise and exploitation, it now results from the mixed ownership by the Forestry Commission, the Kent Wildlife Trust and RSPB, as well as private individuals. The woods are also being extended with the planting of a new 'Victory Wood' by The Woodland Trust, near to Dargate.

A garden may seem very different and ephemeral compared to 'natural' vegetation like this, but visit Beth Chatto's woodland planting in Essex or Knightshayes Court in Devon and you can see how gardens draw on these natural communities, even though tremendously more species-rich, and merge into them. A sense of the natural vegetation around us and the way it can direct our gardening, is at once obvious and yet also profound, and has an important influence on the ways a garden might develop. 

(Woodland flora in the Northern Caucasus)

Readers with an interest in natural woodland flora like that at Blean may be interested in details of woodlands in the N. Caucasus posted by Dimitri Zubov on the SRGC Forum:-

Here a much wider variety of plants are found but showing areas of similar dominance by just a few species. The pictures posted include some beautiful images taken by the Russian botanist Olga Bondareva.

(Readers will have noticed that for 'pollards' above read 'coppice'! Only trees cut well above ground level are pollards. Old boundaries that were often cut or laid in earlier times, especially along woodland tracks, often show regrowth originating from this earlier treatment. Nowadays forestry practices are less craftsmanlike, and yet it is these older styles of management that have resulted in The Blean that we see today. Roger Deakin in his book 'Wildwood' has much to say on the cratfsmanship of country people and on the social divisions between landowners and local communities which permeates the history of these places).

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