On a cold, frosty and windy Sunday in January I got up and set off early (well, early for me) for the National Botanic Garden of Wales, near Llanarthne, Carmarthenshire (https://botanicgarden.wales/). I’ve visited the gardens before, but never at this time of year, and I have to admit to wondering whether there would be enough of interest to merit braving the icy wind. Once there however, it didn’t take me long to forget my doubts.
It’s true that most of the perennial plants, as is this case in all gardens, had shrunk back into the ground, not to be seen again until the spring. And the deciduous trees and shrubs were devoid of leaves. But there’s something marvellous about seeing a garden stripped back to it’s structural elements; particularly a garden that is so extensive, varied, and beautifully laid out as this one. And despite the cold, the day was perfect; bright and sunny, with the winter light from the sun low in the sky making the water in the fountains and rills sparkle and shine. Backlit, and constantly moving in the breeze, the many species and varieties of decorative grasses that flow through the gardens were dynamic and bright.
The light picked out the beauty and structure of the bare branched trees, it highlighted contrast and definition, and yet at the same time gave the gardens an ethereal glow. At this time of year, when so many of the trees and shrubs have less mass, the landscape in which the gardens sit is more visible, and it’s a very picturesque landscape, with fields and woods, and gentle hills, on one of which stands the stone folly known as Paxton’s Tower.
There were flowers to be seen, even outside of the glasshouses. Snowdrops and early daffodils, for example, were beginning to come through. There were various varieties of Hamamelis species (Witchhazel). And an early Camellia – ‘Yuletide’, was coming into bloom.
Hamamelis x intermedia (possibly ‘Jelena’)
Camellia x vernalis ‘Yuletide’
Walking around the gardens at this time of year was not quite such an intense child-in-a-sweet-shop experience as it would be during the growing season. There were still plenty of interesting plants to look at, but it was possible to be more relaxed; to walk around without feeling the need to flit erratically from one plant to another in a frenzy of excitement (is it only me that does this?) So it was easier to walk, and with the site extending to 560 acres, there’s plenty of exercise to be had.
But if I’m giving you the impression all you can expect is a long stroll in beautiful surroundings, think again; there’s a lot to see. And there are plenty of opportunities to get out of the cold, too. I’m a little ashamed to say that in the tropical greenhouse I didn’t pay as much attention to the plants as I could have, being distracted somewhat by the fantastic butterflies that were flying free. In addition to some of the more often seen (though still exquisitely beautiful) butterflies, I saw something I’ve never seen before – a pair of Atlas moths, with a wing span of seven inches for the male, and nearer ten for the female. The male was sitting on a branch at eye level, strikingly patterned wings outstretched, the wing tips looking just like a pair of snake heads ready to strike – the perfect evolutionary camouflage to scare away predators.
The Great Glasshouse – the largest single span glasshouse in the world
Set into the hillside is the Norman Foster designed great glasshouse, with a wonderful collection of plants from across the globe, including Banksias and Kangaroo Paws (Anigozanthos species, not actual kangaroo paws – that would be cruel!) from Australia, and Proteas (including Protea cynaroides – the King Protea) from South Africa.
There’s so much more of interest – too much to mention all in one article. I had the bizarre experience of walking through a glade of young Monkey Puzzle trees (Araucaria araucana) in the Woods of the World area. There’s the Wallace Garden, named in honour of the naturalist Alfred Russel Wallace, who was working on a theory of evolution at the same time as Charles Darwin. There’s a large double walled garden, where the twin walls create a protected micro climate. There are lakes, garden sculptures, and more. Plant labelling, while not perfect, was generally very good. The garden has a strong educational and environmental focus. Oh, and the catering facilities aren’t bad either, with the main restaurant in the stable block, a cafe at the entrance to the gardens, and another in the great glasshouse. There’s a plant sales area too.
I set out for the gardens wondering if there would be enough of interest at this time of year to make the long drive worthwhile. I left, having spent most of the day there, wishing I could stay for longer. I can confirm that, even in winter, the National Botanic Garden of Wales is well worth a visit. But wait until you see it at it’s peak…
Words and pictures copyright Graham Wright 2018