Archive for September, 2011

What have Autumnwatch been up to this week? By Katrina Podlewska, Communications Manager.

Friday, September 30th, 2011

Westonbirt is getting ready to host BBC Autumnwatch Live in October – the arboretum is buzzing with excitement and with only a week to go before the first broadcast, some of the team’s camera crew have been out and about making the most of the glorious sunshine to get footage for the shows.

In the Old Arboretum and across Silk Wood, cameraman Louis has been returning regularly to his lapsed-time camera positions to take new footage. The film gained across several weeks will be edited to show Westonbirt’s colourful progression into autumn.

Louis’ work sees him set up positions all around the arboretum, including up this very tall Scott’s pine. Our tree team are helping him each week by getting him safely to the height he needs with the MEWP – the mobile elevated work platform (or cherry picker as it’s sometimes known).

Louis reaches his camera position using the MEWP.    The full height of the tree the camera is attached to.    Raef from the tree team controls the MEWP whilst Louis fixes the camera into position.

We’ve also welcomed specialist wildlife camerman Lindsay, who has been investigating the wildlife across the arboretum with another member of our tree team. Early starts have been necessary – but I’m assured they’ve got what they were after!

Shooting across the Downs by Silk Wood.     The BBC Autumnwatch Live Land Rover.    Stunning views captured by Lindsay.

The excitement really kicks off next week when the team come on site to get ready for the first show on Friday 7th October – we’ll post more pics of the set up and behind the scenes action then.

More behind the scenes information and info on the presenters can be found at

Autumn Colour Watch: our marvellous maples by Gina Mills, Marketing Support Officer

Thursday, September 29th, 2011

Autumn is a spectacular time of year at Westonbirt. This photo-packed blog will take you through the weekly highlights of whats looking good and where. Visit the Forestry Commission website for more information about what’s happening at Westonbirt during autumn.

This week, we’re looking specifically at our maples, from the signature National Japanese Maple Collection to the more unusual varieties that you’ll find throughout our 600 acres. These trees are probably the most famous in Westonbirt’s collection during autumn, attracting hundreds of visitors and photographers to enjoy their rich and varied colours.

In Silk Wood, take a stroll up to Maple Loop and the National Japanese Maple Collection where, if you haven’t visited for a few weeks, you will really notice a difference in colour.

Many of the Japanese maples have started to turn deep reds and the colour is much more pronounced than the early signs of autumn we reported a few weeks back.


This week two of Westonbirt’s team will be travelling to collect seed from the wild in Japan. The seeds (fruit) of maple trees are known as samaras. Look closely at some of the seeds on these trees at the moment and they’ll remind you of the ‘helicopter’ sycamore seeds we all used to play with as children – they are in fact from the same family. The helicopter wings are designed to carry the seed far away from the parent trees.

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If you want to see some amazing seeds for yourself, you could head to the Old Arboretum to seek out the spectacular large moth-like seeds of the Nikko maple just off Main Drive – the leaves are not the usual palmate form you might expect, but the seeds certainly fit the winged template of other maples. By contrast the smaller, shiny red seeds of the selection of Acer palmatum trees as you head down Specimen Avenue are jewel bright. This group of three trees shows the great variety to be found in the autumn colour of our Acer palmatum trees.

Elsewhere in the Old Arboretum, what is really striking is the luminosity of the colours on show. A good starting point is Acer Glade, where bright red has now started to appear in amongst the trees that have not yet fully changed to their autumnal hues. Splashes of bright red can also be found on Holford Ride and near to Victory Glade.

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We’ll be back with another autumn colour watch blog next week. In the meantime we’d love to hear about your experiences of autumn at Westonbirt on our Facebook page, or see your images in the Gallery.

Renewing Westonbirt’s links with Japan (part 1) – the 2011 seed collecting trip, by Simon Toomer, Arboretum Director.

Monday, September 26th, 2011

This week Westonbirt Arboretum’s Director, Simon Toomer, and Superintendent, Mark Ballard, will travel to Japan for two weeks to collect seed from the wild. The trip will help to develop Westonbirt’s tree collection with more diverse species of maples and other trees from this temperate climate. The team wish to thank the private donor with a passion for plants and science who has funded this trip.

It’s the weekend before the ‘off’ and I’ve at last had some time to prepare for the trip to Japan. As well as the mundane things like washing clothes, it’s also given me a chance to swot-up on the plants on our target list. I’ve also had a few practice runs at using the camera lent to us by BBC Points West to cover aspects of the trip. Mark (Superintendent, Mark Ballard) is a bit nervous about this as he seems to think I’m going to be doing all the filming while he does the ‘acting’. He’s right!

A photo from Westonbirt's last visit to Japan in 2008.

A photo from Westonbirt's last visit to Japan in 2008.

So what’s this trip all about? Some folk suspect it’s just a ruse to escape the office for a couple of weeks and renew old friendships with the Japanese colleagues we met back in 2008 when we last visited. I won’t deny that trips like this can be a great pleasure (as well as very tiring) but there is a much more important reason for going.

New trees and shrubs are the life-blood of the arboretum and seed collected from naturally-growing trees is invaluable for collections with scientific objectives such as Westonbirt. Species vary greatly from one location and habitat to another across their natural range and only by recording details such as altitude, latitude, longitude, soil type and a wealth of other information, can we realise the full value of plants for reference and study purposes. 

Trips like these are also a valuable way to develop staff knowledge and build relationships with partners in host countries who are often willing to collect and send seed that is not available at the time of visiting. Some of the seed we collect will be going to the Millennium Seed Bank at Wakehurst Place. We are really pleased that one of their members of Staff, Theodore Chapman (known as Ted) will be joining us on this trip. As well as seed, we will be collecting and preparing plant specimens for the herbarium at Kew, thereby also contributing to that amazing scientific resource.

So why Japan? We tend to associate the country with enormous cities and industrial sprawl but look at an atlas and you’ll see that these highly populated areas are squeezed along the southern fringe of the main island, Honshu, with much of the rest of the country being mountainous and forested.

The Japanese forests are home to an amazingly rich tree and shrub flora. For example, as well as the well known Japanese maple (Acer palmatum) there are over 20 other species of maples – compare that to just one native to the British Isles!

One of these is the lime-leaved maple, Acer distylum, a plant that we no longer have in the collection and would love to bring back. And it’s not just maples we want to collect; our target list includes plants from a wide range of genera, including our five national collections.

On this trip we will be collecting from six forest areas including the slopes of Mount Fuji and some research forests in Ibaraki Prefecture to the Northeast of Tokyo. We will be accompanied and helped by staff from the University of Shizuoka and The Forestry and Forest Products Research Institute.

Timing of the trip is very important to coincide with the ripening (but before dropping) of the tree seed we want to collect. In high altitude areas the autumn tends to be more advanced than lower down and it’s always a compromise when it comes to choosing the best time to visit.

All our collecting will be covered by permits issued by the institutions in Japan. It is very important to us to abide by international conventions on plant conservation and benefit sharing. The days of indiscriminate and exploitative plant hunting are over and we have no wish to do anything that would damage the forests from which we collect.

As the trip progresses, we hope to share the highs and lows with you via regular blogs and (Mark permitting) video clips and photographs. Keep checking back here on the Westonbirt blog, and keep an eye on Westonbirt’s Facebook and Twitter to find and more and see photos as we go along.

A career in trees, by Hugh Angus, Head of Collections

Thursday, September 22nd, 2011
Hugh Angus, Head of Collections

Hugh Angus, Head of Collections

Hugh Angus leaves the Forestry Commission and Westonbirt, The National Arboretum after 24 years this September. Here, he sums up how he followed his childhood dreams and helped to shape Westonbirt into the international success it is today.

“My focus on trees started at the age of seven when I decided that I wanted to be a lumberjack after studying a book on trees. After leaving forestry college in 1977, I joined the Forestry Commission, first in Wales and then to Northumberland. I was given the Curator’s job at Westonbirt on the 24th October 1987.

Back then the Curator’s post carried the responsibility for all activities at Westonbirt, so I became a shop keeper, tree manager, café co-ordinator and many of the other various tasks that our Director does today. Visitor numbers were 160,000 per annum and we ran at a loss of £600,000 a year. We had an annual ticket scheme and 600 Friends.

A priority was to increase income and manage the trees more effectively. My line manager Rod Leslie, was of great support. I was also encouraged by the Arboretum Advisory Committee – many of whom have become good friends over the years.

During my time at Westonbirt I have worked with many different people. If Westonbirt is to be judged a success today then Peter Gregory, Tony Russell and Phil Morton have also played significant parts, as have Margaret Ruskin, Neville Hayward, Tom Maisey and Kath Beard. Today’s team continue to play their part and I am confident that Westonbirt’s future is safe in their hands.

The first things we focused on were the day to day activities and how we might reduce costs while increasing income. The visitor centre came under attention and as we had no one to maintain the exhibition area, the shop eventually expanded to fill the space. Jenny McDonald was the person that brought real professionalism to the shop in those early days.

It soon became obvious that increased visitor numbers would mean an increase in income. We moved Tony Russell’s focus to promoting Westonbirt and recruited a new Superintendent, Phil Moreton.

During this time we also added more events to the calendar. This led to the start of the concerts, Sculptree, now Treefest, and the Illuminated Trail, now the fully fledged Enchanted Christmas event.

I remember the sleepless nights leading up to the first Illuminated Trail evening, thinking about whether people would come to look at bare branches on a cold winter’s night. As it turned out they came in thousands and as they say, the rest is history. Lynn McCracken was a real catalyst in the success of these events in their early days. She joined the team from the National Trust, where she had previously spent many years running such events.

One of the great partnerships that we formed at Westonbirt in the early years was with Stan and Diane Hynes, who opened Maples restaurant in 2000.

Closely following the success of the restaurant, the Great Oak Hall was opened in 2002 and the Plant Centre in 2003. The Great Oak Hall was a collaboration between the Friends and the Forestry Commission. Within their new base, the Friends took a higher profile and numbers increased to around 3000. We dropped our season ticket membership and converted everyone to Friends. The Friends have become everything that I would have envisaged in those early days and even a bit more.

With visitor numbers up to around the 300,000 and a relatively secure income base, we began to consider what the next step for Westonbirt should be. We needed more staff if we were to achieve even greater things and this led to the amalgamation of Bedgebury Pinetum and Westonbirt and the creation of a Director’s post.

I wanted to concentrate my efforts on managing the trees and took on the Head of Collections role. I oversaw the Bedgebury and Westonbirt tree collections and helped develop their plans and policies to the national and international status they have today.

This partnership ended a few years ago allowing me to concentrate mainly on Westonbirt. I have also worked on the Forestry Commission Tree Collections nationally; analysing current plantings and looking to the future.

What of the future then, and what have I most enjoyed over the years? In a letter to the Westonbirt magazine editor in 1987, not long after my arrival, I wrote: ‘I personally feel exhilarated, excited, slightly apprehensive and honoured to name but a few.’ Westonbirt has certainly delivered all these things in varying quantities over the years.

We all know the importance of the collection and I have enjoyed nearly every minute of managing the tree collections and all that it entails. Westonbirt has also offered the opportunity to meet people who have influenced and supported me over the years. Both external people but more importantly staff and Friends. It is they who bring the tree collection to life.

Our only major catastrophy happened late one January afternoon in 1990 when we had a severe storm. 350 big trees were blown down and many smaller specimens damaged. However, this did create some wonderful planting spaces and taught us how to reduce damage of this nature in the future. We learnt that nothing can stand up to the really big gusts of wind – we had trees weighing five tons with root plates weighing ten tons blown over. It was also clear from the amount of Norway spruce that snapped, that if we wanted to plant trees for long term shelter, this was not the species to choose.

Sharing our enthusiasm for trees with visitors through education and interpretation has always been hugely important for us. This is one of the many things that allows us to say we are a world class collection. This was started in our early days by Mary Barton, replaced by Kevin Beckett and now by Ben Oliver and his team.

I am particularly proud of how professionally the collection is managed today and it is great to see us actively collecting seeds from places like Japan, Chile, USA and Turkey. I truly believe that we can say we are today managing to a world class level. That is not to say that improvements cannot be made, but that is for the next generation. Although my professional contact with Westonbirt has ended I am now considering how my retirement time will be spent here, so I am afraid you have not seen the last of me. I wish you all well for the future.”

What a week for Westonbirt! By Katrina Podlewska, Communications Manager.

Thursday, September 15th, 2011

What a great week for The National Arboretum. We have finally been able to tell everyone that we will host BBC Autumnwatch Live for the whole of October!

Michaela Strachan, Chris Packham and Martin Hughes-Games.

Autumnwatch's presenters: Michaela Strachan, Chris Packham and Martin Hughes-Games.

In previous years Autumnwatch has broadcast its BBC Two Friday evening programmes from the Natural History Unit in Bristol, but this year it has chosen two new homes – Westonbirt, The National Arboretum for October and WWT Slimbridge for November.

From Friday 7 October at 8.30pm on BBC Two, once a week for eight weeks, Autumnwatch will be tracking the very best autumn wildlife action from around the UK. For their time at Westonbirt, the team will work with the Forestry Commission staff, volunteers and the Friends of Westonbirt Arboretum charity to find great stories for viewers to follow.

This week Westonbirt hosted the Autumnwatch press photography shoot and a few media interviews. The presenters, Michaela Strachan, Chris Packham and Martin Hughes-Games posed for the press photos in Silk Wood and spoke to journalists sitting on hay bales in the Silk Wood Barn!

Michaela Strachan, Chris Packham and Martin Hughes-Games having their press photos taken.

The presenters have their press photos taken.

Michaela talks about her excitement at joining the Autumnwatch team.

Michaela talks about her excitement at joining the Autumnwatch team.

We’ve also been working with one of the cameramen in the Autumnwatch crew to find locations to set up lapsed time filming. Several locations around the arboretum will play a part in this. Positions are being chosen to chart the autumn colour chance and capture leaves falling, sunsets and sunrises. At intervals over the next few weeks a camera will film 15 minutes in each position, these different moments captured in time will then be edited together to show the autumnal changes taking place.

Finally we’ve spent time with the production crew finalising locations for the main programme and for Autumnwatch Unsprung. We are also hoping to bring in Powerline, the team who illuminate our trees for the Enchanted Christmas illuminated trail to light up the trees around the studio and outdoor broadcast locations for the evening programmes.

The excitement will continue next week, and we’ll keep you posted!

Find out more about BBC Autumnwatch Live on the website. Find out more about autumn at Westonbirt at

The winds of change, by Katrina Podlewska, Communications Manager

Tuesday, September 13th, 2011

The weather of recent days will certainly have you feeling autumnal and it seems the trees of Westonbirt Arboretum are sympathising with you. Spurred on by the long dry spring, some species are already showing the start of autumn colour. But don’t worry, many trees are still to turn and we are looking forward to a long, vibrant season of colour.

Westonbirt is currently a mix of lush summer greens and the sneaky signs of early autumn. Look one way when walking through and you’ll feel firmly in summer, but just a turn to your left or right could have you feeling the excitement that autumn brings to the arboretum.

The National Japanese Maple Collection in Silk Wood

The National Japanese Maple Collection in Silk Wood

The Persian ironwoods, famous for having several vibrant colours cover each individual leaf in autumn, are one species on their way through the seasonal change. They are not in full colour, but are beautifully showing the initial stages each leaf goes through as the months get cooler.

Persian ironwood on Holford Ride

Persian ironwood on Holford Ride

Along with some of the Japanese maples in Acer Glade, photography favourite, the Acer palmatum along Willesley Drive in Silk Wood, is also teasing visitors by starting its autumn journey. This specimen is one of Westonbirt’s most photographed maples, favoured for its dark silhouette-like bark and the angle which the sunlight shines through the canopy.

Acer palmatum on Willesley Drive

Acer palmatum on Willesley Drive

Move up to the National Japanese Maple Collection and Maple Loop in Silk Wood and similar sights can be seen. This Acer palmatum dissectum is just one specimen flashing bright red leaves amongst a green mane.

cer palmatum dissectum  within the National Japanese Maple Collection

Acer palmatum dissectum within the National Japanese Maple Collection

Whilst these examples are ‘on the turn’, there are several still to say goodbye to summer. Many trees, including the paper bark maple at Down Gate on Mitchell Drive remain green, as do the swamp cypress and deciduous larch trees that provide a tawny yellow backdrop to the blazing reds.

An autumn favourite, the hickory, is also still firmly green. This beauty will also have to wait a little longer to wow Westonbirt’s visitors with its vibrant yellow autumn colour.

Whilst those questioning when to come may want to visit now to see this spectacle of two seasons, the full force of autumn is still to arrive. The traditional autumn months will still be good for colour. That’s the beauty of Westonbirt – the trees in this collection are from all over the world, which means they change colour at different times, giving The National Arboretum its recognition as the place to see long, varied autumn colour.

A windy few days, by Sophie Nash, Project Officer

Thursday, September 8th, 2011

It seems as if the tiny glimmer of summer sun has definitely gone and been replaced with wind and rain. This coincided with our trip to Batsford Arboretum to have a look at their visitor and garden centre, which recently opened. Sadly the arboretum was shut due to the high winds which had caused damage to their trees.

Damage to the new ha-ha

Damage to the new ha-ha

Westonbirt has remained open through the windy conditions, however yesterday on my drive into work I spotted the tree team hovering around the new ha-ha. We have had a group of professional dry stone wallers in to try and finish off more of the wall which I checked on but then noticed the strained wire was not quite as tight as normal. The little shed which had been put up next to the gates had a Wizard of Oz moment; the roof blew off straight into the wire causing one of the posts to bend! Luckily we have managed to fix it easily and hopefully the majority if not all of the wall will be finished by the end of the day. However I shall be making sure the shed roof is screwed and bolted on tightly when it goes back up!

115 years of hard work, by Sally Day, Database and Records Officer

Friday, September 2nd, 2011

In August 1896 the owner of Westonbirt, George Holford, wrote to Mr Thistleton Dyer the director of Kew Gardens. “I will certainly take your advice about having a catalogue made of the trees and shrubs. In fact I have left instructions with Chapman and Rattray to begin it while I am away from England.”

Mr Chapman the head gardener in the bowler hat - Mr Mitchell to his left.

Mr Chapman in the bowler hat - Mr Mitchell to his left.

Mr Rattray the forester

Mr Rattray the forester

The final result of this was a catalogue published in 1927.

When the Forestry Commission took over in 1956 they embarked on re-cataloguing the collection. From an article in 1964: “Unfortunately, neither Jackson’s original catalogue nor Mitchell’s subsequent planting records were specific enough about the planting site for us to run down the specimen in all cases”. Also, a large number of labels had been lost, especially the lead ones which were often gnawed to illegibility by squirrels.

The present day labels give a wealth of information about the plant. They are however still enjoyed by the squirrels.

Identifiying a tree

Identifiying a tree

Eventually a printed catalogue of many pages and a set of maps provided the information about the plants in the collection. To deal with any updates new plantings or plant deaths a new list would be printed and dots drawn on the maps or rubbed out. Searching for a particular number on a map was time consuming.

The next step was to create a more modern database and a computerised map. On this in-house map we can display all the live trees but we also retain information about the location and type of a deceased specimen (great if there is an error as the tree can be brought back to life!) Now you can type in the number and the map will zoom to the correct location. This combined system is the engine behind all the work we do on the collection and our decisions about what to collect, propagate and plant in the future. Regular checks are made (much of it done by skilled volunteers) to keep the information up-to-date.

Why keep this information to ourselves?

What have we got and where is it?

These were the main questions we posed when asking a company to develop a web based interactive map for us. Since the site was launched in April it has been used by more than 2,000 different people worldwide.

So if you want to know if we have a type of plant, go to the map and follow the steps in the Quick search wizard:

– Select from a dropdown list (saves having to remember how to spell it: is it ginkgo or gingko?)
– then follow the steps to find out the location in the arboretum

Magic: the result of 115 years of hard work.