Borde Hill Gardens, and the glory of its incomparable magnolias

As the fifth generation takes over the historic Borde Hill Garden in West Sussex, Charles Quest-Ritson rejoices in the unique legacy of its astute horticulturist owners. Photographs by Clive Nichols.

There are many good reasons to visit Borde Hill at any time of the year, but the main attraction in March and April is the vast collection of magnolias in bloom. That’s when you’ll see a sky filled with hundreds of thousands of large brilliant flowers in shades of pink and white adorning the bare branches. magnolia campbellia And M. Sprengeri Trees up to 75 feet tall and over 100 years old. No less than 20 of these magnolias in Board Hill are recognized as champion trees of the British Isles, some for their height and others for their thickness. As their spectacular bloom draws to a close, the ground beneath them is covered in large petals – technically tepals – so thick and profuse you can’t help but step on them.

Magnolia campbellii, one of the magnificent champion trees on Borde Hill, planted in the 1920s. Its trunk grows straight up to 20 feet. Board Hill Gardens, West Sussex. ©Clive Nichols

The Board Hill Estate runs east-west along three gently sloping ridges, with the house at the highest point of the central ridge. Frost tends to roll into the valleys below. The soil is sandy-clay over sandstone, with pockets of sand and loam and a good accumulation of leaf mold in the forests. Colonel Stevenson Robert Clark (1862–1948) bought Board Hill in 1893. The house dates from 1598, but Clark expanded it (rather grandiosely) in the popular Jacobean style. It is surrounded by 35 acres of deer-fenced gardens, 200 acres of parkland and woodland, all on a much larger estate. The Colonel was succeeded by his son Sir Ralph Stephenson Clark (1892–1970), his grandson Robert Nunn Stephenson Clark (1925–87), a great specialist in rhododendrons, and his great-grandson Andrewjohn Stephenson Clark (b. 1955). .

In 2023, he hands over the management of Board Hill to his son Harry and daughter Jay, the fifth generation of the Stevenson Clarks, who must protect and develop this beautiful and important garden. Each generation has improved not only the collections of plants, but also the way they are displayed to visitors.

M. x soulangeana. Board Hill Gardens, West Sussex. ©Clive Nichols

After he bought Borde Hill, Colonel Clark quickly developed a passion for trees and bushes. In time he became an accomplished botanist and by the 1930s was widely regarded as the greatest horticulturalist of his day. He bought plants from nurseries in Japan, India, New Zealand, South Africa, Canada and the USA, corresponding and exchanging plants with leading British dendrologists and botanists. He supported renowned collectors Ernest “Chinese” Wilson, Reginald Farrer, George Forrest, and Frank Kingdon-Ward, and went on plant hunting expeditions himself in North America, India, and parts of Africa.

For Colonel Clark, the greatest pleasure in gardening was acquiring new plants and watching them first grow and bloom. He also wanted to share them with other garden owners. He recorded his experiences in Directory of trees and shrubs in Board Hill, Sussex in 1932 (OUP, 1935), but continued to observe the specimens in his garden, making copious notes in the margins of his own copy of the book. These observations continue to guide garden management today.

A giant specimen of M. campbellii subsp. mollicomat. Board Hill Gardens, West Sussex. ©Clive Nichols

He made sure to place the plants in places as close as possible to their natural habitat. If he grew or obtained more than one plant of the same species or variety, he would try them in different parts of his garden to increase the chance that at least one of them would flourish. Again and again, new species from all over the world bloom for the first time in Britain on Board Hill.

In the 1920s, the colonel employed about 25 gardeners. His son, Sir Ralph, registered the garden as a charitable trust in 1965, and since then several eminent botanists and horticulturalists have acted as trustees. The current longest-serving member is Jim Gardiner, Vice President of RHS, who has been a trustee for 30 years. The current young Head Gardener, known as Head of Board Hill Horticulture, Harry Baldwin, a Kew-educated taxonomist, works with three full-time and two freelance gardeners, as well as a team of about 10 volunteers.

Magnolia x soulangeana ‘Brozzonii’ planted in a ring of azaleas in 1908
ether with M. campbellii, has flowers up to 8 inches wide. They appear in mid or late spring. Board Hill Gardens, West Sussex. ©Clive Nichols

The magnolias of Board Hill are scattered over its many acres, and most of them are fragrant. Near the entrance at the east end of the garden is an area known as the Ring of Azaleas, which takes its name from the circle of Kurume azalea that surrounds it. Here is the champion magnolia campbellia, planted in the 1920s, with a thick and straight trunk that stands at least 20 feet tall and resembles a powerful oak tree in its prime. Other instances M. campbellia, its forms and hybrids thrive in the garden. Also in the Azalea Ring is a handsome man M. X Sulanzhana ‘Brozzonii’, planted in 1908 but flowers a little later. Nearby, in an area known as the Old Rhododendron Garden, huge specimens grow. M. Sprengeri was. diva And M. sargentiana was. robusta accompanied by a multi-stemmed plant M. dawsoniana which have regrown from offshoots after the original tree has fallen. They are followed in May and June by the forms M. chineseluminous white hanging flowers which smell like lemon.

Magnolia ‘Butterflies’ has deep yellow flowers with red stamens. Board Hill Gardens, West Sussex. ©Clive Nichols

The paths lead to the house where the specimen of the evergreen magnolia grandiflora “Goliath” comes almost to the roof. It was planted against the south wall because it was considered tender at the time. Standard plants of another cultivar of this North American evergreen known as “Kay Parris” are neatly placed as formal elements of an Italian garden.

Delicate, double white flowers of M. ‘Pirhouette’. Board Hill Gardens, West Sussex. ©Clive Nichols

Colonel Clark found that magnolias grow best on Bord Hill in protected areas where the soil is naturally moist and fertile. Their greatest concentration is found in the old oak forests to the north and west of the house. Giant specimens Magnolia X veitchii And M. campbellia subspecies mollikom flower early in the Western Garden.

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There is also a form of the latter known as “Board Hill” which is derived from seeds collected by George Forrest in 1924; the original tree at Board Hill, admired for its bright cyclamen-pink flowers, died in 1953, but not before the offspring were given to George Johnston at Trevithen in Cornwall.

M. x soulangeana Black Tulip is especially good in April. Board Hill Gardens, West Sussex. ©Clive Nichols

Over time, Johnston sired the Hilliers in Hampshire, from where he returned to Board Hill about 20 years ago. Gardeners have always exchanged or received new plants from other enthusiastic garden owners. In 1931, for example, the colonel acquired two M. officinalis from Leonard Messel in Nymans, West Sussex, in exchange for two M. back from Borde Hill. The exchange of plants continued even during the Second World War. In 1942, Kew sent a young plant to Colonel Clark M. Sprengeriwhich is currently the tallest in the UK, at over 75 feet.

A large-leaved M. obovata planted at Board Hill in 1936. Board Hill Gardens, West Sussex. ©Clive Nichols

Borde Hill has magnolias that bloom until June. Three champion magnolias, known as the Three Sisters, grow in North Park. Two of them were laid down in 1933 – one of magnolia officinalis from China and M. Fraserifrom the southeastern United States, whose flowers were awarded the RHS Lifetime Achievement Award in 1948. The third view is here M. backplanted in 1936. Together, these exceptional specimens make up a beautiful late-blooming group that keeps company with many modern cultivars such as the creamy green ‘Gold Star’ and the yellow-flowered ‘Lois’. Form M. X Sulanzhana called Black Tulip is especially beautiful in April.

In 2018, Jim Gardiner – former president of the International Magnolia Society – helped select and plant Gardiner Grove, a collection of 48 hybrids and forms of American spiky magnolia and Chinese M. Sprengeri on the edge of North Park. They are regularly judged for their similarities, differences and horticultural potential, but in the spring the grove will grow to become one of the garden’s most beautiful and conspicuous features.

Magnolia ‘Aurora’ has robust flowers that start blooming from an early age. It was bred by Os Blumhardt in Whangarei, New Zealand. Board Hill Gardens, West Sussex. ©Clive Nichols

It should be said that magnolias are not the only plants that Borde Hill is famous for. Robert Nunn Stephenson Clark has a huge collection of rhododendrons and azaleas. Rare trees include two mature specimens of the legendary Emmenopteris Henry, which in August is covered with huge white fragrant flowers. There are hundreds of large, long-season camellias, “Donation” and “Cheer”, both grown in Borde Hill and now grown by the millions around the world, each blooming for several months.

The garden is also known for its roses, Japanese cherries and hydrangeas – in the hollows and borders – carpets of snowdrops, daffodils and bluebells – and for its superb markings that record the names of plants that even the best gardeners know about. never heard. At any time of the year, Board Hill offers plenty to admire and wonder, but nothing beats the splendor of the magnolias in March and April.

Borde Hill, Haywards Heath, West Sussex, open until 31 October –

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