In any woodland or garden spring is the time of re-birth. As most conifers do not have a fixed growing season, in the right conditions they will continue to grow throughout the winter months. They do speed up, however, in the spring. This is the time to see the delicate flush of new growth. This soft delicate foliage can often cover a tree in a coat of lime green, providing a vivid contrast with the hard green of the older growth. A perfect place to observe this is amongst the dwarf and slow growing conifers. Here you can see the entire tree in miniature and experience the changes ‘up close and personal’.
Another feature of spring is the appearance of the male and female strobili (‘flowers’, but not strictly so!). These are the reproductive part of the conifer. The male organs are similar to catkins and produce large volumes of pollen. Shedding this can be quite spectacular, with smoke-like clouds of pollen rising from the trees to be carried away on the wind. Have you ever wondered where all that dust came from after you have just washed your car? Next time have a look at what is growing around you! At Bedgebury the evidence can often be found on your clothing as you brush against a tree or as a yellow ‘scum’ in puddles and around the edges of the lakes.
Often overlooked are the female ‘flowers’. Many are small but quite beautiful to look at. The best examples are to be found on the deciduous Larches, generally before they flush and produce their new leaves. The European and American Larch (Larix decidua & Larix laricina) have exquisite pink/red flowers clustered along the shoots whilst the ‘flowers’ of Japanese Larch (Larix kaempferi) are lime green to yellow. Many of the spruces also produce spectacular ‘flowers’. Also popular with visitors are the upright forms on the many Firs. These vary in colour from green, red and blue and shades in between. The colours remain as they mature, providing a spectacular show in late summer.
Don’t forget to watch out for the spectacular Rhododendrons which reach their peak at this time of the year. In addition, the many flowering shrubs and deciduous trees can also provide pleasant surprises. Wilson’s Magnolia (Magnolia wilsonii), with its delicate white petals and deep red-centred flowers, and the green tulip flowers of the Tulip Tree (Liriodendron tulipifera) are not to be missed.
Flora and Fauna
Spring induces a state of high activity amongst the animal life of Bedgebury. Foxes and Badgers can be seen regularly, but only if you are up late or very early. Early butterflies, such as the yellow/green Brimstone (Gonepteryx rhamni), dance along the avenues and edges of the Pinetum. The wood ants (Formica rufa) erupt like beads of molasses from last year’s nests, catching the heat of the early spring sun and starting their frantic and tireless search for nest material and food. Keep your eyes out for Jay feathers on these nests. These are left by the bird during their routine visits to rid themselves of parasites and condition their feathers.
Oh! And don’t forget the beautiful native Bluebells (Hyacinthoides non-scriptus)
One of the sensations you remember about a visit to Bedgebury in the height of summer is the scent. Close your eyes whilst standing amongst the pine and heather. There is dry, resinous tang to the air providing a distinctly Mediterranean feeling. As you walk through the Thuya collection, the volatile oils transpired with water from the foliage fill the air with a heady cocktail reminiscent of ripe fruit or even a rich fruitcake! Foresters will instantly recognise the orange smell associated with a stand of Douglas Fir (Pseudotsuga menziesii) and so will you.
Summer is also a great time to take a closer look at the myriad variety of cones on conifers. They can be found growing upright on a branch as in the firs; dangling underneath in the spruces; at the tips of the shoots on the hemlocks or as brightly coloured fruit-like ‘arils’ in the foliage of plants such as the Yew. They can vary in size from the tiny 1cm cones of the Coast Redwood (Sequoia sempervirens) to the 30 cm long 2.5kg Big Cone Pine (Pinus coulteri).
Cones can also come in a multitude of colours. Notable examples are the superb cerise to purple colours of Lijiang Spruce (Picea likiangensis); the pale grey/blue of the barrel- shaped cones of Atlantic Cedar (Cedrus atlantica); the deep blue of Delavay’s Fir (Abies delavayi) and the two-tone lime green and purple of Fraser Fir (Abies fraseri). This variety in shape, size, form and colour is very important for the identification of conifers, as every species has a unique cone - thus making them an ideal tool for recognition.
However, to really appreciate them you may need to bring your binoculars; as many are found at the tops of the trees!
Summer is the peak period for flowering in the Pinetum. The acid soils mean the site is rich in acid-loving plants. Bedgebury has large areas of acid grassland and heathland - both habitats are on the bio-diversity action plan for Kent. The most visible species are the orchids, with Common Spotted (Dactylorhiza fuchsii), Heath Spotted (D maculata) and the Hybrid found in several large drifts. If you are lucky you may spot the occasional Common Twayblade (Listera cordata) mixed in amongst them. Of particular note is the locally rare Common Dodder (Cuscuta epithymum). This is a parasitic plant found on heather. Its red twining tendrils and inconspicuous clusters of bell-shaped flowers can be easily overlooked but are worth getting on your hands and knees to find.Fauna
Dragonflies and damselflies reach their peak over the summer months and twenty four species can regularly be seen at Bedgebury. Stand next to one of the ponds and enjoy the aerial acrobatics of Emperor and Golden Ringed Dragonflies (Anax imperator & Cordulegaster boltonii); the swift darting flight of Broad Bodied Chasers (Libellula depressa) and Ruddy Darters (Sympetrum sanguineum); and the delicate ballet of Beautiful and Banded Demoiselle (Calopteryx virgo & C splendens) and White Legged Damselfly.
Autumn is the season of change. As with much woodland, in the National Pinetum at Bedgbury the focus is on colour. Although the majority of conifers remain evergreen, there are some interesting deciduous species. The Larches are the most obvious, with all species turning vivid shades of yellow. Particularly striking is the Golden Larch (Pseudolarix amabilis) which turns a deep golden colour. Look out for the beautiful crown-shaped cones before they fall apart.
The showstoppers are without doubt the Dawn Redwood (Metasequoia glyptostroboides) and Swamp Cypress (Taxodium distichum). There is a large group next to Marshal’s Lake. The shades of red, chestnut, ochre and copper catch fire in the early morning sunlight. Walk amongst them and you will notice the ‘knees’ of the Swamp Cypress. These are ‘pneumatophores’ or aerial roots that help the tree to breath in its favoured swampy conditions.
Aside from the conifers, Bedgebury has a multitude of shrubs and broadleved trees that also put on a fine display. The Sweet Gums (Liquidamber styraciflua) produce a range of purples, reds and yellows; often on the same tree. This colour change appears progressive, starting at the tip and working its way down. The birches all provide a splendid show. In particulat the Cherry Birch (Betula lenta), which can be seen growing amongst the Morinda Spruce (Picea smithiana), provides a marvellous contrast between the gold of the birch and the weeping feathery green foliage of the spruce.
On a warm autumn afternoon you may suddenly smell candyfloss or caramel. Look around for a tree with heart-shaped leaves of pink, orange and yellow, highlighted against the Leyland Cypress hedge in Dallimore Valley. This is the beautiful Katsura Tree (Cercidiphyllum japonicum).
Fauna and Flora
There is still a chance to see the last of the late-flying dragonflies and bumble bees before they hibernate or die off for winter.
The grasslands are mown and the annual crop of mushrooms and fungi are beginning to appear. Many trees have an intimate symbiotic relationship with one or more species. The diversity of trees at Bedgebury means that over 900 fungi species have been recorded. In the areas where birches dominate the showy but poisonous red and white Fly Agaric (Amanita muscaria) can be found. Growing throughout the Pinetum are Penny Buns or Ceps (Boletus edulis). This large (up to 30 cm across) mushroom is excellent to eat. Another delicacy is the Cauliflower or Brain Fungus (Sparassis crispa). Unfortunately this is one of the more destructive fungi rotting the centre of some of our biggest and oldest conifer specimens.
Whatever you find, please do not pick anything – they are there for everyone to enjoy.
Conifers come into their own over the winter months. If you are lucky enough to visit the Pinetum after a heavy frost or a light dusting of snow, you can experience the true nature and splendour that make conifers such an intriguing group of plants. Trees such as the Mountain Hemlock (Tsuga mertensiana), from the American west coast, are perfectly adapted to these conditions. The contrast between the silver blue of the foliage and the bright reddish brown of the bark against a snowy background will always stick in the mind.
At a more practical level, you can see how trees adapt themselves to their environment. The Serbian Spruce (Picea omorika) has a narrowly conical crown and upright form with branches that hug the trunk of the tree, with the tips flicking out and upwards. It is perfectly adapted to shedding the heavy snowfalls encountered in the mountains of the Drina River Valley in Bosnia and Serbia. Once seen never forgotten, these trees are instantly recognisable on visiting any botanical collection.
A number of conifers change colour in the winter. Two notable examples are Golden Scots Pine (Pinus sylvestris ‘Aurea’) and Cryptomeria japonica ‘Elegans’.
In summer the Golden Scots Pine looks like any other Scots Pine with its blue green colour but, during the winter, this tree turns a beautiful golden yellow and clearly stands out from its darker neighbours. The Cryptomeria japonica ‘Elegans’ bears only soft grey green juvenile foliage during the summer, but turns an impressive bronze-red in the winter and would grace any garden.
In some winters you can be lucky and catch some of the very early flowering Rhododendrons. The most notable is Rhododendron nobleanum, the red flowers of which can be seen in late January.
Winter can be a hard time for our native bird life, but places like Bedgebury offer a refuge for many. The evergreen foliage of the large conifers offers essential shelter to many species. Flocks of Long Tailed Tits (Aegithalos caudatus), Gold Crests (Regulus regulus) and Blue Tits (Parus caeruleus) can often be seen hunting for aphids, spiders and other delicacies amongst the dense foliage.
If you are lucky you will see our specialities. The tiny, often-heard but elusive Firecrest (Regulusignicapillus) inhabit the tall specimens of Leyland cypress. In the early 1990’s the UK experienced an influx of Crossbills (Loxia curvirostra) seeking food after a poor coning year on the continent. Most returned home after the winter, but some found Bedgebury suitable to their needs and stayed. Bedgebury is also a well known winter roost for our largest finch the Hawfinch (Coccothraustes coccothraustes) . This stunning bird attracts many ‘Twitchers’ from all over the country.