Plant of the Month: December 2017

This piece runs the risk of being the most boring blog ever – even by my own soporific-tending standards. Yet it seemed a good idea at the time … I decided to take one picture every month in 2017 of the same low branch of the conifer under which I park my bike at the Cambridge University Botanic Garden. This would be a fascinating time-lapse record of the seasonal changes in one particular specimen. The only snag was/is that, with the greatest possible respect to this noble and beautiful tree, the sequence is not actually very exciting.

The conifer, dwarfing the kiosk at the Hills Road gate of Cambridge University Botanic Garden.

Finding out what species it is was in fact the last thing I did, popping in on 22 December to ask at the ticket kiosk. (I had previously tried groping about for a label among the spiky lower branches to no effect.) I had thought that from the overall shape and growth that it might be a Lawson cypress (Chamaecyparis lawsoniana), a native of Oregon and of north-western California, also known as the Port Orford cypress and first introduced to the U.K. in 1854.

This gets its usual British name courtesy of the botanist Andrew Murray (1812–78), whose professional life as a botanist began in his forties – up till that point he had been an Edinburgh lawyer in his father’s firm, but broke free, becoming professor of natural science in New College, Edinburgh (his specialities being Coleoptera and Coniferae), and later moving to London, where he became assistant secretary of the R.H.S., and a fellow of both the Linnean and Entomological Societies. He was particularly interested in Pacific north-west conifers, though sadly a trip to visit them in 1873–4 seems to have undermined his health and led to his death four years later.

Charles Lawson, Lord Provost of Edinburgh between 1862 and 1865, by John Graham-Gilbert. (Credit: City of Edinburgh Council.) It is thought that the expenses of the provostship may have led to his bankruptcy in 1873.

With the Lawson cypress, Murray honoured the Edinburgh Provost and nurseryman Charles Lawson (1795–1873), who had sponsored William Murray (no relation) on an expedition to try and trace the vanished plant hunter John Jeffrey, among whose retrieved possessions  were seeds of the tree. However, all this, though interesting, is in fact irrelevant, because the Lawson cypress has greeny-bluish-greyish branches, and ‘my’ tree’s are a brownish red.

The Lawson cypress, showing the green-coloured twigs.


Luckily, the kiosk had the answer: the tree is in fact a hybrid, a cross between the Nootka cypress (Cupressus nootkatensis), another Pacific north-west tree named in 1824 by David Don (1799–1841), another expatriate Scot, who was professor of botany at King’s College London and librarian of the Linnean Society – he and Murray must have known each other – and the Smooth Arizona Cypress (Cupressus arizonica var. glabra), named in 1910 by George Bishop Sudworth (1864–1927), Chief Dendrologist of the U.S. Forest Service.

The hybrid was bred at Leighton Hall, Powys, in 1950, and this means that it is a half-brother (or -sister) to the notorious Leyland cypress (Cupressus × leylandii) whose parents are the Nootka and the Monterey cypress (Cupressus macrocarpa).

A hedge of Leyland cypress, very dense and fast-growing, controversies over which have led to legal actions, and occasionally worse …

Their habitats are too remote from each other for them to have cross-bred in the wild, but they grew in close proximity at Leighton, and their offspring was named for the Leyland family (yet another complicated story of names being changed to inherit a fortune: in this case, Christopher John Naylor, son of John Naylor of Leighton, nephew of Christopher Leyland, the Liverpool banker who bought the estate, changed his name (back) to Leyland in order to inherit the fortune and estate (Haggerstone Hall in Northumberland) of a great-great-uncle …). Christopher John continued (for good or ill) the breeding of leylandii hybrids in Northumberland, while back at Leighton Hall, where conifer breeding apparently continued, ‘my’ cypress was named ‘Alice Holt’.

Alice Holt is not (in this context at any rate) a woman, but an ancient forest on the Hampshire–Surrey border (not that far from Selborne), its name possibly deriving from that of Ælfsige, bishop of Winchester between 951 and 958, when he was translated to Canterbury. He would have held the wood (A.-S. holt) for the king; after the Norman invasion it remained a royal hunting forest, its subsequent fortunes waxing and waning depending on the needs of the royal dockyards in Portsmouth (less than forty miles away), for ships’ timbers, and later on a wider need for pit-props and other produce from fast-growing pines.

In the 1960s an arboretum was created in the woods by the Forestry Commission, but it never seemed to be open on the weekly occasions when – for reasons I won’t bore you with – I was driven past it. These days, it is open to the public, with all sorts of inducements, but I rarely pass that way any more…

It appears that ‘Alice Holt’ is a relatively rare hybrid: I can’t find it on sale, and this website shows only two in Europe (one at the Westonbirt Arboretum and another in Austria) though of course it can’t be comprehensive as it misses out ‘mine’ … Here is the Cambridge tree over twelve months – and for 2018 I promise something slightly more exciting!








July (with added bike basket)






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4 Responses to Plant of the Month: December 2017

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