Collecting Dyffryn's botanical treasures

Growing no more than a stone’s throw from the mansion at Dyffryn in the Vale of Glamorgan in South Wales is an elderly maple tree with distinctive peeling bark. It’s a paperbark maple, a very rare tree originating in Central China.

A 'Champion' tree

Dyffryn's paperbark maple (Acer griseum) is the largest example of this unusual species in the UK, and as such, is recognised as a ‘Champion'. Growing off the beaten path of the more tended areas of the garden, this tree has much to tell about the story of Dyffryn and in particular its entrepreneurial former owner Reginald Cory (1871-1934).

The distinctive peeling bark of the paperbark maple (Acer griseum) at Dyffryn Gardens
The peeling bark of the Acer griseum

Cory created and profited from a highly lucrative shipping and coal exporting enterprise that spanned the empire. When he wasn’t engrossed with his business, he was an enthusiastic gardener whose passion for plants far exceeded his passion for Chinese porcelain, paintings and other objects of art.  

The decades before and just after the turn of the twentieth century were a time of frantic plant discovery and acquisition, and avid collectors like Cory were keen to get their hands on the most unusual and novel plants available. As well as sponsoring plant collecting expeditions by some of the leading botanists of his day, Cory took part in several trips to South Africa, the Caribbean and the Atlas Mountains. His financial support for these excursions meant that, as a subscriber, he received a share of the seeds collected. This included the paperbark maple, grown from seed collected by the famous botanist Ernest Wilson (1876-1930) during his 1901 expedition to China.

Plants on show

In many ways the planted areas of Cory’s gardens can be regarded as the outdoor equivalents of the walls and shelves used to display his indoor collectables. In order to create a fitting outdoor ‘gallery’ for the amazing bounty arising from his botanical expeditions, Cory called on the services of leading landscape designer Thomas Mawson (1861-1933) to help him.

The Paved Court, designed by Reginald Cory and Thomas Mawson, provides an ideal space for displaying Dyffryn's collection of herbaceous plants
The Paved Court at Dyffryn Gardens, Vale of Glamorgan

As well as creating new garden features such as the Paved Court and Pompeian Garden, Cory insisted that existing areas such as the arboretum should be incorporated into the design. It is here that many of the original long-lived trees and shrubs, including the paperbark maple first planted by Cory, can still be seen. The Trust continues to care for and propagate these plants to ensure they are not lost.

It is clear from historical accounts that the partnership between Mawson and Cory was a highly creative one; Cory certainly wasn’t one for standing aside and he contributed actively to the design of both architecture and planting. The two even took a trip together through southern Europe where they gathered ideas which were later incorporated into the developing garden.

Reginald Cory was fascinated by cacti and much has been done to maintain and augment his important collection
Cacti in the glasshouse at Dyffryn Gardens

The small thematic gardens in particular showed this variety of ideas especially in the classical influences in architecture and design of the formal gardens. These more intimate gardens also provided ideal spaces for displaying Cory’s collections of herbaceous and smaller plants including roses, bulbs, succulents and a vast range of other groups. Cory was also fascinated by cacti, and subsequent managers including the National Trust have done much to maintain this collection with the addition of many new accessions. These can be seen in the glasshouses to the south of the house.

A man of plants

Such was his reputation and influence that Reginald Cory became a leading member of both the Royal Horticultural Society and the Linnaean Society. He developed a particular interest in dahlias, a previously rather overlooked group of plants, and was personally responsible for establishing horticultural trials that led to a wealth of new varieties and a renaissance in popularity for the genus that lasts to this day. Dahlias are still a feature of the more formal gardens and help contribute to Dyffryn’s spirit of place. They are a living legacy of an extraordinary age of plant discovery and enthusiastic breeding.

One of the thousands of dahlias arising from selective breeding dating to Reginald Cory's time
Dahlias at Dyffryn Gardens

Cory died in 1934 and two years later, on the death of his sister Florence, Dyffryn passed to Glamorgan County Council. It was the 'splendid' gardens that provided the incentive for the Council to accept the gift:

" The gardens were the peculiar pride of the late owner [Reginald Cory], a man eminent among horticulturalists, who lavished his wealth and his knowledge in creating a garden of unique interest and beauty."
- R.C. McLean, Professor of Botany at Cardiff University

Active plant conservation

Since acquiring Dyffryn in 2013 the National Trust has embarked on an extensive programme of garden restoration. Not only are the architectural elements of the garden being addressed, but research efforts are underway to better understand and conserve the plant collections. These efforts include plant surveys which identify surviving trees and shrubs. Where necessary these are propagated using state-of-the-art facilities at the Trust’s Plant Conservation Centre in Devon. This model of conservation is not a slavish adherence to the past but recognition of the vibrant spirit of plant collecting.

Many new plants have been discovered since Cory’s day and plant breeders have continued to select and propagate exciting new cultivated varieties. Today’s plant collectors follow in the footsteps of Ernest Wilson and continue to gather seed from wild habitats. Today, they work alongside donor countries and their objectives include plant conservation. The paperbark maple is now an endangered tree in the wild due to habitat destruction, and gardens like Dyffryn represent a valuable opportunity to see and learn about rare botanical treasures.