The Willow Orchid Maze

Deborah Hunter-Knight, Walled Garden Project Officer Deborah Hunter-Knight Walled Garden Project Officer
A split image of the willow orchid - in summer and winter

While you can still come and see the willow orchid maze in the walled garden, it has been put to bed for the winter.

Designed by gardening volunteer Charmian Marshall, the maze has been created as part of the Heritage Lottery Funded Project: 3 Rs, as a way of enhancing the garden space.

Made with living willow, once inside, there is a central ‘eye in the sky’ feature which is made out of non-living hazel and willow and encourages you to look up and focus on the sky. The living willow domes reflect the shape of the palladian chapel dome - found just outside the walled garden itself. 

Charmian designed the willow labrynth taking influence from an orchid
A design drawing of the orchid
Charmian designed the willow labrynth taking influence from an orchid

The team, which includes myself, weaver Ruth Thompson, National Trust volunteers and metal worker John Fairley, used both living and dry willow on the structure, and continued to weave-in new shoots while cutting the structure into shape. 

Why use an orchid for the design?

Well, we were amazed to discover that during Georgian times pineapples were being cultivated right here at Gibside, and now it’s apparent that orchids were too.

There was certainly a peach-house, built for Mary Eleanor in 1777, as well as vineries and pineapple pits. Sadly, by 1834, they were in a state of disrepair.

At this point, the estate was occupied by the Dowager Lady Strathmore, widow of the 10th Earl, and her second husband, Sir William Hutt, both were keen gardeners. 

" My flowers have been behaving very well in my absence. The Zygopetalum Intermedium (quite old stock) is in great beauty, and some of the new orchids have thrown up flower stalks contrary to expectation."
- Sir William Hutt to Dent, 20th Dec 1847

Lo and behold, letters between Sir William Hutt and his stepson, John Bowes, refer to pineapple growing pits and an Orchid, so we wanted to celebrate this in some way and when Charmian suggested having the design as an orchid, it felt like a perfect way to do that.

Fryer’s 1803 estate plan shows that there were structures along the entire length of the south side of the north wall: these are presumed to have been glazed buildings, some of them heated. 

" I thank you for your letter, the contents of which interested me much I was afraid that the wheat had suffered by the long succession of cold and wet weather. I hear now in addition of the potato taint & the small pox as it is called among the sheep. There are serious things at all times, but are much more so in the present state of the country… You will find Orchids in bloom at Gibside."
- Sir William Hutt to Dent, Gibside 20 July 1848