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Mahonia sketch by Gardener Liv
Mahonia sketch by Gardener Liv | © Gardener Liv

Here you will find the latest updates and musings from the garden team at Sheffield Park and Garden

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27 June 2024

By Gardener Liv

After months of uncertainty, the sun playing its teasing game of hide and seek, summer has finally arrived. Its long, warm days stretch effortlessly into dusk, as the setting sun skims over thistle-filled meadows, punctuated by shores of ox-eye daisies, swimming in waves of gold, purple, and green grasses. The warmer days carry the perfume of sweet marjoram, eglantine rose, honeysuckle, and elderflower, while fresh bodies of water reflect the perfect sky above, scattering in a million fractured, sparkling lights.

Summer is a paradox, both grounding and freeing. In a garden, the days are packed with a multitude of urgent tasks: watering, weeding, cutting grass, feeding. Once sparse beds suddenly become crowded, demanding attention, their growth hastened by the heat. Yet, gardens also become places of enjoyment and carefree pleasure, where one can languish despite the inherent busyness of cultivating plants.

In the grounds of Sheffield Park, passersby stroll leisurely through lacy patches of light, as fibrous patterns dance across the ground, moved by the breeze. Towering trees laden with strong foliage cloak clusters of foxgloves in their shadows, ripe with pink flowers snaking eagerly upwards, lodged between tree roots. At the top of Church Walk, a majestic tulip tree, its leaves shaped like crudely drawn butterflies, stands out. Cradled in the branches are cup-shaped flowers floating airily, each one with a little orange flame licking its base. A tulip tree in flower - Liriodendron tulipifera - is a truly delightful display to see.

There is something so perfect about a flowering tree, with blooms open and reaching for the sky, far above the gritty, heavy soil where flowers usually exist, comfortable and at eye level. Tulips - the bulbs - are inhabitants of that realm. The tulip tree, unlike its namesake, marries earth and sky. Its name, Liriodendron, combines the melodic "lírio" (Greek for flower or lily) with the more guttural "dendron" (tree), illustrating this duality perfectly.

Though tulip trees are unrelated to their earthbound namesake, the resemblance is striking. The sight of a Liriodendron tulipifera in flower can surprise the unacquainted. Disguised amongst broad leaves, the blooms often congregate near the topmost branches. In full bloom from June to July, the orange and yellow petals resemble delicate lanterns glowing softly in a mass of green. In autumn, an elongated cone-shaped fruit forms, composed of winged seeds called samaras. As the cones dry, they break apart, and the samaras scatter, carried by the wind.

Like their cousin, Magnolia, the origin of Liriodendron traces back to the Lower Cretaceous period, about one hundred million years ago. During this epoch, erupting volcanoes spat fire from their greedy mouths, dialling up the heat and making life on earth unpredictable. A warm and humid climate encouraged flora to grow thick and fast. Conifers, podocarps, ginkgos, palms and giant horsetails filled the land, while the first flowering plants called angiosperms arrived on the scene.

It is in these dense forests of the Cretaceous era that a common ancestor of Magnolia and Liriodendron, named Archaeanthus, appeared, later evolving into the two distinct species we now cultivate in our modern parks and gardens. While records show specimens of Magnolia grandiflora reaching up to 37m in height, a Liriodendron tulipifera can grow to a lofty 61 meters tall, one of the widest on record measuring over 9 meters in girth. Most of the larger specimens of this tree have been recorded on its native soil, in North America. In Britain, the tulip tree was introduced in the mid-seventeenth century, though fossil evidence shows it once grew naturally in Europe, preceding the last ice age.

Gazing up into the branches of the Liriodendron tulipifera in Sheffield Park, it is easy to imagine a similar specimen gracing the vivid landscapes of prehistory painted in our minds. We are propelled back to a time when wilderness reigned, unsullied by human activity, with all its re-ordering, dividing, controlling and cultivating. The tulip tree stands as a testament to the enduring beauty and history of our natural realm. Straddling earth and air, it is rooted in the present, while its ancient form lingers far off in the mind as an idealized image of primordial flowering trees, wild and unaltered.

Tulip tree flower illustration
The tulip tree flower | © Gardener Laura
Tulip tree flower
The cup-shaped tulip tree | © Gardener Liv
View from First Bridge towards Middle Lake at Sheffield Park East Sussex

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