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Plant Focus

Quercus peninsularis
A Red Oak (Section Lobatae) endemic to inland ranges of northern Baja California, Mexico

Oak Open Days in Wales: Penrice and Glanusk

In the first couple of days of July, a drove of just over a score of IOS members congregated in southern Wales for a visit to two of the best Welsh oak collections. Strangely enough, all participants came from somewhere starting with “U”: the United Kingdom, the United States, Uruguay—and "U"-rope. We gathered at Penrice Castle on the Gower Peninsula on the threateningly cloudy morning of July 1, trying to ignore a dreary forecast that fortunately proved off target: by lunch the clouds had cleared and the afternoon was sunny and balmy.

Penrice has a long history dating back to the Norman conquest of Britain, and all of it kept in the family. Though the line of succession took some sidesteps in cases of owners who died without issue, the property has been handed down 29 generations from the original de Penrice to its current owner, Thomas Methuen-Campbell, who was our genial host for the Oak Open Day and welcomed us at the steps of the 18th century neo-classical mansion facing the ruins of the original Penrice Castle.

The mansion at Penrice from the southeast
The mansion at Penrice, a neo-classical villa completed in the mid 1770s to the design of the architect Anthony Keck © Sairus Patel

Armed with a comprehensive list of the oaks, complete with source details and collection codes and including those oaks no longer with us, we began our tour of the plantings. We started with a group known as the Royal Oaks, planted by several members of the British Royal Family, including a few monarchs. True to form, IOS members seemed unimpressed by the blue blood of the planters and far more concerned on whether the oaks in question were Quercus robur or Q. petraea, or something in between (i.e., Q. ×rosacea). Much discussion ensued while petioles were measured and lobes counted. (For a thorough analysis of the issues, see Steve Potter’s detailed account of Penrice’s Royal Oaks).

One of the Royal Oaks at Penrice had recently lost a major limb
Thomas Methuen-Campbell (right) with one of the Royal Oaks at Penrice Castle, which had recently lost a major limb © Sairus Patel

We then advanced northwest past the Grotto and towards Millwood Gate, where many of the new oaks have been planted. The collection shows an impressive depth in the rarer Mexican species, mostly bearing the CMBS code indicating an Allen Coombes collection. Returning past the house we descended to the Terrace where a fine Q. calophylla stole the show, while a rare Q. costaricensis also attracted attention. A superb lunch was taken behind the house with a grand view down to the waterlily-covered lake and out to the Bristol Channel.

IOS discussing remedial pruning on Q. pinnativenulosa
The IOS at work: an international group discuss how best to prune a Quercus pinnativenulosa (CMBS1171, collected in 2008); left to right: Jean-Claude Weber (Luxembourg), Ondrej Fous and Dušan Plaček (Czech Republic), Patrick Vereecke (Belgium), Thomas Methuen-Campbell and James MacEwen (UK)  © Sairus Patel

The afternoon saw us exploring the plantations around the Pleasure Garden and Orangerie, where in addition to Mexican rarities such as Q. hypoxantha and a potted Q. insignis, a number of Asian species were admired, many traceable to plant hunter extraordinaire Tom Hudson of Tregrehan and to Béatrice Chassé and her 2015 expedition to Taiwan. Quercus oxyodon and Q. franchetii displayed their attractive leaf undersides, and the rare-in-cultivation Q. tarokoensis was noted, in between lively discussions regarding remedial pruning and lamentations brought on by evidence of squirrel damage, a recurring problem according to Thomas. Moving through an immaculate kitchen garden, the tour of the collection ended in a new plantation referred to as the Old Orchard, where Q. dolicholepis and Q. delgadoana stood out.

Group photo at Penrice
Welsh Oak Open Day participants strike a pose around Charlie (Jack Russell terrier, center) at Penrice Castle

The journey to our next venue, the Glanusk Estate near Crickhowell, took us through the beautiful Neath Valley along the A645, known as Heads of the Valleys. Roadworks widening the road to two lanes in both directions caused detours and delays—and we had encountered the same when approaching Penrice, due to the upcoming Wales Air Show at Swansea. These did little to dampen our enthusiasm as we congregated next morning for coffee and oak leaf–shaped cookies at Glanusk Lodge, where we were welcomed by our host Harry Legge-Bourke. Here again proceedings began with a lively introduction to the history of the property, one of the largest privately owned Estates in Wales, recounted with jocund detail by Harry, whose oratorical skills clearly benefited from his service as an officer in the Welsh Guards!

Quercus edulifolia
Quercus edulifolia (?) was served with coffee at Glanusk Lodge © Harriet Tupper


We soon got down to the business at hand and were handed a beautiful hand-drawn, laminated map showing the location of the oaks in the collection, each identified with a number that could be looked upon the list of names on the reverse. The oak collection at Glanusk was started by Harry’s father, the late Bill Legge-Bourke (1939–2009), onetime member of the IOS, whose obsession with the genus led him to be affectionately known in the family as “Quercus Bourkus”—a nickname he gladly accepted, not before snapping back, “Quercus bourkei actually!”

Quercus marilandica
Quercus marilandica in the main plantation near Penmyarth Church

After a first brush with identification challenges in an enclosed area behind Glanusk Lodge, where we are able to identify an unlabeled and handsome Q. chrysolepis, we were deployed in a caravan of cars and 2-seater buggies. We were thankful for locomotion, as the oaks are spread over a wide area stretching along the River Usk and around Penmyarth House, to the north. Not to be outdone, Glanusk has its own set of Royal Oaks, planted by various members of the Royal Family. Fortunately our motorized cavalcade whisked us safely past them before the ID police could start debating which species the oaks belong to. They would have had a wider range to discuss, for these oaks include exotic oaks such Q. cerris, planted by the Duke of Clarence, a grandson of Queen Victoria, in 1890, and Q. rubra ‘Magic Fire’, the last addition planted by Charles III (then Prince of Wales) in 2019.

Quercus robur Atropurpurea
The plum tones of Quercus robur ‘Atropurpurea’bring out the highlights in the silky coat of Rolo, the Glanusk Spaniel © Sairus Patel

We spent the bulk of the morning in the main collection, situated next to the charming Penmyarth Church (where Harry, we were told, delivers the Christmas sermon). The oaks in this section are planted out in an L-shaped avenue, generously spaced, and we were able to admire fine specimens including the cultivars Q. robur ‘Atropurpurea’, Q. robur ‘Concordia’, Q. ×hispanica ‘Ambrozyana’, and the endangered species Q. arkansana, among many others. At Penmyarth House we were intrigued by a Q. rotundifolia whose leaves were coated in an attractive gray-blue tomentum that easily brushed off under the thumb. At the greenhouse, next to an impressive Q. frainetto, many potted seedlings were awaiting planting out. Here Harry told the harrowing story of how when Bill died the greenhouse was packed with his young oaks that all withered from lack of watering; undeterred Harry got in touch with his father’s contacts and was able to replace every one of them.

Quercus ilex with bluish tomentum
Quercus rotundifolia with bluish tomentum that easily rubbed off © Roderick Cameron

We returned for a sumptuous lunch at Glanusk Lodge, after which some of our party bid farewell. The remainder viewed oaks planted by the edge of the River Usk, in the vicinity of the “Fish Stone”, a Bronze Age standing stone or menhir of piscine silhouette, the tallest in Wales, said to promote fertility, though what use could be made of it to this end was, at best, unclear.

The Fist Stone at Glanusk
The "Fish Stone" at Glanusk, thought to date to the Bronze Age, is 5.5m high and is probably the tallest standing stone in Wales; according to local lore every Midsummer's Eve it leaps into the river for a swim! © Harriet Tupper

This was the IOS’s first event in the UK since 2019 and had been originally scheduled for 2020. It was encouraging to see it well attended, especially by new faces as well as old friends. The quality of the collections and of the hosts' hospitality was of the highest standard. Hearty thanks are due to Thomas Methuen-Campbell and Harry Legge-Bourke, and congratulations for creating and maintaining their outstanding oak collections.

The group at Glanusk
The group at Glanusk

A detailed report on this event will be published in International Oaks No. 35 in May 2024. IOS members can view more photos of the Oak Open Days in a Photo Gallery here.