Monday, 13 January 2014

The Vice Chancellor's Shrubs

I started this post a few months back, before the rush of my MPhil write-up, now I come back to it and find it to be somewhat unseasonal but given that I have little else to post I may as well complete it.

Around the end of October, a few weeks after my stipend came through, I treated myself to a few of the books I'd ogled on Summerfield Books in the months prior. Among these was the (relatively) recent Cotoneaster monograph by Fryer and Hylmö. An impressive book, designed for gardeners but including keys, comprehensive descriptions and lots of photos. The Saturday after it arrived I wandered up the steepest road in Aberystwyth and into Penglais woods. Passing a few bushes of the frequently naturalised  Cotoneaster simonsii scattered along the path-side I dropped down a zigzag path into the Vice-Chancellor's garden.

The gardens sits between the woods and a small stream, protected from the road and the woodland path by thick growths of Cherry Laurel. Little evidence of its origins as a formal garden organised by plant family remains. An unkempt shrubbery separates the small lawn in front of the house from the bulk of the garden, completely hiding it and creating a nice spot for an summer afternoon's wine picnic or an autumn Cotoneaster hunt.

Before diving into the Cotoneasters I pushed through a flowering female bush of Ilex × altaclerensis a frequently cultivated hybrid between the native I. aquifolium and I. perado, a species from The Azores.

Ilex × altaclerensis, SN 59281 82100

Having not taken my shiny new book out into the field (or garden) I was simply equipped with a knife and a crumpled Lidl bag. This I rapidly filled with a wealth of berry-laden branches. The first of these turned out to belong to Cotoneaster gamblei, its dirty pink berries already having suffered considerable thrush damage. This is a member of the subgenus Chaenopetalum characterised by simultaneous flowering across the whole plant, spreading petals and having the style remnant attached at the tip of the nut. Most of these species are larger than those in subgenus Cotoneaster with some such as C. strictus, the second species I collected growing into medium sized trees with impressive curved trunks.

Cotoneaster gamblei, SN 59333 82073

Cotoneaster frigidus, SN 59333 82073

These two large species were followed by myriad confusing smaller species many of which defied identification either through careful keying or casual flicking through pictures. A few however were more considerate among these were C. capsicinus a species with mucronate tips to the leaves and sparse, singly produced berries.

Cotoneaster capsicinus, SN 59567 82094

Cotoneaster capsicinus, SN 59567 82094

A tall, long-leaved and somewhat scratty bush with single, long, almost black berries turned out to be C. otto-schwarzii & while a bush with deeply-veined uppersides to its leaves and strikingly white-floccose undersides was C. sternianus.

Cotoneaster otto-schwarzii, SN 59583 82069

Cotoneaster sternianus, SN 59347 82139

Cotoneaster sternianus, SN 59347 82139

Crossing the road onto the campus proper my bag was beginning to overflow. Among the few remaining species for which I established a satisfactory determination were the long-leaved C. salicifolius and its very common and variable horticultural hybrid with C. frigidus; C. × watereri.

Cotoneaster salicifolius, SN 59444 81875

Cotoneaster × watereri, SN 59444 81875

All in all there was a huge variety of Cotoneaster taxa present in the small corner of campus that I collected from of which only a handful yielded to my (admittedly novice) identification attempts. In my wanders around other parts of the campus and town in the intervening months I've noticed still more species in various states of denudation. Over the next few years I'll hopefully have the chance to tackle some more of these both in flower and fruit and perhaps, gradually, come to terms with this complex genus. 

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