I visited Powis Castle recently for the first time. The garden is world famous for its clipped yews, and probably best known because of the silver foliage shrub, Artemisia ‘Powis Castle’ which bears its name. I am sometimes disappointed by historic gardens, for me they can be stuck in the past. Trying to preserve a garden as it was hinders the natural evolution of a garden and stands in the way of new introductions. Powis proved to be an exception; the gardens are stunning and a feast for the senses.
Powis castle, Mid Wales, not far from the English border, was originally built sometime around 1200 as a mediaeval fortress. Home of the Herbert family it has been remodelled frequently over the past 400 years and contains vast collections of tapestries, sculptures, paintings, furniture and treasures brought back by Clive of India. I must admit I am not a great one for the detailed history of houses, or a fan of the interiors, but I enjoyed my exploration of the house, particularly the incredible Caesar busts displayed along the Long gallery. Apparently the floor had to be reinforced to accommodate these marble sculptures.
The gardens are quite extraordinary. On entering the visitor is treated to a breathtaking panorama across the rolling countryside of the Welsh Borders. The terraces roll out below you and the castle on its rocky outcrop soars above. The terraces are south facing and sheltered making them a favoured environment for more tender plants. Italian and French influences are evident throughout: balustrades, exquisite original statuary and sweeping steps leading from level to level.
The upper terrace features an amazing exotic scheme of lush foliage and vibrant blooms contained within a neat box hedge. The variety of plant material is incredible and unexpected. The large leaves of paulownias and catalpa contrast with the sword shaped foliage and firefly flowers of crocosmias. Zebra striped miscanthus rise through the sunny golden blooms of rudbeckias. The wine red foliage and spiky seedheads of ricinus, the castor oil plant contrasts with the sapphire spikes of woody salvias. Cactus dahlias in jewel colours, spikes of magnificent antirrhinums and the white fluted trumpets of datura all add amazing accents to the planting. For me though the most striking plants of all are the zinnias. In our rather damp, cool climate these are sulky creatures that often collapse early in the season. Admittedly we’ve had a good summer but these scarlet and orange zinnias were huge.
Further along the Upper Terrace one walks beneath the canopy of some of the amazing clipped yews. These are strangely abstract and contemporary in character and I wondered why they were grown in the shapes they are. A useful information board explains:
The yews were originally planted in the 1680s when geometric shapes and patterns were fashionable. They began life as neatly trimmed cones and obelisks. Buy the 1780s a more naturalistic style was evident in design and the topiaries were left unclipped and allowed to grow into their natural shapes. In the 19th Century trimmed shaped were fashionable again and the yews were trimmed using a sickle; they were already much larger in stature.
Today the process continues in the same way: the yews are trimmed as large organic shapes influenced by natural form. It takes four men three months to trim them with hedge trimmers. This is carried out between late summer and late autumn.
The middle terrace features a magnificent orangery, the doors draped with a pair of the lovely old glory rose, Rosa ‘Gloire de Dijon’. This is a fabulous old rose with a superb perfume. Sadly in colder areas it tends to suffer from blackspot and hasn’t flowered well with me. It clearly loved the warm Powis terraces. Throughout the terraces containers are a real feature. A variety of solver foliage plants form the basis of the planting combinations; this cleverly reflects the original lead statuary. I particularly liked the black aeoniums with silver helichrysum and deep burgundy training pelargoniums. Plectranthus ‘Silver Shield’, Helichrysum petiolatum, Eucalyptus gunnii and bright mauve trailing pelargoniums created another stunning picture.
An arched, shaded cloister dripping with ferns I presume evolved from aviaries which were once a feature on these terraces. I would know for certain if I’d read the guide book; I’m not very good at that. In here I found the tender climber Lapageria rosea, the Chilean wax flower. I consider this a conservatory plant in the UK so this climate must be favoured. Outside here I found one of my favourite planters: a large lead trough, decorated with a seashell design, overflowing with Salvia discolor, Astelia chathamica and the delicate blue Convolvulus mauritanicus. That salvia is an extraordinary plant with its arched spikes of green bell calyces containing black flowers.
From the lawns below the terraces the view back to the castle is stunning and here you realise just how much the yew shapes are part of the overall structure of the castle and the terraces. Here too you appreciate the height of the castle too. Carefully trained fruit and a tunnel of vines reflect the trained nature of the plant material above.