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The New Seekers

The Daily Telegraph - Plants & Fowers 2003

David Wheeler meets Bleddyn and Sue Wynn-Jones, the dynamic couple behind Crûg Farm Plants in North Wales, whose intrepid travels in the Far east and beyond are ddelivering a plethora of exciting new plants.

Like a high performance sports car that can accelerate from nought to 90 in a matter of seconds, Bleddyn Wynn-Jones has transformed himself from beef farmer and strawberry grower to top-flight plantsman and horticulturist in just 13 years.

Once virtually flowerless, his garden at Crûg (pronounced 'Creeg') Farm in North Wales today harbours treasures almost unknown outside botanic gardens and a few specialist collections. Some of the plants are so rare they exist nowhere else in cultivation, having been found by Bleddyn and his wife Sue on 33 intrepid plant and seed-hunting trips since 1991.

Crûg Farm occupies an ancient site half a mile inland from the Menai Strait, which divides Anglesey from mainland Wales. To the south lies the mountain range of Snowdonia. In a garden so exposed to high winds, where the temperature can fall to -10°C in March, it comes as a great surprise to find plants from Hong Kong, the Philippines, Thailand and Vietnam. 'The secret is shelter,' says Bleddyn, proud of his steadily increasing shelter-belt of some 90,000 native deciduous and evergreen trees. 'Plus, most of our collections are made at high altitude, where frost is not unknown.'

Of Crûg's three separate gardens, the walled enclosure adjoining the Wynn-Joneses' farmhouse forms the nucleus of their remarkable plant collection. Measuring a modest 30m x 30m, it happily incorporates remnants from the farm garden's former life - notably a flowering cherry in the centre (host now to Clematis 'Bill MacKenzie') and a wisteria whose pale lilac flowers look especially good against the lilac-grey of the slate tiles that weatherproof the south side of the house.

A pair of raised beds shaded from bright sunlight are home to some of the smaller, rarer woodlanders, including representatives of the National Collections held at Crûg: Paris, Polygonatum and Coriaria. In early spring, the deep maroon flowers of Akebia quinata x penta-phylla hang in chains from the topmost poles of a rustic pergola, and the scents of sarcococca and Euphorbia mellifera sweeten the air.

Several Kawakamii Group hydrangeas (forms of H. aspera), brought home from trips to Taiwan in 1993 and 1996, flourish in this microclimate. However, long before these and other deciduous shrubs, such as viburnum, have grown new leaves, the garden appears fully furnished, thanks to many evergreens of diverse and pleasing contrast. Large-leaved rhododendrons stand hugger-mugger with camellias, mahonias, daphniphyllums, some collected in Korea and Taiwan, as well as Drimys lanceblata, with glossy leaves and wine-red stems. Well-sheltered, yet proving hardier than they look, are several scheffleras collect¬ed in Vietnam and Taiwan. Also from Taiwan is a new trochodendron, T. aralioides, which grows rapidly and has a more open and elegant habit than the species commonly found in Korea and Japan. Bleddyn predicts it will prove popular with British gardeners.

Beneath the shrubs and small trees and flanking narrow gritted paths that wind around the beds lurk ferns and a host of hellebores bearing flowers spotted, veined, picoteed and plain. Scattered among them are hordes of other herbaceous and bulbous plants: precious trilliums, lilies, paeonies, aconitum, disporum (in the same family as our lily-of-the-valley), Himalayan poppies, ligularias, veratrums and cimicifugas. Their emerging shoots in March and April serve to announce a galaxy of shapes and colours for the months to come. And everywhere hardy geraniums, a genus that adds considerably to Bleddyn Wynn-Jones' reputation as a hybridiser, as well as a recogniser, of exceptional garden-worthy plants.

The Mound lies behind the house, and forms the garden's highest point with views of the sea. Thought to be the site of an old Roman lookout, it is well-clothed with mature pittosporums, more viburnums, dwarf rhodos, large specimens of Hydrangea aspera Villosa Group and H. heteromalla 'Snowcap', as well as many damp-hating, silver-leaved sub-shrubs that appreciate its well-drained soil.

Hydrangeas, like hardy geraniums, are a particular love of the Wynn-Joneses. On old farm buildings they are trying several climbing forms, similar at first glance to the ubiquitous Hydrangea anomala spp. petiolaris; a few from southern Japan look destined for acclaim.

If the gardens at Crûg Farm serve to illustrate part of the nursery's catalogue of plants, the ranks of glasshouses, polythene and shade-netted tunnels reveal the many thousands of other plants that Bleddyn and Sue have bagged on their many forays. The botanising began with a trip to Jordan in 1991 and since then, three-month-long autumn itineraries mostly alone and almost always self-funded, have taken them to Korea, West Bengal, Northern India, Sikkim, Japan, Eastern and Central Nepal, the Philippines, Hong Kong, Thailand, North Vietnam, China, Laos, Sri Lanka and Southern India, and Guatemala.

These great and independent voyages of discovery underpin the whole Crûg Farm enterprise, although long spells away from home, family and friends, as well as business, mean living two quite different lives. Nursery staff have to be trusted to look after the day-to-day running of the place, as well as to receive and deal with the packets of seed and plants sent back to Wales on a weekly basis from wherever Bleddyn and Sue happen to be.

While long, botanical treks in remote countryside might seem a bonus to us ordinary gardeners, there are dangers to overcome. Once, after a very arduous day spent on steep, crumbling limestone cliffs, Bleddyn and Sue ran into some poppy harvesters in the Golden Triangle, men who normally shoot first and then ask questions. 'There are other frustrations, too,' says Sue. 'In Laos, we wanted to go up Phu Bia but not even the military would escort us because of the bandits. They said we should come back in the rainy season - the bandits stay at home then.' Despite the hardships, there are many rewards. Neither of them will ever forget the moment they found Actaea taiwanensis (since given their accession number of BSWJ3413), a new plant which put their names in the floras of Taiwan.

Taiwan has indeed been a happy hunting ground for the Wynn-Joneses. They have worked closely with the government authorities and made many friends. To the couple's joy this has resulted in reciprocal visits from Taiwanese botanists who now come regularly to see 'their' plants at home in North Wales.

The Crûg Farm catalogue currently lists several thousand plants, of which a significant number have been introduced by Bleddyn and Sue. Among this year's 300 or so new introductions are Akebia quinata 'White Chocolate', a creamy-white-flowered relation of the maroon-coloured climber in the walled garden; large, white-flowered Clematis patens 'Korean Moon'; and Begonia sinensis 'Red Undies', a woodland perennial from China, which sounds as though it might have been named after the Wynn-Joneses had opened the second bottle!

Many Crug Farm plant names suggest a far-off place. So where will it be this year? 'The world's a troubled place at present,' says Sue, 'so we will have to wait to see how it all works out. One thing, though, is for sure -when we stop travelling it'll be time to sell up and move on.'. 

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Copyright 2008
Crûg Farm Plants, Griffith's Crossing, Caernarfon, Gwynedd, LL55 1TU.
Tel (+44) 01248 670232 [email protected]
Crûg Farm Plants, Griffith's Crossing, Caernarfon, Gwynedd, LL55 1TU.
Tel (+44) 01248 670232 [email protected]