Wadham boasts the most diverse tree-collection of any Oxford college, including many rare and ancient specimens, according to Wadham’s Head Gardener, Andrew Little.
"We’ve been told that we have the third best collection of trees in Oxford," he says, "after the University Parks and the Botanic Gardens." And our cultivator-in-chief suggests that this is very much thanks to Professor Mabberley, former Keeper of the Gardens and an Emeritus Fellow. A renowned botanist with a specific interest in tropical species, Dr Mabberley, sourced plants from as far afield as the University of Zurich during his tenure.
One tree that predated Professor Mabberley is the Dawn Redwood (Metasequoia glyptostroboides Taxodiaceae) in the Fellows’ Garden. Until 1946, the Metasequoia genus of trees had only been known to have existed through fossil evidence (dating back 100million years), and had been extinct for five million years. The story goes that a Chinese army officer recognised a living specimen of the genus during a WWII mission and returned after the war to find it; the species was then resurrected. Wadham’s Dawn Redwood is around 60 years old, and would be one of the first of its kind to have been reintroduced the UK.
Andrew is continuing Mabberley’s work by planting even more extraordinary botanical examples at Wadham; one of his most treasured saplings is a young Wollemi pine. Fossil records show that this tree also existed side by side with the dinosaurs, back when Australia, Antarctica and South America made up the supercontinent known as Gondwana. Andrew lost a young Wollemi last year, and so wraps this one up in layers of carpet to protect it during cold snaps. And the ancient tree quartet is completed with a Gingko Biloba (found in fossils dating back 270million years) and a Monkey Puzzle Tree (a relative of the Wollemi).
Which of Wadham’s hundreds of trees (Andrew has planted 150, but has not had time to count the full complement) has stood in the gardens the longest?
"That would have to be the American Tulip Tree in the Warden’s Garden," says Andrew. He explains that the Tulip Tree, complete with small orange and green blooms, was planted in 1701 and that, although it’s in good condition, many of the branches have become hollow with age and the base of the trunk is now swollen.
Next time you visit, seek out a few of Andrew’s favourite trees: the Magnolia with unusual pewter blooms; the Snake Bark Maple; the magnificent Evergreen Oak; the Crimea Pine, or the elegant Mexican Weeping Pine. Or look out for the pink blossom of the Prunus, planted in the Cloisters Garden to mark the half century that gardener Michael O’Day has spent tending the college gardens. Either way, Wadham’s collection is well worth exploring.
Join our Biology Subject Reunion
You can meet renowned Wadham Botanist, David Mabberley, at the Biology Subject Reunion on 29 June, which will mark his 70th birthday, and at which he will be guest speaker. The afternoon programme of events, hosted by Plant Sciences, will also include talks by leading academics and Wadham alumni including award-winning BBC wildlife filmmaker Neil Nightingale.