The Repton Gazette and Brown Advisor

300 Frequently Asked Questions about Capability Brown, and a further 200 about Humphry Repton

186: What can we say about Holm Oak?

The Holm oaks are clumped along Green Lane at Milton Abbey

The holm oaks are clumped along Green Lane at Milton Abbey

‘The ilex, or ever-green oak, presents a character very different from that of the yew. The yew is a close bodied, compact tree. The ilex is generally thin, and straggling; tho we sometimes see it, in soils, which it likes, form a thicker foliage.’ Such, from his vantage point in the New Forest, was the judgement of the Rev. William Gilpin.

Holm oaks frame the view from the Octagon to the house at Wotton. These are cut trees, now 15 metres or more high. The effect today is magnificent, for none of them obstruct views.

However if I set to one side the holm oaks at Holkham and another timber tree at the top of the zig-zag at Ingress Abbey, then I know of next to no places attributed to the dexterity of Capability Brown where holm oak was grown as a tree, rather than as coppice (presumably in fact stooled as a shrub), or headed plant, nor was it often used as a parkland tree.

The Brown Advisor has only seen one short stretch (at Croome) of holm oak planted in a row in a theatrical shrubbery, though one might have thought that it would make a good alternative to yew. On the other hand, they will sometimes crop up in groups, paced out along the side of a walk, as at Wimpole where they frame the house in views from the lake, and at Milton Abbey along Green Lane, the old road that offered a dazzling range of views of the abbey in its setting.

Professor Hassell has suggested that the holm oaks (Quercus ilex) at Holkham were planted to produce a Claudean effect. They were planted by the estate manager Sandys, and the Professor’s suggestion is one to pursue – though whether Brown had a hand in the scheme is anybody’s guess. However its use by Humphry Repton makes an easier subject, since Brown’s successor used holm oak a good deal, and in a similar fashion, wherever he planted it.

At Luscombe, he planted a finger of land running out of an old oak plantation as an American garden: a garden of flower beds, pools, and Rhododendra, similar in scale to the flower garden laid out by Brown’s good friend, the poet William Mason, at Nuneham Courtenay, but with one grand difference from Nuneham – it is not, and seems never to have been entirely enclosed – on the contrary it has a ha-ha around it. This is partly enclosed by shrubberies planted on the ha-ha – reminiscent in this way of the pleasure ground at Southill, which may well be Brown’s.

Below this ha-ha stand a group of Holm oaks, all cut at about one metre from the ground. But how, you will exclaim, did they resist grazing, when they stood in the park? Presumably the one metre of stem gave them sufficient clearance to protect them from the sheep, rabbits and hares that might have grazed them. Now it may be that this habit of cutting high relates simply to grazing, but it might also be a technique adopted to counter the thin and straggling character of the tree reported on by Gilpin.

One might reasonably conclude that, like Robinia, Brown generally intended to manage holm oak as a shrub.


169: Who was Lapidge?


180: What is a fir?


  1. A pity he never travelled to Spain, Italy or Australia – holm oaks, while surely widespread as a hedge/coppice/pruned ‘scenery/wall-making’ shrub/tree, left alone make magnificent trees, with billowing canopies, hardy in drought-prone warmer climates where Q.robur and Q.petraea suffer and do not thrive. I’m sure he was working from experience and expedience, but he under-estimated this tree. West of the Great Dividing Range in South-Eastern Australia, there is no oak finer. Perhaps Q.canariensis, in Western Victoria, gives some competition, but again, it hales from a warmer, drier clime than that of England.

    • The Brown Advisor

      Dear Mr Read, what you say is true, and it is strange too that Holm Oak seems so often to have been grown as a shrub, like Robinia pseudacacia. The clumps of Holm Oak and Cork Oak that Prince Albert planted at Osborne show another direction that landscape might have taken by using exotics in parkland.
      John Phibbs, pp the Brown Advisor

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The Brown Advisor©2015

By John Phibbs