The Harcourt Arboretum or how to become a millionaire by growing pine trees

In the Harcourt Arboretum

I’m at the Gardens Trust conference in Oxford this weekend and thought it would be nice to blog about something related to our proceedings.  So I obtained an advance copy of the conference brochure which is, as always, packed with first-class background information on the sites we are visiting and the things we’re hearing about.  Unfortunately for me every subject I had vaguely thought would be interesting to write about was already well covered by others far more knowledgable than me, but, since we are to due to visit the Oxford University’s Harcourt Arboretum I thought I could get away with a general background piece on the history of arboretums.

Then I noticed that the University Arboretum had been started in 1835 when Archbishop Harcourt commissioned  William Sawrey Gilpin to design a pinetum for his growing collection of conifers, which were newly fashionable.  So instead I decided to be a bit more specific and investigate when and where  this craze for conifers began : in other words to investigate the history of the pinetum.

After a few minutes of looking through early 19thc gardening books and magazines I saw another reference and serendipity  kicked in…

All images come from the website of the Harcourt Arboretum unless otherwise stated.

The word pinetum is Latin simply meaning a grove of pines. It was used occasionally in a few 18thc botanic texts written in Latin but its earliest appearance as an English word is, as far as I can see,  in an article in the  Gardeners Magazine for January 1828.about the gardens at Dropmore in Buckinghamshire written  by the head gardener there, William Baillie,  which begins “Dropmore has long been celebrated for its pinetum…”

It was the first real sign in the gardening press of a craze for conifers that was to spread rapidly over the next twenty or so years with the introduction of so many new species from around the world, but particularly North America.  For the next few years the term pinetum is only used in connection with Dropmore and it isn’t until 1833 that Gardeners Magazine notes that another pinetum is being created at Bear Wood, the new country estate of John Walters, the proprietor of the Times. Then in 1834 this short piece appeared under its “Domestic Notices – England.” showing that the idea was spreading.

In 1838 Loudon carried pieces about other pinetums, listing the extensive collection of conifers being grown at Elvaston Castle in Derbyshire and  mentioning other collections at Sunninghill, Hendon Rectory, Loudon’s How in Perthshire, and Woburn.  He also had an article about how to incorporate a pinetum into a garden plan.  And  then I noticed a reference to Harcourt and obviously my eyes lit up when I saw it described by Loudon as “of great importance in a scientific point of view.”

But to my surprise it wasn’t about the Harcourt arboretum outside Oxford but in an article entitled “Notice of the Principle Pinetums…in France.”  It was a reference to the OTHER Harcourt Arboretum, the one at the Chateau d’Harcourt in Normandy…a place I have visited some years ago without fully realising  its historical significance. So instead of a piece about the arboretum the conference is visiting tomorrow here’s a piece about  the French one.


Harcourt is a small village in Normandy, south east of Rouen, these days not far from the A28 motorway. Its chateau is, despite being much altered, an amazing mediaeval survival.

Begun by Robert d’Harcourt who went crusading with Richard the Lionheart , it was enlarged and strengthened during the Hundred Years War and  the French Wars of Religion before, like so many other fortresses, falling into decline.

It was rescued by  Françoise de Brancas, Princess d’Harcourt, in the late 17thc.  She demolished 3 sides of the main fortifications,  and domesticated the remaining wing, adding a classical facade and large terrace to the rear and a grand parterre in front. A large potager was laid out, together with a huge orchard.

Louis -Gervaise Delamarre

Sadly after her death in 1715 it was abandoned, became dilapidated and eventually overgrown before being bought in 1802 by Louis-Gervais Delamarre. Sight unseen.

Delamarre was an interesting character. He was a member of old established but hard-up family and at the age of 12 had to take a job as an office-boy for a local lawyer. His talent was spotted and he became a clerk. He learned on the job eventually becoming head clerk of a lawyers office in Paris in 1787  and then  succeeded his employer when he retired in 1790.   Their clients were mainly aristocratic and the early days of the French Revolution  was not a good time to be defending the wealthy against confiscation orders.

He was imprisoned and only escaped the guillotine because of a bribe and  the fall of Robespierre.  He went back to work amassing a small fortune in the process but by 1802 had had enough. At the age of just 36 he gave up his practice and retired to his house in the  countryside just north of Paris.  Except of course he didn’t retire.  When he had bought the country house he found himself becoming interested by agriculture, horticulture and especially forestry, and began planting trees, before becoming interested in the economics of it all.  This led to greater ambitions and he looked around for a bigger estate to work on. He heard that Harcourt was on the market and eventually purchased without having visited.

When he finally arrived there he was, said an account by someone who knew him, “frightened” by what he saw.  The chateau was in a ruinous state and uninhabitable. He ended up bricking up the windows, patching the roof, demolishing all the outbuildings  and making  just two modest rooms habitable enough to live in.   But he hadn’t bought the estate because of its tumbledown fairytale castle but for its land. Even that might make one wonder.  Half of it was degraded coppiced woodland and the other  half unproductive heathland but Delamarre saw the  potential, and he began to experiment with tree planting on its 305 hectares. [750 acres]

We know how he went about it because he wrote three books- all sadly unillustrated and as far as I am aware untranslated.  Memoire sur La Culture des Pins  came out in 1820, followed in 1826 by Traité pratique de la Culture des Pins a Grandes Dimensions:   “Practical Treaty of Culture of Pines with large dimensions, their development, their operation, and the various uses of their wood”

In1827 he published the even  lengthier-titled and rather bizarre sounding: Historique de la création d’une richesse millionnaire pour la culture des pins, ou application du Traité pratique de cette culture, et conseil aux héritiers de l’auteur de cette création pour l’utiliser dans tous ses avantages which roughly translated means “How to become a millionaire by growing pine trees”

Sowing and planting almost immediately after his purchase with almost everything grown from seed on site, starting with a whole range of deciduous species.

Unfortunately phase 1 of the project wasn’t very successful because, with the exception of birch trees, nothing really flourished. So around 1811 Delamarre turned his attention  to   conifers, particularly  pines -initially mainly pinus pinaster and pinus sylvestris. but also larch, fir and cedar. It quickly became an international affair with seed imported from all round the world including Scotland, New England, the Crimea and Nepal. And it yielded much greater success.

Pinus sylvestris  [as Pinus mughus Jacq.]
from von Jacquin, Icones plantarum rariorum, vol. 1, 1781.

To show that pine trees could be a profitable crop he divided the estate into 12 sectors, each to be coppiced in turn, leaving just enough young trees to grow to maturity and  be harvested in stages later.  Delamarre thought that if this plan was adhered to correctly the forest would end up being worth a million francs.








Gradually the amount of land given over to woodland increased until virtually all the estate was covered.  This even meant that fruit trees in the former orchard gave way to to pines, the  grand parterre was replaced by another  trial ground while the potager became a testing ground for  deciduous trees. The chateau must almost have been overwhelmed by trees, all managed by just two permanent foresters and five seasonal workers.


Delamarre died shortly after publishing his third book in 1827, and in his  will he left almost everything to the Société Royale et Centrale d’Agriculture  in the hope that they would use what he saw as  the equivalent of a million franc endowment to  establish  a forestry school and research centre at the chateau.

The Société were a bit hesitant but did eventually take possession and sent a group of experts down to give it the once over , write a report on its state and suggest how it could be used.  The committee visited in June 1828  and were shocked by what they found. They had been intending to stay at the chateau  but  couldn’t when they found it still semi-ruinous.  The building was clearly dangerous, with the towers fractured from top to bottom and the roof  in a parlous state.  Before they left they had to order emergency work to prevent accidents to staff and visitors but  felt it was worth the huge expenditure because the woodlands were “precious” and contained”all the species of resinous trees ”

Eventually in 1833 François André Michaux was commissioned to turn Delamarre’s  plantations  into  a truly scientific pinetum    This meant building a collection of all the available conifers known and adding new ones as they were discovered.    Michaux was just the man for the job. He was a renowned botanist and had spent 11 years in North America, collecting and cataloguing trees. Histoire des arbres forestiers de l’Amérique septentrionale (three volumes, 1810–13) later translated as The North American Sylva contains the results of his explorations.

Newly introduced American conifers such as  Sequoia, Vancouver fir [Abies grandis] & Eastern White Pine  [Pinus strobus] were the first major additions followed by rarer conifers from Europe and Asia. But the brief seems to have been wider than that and included  adding deciduous trees too.

By the 1850s the driving force behind the arboretum was Pierre Denis Pépin, the head of the Jardin des Plantes in Paris.   He was in charge for over 30 years and planted the first Douglas firs and added many Asian species to the collection, including  Gingko biloba and  Cryptomeria japonica.

In the early 20thc Maurice de Vilmorin, a member of the  famous family of nurserymen and botanists, who had two scientifically important arboreta of their own,  introduced trees from the eastern United States such as the Tulip-tree [Liriodendron tulipifera] and the Sweetgum, [Liquidambar styraciflua] as well as European trees such as the Cork Oak [Quercus suber] and the Dwarf Beech [Fagus sylvatica Tortuosa].

More recently southern hemisphere trees such Nothofagus or southern beech have been added as well as more conifers including  Metasequoia.  Delamarre’s economic focus was continued with establishment of an experimental plantation  looking at the economic and forestry potential of a range of species including the Black Walnut, Service tree, and Red Oak.

the other side of the medal

In 1999 L’Académie d’Agriculture de France  [successor of the Société Royale] negotiated a handover of the buildings and its immediate surroundings to the  Conseil Général du l’Eure, – the local department or county –  who now run the arboretum and chateau, making it a visitor attraction as much as a arboricultural experimental station.

The chateau has been restored beautifully and is of a manageable size – to the point where most of us – well I certainly  – would be happy to live in it

Today the arboretum contains more than 3,000 woody plants from nearly 500 species spread across about 93 hectares [230 acres]. [I’m not sure what happened to the other 200+ ha and whether it has been sold off, or retained by the Academy of Agriculture.]

And just in case you’re wondering if there is by any remote chance a connection between the two Harcourt arboretums the answer is YES!

In 1066 the brothers Robert and Errand of Harcourt in Normandy accompanied William the Conqueror across the Channel . After the conquest Robert returned to Normandy and built the first chateau at Harcourt and fathered the French branch of the Harcourt family. Meanwhile Errand stayed on in England.  In the 12thc  the family inherited land at Stanton in Oxfordshire which became known as Stanton Harcourt. They remained there until the 18thc when they they moved their principal seat to Nuneham Courtney, which is where Archbishop Harcourt was to start his arboretum, some thirty years after Delamarre’s.

Apparently the English and French Harcourt families are still in touch with each other, but, having made enquries during our visit it seems the two arboretums are not.  What a  missed opportunity!

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