The arboretum as we know it today was created through the enthusiasm and partnership of George Howard (Lord Howard of Henderskelfe) and James Russell, over a period of eighteen years, from 1975 to 1992. George Howard had begun an arboretum here in 1959, but rabbits killed most of the trees, and it was not until after James Russell had moved to Castle Howard in 1968 and created the woodland garden in Ray Wood that they turned their attention to refounding the arboretum.
The arboretum site was formerly parkland around Castle Howard, with parts later used for agriculture. The original bastion wall still forms much of the arboretum’s southern boundary and is a handsome feature. We are also fortunate in having a number of mature parkland trees, especially oaks and sweet chestnuts, dating from the 1780s, giving height and stature to what is still a very young collection.
There is a divide between the soil on each side of the central line of the arboretum. The southern side is mostly quite heavy clay, while the north side is sandy. The different growing conditions offered by the two soil types were exploited by Jim Russell as he planted a growing collection of trees from the late 1970s onwards.
A large number of interesting specimens came from Hillier Nurseries in 1979 and form the backbone of the collection, but since then the majority of trees planted have been of wild-origin, grown from seed collected by expeditions to many parts of the world, but especially China. Seed or young plants have come especially from the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, but we receive plants from many other arboreta in the United Kingdom too. This high proportion of wild-source material, with its genetic diversity and importance for conservation, makes the Yorkshire Arboretum a significant location, and it is regarded by Defra as a back-up collection for Kew.
Jim Russell retired and moved away from Castle Howard in 1992 and the arboretum and Ray Wood began to receive less care than formerly. Realising the importance of the collections, John Simmons, then Curator of Kew Gardens, instigated the formation of the Castle Howard Arboretum Trust as a partnership between Kew and the Castle Howard Estate in 1994. The Trust has the remit of preserving and developing the collections in both the Yorkshire Arboretum and Ray Wood, and has a membership balanced between nominees of RBG Kew, Castle Howard and independent members. Tony Kirkham has acted as the liaison officer from Kew throughout.