Lilacs in May
In 1959 the Arnold Arboretum, Harvard University, wrote a scathing critique on a 40 page lilac breeding treatise written by a Russian – it was ‘indeed a sad commentary on the state of plant genetics and plant breeding in the Soviet Union’. Yet this Russian was awarded the Stalin prize for developing more than 300 new lilacs during the 1920s ansd 30s, and this month the International Lilac Society’s conference is in Moscow and is dedicated to the 125th birthday of him, a renowned breeder called Leonid Kolesnikov. His stunning ‘Krasavitsa Moskvy’ lilac was voted the society’s favourite lilac in 2014. Kolesnikov is part of a long tradition of Russians adoring lilac, despite it being dull out of season. Rachmaninov received bouquets of lilac from admirers at his performances, and in 1902 he composed a song to pay for his honeymoon based on an 18th century Russian poem about lilacs. Today Piccoplant is micropropagating and selling these rare Russian lilacs as seen at Journees des Plantes in Chantilly.
Snake’s head Fritillary
Fritillaries inhabit damp meadows near rivers, flowering in mid spring their vaguely reptilian nature is reminiscent of late summer’s toad lilies, not quite sinister but intriguing. Up close the elegant curve of its slender neck and complex chequerboard pattern of the muddy purple flower is beautiful, but curiously the pattern is absent in the occasional white flowers. What makes the pattern disappear in the white flower is undoubtedly hidden in the fritillary’s extraordinary genome. Fritillaries have ‘obese’ genomes with 15 times as much DNA as humans, indeed they have the most ‘obese’ genomes discovered so far. Kew is researching into the fritillary’s obesity issue, while we are left to admire the dots of colour it adds to our meadows and gardens.
Prunus incisa ‘Kojo-no-mai’
The small Fuji cherry ‘Kojo-no-mai’ flowers predictably in early spring, has lovely red autumn leaves and behaves by not growing too fast, nor demanding cosseting, and as our gardens shrink in size it is a popular choice. We could perhaps view it with disdain because it is widely available. But on close scrutiny it is incredibly lovely, what makes it so? For me the angular tracery of its twigs gives an impression of maturity beyond its years, like that of a venerable oak, and yet the delicate pale blossom is reminiscent of Degas’ paintings of ballet dancers. The combination of maturity and grace is the secret of its appeal.
The Camellia ‘Jupiter’ was bred about a century ago. It is compact, upright and flowers February to April, but being a japonica variety doesn’t drop its spent flowers as neatly as williamsii hybrids do. It does have an exceedingly handsome central boss resembling a royal crown. Camellias are more than just delightful flowers, and have been of historical significance for centuries.
The earliest camellias in Europe were planted in Portugal 460 years ago, a blink of an eye compared to the hundreds of years since the Zhou dynasty Chinese started drinking tea made from Camellia sinensis. During the 1700s ornamental camellias arrived in England, and tea took a leading role in international trade, smuggling, and colonial politics, including the Boston Tea Party protest where tea was thrown into the harbour.
This heralded the American revolution starting in 1775. King George III lost the American colonies and went mad so we will never know if he would have been amused by a camellia with a boss resembling a crown. Camellias are still playing a leading role, I am drinking Sri Lankan Loolecondera BOP Fannings tea, admiring the camellias flowering outside, and looking forward to watching King George III singing ‘you cry in your tea which you hurl in the sea’ from ‘You’ll be Back’ in the musical Alexander Hamilton.
The ancient Greeks told the myth of a beautiful naiad nymph of springs and wells and fountains. The nymph escaped her pursuer Apollo by transforming into a bay or laurel tree or ‘Daphne’ in Greek. This myth was dramatically and famously depicted in gleaming white marble by the 17thcentury sculptor Bernini. Absent from both the myth and the marble is the tantalizing perfume of Daphnes, the essence and raison d’etre for growing them and why the planthunters
sought them out in the Himalayas.
One Daphne, Daphne bholua, ‘bholua’ deriving from the Nepalese name ‘bhulu swa’ is a tall shrub, thriving in shelter from cold winds and a steady supply of moisture. The beautiful white variety Cobhay Snow is worth pursuing for its pervading intoxicating scent not solely its beauty.
Kniphofia “Yellow Cheer”
November and December can be two of the most dreary months in and out of the garden. Almost everything in the garden has seemingly dissolved in to a squashy mess and all those harbingers of spring we so look forward to are still firmly tucked up in their winter lairs. Some years ago, whilst minding my young sons at the local garden centre pirate ship (a consolation for them enduring their mother’s plant obsessions) my attention was drawn to a beautiful late flowering kniphofia in the border surrounding the play area. It was tall growing with glowing orangey-yellow flowers surmounted by chartreuse tips. I forgot the children and started to poke around at the foot of this amazing plant in order to find a label and discover its name. Luckily, I found a very faded paper label and, even better, later found two rather poor and bedraggled specimens on the sales bench. I purchased one and ever since have looked forward to its beautiful flowers emerging from the patch of dark green leaves at the end of October. The stems continue to rise, during November, to around four feet or sometimes more, and the flowers glow majestically across the garden well into December. Having had a quick look on the net I have found only one supplier now in the UK: that doyen of kniphofia, Bob Brown of Cotswold Garden Flowers. He doesn’t have any in stock either! So sorry, but I don’t know where you can get one at the moment. I wonder if this is because the plant’s very late flowering habit make it commercially unattractive to nurseries and garden centres? Such a shame for it is an excellent plant. Nurseries in the US describe it’s colour as “pumpkin” which I rather like and one says it attracts hummingbirds but I haven’t had any luck with that yet!
I first came across this enchanting plant when someone brought it to the Group’s sales table. Knowing nothing about it but being very keen on the persicaria family I bought it and took it home. Without looking it up I planted it where my other persicarias like to be: in the heavy very moist area adjoining our lawn. And boy, did it grow! In its first year it reached five feet in height and was smothered with tiny white flowers in fluffy clusters from mid-summer until well into November. What surprised me was the delicious scent that pervaded the garden – really lovely to be able to enjoy such a beautiful perfume in October. The plant was self supporting too, despite its height, until the branches began to tire at the end of the season. I have since looked up persicaria polymorpha on the internet and it is not an invasive runner (good!) and doesn’t self seed so I feel that I can wholehearted recommend this plant to everyone as a reliable and valuable garden plant. It combines well with other herbaceous plants and grasses and grows in almost any conditions (mine’s in semi shade) and any soils that aren’t too dry.
Geranium “Elworthy Eyecatcher”
I purchased this amazing little geranium from its breeder, Jenny Spiller of Elworthy Cottage Plants. I thought that it might just be another pink geranium but Jenny said that it had a very long flowering period and it most certainly does, flowering profusely into November and beyond in a mild year. The flowers are a good, lightly veined, pink that sings out at you and the plant forms a tidy clump about 18 inches high. It seems happy in sun or light shade. Mine is growing at the foot of some shrubs in semi shade and it has still flowered well for six months. Even if your reaction to seeing Geraniums on the nursery sales table is “oh not another Geranium – I have one of those already!” please try and make room (it doesn’t need all that much) for “Elworthy Eyecatcher” as it really will earn its place in your garden.
There are so many lovely Salvias – from hardy herbaceous varieties to shrubby hardy and tender ones. I am focusing on the shrubby ones and, with apologies for featuring photos of tender varieties on a Hardy Plant Society website, I would like to commend them to you as excellent plants for the border or pot. They put up with a lot of neglect from me and flower their socks off from late spring to late autumn. All they ask for is a bit of sun and well drained soil (although they don’t like to be short of water either). Prune them hard back in early spring and they will come back with lots of lovely new growth and a myriad of flowers in a wide range of colours.
The tender varieties, such as Salvia confertiflora and Salvia corrugata shown, need to be taken into a frost free greenhouse for the winter or alternatively new plants can easily be raised from cutting taken any time during the growing season. This little bit of extra care is fully rewarded by the exotic and beautiful mass of flowers produced by these two large Salvias in late summer and throughout the autumn t the first frosts. Plants can make 5 feet high and 3 feet or more wide if they are happy.
However, if you would rather stick with hardier varieties there are many to choose from: the variable-coloured ‘Hot Lips’ changes from red to red and white to pure white depending on the temperature and weather conditions, ‘La Luna’ is a beautiful pale lemon, ‘Silas Dyson’ has large crimson flowers, ‘Royal Bumble’ is bright red, ‘Cerro Potosi’ has large magenta-pink flowers and can make quite a large plant: there are many more. These plants, varieties of Salvia microphylla or Salvia greggii or hybrids of the two, generally grow to around two to three feet tall and the same in width. All are good so try one (or more!) out if you don’t already.
I find July a very difficult month in my garden as I don’t have the conventional herbaceous border and all of my late spring favourites are now dying down. I have campanulas, phlox and some salvias in flower but nothing that really excites me until later in the summer, as shade abounds in my garden and most flowering plants don’t like shade that much.
However there are still some excellent foliage plants around and one, Brunnera in its many forms, is still looking stunning. I grow a number of Brunnera and love them all. Brunnera could have featured in the Plant of the Month column during the spring as its forget-me-not type flowers give the plant a beautiful extra dimension, but here I am in July with the flowers having been over a month and the plants still look stunning.
I chose to photograph ‘Jack Frost’ which is probably one of the most popular Brunnera available, and quite rightly so with its silvery leaves shining out from beneath the skirts of my shrubs. The green veins and edging to the leaves give the plant an added attraction. The plant grows to about two feet across and 8 inches high with the flowers rising up on wiry stems another 12 inches or so in April.
However there are many other excellent forms: I also grow ‘Sea Heart’ which has similar leaves to ‘Jack Frost’ but seems to be a smaller growing plant, ‘Looking Glass’ which has more silver on its leaves and much finer veining, ‘Hadspen Cream’, which has irregular cream margins to its light green leaves, and the newly-acquired ‘Alexander’s Great’ which produces a mound of very large silvery green-veined leaves.
Brunnera are very undemanding plants, providing you give them a little shade to stop their leaves scorching, but do best in moisture retentive soils. Most varieties produce blue flowers but one or two, such as ‘Betty Bowring’ and ‘Mr Morse’ have white flowers.
I think that “Spotty Dotty” has to be one of my all-time favourite plants, if not THE favourite. Luckily, whilst I can’t grow sun-loving herbaceous perennials and shrubs in most of the garden I do have a lot of places where Dotty and her friends thrive. Here she is in my minute raised bed in the space between the garden wal
l, a stone outbuilding and the house, receiving good light but very little direct sunlight and growing in cool, moist soil. This is the same bed that I grow my Jeffersonias in. But when the Jeffersonias are in flower, Dotty is still tucked up in bed; her big, fat buds lying just b
elow the surface. The beautiful spotted leaves that give her her name do not unfurl until around April. She is looking great by May but it is not until June that the leaves are joined by the exquisite flowers, hanging in great, dark red clusters beneath. I have tried to capture both these features in the photo and probably not done either justice.
Spotty Dotty is reasonably hardy but requires a sheltered, shady spot to grow really well, away from cold winds and excessive frost. It is claimed that molluscs can be an issue but I don’t use slug bait and have not had a problem, despite my plant growing next to the sort of rubble stone wall snails like to live in. The plant will slowly spread outwards to about 30 inches and the beautiful leaves are held above stalks around 16 inches high. If you have woodsy conditions in your garden you must give Dotty a try.
Sorry but here I go again. As you might have realised by now I have a bit of an obsession with variegated plants. I also have an obsession with euphorbias – pity I can’t grow many of them well in my cold wet clay. The euphorbia pictured is growing in a pot and has done quite well so it is possible to grow them, regardless of your soil. However, in the ground, euphorbia characias prefers good drainage and a sunny position. Some can then make 4 to 5 feet in height and width. There are many good named forms: Lambrook Gold, Silver Swan, Tasmanian Tiger, Emmer Green and Burrows Silver being just some of those available.
In the spring they start to produce new bracts on bowed heads which gradually straighten and open out, rivalling the gaudiest of flowers. Euphorbias aren’t high maintenance. The old stems can be cut out in the spring or the whole plant cut to the ground immediately after “flowering” to ensure the regeneration of the plant and new flowering stems for next year. I’m sure that I shan’t need to remind anyone to take care of getting the sap on their skin as it is an irritant.
The two species, Jeffersonia dubia and Jeffersonia diphylla, are equally beautiful and e
legant. These lovely woodlanders have delicate white flowers (dubia’s are sometimes tinged blue) and attractive toning glaucus leaves. Dubia hails from China, Russia and Korea and diphylla from North America. They emerge from the woodsy soil in March and come into flower quite quickly. Diphylla grows to about 7 or 8 inches tall and dubia to around 11 or 12 inches. I grow mine in a small raised bed which receives no direct sun but isn’t dark and they seem to love it there. It means that these choice plants don’t get lost in the jostle for elbow room that takes place in the rest of the garden. Jeffersonia diphylla and Jeffersonia dubia are both available from Long Acre Plants at Charlton Musgrove near Wincanton.
I love the wall flower family but find that the more perennial, shrubby ones don’t usually thrive in my soggy soil. However I bought “Parish’s” or “Parrish’s” a few years ago from Mike and Jenny Spiller of Elworthy Cottage and it has done very well. For me it doesn’t make a big plant, being about 18 inches high and a couple of feet wide, and is somewhat floppy and lax but I quite like its relaxed style and the largely magenta flowers (they do appear in other hues of reddish-purple too from time to time) are beautiful. The plant seems to flower for months: despite last winter being cold, my plant has produced flowers right the way through – it must be exhausted!
Like most of the wall flower family Parrish’s isn’t long lived and can get straggly if not cut back. Take some cuttings at the same time to ensure that you don’t lose this delightful little plant. Parrish’s is evergreen of course and has the usual wall flower scent. It is thought to have been discovered in the garden of the Parrish family, near Bath, so should be celebrated in Somerset!
Like many people, I rely heavily on shrubs for mid winter interest. Scented flowers abound and those with attractive leaves, such as the variegated daphnes featured last month, really help to keep the garden looking good. One of my favourites, that never fails to draw admiring comments from passers-by, is Ribes speciosum. This native of southern California copes very well with everything the British winter can throw at it.
It makes an excellent wall shrub and is tolerant of adhoc pruning to keep it in order, although in a sheltered sunny spot it will easily make 6 feet high and almost as wide. Beware of the spiny stems though! Ribes speciosum loses its leaves early and then grows them back in mid-winter. The arrival of the leaves is quickly followed by beautiful fuchsia-like flowers from late January to April which hang thickly in jaunty rows along the branches. When you consider that the accompanying photo was taken during January in what has been a cold winter with many frosts, my plant is still starting to look good. Given another month the flowers on this indispensable shrub will be far more impressive.
I have only owned this superb little shrub for a fairly short time but it is already lighting up my winter garden. The rose purple buds form in mid winter and open as a paler pink in the early spring and exude the usual delicious Daphne fragrance. It enjoys a position with good light but sheltered from cold winds and hot sun and seems to do very well in my garden on the north side of an ornamental willow. My plant isn’t all that big yet but I understand that it is slow growing and may reach a maximum size of 1.5m tall and retains a compact and bushy habit. I purchased my plant from Monkton Elm Garden Centre, down the road from our meeting venue at West Monkton Village Hall, but it seems to be fairly widely available.
Whilst I do appreciate that variegation isn’t to everyone’s taste and some may say that I have too much of it in my garden for decencies-sake, I just love the “cooey – look at me” in your face gorgeousness of this plant. However, if you find “Aureomarginata” too gaudy for your tastes you won’t want to invite Rebecca into your garden!
I am extremely fond of the genus Pulmonaria in its many forms as they not only grow very well in my largely north facing, cool, damp garden but they also don’t seem to have a time of year when they take a complete rest, always having beautiful spotted, mottled or silvery leaves bringing a quiet beauty to most parts of the garden – even in the depths of winter. If their leaves do begin to get a little tatty you can chop them off and the plant will fairly quickly grow some more and rejuvenate itself.
I purchased this beautiful, largely silver-leaved, Pulmonaria from Bob Brown of Cotswold Garden Flowers but I believe that it is also stocked by the more local Dorset Perennials. It’s a fairly new variety, first bred or discovered by June Blake, sister of Irish horticulturist and plant hunter Jimi Blake. It has an extremely eyecatching and well-shaped form that still looks good in the depths of winter. The flowers are a good rich pink, fading to a paler shade with some blueness, and appear in early spring.
Weak-stemmed, floppy, superseded in form, colour and scent by millions of newer roses, this is still the one I could never be without. Known as ‘Parsons’ Pink China’, ‘Common Monthly’, ‘Old Pink Daily’, ‘Old Blush’, ‘Pale China Rose’ – the many names reflect its long history. In cultivation in England before 1800, it was popular enough to be, literally, the ‘Last Rose of Summer’ which the Irish tenor Count John McCormack (‘Long Way to Tipperary) sang about, the words (by poet Thomas Moore) being inspired by its late blooms in a Kilkenny garden.
Early introduction in its present form came from the centuries-old
Chinese fashion for double flowers. It’s probably a hybrid between R.chinensis and R.gigantea, and it became one of the four ‘stud Chinas’ used to develop Noisettes and Bourbons. The others were ‘Slater’s Crimson, with ‘Hume’s Blush’ and ‘Park’s Yellow’ bringing in tea scent. ‘Parsons’ Pink’ has a light scent sometimes likened to sweet peas or apple blossom, but its names reveal the real joy it brings. There is hardly a day of the year without a flower. Even if winter buds don’t open well, they always grace my Christmas table. Forget huge bowls of colour, even one or two pale heads in a tiny bottle bring hope and delight into the dead of winter.
It needs the support of a wall, but tolerates some shade. It’s not widely available but Jane Hollow (Pounsley Plants near Plymouth) and Moor Plants at Ashcott usually stock it
Of all the decorative and garden-worthy ‘pokers’ now available (peep at Bob Brown’s catalogue for the beauties bred by his son Edmund) my absolute favourite has to be a species, K.rooperi. Native of the Eastern Cape in South Africa, where it grows in marshy areas near the coast, it is hardy in the West Country, a strong grower clumping up well. Admired for its grand globular heads, and valued for its late flowering season, it makes a splendid statement in the autumn garden.
The form best known in cultivation is properly called ‘Maxima Globosa’ (check out the terrific new Wisley monograph for sound information on this genus). The cultivar name ‘Torchlight’, formerly claimed for a form ‘found in an old Devon garden’, has been debunked. There do seem to be a couple of clones in the trade though – one of mine flowers in September, another in October – so I have the exhilarating display for more than a month, the blazing orange heads lighting up any dark days as the year begins to fade. There is a yellow variant, in the wild if not in horticulture, but I don’t see that anything could be better than the normal fiery colour scheme.
It’s supposedly ‘widely available’, though seldom seen at plant sales (not an easy thing to produce neat, tidy and in flower on the right day !), but there’s a reliable source at Peter Lindley’s Hidden Valley nursery near Umberleigh. It can be pre-ordered for delivery to events.
During 2016 I have chosen my Plant of the Month for when it actually flowers best or is most useful. However September is a retrospective choice because I really CANNOT miss this one although it flowers in August ! I’m lucky enough to be on the RHS Trials panel for Agapanthus, and photo opportunities are perforce defined by those meeting dates.
Many of us love these bulbs, planting the hardy deciduous varieties in borders and the more tender evergreens as splendid pot subjects. We are lucky in the West Country, with Dick and Lorna Fulcher breeding wonderful beauties at Pine Cottage Plants in the Taw valley, and because both Avon Bulbs and Broadleigh Gardens list many varieties including their own selections.
‘Alan Street’ was picked out from some nursery seedlings at Avon Bulbs about 12 years ago – thanks of course to our eponymous friend’s sharp eyes – and to my great pleasure was named for him, being listed in the famously lovely catalogue since 2012. It’s deciduous, and a wonderfully good doer. Even as early as June the shapely clumps of clear green leaves can make a valuable statement. It then produces masses of well-held stems topped by open flower heads. The florets droop slightly (an inapertus parent somewhere ?), but open gracefully. The delicious deep indigo colour has a subtle red-purple glow, avoiding the sometimes deadening darkness of some of the coveted ‘black’ varieties. In the Trials beds it stands out from afar – it’s a superb garden plant.
If I ever moved into a colder area, this is the shrub I would miss most. It comes from Southern Europe and the old RHS Dictionary cautiously says ‘Not very hardy but useful for exposed maritime situations’ so a dark Exmoor valley or the top of the Brendons or Blackdowns might not be ideal. It’s also a calcicole – the only time I’ve found it in the wild was in a limestone gorge in North Morocco, growing in scree above oleanders.
Given this warning, I would however urge anybody who could grow it to try. Like Skimmia ‘Kew Green’ AGM (featured in February this year) it’s one of the few small shrubs I consider faultless. It always looks smart with long straight upright twigs and evergreen slightly glaucous leaves with paler reverses. The umbels, a rich mellow yellow, have colour
through July and August and are good for pollinators. It’s completely wind-proof (twigs, leaves and flowers) – and believe me, Lilstock tests this! It can be pruned hard back to near the base if you want to keep it low enough for mid-border or front-of-shrubbery, or discreetly beside a path.
I know this because last year one of mine outside the wall was savaged by a careless hedge-cutting contractor. It looked damaged for much of the autumn but this year is better than ever.
The Plant Finder doesn’t list a Somerset supplier, but Pan Global and Bob Brown usually have it, and it’s certainly worth searching for.
Tulbaghia ‘Purple Eye’ AGM
These charming African bulbs have rather come into fashion, with West Country nurserymen such as Julian Sutton (Desirable Plants) listing
many species and selections. This one, ‘Purple Eye’, is actually quite
venerable but has only recently been widely launched into the trade after tissue culture enabled bulk production. Bred by Dick Fulcher of Pine Cottage Plants, where so many of us have acquired treasured Agapanthus cultivars, it was the result of a cross between T. comminsii and T. violacea, and to me way surpasses either parent. It’s gentle, palest mauve colour, with the dark eye like a drop of ripe mulberry juice, gives it real charm.
A great advantage (and here too it outdoes its parents) is a surprisingly long flowering season. Coming into bloom in June, it will probably still be flowering in November if reasonably sheltered. It’s an ideal pot subject, discreetly pretty, flowering above a clump of narrow, spreading leaves. It ‘goes with anything’, and enjoys sun and good drainage, making a lovely companion for twiggy salvias or pelargoniums. It is also an excellent front-of-border plant – I’ve just seen a delightful planting where it was combined with a fine-leaved Eryngium, Geranium psilostemon and a deep cherry-red Salvia nemorosa or S. x sylvestris selection. The pale Tulbaghia heads and the silver streaks in the Eryngium leaves made a most elegant contrast to the deeper maroon shades of the other flowers.
‘Purple Eye’ is hardy as long as drainage is good, but of course appreciates a warm position.
Cistus ladanifer ‘Blanche’
One of the most thrilling botanical sites I know is undoubtedly Cape St Vincent. The most south-westerly point of Portugal (and so effectively of Europe), this limestone headland with dramatic cliffs, where Atlantic gales prune all vegetation down to strange cushions, is full of rare plants. Alpine Swifts cruise the sea caves below an isolated little 14C building supposedly associated with Henry the Navigator. Vegetation is dominated in places by the gleaming, gloriously sticky leaves of a white Cistus. This is Cistus palinhae, now properly called C. ladanifer var sulcatus, a form of the familiar Gum Cistus. It is endemic, sadly on the
IUCN Red List as the Cape is battered by tourism and ‘sport’ vehicles ripping through the scrub, but used to be abundant, looking very distinct as the large flowers have deliciously ‘crumpled’ petals and bold yellow anthers.
This species was known to Collingwood ‘Cherry’ Ingram who was a tremendously keen hybridiser, involved with Rubus and Rosmarinus as well as the cherries which he imported from Japan. He loved Cistus, and one of his best known is the lovely pink C. x fernandesiae which he named ‘Anne Palmer’ after his Rosemoor friend. My favourite however is ‘Blanche’, bred in the 1940s, which keeps the wide flowers, faintly crumpled charm and strongly aromatic sticky leaves of a Cape St
Vincent parent. In hot weather even the Bristol Channel coast can
waft ‘Mediterranean’ as one passes. It flowers for a good two months, and is certainly coastal hardy.
I don’t know an English name for this plant – ‘Changeable Wallflower’ would be roughly correct, but doesn’t have much of a ring to it! It is however on my best-beloved list, in spite of being much less spectacular than most of the modern multi-coloured perennial wallflowers. Compared to the ‘Cotswold’ selections for instance its flowers are rather small with muted colours, but it has the huge advantage of being relatively long-lived by wallflower standards (up to five years without fuss, sometimes more), flowering usually from March to June. The flowers open primrose, turning reddish-purple as they age, and are held on slender but strong stems over slightly glaucous foliage which is effectively evergreen.
Its origins are more glamorous than its appearance perhaps suggests. It’s a Cretan endemic, a ‘chasmophyte’ growing in the rock walls of the great gorges, and in the coastal exposure of my garden I’ve found it an ideal plant for raised beds or rockery, forming quite large clumps which lean decoratively over the edges. It may have been used in the breeding of several of our modern ‘perennial’ favourites, and the wild habitat explains their inclination to lean sideways (even stalwart ‘Bowles’ Mauve’ sometimes does this).
It flies under the radar of the nursery trade, being far from new or flashy, but Triscombe usually has it. It also grows really easily from cuttings – good-natured in this as well as in its weather tolerances – and I’m always happy to supply them.
There are several mysteries connected to this bulb, the main one being why SO few people know, grow or list it. To its fans, including me, it is a star among scillas – being very easy, increasing generously (but never a pest), shade-tolerant, hardy, and looking good from March when the handsome wide leaves appear, and in flower through April and into May. It’s not one of the pennies-for-hundreds Little Blue Bulbs, but as it bulks up so well, investing something like a tenner can give a very good start. Only five nurseries listed it in the 2015 Plant Finder (the nearest being Bregover in Cornwall and Shipton Bulbs in Wales, while Avon Bulbs have monopoly of the white form).
Native to central France and North Spain, it grows in woods and damp grassy places, so suits moist shrubbery conditions well, and goes beautifully with hellebores and primroses. The bulbs are strange, large for a scilla, with loose scales quite like an actual lily. It divides and transplants easily when your clumps get big.
The flowers are soft blue/mauve, of open starry shape, held on sturdy stems not too far above the very handsome clean mid-green foliage, so the opportunities for attractive planting combinations are many. It really is a plant which will ‘go with anything’, including my earlier picks (Arum pictum, Skimmia ‘Kew Green’, and the Millwood primroses), and three months looking good is an achievement for any small spring bulb! Key words charming, distinctive, reliable!
The Millwood Primroses
I garden on an exposed limestone rock on the coast, so canot grow some of my favourite plants, including primroses. This is especially painful now, in March, and especially frustrating as our friends Gary Buckingham and Paul Navin produce a really beautiful range from their Millwood Plants nursery. I’m sure members can visualise the enchanting colours on their stalls at plant fairs, and at our own Lambrook events primroses hold a central place.
Gary has long experimented with developing new primroses. Using some of the great oldies from the Barnhaven and Cowichan strains, and favourites such as ‘Garryarde Guinevere’, he has bred some delightful plants which are now available under the ‘Millwood’ prefix.
Several of these have a feature which I find irresistible – dark leaf colour. As the flowers are mostly in subtle tones of old rose and cream, the slightly bronzed leaves set them off perfectly. A meeting in a car park at a recent snowdrop event provided me with loan plants of ‘Millwood Lemon’ (top picture) and ‘Millwood Pink Beauty’ (middle) to study. Both have these elegant leaves and are multi-headed, polyanthus style. Another is new to me, ‘Millwood Double’ (bottom). This is a green-leaved single-stemmed primrose with really lovely flowers showing layers of colour from bright cherry to gold, changing as the flowers develop.
I’m not going to give them the death sentence of being planted at Lilstock, but really long for a day when I have a primrose-friendly garden and ‘Millwood’ selections will be first on my wish list.
Skimmia x confusa ‘Kew Green’ AGM
Snowdrops, aconites, the early crocuses and flowering shrubs bring welcome colour into the February garden, each appearance an excitement. Weather can be cruel though, and often wind or frost (or enemies like greedy pheasants) can spoil those treasures dishearteningly, so for my Plant of the Month I am again choosing one which is just GREEN, but wonderfully indestructible!
This excellent shrub (selected at Kew, hence the name) is probably a hybrid between the little-known S. anquetilia and the familiar S. japonica. It was awarded an AGM in 2002 and is increasingly popular. Staying fairly low, forming a satisfying domed mound, it can be very useful in front of shrubbery or by a path. The dense evergreen foliage is glossy and for most of the winter the bush is covered with greenish conical bud sprays which open in March or April to fragrant greenish-cream flowers. It’s male, so no berries, but it is the most reliably neat and pleasingly stylish small evergreen I have ever grown. Cut sprays are great for winter bunches.
It is shade-tolerant and unfussy. Here it grows on the northside of a wall, pretty well in the roots of a large Prunus. In fact the shade probably suits it, because most Skimmias can show unsightly yellow leaf scorch in full sunlight. It’s close to a path, so when flowering the scent is easy to appreciate. It’s fully hardy, and I’ve seen it looking happy in a variety of soils. It is now widely available.
January demands plants which lift the spirits. Sparks of colour in the
garden help, but one of my most reliable treats comes from just a clump of plain green leaves. They belong to one of the most obscure arums, A. pictum, an endemic of the Balearics, unique in the genus for flowering in the autumn. In September or October it produces strange deep purple hoods – quite a thrill in themselves. An online source claims they smell ‘like running over a skunk’ but I’ve never noticed any dreadful wafts such as those coming from my Dracunculus!
The leaves appear as the cowls shrivel, and remain shapely, substantial and shining through till April. As the species is admirably tolerant of dry shade, it’s ideal for winter interest under deciduous shrubs. Mine is excellent under my fig trees, where the gleaming leaves look smart in all weathers. The stems and edges of new leaves have a crimson tinge, while the pale central veins become clearer with age.
An essential point is that this is NOT the plant sometimes called Arum ‘Pictum’, a name carelessly applied to some of the selections of Arum italicum with obvious white markings (‘Marmoratum’ AGM being the best known), though all are treasures. There are only 8 Plant Finder entries, though its few nurseryman fans rate it highly for easy cultivation, unusual elegance and relative hardiness (H4). Luckily for us these stockists include our friends the Rowlands at Long Acre and the Suttons at Desirable Plants!
Lachenalia aloides var. quadricolor
Even the most informal photograph can show the wonderfully exotic appearance of this little South African bulb. It looks like a rare luxury plant, possibly very tricky to grow and flower, but I’ve chosen it for this grim month of the year because it is actually one of the most reliable and undemanding of plants, and the brilliant colours and generous flowering are always so cheering.
Lachenalia is quite a large genus, and there are plenty of unusual species (and decorative hybrids) in the trade, some with rare and subtle forms and colours, but I love the in-your-face brilliance of this one. It comes from exposed, nutrient-poor habitat – crevices in granite rocks in the SW Cape region – so it can be treated with benign neglect, or worse!
Leaves appear in early autumn, which reminds me to knock some compost out of the pots, refresh them a bit, and start watering. They live in open cold frames till flower buds appear (near Christmas) when they come into the house onto light windowsills. Feed well when flowering (tomato food or Ron Scamps magic slow-release compound). After flowering it’s out into the frames again, the leaves die down, and the pots kick around somewhere fairly dry till next September. That’s it!
Bulbs proliferate – if you have energy you can tip them out when dormant and re-pot zillions of little pips, but if you forget they’ll still put on their brilliant show just when you need some warming colour in your life.
When I was first offered a cutting of Buddleja auriculata I was in two minds. My new garden was, and is, large, but this buddleja is not reliably hardy. It needs the shelter of a south-facing wall. And south-facing walls are in short supply at Henley Mill. I accepted with a slightly ironic smile, made the cutting, and waited. It took. They always do where there is some doubt. So I planted it against the sunny back wall of the house … and waited.
All summer it grew. The leaves were ‘nice’ but unspectacular. And
then in late October the little buds started to open to cream, honey-scented flowers. Again, nice and unspectacular. Then one sunny morning I looked out of my window and every bee and butterfly from the furthest reaches of the garden (and you would be surprised how many there are in November) was voraciously feeding on the buddleja. It was alive with fluttering wings and lazy buzzing. It had earned its place. And for the next 15 years it held court every winter. Now, alas, the buddleja has fallen victim to the dread disease ‘painters’, and is no more. But the cats and I miss it. Perhaps we should contact that friend again.
I have long had a love affair with Hydrangea aspera. Many years ago when I saw H. aspera ‘Villosa’ flowering at Great Dixter I was bowled over. In the very well cultivated soil in the Sunken Garden, the flowers were like dinner plates: enormous lavender lacecaps over large felted leaves.
There are several different named forms of H. aspera. All are huge. Some are well over 2.5 metres (7-8ft) tall, and the flowers remain the same colour: H. aspera appears not to be sensitive to the pH of the soil. Both H. aspera ‘Mauvette’ and H. aspera ‘Sam MacDonald’ have pinker flowers, while H. aspera ‘Peter Chappell’ has pure white flowers that fade pink, and so far has not exceeded 2m in my garden.
But perhaps it is the leaves that really ‘sell’ this plant. Those of H.
aspera ‘Macrophylla’ are the size not of dinner plates but of serving
salvers. And among some varieties the foliage is coloured. The new variety ‘Hot Chocolate’ has red stems and reverses to the sea-green leaves. The flowers are an outstanding strong coral pink. I can’t wait for my own plant to achieve its potential.
At the end of the summer when the herbaceous borders are beginning to look a little tired and wan, how delightful it is that some flowers are just coming into bud. And they are not daisies. There are plenty of asters that are opening with enthusiastic colour in their cheeks. There are Japanese Anemones eagerly unfurling their pink and white petals. And sharp yellow spikes of Golden Rod (Solidago) cut vertically through their companions. But they can all seem a little predictable.
In my bed of Molinia ‘Transparent’ with its tall awns of flower arching and dancing in the wind I wanted something a little less stiff, less heavy, more mobile. So when I came across Succisella inflexa at a late plant sale I was captivated. Its hosts of tiny, lilac-pink flowers, like animated moths on tall, very tall, stems move in unison with the wind and the grass. Unlike many of its scabious relatives, it seems not to dislike my rich, slightly heavy soil, but it does share their sun-loving ways. Essentially it is light and airy and its flowering peaks at the same time as the molinia is at its most beautiful. The combination is impressionistic, and charming.
It is odd how rarely gardeners grow veronicastrum. Perhaps it is the name that is off-putting. Maybe it’s too like ‘veronica’, or hebe, a plant which is a little unfashionable at present. Perhaps it failed to impress after the recent cold winters. They are both members of the extensive plantain family: the flowers are very similar in structure. But whereas hebe are native to New Zealand, and therefore slightly wary of ice and snow, veronicastrum are herbaceous, tough Americans that retreat below ground in winter.
In recent years the great garden designer, and nurseryman, Piet Oudolf, has begun to popularise veronicastrum for growing among tall grasses and late-flowering perennials. It makes a stable, vertical accent amongst horizontal daisy flowers, and swaying, arching grasses.
There are pink, lilac and white forms with the required upright stance. There’s Veronicastrum virginicum ‘Fascination’: a delicious play on the word ‘fasciation’, which is what this plant displays. The stems appear to be stuck together, and the flower spikes are wide and flat. But my favourite is V. virginicum ‘Pointed Finger’ where the topmost spike is bent at 90º to the vertical. The whole plant appears to be pointing rudely at you, the viewer. I wonder what it’s saying.