Arusha, a small town in northern Tanzania near the border with Kenya, is probably best known as the starting point for expeditions to climb Mount Kilimanjaro or for safari tours of the national parks to the south. For me, in 2001, it was the latter, with the holiday company Exodus, and where we spent our first night in East Africa. It was also where Agapanthus, the African Lily, first came to my attention. The short walk from the hotel to the centre of town took us along a road lined with relatively modern bungalows with lushly planted front gardens. Here were stands of Brugmansia (Angel’s Trumpets) and hedges of Poinsettia, which until then I had seen only as a Christmas pot plant, doomed to fade and shrivel shortly after Twelfth Night. But most memorable was the profusion of Agapanthus Africanus, because they were ‘a ridiculous blue’, as David Nicholls describes his heroine’s eyes in his new novel ‘Sweet Sorrow’ read last week on BBC Radio 4.
In the years that followed I planted an Agapanthus in my little south-facing front garden, where it not only succeeded but positively took over for a year or three, self-seeding itself generously. Now confined to three chunky clumps of approximately 6 or 7 stems apiece, they dominate the front elevation of the house throughout July and are this week opening to their full splendour. They have shrugged off their pinkish tissue-like membrane to reveal numerous individual flowers, held on fine stemlets about 4cm long, branching from the apex of a sturdy 1 metre stem rising from a crown of strappy leaves. And they are indeed ‘a ridiculous blue’: not lavender, not navy, not saxe, but resembling the bright skies in mediaeval illuminated manuscripts. The flared six-petalled flowers are very attractive to pollinators.
They will remain in flower now for several weeks, before shucking off the shrivelled petals to reveal pods of slender black seeds which judging by the many plantlets that take root in the slate surface of the front garden, are both viable and vigorous. I root out these fleshy rooted seedlings every autumn and pot them up to give away or fill yet another of the terracotta pots which are threatening to crowd the sunny spot at the back of the rear garden. I feed all the Agapanthus plants monthly during autumn and winter, with a liquid seaweed feed to ensure good flowering the following season. In the summer after I failed to do so, one of the large front garden plants failed to produce a single flower. Elegant and architectural as the mid green leaves are, the absence of flowers was noted by most visitors to the house, even the non-gardening ones.
The narrow beds which surround the Palm House in Kew Gardens are planted with Agapanthus praecox, creating a soft fringe at the base of Decimus Burton’s Victorian iron and glass structure which, along with the Pagoda, symbolises the Gardens.
Another programme on Radio 4 which attracted my attention this week was ‘The Pleasures of Brecht’, which focussed on a deceptively simple poem by the German poet and playwright. Written in 1954, ‘Vergnugungen’ lists life’s pleasures including two of my own, ‘writing, planting’. Of course planting is only one aspect of the greater pleasure which is gardening in general, although I do derive a tremendous satisfaction from the act of choosing where to plant, preparing the ground, firming the plant into the soil (using the thumb and index finger method favoured at Osterley) and watering it in.
A friend who is a German scholar tells me that composing a list of one’s favourite things, in the style of Brecht, was an exercise she was set during her A Level German course. I am trying to compose my own (inevitably horticulturally biassed) list which I might share in a future blog. Meanwhile here is a translation of the original version:
‘First look from morning’s window
The rediscovered book
Snow, the change of the seasons
Lest it appear that I spend the entire week listening to Radio 4, I have also been working in both a client’s garden and in my own. Weeding and hedge trimming for the client and and carrying out a major ivy and bindweed clearance in my garden, in an effort to hold back the invasion from the unoccupied property next door. I also took a friend from out of town to see the Dale Chihuly glass exhibits in Kew Gardens and her delighted reaction to the first sight of the white and clear glass ‘petals’ in the pond in the Waterlily House was a highlight of my week. The pink Lotus flowers (Nelumbo nucifera) have grown through the sculptures, creating an exquisite tableau.
On Friday I joined Ed, a colleague from the Friday volunteering team to lead a guided walk in the gardens at Osterley, my first experience of doing so. Starting on the elegant steps at the rear of the house, facing the parkland, he began with a brief history of the garden and as we progressed into the garden we took it in turns to address the group of 16 visitors at pre-arranged places, to point out seasonal highlights and share stories of particular plants. When we paused beside the weeping silver lime, Tilia tomentosa, my explanation of the narcotic effect of the tree’s nectar on bumblebees was somewhat contradicted by a large bee loudly exiting from between the tree’s drooping boughs and ‘buzzing’ the audience.
Earlier in the week the garden team had cleared an area behind the scenes which contained an accumulation of plants which were superfluous to requirements. Gardener Ed (not everyone at Osterley is called Ed, though sometimes it does feel like they are), sent me home with three Iris germanica or Bearded Iris rhizomes. He anticipates the flowers might be white, yellow or blue. I am hoping that late next spring I shall find out if one or more of them is ‘a ridiculous blue’. In the meantime the sight of plump Agapanthus flowerheads as I approach my front door is definitely one of my daily pleasures.