When my parents arrived as newly-weds in Billericay in 1951 it was a small, rather sleepy Essex town, on the railway line from London’s Liverpool Street Station to Southend on Sea. This was long before the advent of Essex man and woman and the brash image of the county promoted by TV shows such as The Only Way Is Essex. Ian Durie had yet to pen ‘Billericay Dickie’ and the writers of the wonderful sitcom partly set in Billericay, ‘Gavin and Stacey’, had yet to be born.
My parents’ first home was a pretty cottage with a long narrow Rhododendron hedged garden with a boggy area at the far end, beyond which lay the local park, Lake Meadows. A wooden sign hung in the front porch with ‘Meadowsweet’ written in pokerwork. My dad and a neighbour discovered a spring at the foot of their adjoining gardens, hence the damp area of land, and dug out a pretty stream over which they built picturesque rustic bridges.
When in 1959 we moved to the larger town of Brentwood a few miles away, the sign was hung over the door of the wooden shed at the far end of the garden, and bore witness to many a cycling lesson, bonfire and the memorable occasion when my dad hurled a collection of precious Fuchsia plants out of the shed which had failed to survive the winter. Many years later my parents left Essex for Hampshire, where a new garden shed was christened ‘Meadowsweet’ using the same sign. Sadly the sign is lost but that first home survives in the form of a treasured wooden musical box, modelled on the original cottage. Almost 70 years later, the sentimental strains of Irving Berlin’s ‘Always’ ring out as clearly as ever when I lift its tiled roof.
‘I’ll be loving you always
With a love that’s true always.
When the things you’ve planned
Need a helping hand,
I will understand always.’
Until recently Meadowsweet was what the sledge Rosebud was to Citizen Kane, a symbol of a vanished childhood. But last week, whilst carrying out a little gardening work for some local friends, I discovered a cultivar of the plant which inspired that Billericay cottage’s evocative name. Meadowsweet or Filipendula multijuga ‘Red Umbrellas’ is a very attractive foliage plant. Its serrate edged palmate leaves are prominently veined in deep burgundy, in contrast to the lime green of the leaves. Growing in a terracotta container, it reminded me of some similarly marked cultivars of Heuchera. Reading about the plant I learn that it has fluffy pink flowers from July to September although the specimen I saw was not yet in flower.
Another species of Meadowsweet, Filipendula ulmaria, seems a more likely inspiration for the house name, given that it is ideal for boggy areas of the garden or beside water, and I like to think that an earlier owner had named the house for the creamy-white flowered plant growing at the foot of the garden in suitably damp conditions.
With white flowers in mind, I recently came across another plant with which I was not familiar, Viola cornuta, or the Horned Pansy. It was planted in combination with a low growing Pittosporum and Verbena ‘Lollipop’. Its delicately scented pure white flowers are about 3 cm wide with long spurs and its foliage is evergreen. It grows to a height of 15cm and I understand that it is susceptible to slugs, snails, aphids, powdery mildew and pansy leaf spot. Perhaps that list of potential pests and diseases accounts for its apparent rarity. That said, I was able to find a couple of beautiful plants at North Hill Nursery this week and which I plan to include in two late summer/ autumn hanging baskets which I am planting for a client next week. I would hope that the altitude will at least deter the molluscs.
I have found the epithet ‘Chameleon’ applied to a couple of plants recently, one of which I grow in my own garden and the other I saw in a garden I visited in Northamptonshire last week. The chameleon in my garden is Houttynia cordata ‘Chameleon’, which grows profusely in my garden and is a very good ground cover plant in a sunny or partially shaded position. It has a tendency to spread by underground stems and I can understand why it is recommended that it be grown in containers to control its progress. It bears tiny yellow flowers above white bracts, but for me its most attractive feature is the foliage which is heart shaped and variegated with splashes and margins of cream and often heavily flushed in red. Until I researched the plant for this post I had forgotten that when crushed the leaves smell strongly of orange.
Colourful foliage is the feature of the next chameleon plant: Physocarpus opulifolius ‘Chameleon’. A member of the rose family, Rosaceae, this deciduous shrub grows to a height and width of about 1.5m. The leaves emerge green in spring but as the season progresses, the green darkens to wine red before turning deep purple and brown. Another plant for full sun or partial shade, the location in which I saw the similarly hued cultivar ‘Diablo d’Or’ in The Old Rectory Garden, Sudborough, was in dappled shade on the margin of the garden pond which is fed by a tributary of the river Nene. There is a great deal more to say about this exquisite garden which I shall reserve for a later post but in the meantime I shall let this image speak for itself.