Still making a virtue of the virtual

Stay at home and tour the world: Part 2 South and North America

Welcome back to Weeds Roots & Leaves’ global garden tours. Today we’re visiting the Americas: south, central and north. There has been some debate at tour HQ (interesting how a pandemic amplifies one’s internal dialogue!) about whether North and South America are classed as one continent or two. Whilst researching this point I have read that before the Second World War the USA viewed them as a single continent, but now geographers worldwide treat them as separate continents. When I calculated the total number of continents visited on this tour (five) I adopted the latter approach.

Had this tour been real rather than virtual we would at this stage have embarked from the shores of New Zealand to cross the Pacific. The nearest body of water I can muster is a small pond. A few days ago rustling sounds emanating from the dense thicket of hard rush (Juncus inflexus) at one end of the pond and a faint series of croaks hinted at the return of amphibian life to the garden. On Easter Sunday I saw two frogs luxuriating in the cool water and the warmth of the spring sunshine. Once this dry spell of weather comes to an end they will no doubt have an endless supply of snails and slugs on which to predate.

We find the first two plants from the New World in Brazil. I first saw bog sage (Salvia uligonosa) in the gardens of the Palace of Versailles on a visit last August. It was the unusual shade of blue that attracted me: light but not insipid. Fringing parterres near the palace, their height (1.5m to 2m) and profusion of flowers made an impact. Last October one of the gardeners at Osterley gave me a portion of a plant which had recently been divided telling me it was quite tender and would need to be under cover in the winter. I have been checking the specimen regularly and until this weekend it would have been an exaggeration to say it was thriving but this weekend I was relieved to find a couple of fresh stems emerging at its base. Once the threat of frost has passed at the end of April I shall plant it in a sunny spot next to its close relatives, natives of the next country on the itinerary, Mexico, in what I have decided to call the ‘Salvia Bed’, in homage to Kew’s splendid Salvia Border.

I cannot leave Brazil without taking a look at Verbena bonariensis. This too I first saw at a grand palace: Blenheim in Oxfordshire. It was probably 20 years ago and at that time these tall slender stems topped by purple flowered ‘cymes’* swaying above lower growing species were an unusual sight. Since then this has become a very popular choice for providing height without bulk in a planting scheme. It is elegant, takes up little room at its base and is easy to grow. Its geographical range is from Brazil to Argentina: indeed its alternative species epithet is V. patagonica. Although it self-seeds quite freely, I’ve always found it does so in appropriate places. Flowering from mid-summer to early autumn, it has to be one of the hardest working herbaceous perennials in the garden. Furthermore the seedheads can be left untrimmed over winter for structure and interest.

Leaving South America, our route leads us beyond Central America to the North American continent, first stop Mexico. There are three Mexican plants in this section of the tour, all introduced to my garden from the gardens at Osterley. Yesterday I planted the sage relative, pakaha or pitcher sage (Lepechinia hastata), in the Sage Bed after a winter’s protection in the upright cold-frame next to the kitchen window. Were I to adopt airs and graces I could call this a mini greenhouse, but in my opinion to qualify as a greenhouse it must be possible to open the door and step inside. Until I can find a way to miraculously expand the garden to accomodate such a structure, this two shelf solution is wonderfully useful: more later. A mature specimen of this sub-shrub can grow to 1.5m bearing spikes of tubular purple-magenta flowers in late summer. Its felty grey-green leaves are spear-shaped, or ‘hastate’, from the Latin ‘hasta’, meaning a spear. When rubbed, the leaves have an intense fragrance, like a rich blend of essential oils. Judging by the number of stock photographs featuring visiting bees, the flowers will be attractive to pollinators.

I recently planted up a Dahlia tuber into a container but have no idea what colour its flowers will be. It came from last year’s scheme in one of the potager style beds in Osterley’s Tudor Walled Garden which means it could be a deep wine red, vivid scarlet or the very pale pinky beige shade the fashion pages refer to as ‘nude’. A good place to see a spectacular Dahlia display in late summer is in the asymmetric walled garden at Kelmarsh Hall in Northants. Let’s hope the current crisis will have eased by August and September when I anticipate there’ll be a frenzy of garden visiting. In the meantime we shall have to settle for virtual tours such as this.

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Dahlias in the Walled Garden at Kelmarsh Hall

I’ve no wish to mimic one of those tour operators promoting hotels which on arrival turn out to be half built, so I confess here that the next Mexican plant has yet to germinate. I sowed the flat papery seeds of the cup and saucer plant (Cobaea scandens) approximately a fortnight ago, having harvested them from a fruit of one of the specimens trained up the hazel pole pergola which is the centrepiece of the quadrant of beds in the Tudor Walled Garden at Osterley. I had left the fruit on the kitchen windowsill for months, fearing it might go mushy and mouldy, but it dried perfectly and when opened, revealed dozens of seeds neatly stacked inside its four chambers. I understand the seeds need bottom heat to germinate and fear they may not reach the requisite temperature. But it’s too soon to give up and I would be thrilled to grow one of these vigorous climbers from seed. The large flowers can be cream or mauve and do indeed resemble a cup resting on a saucer. A prolific example of the plant grows at the base of the down spiral staircase in the central section of Kew’s Temperate House (diagonally opposite the Tree Ferns). While clearly at home in that protected environment, at Osterley it flowers well into a cool and rainy autumn, until finally seen off by a frost.

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Cobaea scandens, the cup and saucer vine at NT Osterley House & Gardens

Following the spine of mountains northwards from the Sierra Madre to the Rockies, leads us to the home of that versatile ground cover plant, Heuchera. Coming from rocky woodland sites, in my garden it thrives in the ‘Woodland Area’ and alongside Cyclamen hederifolium in a large terracotta pot beside the garden gate. The beauty of Heucheras lies chiefly in their foliage, with wide variations in leaf margins and colour. Leaves range from deep mahogany (H. ‘Palace Purple’), through a lime green cultivar to my favourite, the roundly lobed leaves of which are shaded apple green fading towards the centre to a silvery white, intersected with burgundy veining. I touch wood as I write this, but I have not known these specimens to suffer vine weevil larval damage, a common problem for this group of plants causing the entire upper structure to part company with the roots when the pest has munched through the stem.

I grow another North American ground cover plant, Tellima grandiflora, which comes from cool moist woodland from Alaska to California. Like Heuchera it grows in a low rosette and carries its flowers above the plant on slim stems.

Before leaving the Americas, I should mention that I have joined the dig for victory brigade and am growing two crops introduced to Europe from the New World. Tomatoes (Solanum lycopersicum) and potatoes (Solanum tuberosum), both members of the nightshade family. The tomato seedlings are doing well in the tall cold frame having sprouted their first non-seed leaves and I’m growing the potato variety ‘Charlotte’.  I’m experimenting with new kinds of container for both crops and shall explain more in a future post.

In my small garden alone it’s been striking while planning this itinerary to discover how many of the plants in my garden come from Asia or the Americas. But the time has come to travel east across the Atlantic to Europe. And I haven’t forgotten the promised side trip to Africa. I look forward to welcoming you to the third and final part of the tour.

*As in Part 1 of the tour I thought it would be helpful to include a drawing showing some differing flower forms.

cyme umbel drawing

Making a virtue of the virtual

Stay at home and tour the world: Part 1 Asia and New Zealand

Join me today for the first leg of a round the world tour. In case you’re thinking that Weeds Roots & Leaves didn’t receive the email about staying at home, this tour, like so many of our activities during this period of lockdown, is virtual. The itinerary covers the Far East, South and North America, New Zealand and Europe. There is even an optional side trip to sub-Saharan Africa.

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One of the many joys of a visit to Kew Gardens is reading the country of origin of the plants in Kew’s vast living collection. The distinctive black labels with their indented white lettering include not only the botanical and sometimes the common name of the plant, but the country or region from which it comes. For example, in the Davies Alpine House you might see a wild tulip (Tulipa sylvestris) from southern Spain planted between a gentian from the Alps and Ipheion, a member of the onion family from South America.

With Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew out of bounds it occurred to me that a botanical Cook’s tour is still available even closer to home, in my own back garden. Many of our classic garden plants are not native to these shores. The plant hunters of yesteryear braved inhospitable terrain across the globe discovering new species of plants, some of which were found to have horticultural merit and now grace our gardens. I have calculated that on this tour of a plot measuring 5m x 8m you will encounter species from six continents. So pack your virtual bags and be prepared for some surprises en route. The first part of the tour is predominantly centred in Asia emphasising the influence plants from that continent have had on our gardens.

From western China comes Sarcococca confusa with its elegant narrow evergreen leaves and the shiny black berries which in late autumn succeed the cream flowers the scent of which give the plants its common name of sweet box. I planted this small shrub about a year ago having been given a well established cutting by a client in my street. It seems happy in a semi shaded position. A new plant to the garden and one first found in China and Japan, is Daphne odora ‘Rebecca’ which I bought in the Kew plant shop a couple of months ago. It is still in flower with its waxy, intensely perfumed pink blooms that to my mind throw all other winter-scented into a cocked hat. The fragrance is fresh yet intense, sweet but with a hint of citrus. The light margins to the leaves attracted me to this plant since I anticipate they will lighten a shady area long after the flowers fade.

Until researching the itinerary for this tour I confess to not having given a lot of thought to the provenance of the ice plant (Hylotelephium spectabile) but I find that this too hails from China and Korea. At this time of year the fleshy young leaves form a dense crown low to the ground. By late summer bright pink star-shaped flowers in flat clusters or umbels will be attracting bees and other pollinators. I always leave the flowerheads over winter for structure in the garden.

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Hylotelephium spectabile

Notwithstanding the second part of its name (the species epithet) Pieris Japonica originated in eastern China and Taiwan. My specimen is at least 20 years old and has occupied the same large container for much of that time. When I first moved here in 1992 I created a very small pond in a sunken plastic half barrel. That has since been replaced with a larger rectangular pond stacked with bricks at one end to aid access for the annual influx of frogs. I repurposed the original container to house this handsome plant. Growing Pieris in a container makes it easier to top up with ericaceous compost each year. The soil in the rest of the garden is neutral. I think Pieris is at its best now with the new growth emerging in vivid pinks and reds and the lily of the valley like flowers spilling forth in generous clusters.

Planted side by side are two more plants linked to Japan but the first of which the textbooks indicate is of garden origin: the white form of Anemone japonica ‘Honorine Jobert’ which will flower in late summer. The other is Japanese quince, Chaenomeles japonica which I am training against the fenceThe flowers of this are a deep peachy pink and have been going strong for a good couple of months.

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Chaenomeles japonica

You can see the buds developing plumply in the Wisteria planted in the far right-hand corner of the garden. This popular climber is an import from China, Korea and Japan. About two months ago I spent several hours pruning back the spurs to two shiny scaled buds and eliminating any long bud-free stems which escaped the autumn trimming back. Close examination of the spurs reveals those brown scales being forced outwards to reveal the emerging flowerheads. Over the course of this week I have seen the latter increasing in girth and length. By the end of April the garden will be suffused with the perfume I most closely associate with the month of April and the fence, which in this part of the garden tends to look a little bare in the winter, will be clothed with delicate pale green leaves and blowsy racemes of lilac flowers.

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Wisteria in bud on 30 March 2020
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Wisteria in bloom on 14 April 2020

The next stop on our itinerary is in the wooded foothills of the Himalayas from where hails the most hard working shrub in my garden, Skimmia. My cultivar is S. confusa ‘Kew Green’ named I assume for its colour rather than the pretty open space and cricket pitch that lies on the south side of Kew Bridge between the South Circular Road (A205) and the Elizabeth Gate entrance to the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew. This shrub has been poised to flower since before Christmas. The tiny individual flowers densely packed into what botanists call a ‘panicle’*, were firmly closed until recently in a shade of cream that reminds me of Cornish ice cream, but last week’s warmth encouraged many of them to open. This cultivar is said to tolerate full sun, unlike most other Skimmias. However I moved it from a very sunny bed into its present shady position about 18 months ago because the leaves were yellowing and it wasn’t thriving. Since the move it has doubled in girth and its dark green leaves are shiny and healthy.

The other Himalayan native is Sorbaria sorbifolia which I featured in a blog post last year. Its ferny leaves are now emerging in shades ranging from pink to chartreuse.

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Sorbaria sorbifolia

Before we journey to the Antipodes there are a couple more Asian plants in the garden. Both herbaceous perennials, the first is Thalictrum delavayii from Tibet and western China. Its dainty cup-shaped mauve flowers with contrasting yellow stamens held on slender but surprisingly strong 1.5m stems will emerge in June. In the meantime the prettily shaped blue/green leaves are developing into a tidy mound at the edge of what I grandly call the woodland garden, which centres around the only tree in the garden, of which more when we return to Europe in the third part of this tour.

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Thalictrum delavayii

The rear of the woodland garden is occupied by a favourite plant, Epimedium x versicolor. This is effectively a non-shrubby evergreen and when not in flower it retains its interest via the heart-shaped leaves with a prominent drip tip held about 50cm from the ground. As these mature they take on a reddish tinge. The frothy lemon flowers in March and April tend to be hidden by the older slightly leathery leaves which is why a fortnight ago I cut back the leaves to display the flowers to best advantage.

Australasia is represented by only one plant in the garden which was new to me until last year when I was researching suitable trailing plants for window boxes and hanging baskets. Muehlenbeckia complexa  is commonly called New Zealand wire vine and I like it as an alternative to ivy in container arrangements to soften the sides of the container. It has small dark green disc-shaped leaves arranged along fine but strong purplish stems. This is essentially a climbing or creeping shrub, and because garden designers recommend introducing small-leaved plants into smaller gardens to create an impression of space, I have planted the vine in a sunny position near the end of the garden where it is beginning to disguise the boards of the fence. According to my RHS A-Z Encyclopaedia of Garden Plants, in summer M. complexa bears ‘greenish white flowers in racemes* 2.5cm-3cm long, followed by fleshy white fruits 5mm across’.

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Muehlenbeckia complexa New Zealand Wire Vine

In my two next posts I shall resume our tour, when we travel to the Americas and Europe, to find two kinds of sage, a plant resembling a cup and saucer and an elegant plant named after a very wise man.

 

 

*Gardening, like other professions and pastimes, has its fair share of jargon and I thought it would be useful to include in your tour documents an extract from Brian Capon’s ‘Botany for Gardeners’ (ISBN: 9780881926552) showing the distinction between a raceme and a panicle. 

Capon