Several weeks ago I promised to complete Weeds Roots & Leaves’ global gardening expedition with a tour of Europe. You know the rules by now: this is a virtual tour inspired by the countries or regions of origin of the plants in my small suburban garden.
Let’s begin in the Caucasus in the east of the continent, where Asia meets Europe. Both Alchemilla mollis and Brunnera macrophylla hail from this area and are excellent ground cover plants, but there the similarity ends. A.mollis is drought tolerant and I often find self-seeded pioneers in the garden, nosing through gravel or nestled in paving cracks. B.macrophylla prefers a shadier, moister position and has been the star of the woodland planting beneath the Amelanchier tree for weeks this spring thanks to its blue flowers which make up for their diminutive size by intensity of colour. Borne above the heart-shaped leaves in dainty sprays they resemble the flowers of their Borage family cousins Forget-me-nots (Myosotis sylvatica). However, the flowers of the species form in particular are deeper in colour and sing out even when the light starts to fade at dusk. I also grow the popular cultivar ‘Jack Frost’ named for silver veining on the leaves, whose flowers are a paler shade of blue. I find the species form self-seeds freely and am constantly digging up the seedlings and growing them on to give to friends. Jack Frost hasn’t yet propagated itself around the garden in the same way.
The genus Alchemilla, I was intrigued to read while researching this post, is a member of the rose family. I first came across it when visiting a friend’s family home in Staffordshire in the 1980s. My friend’s mother was both a gardener and flower arranger. During my visit in high summer she created several stylishly simple arrangements for the village church combining the frothy chartreuse greeny yellow flowers of A.mollis with a deep purple sweet pea (Lathyrus odoratus) which she also grew in abundance. I still pop a couple of sprays into the vase when I pick sweet peas. She also told me that when she was a student nurse, in the days when flowers were allowed in hospital wards, they called bouquets of red and white flowers ‘blood and bandages’!
The slightly hairy pale green leaves of A.mollis are rounded and slightly ‘toothed’ with shallow lobes, sometimes up to 11 per leaf. When you examine these felty leaves you can understand why the common name of the plant is lady’s mantle. After a shower water droplets cling to the leaves long after the rain dries on the leaves of surrounding plants. Alchemists (from the Arabic ‘alkemelych’) regarded these mercury like beads of water as the purest form of water, using it in their quest to turn base metal into gold.
Travelling westwards, it’s the turn of three plants from the Mediterranean. There must be few gardens which do not include at least one lavender plant. Mine are in containers: a woody and rather unsatisfactory specimen in the back garden and exuberant examples in the window boxes in the front garden. I planted them last October, when assembling the winter arrangement, to provide some grey-leaved interest. Until recently, they were content to play a supporting role to the showier cyclamens, violas and chrome yellow Narcissus ‘Minnow’. But now foot long stems shoot upwards craving attention. And getting it: I plan to leave them in situ when I plant up the boxes with pale pink zonal Pelargoniums in a fortnight or so. The latter arrived as small plugs a week ago and after potting them on to fatten them up in the vertical cold frame I kept them covered at night in horticulture fleece as a protection from several exceptionally cold nights. I believe the lavender cultivars are ‘Hidcote’ but confess to having misplaced the labels.
In a couple of clients’ gardens I have seen foamy cuckoo-spit nestling among the stems of more mature lavender plants. This is the liquid secreted by the nymph stage of the sap-sucking bug known as a frog-hopper. The insect does the plant no harm but has attracted attention in the last few years since being discovered as a vector of Xylella fastidiosa, a bacterial disease of certain trees and shrubs which has caused serious problems for olive farmers in Southern Europe. The disease has not been detected in the UK and strict new import regulations have been introduced for plants hosts of the disease such as lavender and rosemary, as well as olives. The RHS has published an interesting article about the issue on its website entitled ‘Preventing pandemics in plants‘.
After some years of trying I have established reliable clumps of autumn cyclamen (Cyclamen hederifolium) and later winter-flowering C.coum in the crowded area beneath the Amelanchier. Autumn cyclamen with its larger ivy-like leaves are found from Turkey to Italy. C.coum comes from the eastern Mediterranean and has smaller disc-shaped leaves. The flowers of both species share the back-swept petals which always remind me of the graceful arm movements of the corps de ballet in ‘Swan Lake’.
A couple of months ago I wrote a post about the other Mediterranean plant in my garden, bear’s breeches or Acanthus mollis.
European woodlands are represented by four species which I shall describe in the order in which they flower. The first to flower is Pulmonaria officinalis which came to be called soldiers and sailors due to its sporting blue and pinkish red flowers on the same plant. Its alternative common name is lungwort deriving from the practice of equating plants to parts of the body based on appearance, and using them to treat ailments of that limb or organ. In the case of lungwort its spotted leaves were thought to resemble diseased lungs and the plant was used to treat lung infections. Like Brunnera, Pulmonaria is a member of the borage family.
The next to flower is Solomon’s seal (Polygonatum multiflorum) whose graceful arching stems seem to grow longer each year, from which dangle green tipped cream flowers. If previous years are anything to go by, in a few weeks’ time the flowers and leaves will be systematically devoured by the pale grey caterpillars of the sawfly. Since the larvae do not appear to munch on other plants I do not begrudge them their feast.
Hesperis matronalis is a southern European and at its best in May. Sweet rocket is described as a biennial or a short-lived perennial. I’m always thrilled when it returns each spring, but I recently sowed seed to ensure it presence in the garden next year. I am particularly fond of the white form because it both illuminates and scents the garden at dusk. I wrote a post about it and other white flowered plants in the garden here
Abbey Road, London NW8 is a far cry from alpine woods and meadows, the home territory of Astrantia major. But the street with the most famous zebra crossing in the world lends its name to the cultivar of A.major which I grow. A.major ‘Abbey Road’ has reddish-purple flowers which look poised to open during what should have been Chelsea Flower Show week. More accurately what appear to be flowers are a rosette of bracts surrounding a neat cluster of tiny flowers held on slim stems wafting above the foliage. They were the favourite flower of another friend’s mother, in whose Maidenhead garden I first saw these growing.
The tour concludes here, but watch this space for a trip to Africa later in the summer, when all being well three plants from that continent will be in flower. Thank you for allowing me to guide you on this journey of discovery. I owe an acknowledgment to the invaluable RHS A-Z Encyclopaedia of Garden Plants which so usefully includes the country or region of origin of the thousands of plants listed in its pages.