(What’s So Funny ‘Bout) Peace, Love, and Understanding?*

During lockdown I entered a competition run by the Garden Museum in Lambeth. The theme was a memoir based on the garden as ‘Sanctuary’. I chose Kew Gardens for my subject and although I didn’t get shortlisted but would like to share the piece with you.

*Thank you to Elvis Costello for the title to this post. He performed a wonderful acoustic set at Kew the Music in July 2014. To date my favourite concert in this annual six day music event. Sadly cancelled this year.

29 April 2020.

A soothing voice on the meditation App advises me to visualise my ‘happy place’. Without hesitating I imagine myself sitting on a bench in a wood. Blue tits and great tits alight momentarily on feeders hanging from the branches of a tree across the path from where I sit. I can see a nuthatch inching down the trunk, its profile resembling a miniature woodpecker. From far above me I hear the mournful high-pitched call of a peregrine falcon.  I am in the Natural Area in Kew Gardens. Less than half a mile away the outside world goes about its business: traffic flows along Kew Road and golfers trundle trolleys over the pristine greens of the Royal Mid Surrey Golf Course. But here is my sanctuary, where I am cocooned from the new normal of Zoom meetings and tense grocery shopping expeditions. 

Is a sanctuary a physical place or can it be a mental refuge to be visited when your spirit needs soothing? As I write this, going into the sixth week of lockdown, staying home and staying safe, I believe that it is both. Kew Gardens remains closed but in my imagination I can visit any part of it whenever I wish. In 1968 James Taylor sang ‘In My Mind I’m Gone to Carolina’ and if I concentrate hard enough I’m gone to Kew. I’m gone to green glades lined with rare shrubs and trees from around the world, to the Redwood grove or the native woodland where now, in the last week of April, the understorey is carpeted with bluebells, the blue carpet punctuated here and there with the lime green flowers of Smyrnium perfoliatum. I can go at any time of the day or in any season. I can relive a frosty winter’s morning walking through the Plant Family Beds (now the Evolution Garden) and stopping to admire the frost riming the sculpture of the gardener leaning on his spade, surveying his domain. Or I can enjoy once more a late June picnic beneath the lime trees, their pale yellow flower clusters perfuming the warm still air. 

I was in my twenties when I visited Kew for the first time. I lived in central London then and Kew’s spaciousness and sense of calm contrasted with the bustle and fumes of city streets. I returned once a year at first and then more regularly, until in my mid-thirties I was fortunate enough to move to the area. 

A walk in the Gardens became a weekly ritual. I would often go late on a Sunday afternoon in preparation for the working week: the crowded Tube, the targets, the deadlines. Entering at the Lion Gate, I would skirt the Great Pagoda, heading towards what was then called the Conservation Area from which I emerged onto the lawn between the Gardens and the Thames towpath at the end of Syon Vista. Across the river, I could see the Northumberland lion standing defiantly atop the ornamental battlements of Syon House and at the other end of the wide double avenue of Holm oaks the rounded glass and metal outline of the central atrium of the Palm House. My route led to the northern shore of the lake, where in April creamy bracts centred with tightly clustered green flowers decorate a large Cornus florida. Skirting the southern end of the Temperate House I would arrive at Lion Gate just before closing time, save for one occasion when I mis-timed it and had to use the yellow emergency phone beside the gate. I was hugely relieved when the kind member of the Kew Constabulary who took the call released the remotely controlled catch on the gate. 

That might have remained my weekly routine had not life intervened. By 2008 I had stopped commuting into the city and had been working locally for a couple of years. When the financial crisis hit I was, as the most recent recruit to the firm, made redundant. Roles in my field were hard to come by so as well as attending a typing and computer skills course, I answered a call on the Kew website to volunteer at an exhibition to be staged in the Nash Conservatory about the work of Kew’s Millennium Seed Bank. I also volunteered in the visitor information team and by early the following year was offered a part-time job. I remember worrying if, by working there, the place I had come to regard as a place of sanctuary would lose that aura for me and become just another workplace. Yes, there were days when the relentless flood of emails and calls threatened to make me forget what a special place Kew is, but a gentle cycle ride home along Holly Walk on a summer’s evening restored a sense of calm and perspective. If time allowed, I took a longer route home, alongside the southern shore of the lake, passing the group of monkey puzzle trees, Araucaria araucana, towards the Natural Area, where I would sit for a few minutes on that bench near the birdfeeders. 

A year or so after I started working at Kew my elderly and increasingly frail mother came to live with me. We used to visit the Gardens most weekends, my mother in a wheelchair, reluctantly to begin with but content to do so when she realised how much more of the Gardens we could explore. We always took coffee and a picnic and on colder days, equipped with a hot water bottle under her blanket, she was the warmest member of the party. My mother loved sitting in the sun and one of her favourite places in Kew was the sundial lawn at the foot of the steps leading up to King William’s Temple in the Mediterranean Garden. On the hottest days I fancied we could detect the distinctive scent of the Garrigue, that combination of cistus, broom, lavender and oregano which characterised the hillsides of Provence where she had enjoyed several holidays. My mother’s dementia meant she was often sad and confused but a visit to Kew would raise her spirits, and when as we arrived home she would say ‘I’ve had a lovely day’, mine too. My mother died six years ago.

I no longer work at the Gardens, but once a week I volunteer for a few hours in the plant shop and will continue to do so when the lockdown is lifted. Kew remains a deeply special place to me. It has soothed me when my heart has been broken, when I’ve raged about some now forgotten injustice, worried about a health issue or grieved the loss of a loved one. I know I am not alone in missing Kew Gardens at this challenging time of fear and uncertainty.  But by conjuring in my mind’s eye its vistas and paths, stretches of water, ancient trees and the exquisite contents of its glasshouses, Kew offers me a refuge, a sanctuary.                                                                                                                                    Weeds Roots & Leaves                  29 April 2020

The Temperate House viewed from the Chinese Fringe Tree
The Palm House Pond in summer 2019 with a Dale Chihuly sculpture reflected in the water.
Snowdrops in the Rock Garden in December 2019
The Magnolia Grove in March 2020, just before lockdown
The Broad Walk Borders in July 2020

In the Dock

Last Friday, after an absence of 127 days, I returned to volunteer in the garden at Osterley House. My last session was in early March when we spent the day in the sunshine clearing brambles from the margin of the Middle Lake.

Bramble clearing on 6 March 2020

In the photographs I took that day I see that the rosemary in the borders at the rear of the house was in full bloom, the grey green foliage complementing the clear blue flowers with their prominent lower petals. In the Cutting Garden I photographed the Anemone coronaria ‘St Brigid’s Series’ against a chrome yellow backdrop of daffodils. Little did I know when I took these images it would be four months until I was in the garden again.

Anemone coronaria ‘St Brigid’s Series’
Rosemary

It felt so good to be back, another step nearer normality in the gradual easing of lockdown. Naturally a new normal has had to be established. Flasks of tea brewed at home replace the lunchtime teapot ritual and the tool handles have to be disinfected when we finish for the day. Two of the five volunteers weeded in the Tudor Walled Garden and planted several new additions in one of the potager style beds. One of these plants was Viper’s Bugloss (Echium vulgare). Thankfully its appearance belies the slightly sinister sounding common name, the spires of rosemary blue flowers being a magnet for bees and other pollinators.

The rest of us trimmed the edges of the four rectangular beds in that area, moving via the Magnolia borders to work our way along the paths in Mrs Child’s Flower Garden, our razor sharp shears guided by the metal edging strips to create that crisp finish which instantly neatens a lawn. Head gardener Andy Eddy was mowing the lawns in ‘Mrs Child’s’ and stopped for a catch up. During lockdown he and his partner maintained the garden, enjoying the temporary lull from fewer planes heading to Heathrow and the vastly reduced traffic on the M4 which borders the parkland surrounding the garden. There was also the novelty of the presence of the neighbouring farmer’s Charollais cattle herd on the field immediately in front of the house.

We sat outside the bothy to eat lunch, the reduced number in the team making social distancing easy to achieve. Afterwards we worked in the cutting garden, keeping the bark topped paths clear of weeds and transplanting stray self-seeders such as geraniums into the relevant sections of the garden. I found that the portion of the border beside the wall where I was working was choked with docks (Rumex obtusifolius) and as I worried away at this patch with first a hand fork and then a border fork I realised that I haven’t had to clear these before and had no idea how difficult they are to tackle. To find out more about what I had hitherto assumed were innocuous weeds with the benefit of calming nettle stung skin, I consulted the RHS website which states ‘They are often difficult to eradicate as their deep tap root can regrow from the top section and they produce large amounts of seed.The tap root can be up to 90cm (3ft) in length.‘ A 3ft tap root: no wonder I struggled!

I did manage to clear a section of roughly a couple of feet square but confess that, with the permission of gardener Graham, I had to cut several of the most persistent plants down to ground level rather than rooting them up. It felt appropriate that almost my first task as a ‘re-opening volunteer’ was the clearance of stubborn weeds, just as that last pre-lockdown session had involved bramble eradication. Despite my emphasis in this post on weeds and weeding, the gardens at Osterley are looking stunning as the following photos attest.

The Cutting Garden 10 July 2020: Echinops and Alliums

Robert Adam’s Garden House
Fuchsia Thalia inside the Garden House
Crocosmia and Honey Spurge (Euphorbia mellifera) in the Tudor Walled Garden

Under African Skies

In my last but one post I promised a virtual visit to Africa courtesy of three plants in my garden. Departure was delayed until the star performer came into flower. Diva like, she makes a spectacular entrance on stage, in this case the front garden which is a rather grand way to describe the space a metre or so deep between the bay window and the low wall beside the pavement. Here are three generous clumps of African lilies (Agapanthus africanus), which expand in volume each year. I described my passion for these southern African giants in a blog post a year ago. For nine months of the year the round ended strap leaves about 50cm long fill the space simply and elegantly. In late May flower stems emerge from the base of the foliage bearing plump pointy tipped buds, settling finally at a height at least half as high again as the leaves. At this stage I usually count the buds (26 this year) and compare notes with a friend who grows his front garden ‘Aggies’ in terracotta pots. One by one, the surface of the buds split, revealing dozens of pale sapphire gems which over the coming days escape the by now paper thin bracts to emerge as distinct flared petalled flowers in a pale blue with a navy stripe running along each petal. At last large blue spheres decorate each sturdy stem. And they need to be sturdy, to withstand my inching past them every evening to water the window boxes arranged around the bay.

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The Agapanthus are coming into flower in the front garden

A slighter Agapanthus cultivar whose name I do not know grows in several terracotta pots on the paved area at the end of the back garden. Unlike their evergreen cousins in the front garden, they die back each winter and I generally clear away the papery brown leaves in February by which time they part easily from the crown. Soon afterwards bright green leaf tips emerge from the tightly packed crown and at this stage I start to apply liquid seaweed feed every three or four weeks.

Unnamed Agapanthus in back garden

The front garden specimens self-seed enthusiastically into the plum slate which covers the little space left in the front garden around the African lilies. Throughout the year I extract them from the membrane beneath the slate, reduce the length of the roots by about a third and pot them up ready to be given away. A few weeks ago gardening clients contacted me to say they were keen to grow Alliums in their townhouse garden. I explained that the flowering season for most Alliums was coming to an end, but if it was tall sculptural plants with spherical inflorescences they were after then Agapanthus would fit the bill. Having stressed they would not flower this year, I was commissioned to plant the nine good sized clumps in a narrow bed alongside their large pond and in another very sunny flowerbed. I’m looking forward to seeing them develop over the next 12 months.

A friend came to tea in my garden a couple of weeks ago and observed ‘There’s a lot going on in this garden’ and she’s right. I have crammed a lot of plants into a small space both in pots and in the borders. The other African plants I want to share with you reside in containers. Having outgrown its original pot, earlier this year I split Cape figwort (Phygelius capensis) into three. They’ve developed into strong looking plants and I’m just waiting for their orange tubular flowers to appear. As the name suggests they are from South Africa. They remind me of Fuchsia ‘Thalia’ but are thankfully less tender and I can leave them outside all winter.

Phygelius capensis

What I love about the next genus of southern African plants I want to share with you, Pelargonium, is their variety. Some grow upright, some trail. Some have scented leaves, some do not but make up for this with spectacular flowers. Some are chunky and robust, others, like velvety petalled P. sidoides are dainty and delicate. Carried on a long slim stem shooting out at a 90 degree angle from the crinkly three lobed leaves, are asymmetric umbels of four or five petal flowers in a shade of deep magenta. This plant is usually displayed in the Garden House in Mrs Child’s Flower Garden at Osterley. I bought one last autumn to use as a stock plant and repotted a couple of the leaf clusters, which were almost like runners, in gritty compost before overwintering them in the vertical cold frame. Now respectable sized plants, I have planted one in a large terracotta pot with another Osterley acquisition, Dianthus caryophyllus. On one of the last Osterley Fridays before lockdown when it was too wet to work in the garden, we spent a very pleasant afternoon in the new potting shed pricking out seedlings, including this ‘pink’. We were given permission to take the surplus seedlings to prick out at home. The fine greyish blue leaves already contrast well with the rounded leaves of the Pelargonium and I hope that when the dark red almost black Dianthus flowers appear they will complement the Pelargonium’s dark hued blooms.

Pelargonium sidoides

My other Pelargoniums are less unusual, and can be categorised as annual bedding. I bought them as small plugs which were delivered in April. I chose both zonal and ivy-leaved cultivars, ‘Pink Passion’ and ‘Supreme White’ respectively. Both have pale pink flowers and I’ve planted them in the Ecopot window boxes I installed last summer. Like the Agapanthus, they relish the south facing aspect and I’ve blended them with two other southern African flowers, Felicia and Bacopa topia (Chaenostoma cordatum ‘Snowflake’).

Pelargonium ‘Supreme White

There were other excess other seedlings to bring home from Osterley that day, several of which I pricked out and labelled (wrongly as it turned out) Rocky Mountain Columbine, Aquilegia coerulea. I began to realise my mistake when the true leaves developed into a pointed ovate shape and then the stem began to demonstrate distinctly climbing and clinging tendencies. For a while I thought I was nurturing some form of cucumber until today when by some wonderful serendipity, the first flowers emerged and I recognised it immediately as Black-eyed Susan, Thunbergia alata. a plant from Tropical Africa! It is one of the first flowers I grew myself when I made a container garden around the window of my first flat, a tiny studio in London. The flat was on the top floor of the building and a wooden ladder in front of the window led from the valley behind the parapet on the facade of the building to the top of the parapet. I trained a Thunbergia to grow up one side of the ladder and can remember being really happy at the effect I achieved.

Thunbergia alata

I’m returning to Osterley next Friday, the gardens having reopened a couple of weeks ago, and shall be asking at what stage the seedlings I pricked out that winter’s afternoon were discovered to have been mis-labelled. More importantly though I shall be seeing the gardens, and some colleagues, after an absence of almost four months. I can’t wait.

Time and the Clee Hills

‘The Morville Hours’ by Katherine Swift

I’ve heard people say that during this lockdown time seems to have been passing unusually quickly. I didn’t work for the first three weeks. Every morning the day stretched ahead with limitless opportunities: to learn a language, watch a play, visit a museum. Every night I went to bed feeling I’d achieved very little. Despite that each week sped by and before I knew it I was in the queue for the supermarket again, bracing myself for the weekly shop. Since mid April I’ve been able to work in clients’s gardens  (thanks to side entrances and social distancing). Far from time weighing heavily upon me, the past three months have flashed by in a blur of news bulletins, Zoom calls, weeding and watering. Perhaps anxiety contributes to the sensation of time passing faster than normal?

It seems appropriate that while time, like everything else, has developed a new normality, I read a book one of the central themes of which is the nature of time itself. The Morville Hours by Katherine Swift is a beautifully written account of the creation since 1988 of a garden in Shropshire.

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But it is far from just the story of the making of a very special garden. It can also be read as a meditation on time itself. The book is structured around the monastic Hours of the Divine Office: Vigils, Lauds, Prime, Terce, Sext, None, Vespers and Compline. Before settling in Morville, the author worked as a rare book librarian, latterly at Trinity College in Dublin. Even the book’s cover design, depicting a symmetrically designed canal garden under a clear blue sky, emulates the richly illuminated Books of Hours containing the prayers and psalms to be recited in each of the eight ‘Hours’. In the vivid pages of one of the most famous Books of Hours, ‘Les Tres Riches Heures du Duc du Berry’, the months of the year are represented by images of a magnificent chateau whose noble inhabitants hunt and party, whilst in the surrounding gardens and fields serfs plough, prune, sow, mow and harvest.

Similarly, Katherine Swift charts the progression of the garden and the surrounding countryside through the seasons. She describes winter nights when a fox leaves dainty paw prints in virgin snow in a yew hedged area of the garden, spring days when may blossom breaks over the hedgerows resembling ‘long rolling waves peaking and cresting like the foam of Atlantic breakers’. In one memorable scene she works into the night in sub-zero temperatures, frost fringing her coat, to plant hundreds of tulip bulbs.

In hearing the story of the garden, we also learn something of the author’s life story and that of her parents. How, in finding Morville, she finally put down roots, her childhood having been punctuated by moves from one end of the country to the other. The families  who once lived in Morville House (now a National Trust property) and in Katherine Swift’s Dower House also weave through the pages of the book. Here too is a larger history: the formation of the landscape, the geology of nearby Wenlock Edge, the early inhabitants of the county of Shropshire.

When I examined the map of Shropshire at the beginning of the book I noticed that Morville lies about ten miles north of the tiny hamlet of Neen Sollars to which my paternal grandparents moved in the late 1950s from a suburb south of Birmingham, via a brief spell in Essex. Old Forge Cottage was two stone cottages joined together and had two staircases, one at either end of the house. As a child I was fascinated by the quirky layout, the brass warming pans on the walls, the high feather mattressed beds. Between Neen Sollars and Morville lie the Clee Hills,  which are mentioned frequently in the book.

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Katherine Swift gently educates the reader about numerous subjects, but is never  didactic. Here are enough ‘ologies’ to please Beattie in those old BT adverts: archaeology, meteorology, ornithology, mythology. As well as horticulture and agriculture we are introduced to apiculture. Botany rubs shoulders with poetry. This is a book rich in details and imagery. How better to describe an early spring dawn than: ‘Slowly the garden begins to emerge, like a photograph lifted dripping from the developing tray’. Rich too is the vocabulary. We are introduced to ‘azimuth’ and ‘myrobalan’ , an arc of the horizon and a kind of plum respectively.

In one of his classes, Hector, the inspirational teacher of Alan Bennett’s ‘History Boys’, comments that ‘the best moments in reading are when you come across something- a thought, a feeling, a way of looking at things- which you had thought special and particular to you. Now here it is, set down by someone else, a person you have never met….And it is as if a hand has come out and taken yours’. I experienced this sensation several times when reading this book, particularly when the author muses upon gardening: ‘That’s the other thing I really like about gardening: the silence. Not that silence out of doors is ever really silence. But absence of words, space for the thoughts to come. A silence that enables you to listen’.

In the final chapter, the author modestly sums up the book as a ‘jumble of fragments tossed together like the made-up ground of the garden, this blackbird’s nest of cobwebs and sheep’s wool, this day in a life, this life in a day’. But I would argue that this book is far more than that. Faced as we all are by doubt and uncertainty, never has it seemed so important to cherish the small things, to appreciate our surroundings, to be mindful. The Morville Hours reminds us to look, to live in the moment. The chapter called ‘Sext’ concerns the garden at Morville in June, when the wealth of roses are at their height, including Blush Noisette which I grow in my garden. I have never read so detailed or perceptive a description of the structure of a flower (here a rose) culminating in the wise observation that ‘no one can be a gardener without really looking’.

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Rosa ‘Blush Noisette’

I was under not one but two deadlines when I finished this wonderful book which is as much about time as it is gardening. We were due to discuss the Morville Hours in book club that week and I also had to finish sewing a couple of pairs of scrubs for delivery to the local scrub hub. So I listened to, rather than read, the second half of the book. It was a mercifully unabridged version, read by the author herself . The book was literally read in the first person! I had to pause and rewind frequently to replay those passages where, to paraphrase Hector, a hand came out and took mine. This is definitely a book to which I shall return. And I’m already investigating whether a visit to Shropshire and the garden and landscape which inspired this book might be possible once we are able to plan trips further afield than the local garden centre.

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The Eurogarden Flower Show: Part 3 of a virtual round the world tour

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‘.

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As well as lavender, I grow another Mediterranean plant: a compact prostrate rosemary which seems perfectly happy in a container.

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’.

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Cyclamen coum photographed in spring 2019 in the garden at Osterley. Mine are not quite this impressive!

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.

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Pulmonaria officinalis

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.

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Solomon’s seal

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.

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A view of the garden from the house, taken very early on the morning of 18 May showing that you don’t have to have a large space to grow species from all over the world. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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

 

Turfing it out

Extracting weeds from an artificial lawn requires a very different technique to that applied to a lawn of real grass. I soon found this out when I tidied a neighbour’s back garden last week. For a start, a hand fork or trowel is unnecessary since the weeds seem to embed themselves into the weave of the material to which the ‘grass’ is attached. No need here for a sharp implement to loosen the soil around the weed’s roots before yanking the weed from the ground. Instead, the weed needs to be grasped between thumb and forefinger and gradually pulled up with a final gentle twist to keep the roots intact. I have never seen roots so clean! I was surprised to see that even an artificial lawn can host weeds but the weeds I removed were ephemeral weeds like groundsel (Senecio vulgaris) and hairy bittercress (Cardamina hirsuta). No ‘lawn spoiler’* to worry about here like greater plantain (Plantago major) . And I suppose that is the merit of an artificial lawn: even if some enterprising little weeds manage to embed themselves into the surface of the material, the long-rooted perennial weeds cannot penetrate the thick polypropylene base.

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This was my first experience of working with synthetic grass and although I’m by no means a convert, I can see that compared to a real lawn there is no need for cutting, edging and feeding. This lawn looked particularly authentic and included material which seemed to mimic the straw-coloured thatch that accumulates at the base of grass stems over time. In a real lawn this has to be raked out from time to time to make room for fresh blades of grass to grow.

As I carefully removed the weeds I began reflecting on the growing popularity of artificial grass and not only in domestic gardens. A mile and a half from here, were it not for the Coronavirus crisis, the newly built stadium to be shared between Brentford FC and London Irish RFC would soon have opened its doors for the first time. We hope it will still open in time for the new season in the summer.  Having read somewhere that many modern football pitches are created using a hybrid of real and synthetic grass, I determined to find out more. I approached Nity Raj, a parkrun friend and director of Brentford FC, to ask him about the system used at the club’s current ground, the dearly loved Griffin Park, and at the new Brentford Stadium at Kew Bridge. Little did I know as we chatted on Saturday mornings over peppermint tea after the weekly 5k run at Richmond’s Old Deer Park, that Nity knew anything about this topic. Here he generously shares what he knows about football pitch technology:

The current pitch at Griffin Park is a stabilised natural grass pitch.  The stabilised element comes from a plastic weave which was woven into the turf before the grass was grown and the turf was cut and relaid at Griffin Park.  It looks a bit like a tennis net, but with smaller squares.  The plastic matrix significantly reduces the amount that the surface is broken up during play making the regular pitch works much easier to manage and  repair of damage more effective.  We haven’t always had this kind of stabilised pitch.  Until the summer of 2015 the pitch was a normal seeded grass pitch.  We worked with specialists to re-lay new drainage and an entirely new pitch, incorporating the plastic matrix.  Since then I am told we have had the best pitch we have ever had in our history, with significantly less damage visible, especially during bad weather periods, when previously the pitch was prone to getting very badly damaged especially in the high traffic areas of the pitch. 

In the new stadium we are installing a Desso Grassmaster pitch.  Desso are the leading pitch tech company and their pitches are used in many of the most prestigious football and rugby stadiums in the world..  Desso have a different system from the one used at Griffin Park in that it involves a machine injecting fibres into the ground.  We believe this kind of system will best suit the pitch being used for football and rugby.

It’s worth saying that the pitch at Griffin Park and the pitch at the new stadium are both virtually indistinguishable from ordinary grass pitches.  The pitches look, play and smell exactly like grass pitches except for their ability to rejuvenate and resist damage.  Without careful management by our excellent groundsmen, they would also be susceptible to weeds, just like any wholly natural grass surface

The list of venues in the Grassmaster Wikipedia entry reads like a roll-call of world-famous soccer and rugby grounds and includes Wembley, Twickenham, Old Trafford, Parc des Princes, the Emirates Stadium and Anfield. And it will soon be joined by Brentford Stadium.

The hybrid pitches installed for playing professional football and rugby are a far cry from the artificial lawns which are becoming increasingly popular in domestic gardens where the lawn is laid rather like a carpet. Indeed, I’m told that some householders have been known to vacuum their Astroturf! I’ve already mentioned that there is no use for trowels or forks when weeding artificial turf. Nor for a rake as I discovered last week when I initially tried to clear away an accumulation of dried bamboo cane sheaths and leaves. I soon found that a stiff bristled brush is the ideal tool for this purpose. I confess that seeing a green expanse entirely devoid of weeds after a few hours’ gardening was surprisingly satisfying.

Am I now a convert to the pseudo sward? The answer is no, because for all its benefits- neatness, hygiene, consistency- this inert material lacks two of the essential elements of real grass. The coolness under bare feet of grass on a hot day cannot be replicated, nor can the scent of newly mown grass. In the last day or so I have detected that distinctive smell drifting across from neighbouring gardens where the instruction to stay home has prompted many householders to cut their lawns for the first time this year. And to Dig for Victory and grow vegetables, but that’s another story and one I shall address in a future blog.

*William Edmonds ‘Weeds Weeding (&Darwin)’ ISBN-10: 0711233659

 

Clean, Calm and Camellia

Camellia oil? It sounds like a luxurious product I should be applying to my face after a hard day’s gardening. But it’s my precious hand tools which will benefit from a treatment with Niwaki’s Camellia Oil. Made with oil from the cold-pressed seeds of Camellia oleifera, it is a traditional Japanese method to protect tools from rust.

I first heard about Niwaki when Jake Hobson addressed the Kew Mutual Improvement Society in December 2017 on ‘The Art of Creative Pruning’. Jake’s artistic approach to shaping shrubs reflects his origins as a sculptor, and his work combines both Japanese influences and traditional topiary techniques. I recall inspiring images of the extraordinary topiary garden at Levens Hall in Cumbria and cloud-pruning both here and in Japan. In addition to his creative pruning activities, Jake Hobson co-founded Niwaki which supplies Japanese garden and kitchen equipment with an emphasis on cutting tools and accessories. When I started Weeds Roots & Leaves 18 months ago I invested in a pair of the company’s hedging shears which are light, very sharp and are supplied in a substantial leather holster. They have been invaluable when shaping and maintaining large yew and Cotoneaster dammeri specimens in two of my client’s gardens.

I chatted to a company representative on the Niwaki stand at last week’s Garden Press Event at the Business Design Centre in Islington. I asked if I could hold and weigh in my hand the Hori Hori, which translates from Japanese as ‘dig dig’. This narrow, asymmetrically bladed trowel is very versatile and I can see how useful it must be for tackling long rooted weeds (I’m thinking bindweed, both ‘hedge’ and ‘field’) as well as for planting bulbs.

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The Hori Hori

The tool was on sale at the shop located next to the exit of the sculptor Antony Gormley’s exhibition at The Royal Academy last autumn. It somehow didn’t feel incongruous to see this elegantly designed garden tool displayed in such a venue, particularly in conjunction with a show where many of the exhibits were executed in steel. After all, designer William Morris famously wrote ‘If you want a golden rule that will fit everything, this is it: Have nothing in your houses that you do not know to be useful or believe to be beautiful.’

At the event last week, as well as the Hori Hori, I admired some rather more expensive implements which were hand-forged, the blacksmith’s hammer marks being clearly visible on the intriguingly shaped Japanese trowel and axe. As I left the stand I was given a ‘Crean Mate eraser’ with which to clean rust and sap from my hand tools. I tried it the other day on my secateurs and as the images show it is very effective. The gently abrasive block can be dipped in water or Camellia oil before being rubbed across the area to be cleaned. I used water but have now bought a 100ml bottle of the oil with which to protect the secateurs (and the shears mentioned above) in between gardening sessions.

In my recent blogs I’ve commented on how mild the weather has been this winter and I can see that the buds on the camellias currently in flower in local front gardens and along Camellia Walk in Kew Gardens are undamaged by frost. They have unfurled into perfect blooms, without the browned petal edges which can occur in severe winters when the buds are subjected to very cold conditions.

I included the word ‘calm’ in the heading to this blog not only for alliteration (and a rather laboured pun on the title of Culture Club’s hit single in 1983), but because the good old cuppa is made from the leaves of another species of camellia, C. sinensis. Amidst the current uncertainties, when a cup of ‘Rosie Lee’ helps us to keep calm and carry on, it’s comforting to know that the cup that cheers is another product of this useful and beautiful genus of plants.

Capital embellishment

I can still see them, bound in scarlet leatherette with gold embossed lettering, the three volumes of the Reader’s Digest Encyclopaedic Dictionary, which my father bought when I was about ten years’ old. They were kept in pride of place in the book case in the sitting room. Unlike the flimsy paged dictionaries in the school library, these felt rather luxurious and many entries were accompanied by small black and white line drawings which were perfect for tracing, and I illustrated several school projects with squares of greaseproof paper showing smudgy images of cocoa pods or Elizabethan costumes. But the pages I seemed to return to most often were those showing architectural features. Here I learnt to distinguish a Norman arch from a Gothic arch, a buttress from a gargoyle. And here I first learnt the three basic classical orders of architecture from a drawing of the capitals of antique columns. First the austere Doric style, then the moustachioed Ionic and finally the flamboyant Corinthian.

Outings to country houses and a few archaeological sights, notably the Forum in Rome and Jerash in the north of Jordan, provided examples of the types of capital. But many years passed before I connected the elaborate ‘Acanthus Scroll’ of the Corinthian capital with a plant that grows in British gardens: Acanthus mollis, commonly known as bear’s breeches.

Before spreading a mulch of shredded horse manure on a client’s flower beds last week, I made sure I wasn’t suffocating the crowns of any precious herbaceous perennials emerging from their winter dormancy. Gleaming in some rare sunshine, I found the glossy dark green leaves of A. mollis. There have been few frosts this winter in this area, and this was in a very sheltered town garden, so the leaves have already grown quite large. Late last year I cut back the spent leaves and distinctive flower spires measuring up to one metre in length on which are stacked curved pinkish bracts (resembling the bears’ breeches which give the plant its common name) protecting white two-lipped flowers. This is no modest plant content to blend into the background, but an extrovert of a specimen strong in both design and structure.

It’s easy to see why the ancients chose the architectural form of its leaves to decorate their buildings. But the plant wasn’t just used as architectural inspiration. In Claire Ryley’s ‘Roman Gardens and their Plants’ (ISBN 0-904973-16-6) I read that both A. mollis and A. spinosus were used by the Romans to line paths in formal gardens. The leaves of A. spinosus are more deeply lobed than those of A. mollis and each lobe has a sharply toothed outline. According to Claire Ryley the cooked roots of both species were applied as a poultice to burns and sprains as well as being used to treat gout and prevent hair loss.

Acanthus leaf decoration can be found in the National Trust’s Osterley House, where as regular readers know, I volunteer in the garden each Friday. In the late eighteenth century the house was modernised by Robert Adam. The Tudor building was transformed into a sophisticated grand mansion in the classical style. Adam’s designs reflected the latest discoveries. of the ancient world which he had seen for himself during a tour of Europe from 1754 to 1758. When I went inside the house for the recent ‘Treasures of Osterley’ exhibition I didn’t have to look far to find Acanthus leaves used in elaborate wall and ceiling plasterwork mouldings and on marble fireplace surrounds.

Thanks to those red bound volumes published in the 1970s, I still admire Corinthian columns with their leafy capitals as these photographs taken over the last year or so testify.

I was disappointed this morning when I inspected the A. mollis in my garden to find that the broad shiny leaves seem to be peppered with the first signs of the disease to which the plant is prone, powdery mildew. No doubt the frequent heavy rain of the last several weeks has spread the spores of the mildew from leaf to leaf. My strategy will be to remove the affected leaves, allowing unaffected leaves from beneath to unfurl comfortably. At least two millennia have passed since the Greeks and Romans chose Acanthus leaves to decorate their homes, public buildings and temples, and I am happy to report that with or without powdery mildew, it remains a handsome plant.