I was at a pub quiz once when the quizmaster asked contestants the former names of a series of places: Ghana (Gold Coast), Istanbul (Constantinople), Iceland (Bejam!!!)* I was reminded of this trick quiz question when I came across two plants within a week bearing similar species names** deriving from the word Formosa, the name given to the island of Taiwan by Portuguese sailors in the C16 and in common use by English speakers until well into the C20. Thinking it would be a jumping off point for a blog about a couple of plants sharing the old name of this island to the east of mainland China I started to dig into the subject. I discovered I was mistaken about at least one of the plants in question originating in Taiwan. Formosa means beautiful in Latin, so the botanists who named it were referring to its attractive appearance, not geographical origin!
For the last three years, in February, I have pruned all the late summer flowering shrubs in a garden in Teddington. One of the largest shrubs there is Leycesteria formosa, a spectacular deciduous shrub which is sometimes called Himalayan honeysuckle. Forming a thicket of upright branches, it can reach heights of 2m and bears tapered dark green leaves. At or near the the tips of the branches hang flower ‘spikes’ measuring up to 10cm long made up of white flowers threaded between dark purplish-red bracts. Pruning is easy: like Buddleia and hardy Fuchsia, the bare branches (which are hollow and bamboo like) are cut down to the base each winter. The RHS Encyclopaedia of Garden Plants states that it originates in cliffs and mountain woodland in India, China, the Himalayas and Myanmar, with no mention of Taiwan. This plant is named for its beauty not its native territory.
Thankfully though my romantically named island theory does apply to Tricyrtis formosiana which hails from Taiwan! The common name of this woodland herbaceous perennial is toad lily. Whether this is because its purple spotted flowers resemble a particular species of toad I have yet to find out. I recently refreshed the planting in a client’s shady cottage style front garden by introducing some shade loving ground cover (Brunnera macrophylla Jack Frost and Epimedium perralchium Frohnleiten) and thought it would be fun to throw in something more unusual in the form of a toad lily. The cultivar I chose is called Dark Beauty and flowers in August and September growing to approximately 60cm. Apparently young plants can be susceptible to slug and snail attack, so it would be good to think there might be some real amphibians in the vicinity to see off the gastropods!
Regular readers of this blog have probably noticed that I am fascinated by the history of plant names. Studying these two plants has taught me that it pays to look beyond the words used, because the obvious meaning is not necessary the correct one.
This is a rare post without photographs as neither plant flowers until later in the year. I’ve made myself a note to revisit this post when I’ve had a chance to take photographs of both.
*In January 1989, frozen food retailer Bejam was bought by its rival Iceland.
**Most plants bear names consisting of two words. The first is the genus name to indicate the group of plants it belongs to. The second is the species name and is usually descriptive of its origin, colour, appearance or other distinctive feature.
A recent recruit to Wordle, I’ve begun a list of five letter trees to use as opening gambits for my daily fix. Talking to experienced Wordlers, I realise that the gold standard is a word with three different vowels so as to increase the likelihood of at least one of them being in the Wordle of the day. For example one friend starts her daily game with AUDIO. So far I’ve not thought of a five letter tree word sharing that characteristic. In any event, I enjoy the challenge of starting each game with a different word, in the hope that at least one or more letters will, in line two, be marked mustard or (on a good day) green, to point me towards the correct word. For what it’s worth here is my list so far:
As I write this I realise how trivial it seems when world events have taken such a serious turn. Let’s look forward to the day when peace comes to Ukraine and rather than fleeing for their lives or sheltering underground, people there can start their day with an innocent five letter word game. Tree names optional.
The first professionally performed play I attended was A Midsummer Night’s Dream at Regent’s Park open air theatre. The year was 1970. We were taken on a school trip to a matinee. And it blew me away. Little did I know then that the glamorous couple playing Titania and Oberon were acting royalty: Maggie Smith and Robert Stephens. I remember it was a hot summer’s day and that I loved it all: the tree-surrounded setting, cheeky Puck, the fairies’ floaty costumes (chiffon was big in the 70s), Bottom as a donkey, the language. We were studying the play in the first year of secondary school and had had to learn Oberon’s ‘I know a bank where the wild thyme grows…’ speech off by heart. It was so exciting to hear it recited in the mellifluous tones of a real actor.
I know a bank where the wild thyme blows, Where oxlips and the nodding violet grows, Quite over-canopied with luscious woodbine, With sweet musk-roses and with eglantine: There sleeps Titania sometime of the night, Lull’d in these flowers with dances and delight; And there the snake throws her enamell’d skin, Weed wide enough to wrap a fairy in
Last Wednesday I saw another open air performance of the play, this time in Kew Gardens. ‘Dream’ as I believe it’s known in acting circles, has been performed in the Gardens most nights this August. The stage is erected in a clearing beyond the Waterlily House and a group of handsome trees form a dramatic backdrop to the action. The lighting crew do a fantastic job of illuminating this leafy scenery with stunning colours, emphasising the stature and structure of the trees themselves and evoking the magical atmosphere of the wood near Athens where most of the action takes place. The ‘Rude Mechanicals’ and the fairies sometimes approach the stage from behind the audience, bursting out from the shrubs at the rear of the ‘auditorium’. Over the course of the evening they must cover several miles. Puck is acrobatic and athletic and when he vows to put a girdle around the earth in forty minutes you almost believe he can. The five minute walk from Victoria Gate to the site of the play takes you past the Rose Garden, the pale blooms almost glowing in the dusk. Later the route was lit by strings of warm white lights on either side of the path. It was an enchanting setting for the play and brought back happy memories of my first encounter with Shakespeare and with open air theatre.
Meanwhile in another part of the wood, i.e. in my garden, I’ve been having something of a Shakespeare festival myself. Early in the summer I celebrated a successful year for Weeds Roots & Leaves by buying a large terracotta container from Whichford Pottery. This was triggered by needing something in which to plant the Rosax odorata Bengal Crimson which I brought back from my first ever visit to Great Dixter at the end of May. The rim of this hand thrown and frost proof pot is etched with an extract from Juliet’s famous line in her speech to Romeo in the balcony scene:
What’s in a name? That which we call a rose By any other name would smell as sweet; (Romeo & Juliet, Act 2 Scene 2)
Moulded in relief on the side of the pot is an elaborate illustration of a cluster of roses. When the pot arrived a couple of months ago I was pleasantly surprised to see that not a scrap of plastic had been used in packing it. The sturdy cardboard box was packed tightly with straw. But next time I splurge on a super pot from Whichford I’ve made a mental note to open it in the garden. I was vacuuming up traces of straw for several weeks after my eager unveiling of the new addition to the garden.
The Bengal Crimson rose, which was grown from a cutting of the large specimen in the Barn Garden at Dixter, bears deep red single flowers which seem to last barely a couple of days, before the petals fall. I hope there’ll be such a profusion of blooms in the years to come this ephemeral quality won’t be so evident. I’ve admired the rose since it was planted at the edge of the meadow bank opposite the American Border at Osterley. Looking at a few websites, I’m reassured to read that it is suitable for growing in a container.
Knowing the little rose would take a year or so to establish in the pot, I also planted the tiny maroon flowered African geranium (Pelargonium sidoides) and the deep red cultivar of Dianthus the seedlings of which I brought from Osterley before the first lockdown. You can see I have a deep red theme emerging with this choice of plants. I always perceive dark red petals as velvety and there’s a certain plushness too to the other red flowered plant in this arrangement, the graceful burgundy Cosmos which I grew from seed earlier this year. With its spikes of violet blue flowers, the annual Salvia farinaceaVictoria, provides a contrast in both colour and form to the other plants in the pot.
Whichford Pottery is located, appropriately, in William Shakespeare’s home county of Warwickshire. Having read Maggie O’Farrell’s novel Hamnet earlier this year, and enjoyed its evocation of life in late C16 Stratford upon Avon, I can see a visit to both the pottery and Shakespeare’s birthplace would make a splendid day out. Indeed, now that theatres have reopened, perhaps I should make a weekend of it and take in a play!
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.
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.
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’.
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.
During a recent meal with friends I learnt a new Three Letter Acronym (TLA): DMC or Deep & Meaningful Conversation. And it struck me that like most activities, gardening has its fair share of TLAs, about which there may well have been some DMCs.
So before we all go MIA (Missing in Action) for the Christmas and New Year festivities, I thought I’d share a few of the obvious horticultural TLAs. When it comes to late winter we can lavish much TLC (Tender Loving Care) on our gardens with an application of WRM (Well Rotted Manure). When pruning mature shrubs we should be using the mantra DDD (Dead, Diseased, Dying). I would argue that useful as this is as a guide, it doesn’t include the reminder to eliminate those crossing branches which rub together, potentially creating a site for disease to enter.
Having prepared the garden to withstand the winter, during any quieter times ahead we can plan new planting schemes, perhaps inspired by a gardening book received as a Christmas gift. One of my favourite sources of ideas for combining shrubs with herbaceous perennials, is ‘The Creative Shrub Garden’* by Andy McIndoe published by Timber Press. The book groups garden styles and colour combinations, with the shrub suggestions supplemented by ideas for complementary herbaceous perennials or grasses. There are also expanded schemes for larger gardens. I heard Andy McIndoe speak at a lecture a couple of years ago hosted by the Kew Mutual Improvement Society (KMIS): a FLA? His enthusiasm for his garden in Hampshire and practical approach was infectious and inspiring.
Many of the cultivars listed in my now well-thumbed copy of the book bear the epithet AGM indicating that they have been awarded the Award of Garden Merit by the RHS (Royal Horticultural Society). This means the RHS has trialled the plant in question and that it fulfils certain criteria including that it is ‘excellent for ordinary use in appropriate conditions’, ‘of good constitution’ ‘stable in form and colour’ and reasonably resistant to pests and diseases (PADs?). It must also be available which of course makes perfect sense as there would be little point in bestowing the honour upon a plant no-one can get hold of. I have read that if for some reason it is not practical to trial a plant, the RHS might award the AGM after a roundtable assessment by a forum of horticultural experts who debate its characteristics and garden performance.
I recently planted climbers in a couple of clients’ gardens, and each plant bore the reassuring AGM suffix. One was Trachelospermum jasminoides AGM, commonly known as Star Jasmine or Confederate Jasmine. I see from the nursery label that it has recently been renamed Rhynchospermum jasminoides. This perfumed white flowered evergreen ticks so many boxes in terms of being a good ‘doer’ for clothing a fence or wall. It needs some support whilst getting established, either on a trellis or strainer wire, but in due course it thickens up and supports itself and I have seen it entirely framing a friend’s back door.
The other AGM climber I used was Clematis ‘Ernest Markham’ AGM whose flowers are described as velvety crimson-red on the RHS website. It looks unremarkable at the moment but I hope to see it in flower in the client’s garden in early to late summer.
My client with the cottage style garden full of unusual shrubs (which I wrote about in a recent post entitled The Generous Gardener), told me a couple of weeks ago that she plans to plant an AGM shrub this coming year which she read about in the December issue of The Garden (page 82), Heptacodium miconiodes AGM. The common name of this autumn flowering tree is the wonderfully evocative ‘seven son flower tree’, which hints at its origins in China. This is another plant with fragrant white flowers and I understand they are very attractive to bees. Pink bracts remain when its flowers fade, lengthening the season of interest well into the autumn.
No doubt there are many more TLAs applicable to or peculiar to horticulture and I am now on the look out for some more to add to my list. Before I start my quest, I wish you a happy Christmas and a successful and satisfying start to the new decade.
Mountain thistles, a suburban palace and a maritime sink garden
High in the mountains of Northern Iraq grows a wild thistle-like plant the young leaves, stems, roots and undeveloped flowerheads of which are gathered every spring whilst its the spines remain tender. The flavour of the plant when cooked is said to resemble asparagus and artichoke. In a recent conversation with a Kurdish friend I learnt that the wild harvest of this delicacy heralds the arrival of spring in Kurdistan. Called ‘Kereng’ in one of the two Kurdish languages, Gundelia tournefortii is also known as Tumble Thistle. A member of the daisy family, it grows at altitudes of up to 2,500m, and is pollinated by honeybees and pollen feeding beetles. By mid-May, the stem separates from the root, allowing the entire plant to be rolled into a ball by the wind and carried over the ground to disperse its seeds.
Analysis of pollen in the fabric of the Shroud of Turin in 1998 revealed that over a quarter of the pollen identified was assigned to Gundelia, leading some researchers to suggest that Christ’s crown of thorns was made from its spine bearing branches. I read that Gundelia has been cultivated in Paris’s botanic garden, the Jardin des Plantes, since the early C18 when it was introduced by Joseph Pitton de Tournefort (1656—1708), a professor of botany at the garden who carried out a plant expedition in the Middle East accompanied by the German botanist, Andreas Gundelsheimer (1668–1715).
Containing more than 32,000 species, the daisy family or Asteraceae rivals the orchid family as one of the largest in the plant kingdom. Late summer and early autumn is an ideal time to see the colourful members of this diverse family lighting up herbaceous borders with vivid hot shades of yellow and orange. On a visit to Eltham Palace in south east London in late August, I found swathes of Echinacea and Rudbeckia in the Lower Moat Garden. I first visited Eltham Palace a year or so after English Heritage reopened it in 1999 after an extensive restoration of the unique Art Deco mansion attached to a Tudor Great Hall built by Stephen Courtauld in the 1930s. My chief memories of that visit were the salmon pink leather upholstered dining chairs and the huge carp in the palace moat and I do not recall the gardens making much of an impression. But I can see that the gardens have since been lovingly restored with their secluded ‘rooms’ providing welcome shelter from the hot sunshine on the day I was there.
At Osterley the daisies feature throughout the gardens at the moment. There are diminutive Cornish daisies, Erigeron karvinskianus, near the elegant steps to the rear of the house, perennial sunflowers, Cosmos and Goldenrod (Solidago) in the Picking Garden and Heleniums in Mrs Child’s Flower Garden. With a handful of us volunteer garden team continuing to lead 45 minute garden tours twice a week, these cheerful flowers provide colourful highlights as we progress through the garden to where deep burgundy and orange Dahlias (also daisy family members) are complemented in one of the potager style beds in the Tudor Walled Garden by the velvety plumes of Amaranthus.
In a digression from daisies, I would like to share my favourite plant scene from the last week in August, and one created without human intervention. At one side of the coastal path from Croyde Bay in North Devon to the promontory of Baggy Point, I noticed an expanse of upended slivers of shale, in the crevices between which were growing a myriad of tiny succulents. I have often admired these miniature landscapes replicated in troughs displayed outside the Davies Alpine House in Kew Gardens, but to see one such terrain ‘in nature’ in the golden hour before sunset with the outline of Lundy Island hovering on the horizon 20 miles away to sea was a special experience.
POSTSCRIPT: 1 October 2019
I began this post with a reference to Tumble Thistle, Gundelia tournefortii, named for a seventeenth century French botanist, Joseph Pitton de Tournefort. I was lucky enough to spend a few days in Paris last week and joined a walking tour of the area around Rue Mouffetard in the 5th arrondissement, in the footsteps of Ernest Hemingway who lived there in the 1920s. Eager to show us an example of a street sign which had been altered due to historic events, the guide took us to the former Rue Neuve Genevieve, where the name was etched into the stone wall of a building at the corner of the street. The abbreviation ‘Ste’ was obliterated after the French Revolution in 1789, when religion was outlawed during the period known as the Terror. By coincidence the street is now called Rue Tournefort, with the classic green edged blue Parisian street sign showing the name of the botanist who lends his name to one of the more intriguing members of the daisy family. The Jardin des Plantes is located approximately half a mile from this spot.
When my parents arrived as newly-weds in Billericay in 1951 it was a small, rather sleepy Essex town, on the railway line from London’s Liverpool Street Station to Southend on Sea. This was long before the advent of Essex man and woman and the brash image of the county promoted by TV shows such as The Only Way Is Essex. Ian Durie had yet to pen ‘Billericay Dickie’ and the writers of the wonderful sitcom partly set in Billericay, ‘Gavin and Stacey’, had yet to be born.
My parents’ first home was a pretty cottage with a long narrow Rhododendron hedged garden with a boggy area at the far end, beyond which lay the local park, Lake Meadows. A wooden sign hung in the front porch with ‘Meadowsweet’ written in pokerwork. My dad and a neighbour discovered a spring at the foot of their adjoining gardens, hence the damp area of land, and dug out a pretty stream over which they built picturesque rustic bridges.
When in 1959 we moved to the larger town of Brentwood a few miles away, the sign was hung over the door of the wooden shed at the far end of the garden, and bore witness to many a cycling lesson, bonfire and the memorable occasion when my dad hurled a collection of precious Fuchsia plants out of the shed which had failed to survive the winter. Many years later my parents left Essex for Hampshire, where a new garden shed was christened ‘Meadowsweet’ using the same sign. Sadly the sign is lost but that first home survives in the form of a treasured wooden musical box, modelled on the original cottage. Almost 70 years later, the sentimental strains of Irving Berlin’s ‘Always’ ring out as clearly as ever when I lift its tiled roof.
‘I’ll be loving you always
With a love that’s true always.
When the things you’ve planned
Need a helping hand,
I will understand always.’
Until recently Meadowsweet was what the sledge Rosebud was to Citizen Kane, a symbol of a vanished childhood. But last week, whilst carrying out a little gardening work for some local friends, I discovered a cultivar of the plant which inspired that Billericay cottage’s evocative name. Meadowsweet or Filipendula multijuga ‘Red Umbrellas’ is a very attractive foliage plant. Its serrate edged palmate leaves are prominently veined in deep burgundy, in contrast to the lime green of the leaves. Growing in a terracotta container, it reminded me of some similarly marked cultivars of Heuchera. Reading about the plant I learn that it has fluffy pink flowers from July to September although the specimen I saw was not yet in flower.
Another species of Meadowsweet, Filipendula ulmaria, seems a more likely inspiration for the house name, given that it is ideal for boggy areas of the garden or beside water, and I like to think that an earlier owner had named the house for the creamy-white flowered plant growing at the foot of the garden in suitably damp conditions.
With white flowers in mind, I recently came across another plant with which I was not familiar, Viola cornuta, or the Horned Pansy. It was planted in combination with a low growing Pittosporum and Verbena ‘Lollipop’. Its delicately scented pure white flowers are about 3 cm wide with long spurs and its foliage is evergreen. It grows to a height of 15cm and I understand that it is susceptible to slugs, snails, aphids, powdery mildew and pansy leaf spot. Perhaps that list of potential pests and diseases accounts for its apparent rarity. That said, I was able to find a couple of beautiful plants at North Hill Nursery this week and which I plan to include in two late summer/ autumn hanging baskets which I am planting for a client next week. I would hope that the altitude will at least deter the molluscs.
I have found the epithet ‘Chameleon’ applied to a couple of plants recently, one of which I grow in my own garden and the other I saw in a garden I visited in Northamptonshire last week. The chameleon in my garden is Houttynia cordata ‘Chameleon’, which grows profusely in my garden and is a very good ground cover plant in a sunny or partially shaded position. It has a tendency to spread by underground stems and I can understand why it is recommended that it be grown in containers to control its progress. It bears tiny yellow flowers above white bracts, but for me its most attractive feature is the foliage which is heart shaped and variegated with splashes and margins of cream and often heavily flushed in red. Until I researched the plant for this post I had forgotten that when crushed the leaves smell strongly of orange.
Colourful foliage is the feature of the next chameleon plant: Physocarpus opulifolius ‘Chameleon’. A member of the rose family, Rosaceae, this deciduous shrub grows to a height and width of about 1.5m. The leaves emerge green in spring but as the season progresses, the green darkens to wine red before turning deep purple and brown. Another plant for full sun or partial shade, the location in which I saw the similarly hued cultivar ‘Diablo d’Or’ in The Old Rectory Garden, Sudborough, was in dappled shade on the margin of the garden pond which is fed by a tributary of the river Nene. There is a great deal more to say about this exquisite garden which I shall reserve for a later post but in the meantime I shall let this image speak for itself.
The common names of plants often reference other plants. For example, the ‘tulip tree’ (Liriodendron tulipifera). Not only do its generous waxy cream goblets resemble tulips, its uniquely shaped leaves with their truncated upper edges remind me of stylised versions of the flower. And this weekend I came across the ‘snowdrop tree’ on Instagram, Halesia Carolina, whose snowy white bells are reminiscent of the blooms of its namesake.
Another tree whose flowers resemble another species, and which is in glorious flower at the moment, is the foxglove tree, Paulownia tomentosa. Four examples of the tree occupy a corner to the right of the Garden House in Mrs Child’s Flower Garden at Osterley, one of which stands slightly apart from the others, behind the wall in the section of the garden where stands the unusual species of strawberry tree, Arbutus madrona, which I featured in my blog dated 17 April 2019.
Like foxgloves, the tree’s petals are a fleshy tubular shape with a flared rim to entice pollinators. Approximately 5cm long, the mauve flowers are topped by exquisite tan calyxes, like suede jackets shrugged over elegant pastel ballgowns.
When after a heavy shower last week I picked up one of the many flowers which the rain had loosened onto the ground beneath the tree, I detected a strong violet scent. The ripened seed cases are almost as attractive as the flowers themselves, being egg-shaped capsules containing numerous winged seeds. When driving along the busy Chertsey Road (A316) the other day I noticed Paulownia trees lining part of the carriageway, presumably indicating a toughness and resistance to pollution belied by their flowers’ delicate appearance.
I read that the tree originates from Eastern Asia, notably China, Japan and Korea. And whilst it is an introduced species in Europe and the USA, it was interesting to note that fossilised Paulownia tomentosa leaves have been found in Washington State. The name Paulownia was given by the German botanist Philipp Franz von Siebold in honour of Anna Pavlovna, 1795-1865, daughter of Tsar Paul I and wife of William II of the Netherlands: hence the tree’s other common name, the Princess tree. The image above demonstrates why the species epithet ‘tomentosa‘ meaning ‘covered in hairs’ is so apt.
Shades of mauve and purple are prevalent in gardens this month as shown in the images which follow. From left to right: Cerinthe major ‘Purpurascens’; Centaurea montana; Lavandula stoechas; Allium ‘Purple Sensation’.
For a few days this week mid February has felt more like early April. The daytime temperature reached 16ºC and the sky was an intense blue unpunctuated by clouds.
Two or three times a year the Osterley garden volunteers venture out into the wider parkland to clear brambles or, as we did on Friday, sort out and process hazel branches. The ranger team had already cleared a mass of material from the hazel wood which they had amassed into a large pile. Our job was to extract the felled trunks and branches and identify those suitable for fashioning into supports suitable for use in the garden as plant supports or stakes. As we dragged out each portion of wood we lopped off side branches and tested the slimmer, straightest wands for pliability. These will be used for supporting roses (see last Sunday’s post) or herbaceous perennials. The thickest trunks make good stakes for post and rope fencing. Those with a diameter of approximately 4-5cm are ideal for creating the tall wigwams in one of the quadrants in the Tudor Walled Garden. Once fully clothed with the annual climber, Spanish Flag, Mina lobata, these form red and yellow beacons, amidst the Dahlias, Mexican sunflowers, Amaranthus and Castor Oil Plants.
After one and a half hours of dragging, sawing and trimming we had produced three neat stacks of the useable material and an untidy heap of tangled discarded brushwood. Gardener Ed, who supervised our labours, calls this material ‘brash’, According to the Shorter Oxford English Dictionary brash is a ‘mass of fragments’. The brash will be collected by the rangers in a vehicle and taken to the work yard next to the gardeners’ bothy for shredding and composting. As we walked across the park in the warm sunshine, for lunch at the picnic table outside the bothy, we took care not to tread on the bluebell leaves already pushing through the turf. By 1.15pm we were back in the hazel wood where we cut suitable stems directly from the coppiced hazel stands which we added to the morning’s output.
Our route to the park passed the elegant and newly refurbished Garden House, the focal point of Mrs Child’s Flower Garden. Inside the house, against a backdrop of potted citrus trees, stands a colourful tableau of assorted spring bulbs. Terracotta pots contain glossy purple, mauve and yellow crocuses and mid blue irises with darker blue ‘falls’ centred with yellow. Here too are two containers of azure Siberian squill, Scilla sibirica. Close inspection reveals star-shaped flowers held on short stems, each waxy petal decorated with a darker blue stripe. The pollen atop each anther clustered in the heart of the flowers is a surprising shade of blue. After the subtle colours of the hellebores and the virginal white of the snowdrops which have so dominated the gardens in recent weeks, the intense blue of the squalls is a refreshing and uplifting sight.
Being able to combine a love of plants with a love of words is for me one of the side benefits of gardening. Few weeks pass without my learning a new plant name, Discovering an expression for a hitherto unknown garden feature is a rarer occurrence, but this was my experience when leafing through a copy of Tim Newbury’s ‘Garden Design Bible’. In a section about planning a family garden I found an illustration of a ‘fedge’- a portmanteau word to describe a combined fence and hedge. Its purpose is to create a sturdy physical barrier where something more attractive than a plain fence is needed. The book suggests a variety of evergreens to plant alongside the wire netting fence, such a yew, Taxus baccata or Lonicera nitida, the tiny golden-leaved member of the honeysuckle genus whose appearance is more box than woodbine. Evergreen climbers, especially ivies, are recommended for tall narrow ‘fedges’ where ground space is limited.
Discovering ‘fedge’ prompted me to research if there are other portmanteau words, where parts of multiple words are combined into a new word (think ‘smog’, ‘motel’ and, if you must, ‘Brexit’), in use in the horticultural world. This lead me to the practise of ‘permaculture’ which I confess I had heard of but not understood until this week. The word was coined in the 1970’s, as a marriage of ‘permanent agriculture’ and refers to any system of sustainable agriculture or horticulture that simulates features of natural ecosystems. One example of permaculture is where different layers of vegetation in a garden mimic nature and can be exploited to create a ‘food forest’. This might consist of up to seven recognised layers, with a canopy of tall trees at the upper level, descending through an understorey of lower, possibly fruit-bearing, trees, a shrub layer of berry bushes and a herbaceous layer of plants which die back in winter, including culinary and medicinal herbs. Beneath these four layers lie a ground cover layer which grows close to the ground and a ‘rhizosphere’ of roots within the soil which in the productive garden can include root crops and edible tubers, such as carrots and potatoes. The seventh layer is a vertical layer of climbers such as runner beans or vines. A panellist on the radio garden show ‘Gardeners’ Question Time’ broadcast on 9 November 2018 favoured this method of raising food crops above the conventional one or two layer allotment plot.
I am two thirds of the way through freshening up a local back garden and two of the plants I have used in the planting scheme share the species epithet ending ‘oides‘. This means that the plants resemble another plant in some way and I suppose might be translated as ‘like’ or ‘ish’. The first of such plants is the evergreen climber Trachelospermum jasminoides, which I have planted near the house so that its jasmine-like scent will drift through the windows on summer evenings as well as perfuming the seating area around the rear of the property. One common name of the plant is intriguing: Confederate jasmine. Until I dug a little deeper I assumed it derived its name from the slavery supporting states in the American Civil War and imagined it entwining the classical pillars of southern plantation mansions such as Tara in ‘Gone with the Wind’. I understand it grows well in the southeastern states of the USA but because the plant originates in Southeast Asia, it is named for the confederacy of Malay states. The other common name of Star jasmine accurately describes the appearance of its waxy white five petalled flowers which contrast beautifully with the small glossy pointed leaves.
In the sunniest flowerbed in the garden I have underplanted a Ceanothus ‘Puget Blue’ with another ‘ish’ plant, Ceratostigma plumbaginoides. The intense blue flowers of this low-growing shrub, which appear in late summer, bear a resemblance to the flowers of the tender climber Plumbago. The common name of both plants is Leadwort but it does not seem to be known definitively whether this refers to their lead-blue flowers, the property of the sap which stains the skin a lead-blue hue or the belief of the Roman author and naturalist Pliny the Elder that leadwort cured lead poisoning. Whatever the derivation of Ceratostigma plumbaginoides‘s tongue-twister of a name it is ideal ground cover in sunny sites and noteworthy for the glorious reds and oranges of its deciduous leaves in autumn. Bill Neal’s ‘Gardener’s Latin’ recommends underplanting it with small bulbs which can flower while the leadwort is dormant in the early months of the year, the dying foliage of the bulbs then disguised by the little shrub’s emerging leaves. This advice pre-empts my agenda for next week’s session in the client’s garden when I plan to plant diminuitive Narcissus ‘Jet Fire’ in the bed in which I’ve put this anything but leaden plant.
Next time I report upon recent planting sessions at Osterley House and Gardens and reflect on my second professional gardening assignment.