Falling for hawthorn

It’s early October 2015 and we’re progressing in single file along a narrow ridge at the top of a steep wooded hillside. I’m with three colleagues from Kew and a Peak District National Park ranger. We each carry seed-collecting equipment, in my case a couple of plastic buckets filled with cotton drawstring bags and stringed labels. We pick our way cautiously, conscious of the steep drop to our right. I’m third in the line and concentrating hard to maintain my balance. Suddenly I pitch sideways and hurtle downhill. I can see my boots above my head! Somehow I curl myself into as compact a shape as my height allows and roll into the trunk of a large old tree, about a third of the way down the hill. Winded but unhurt I can see my companions looking anxiously down at me and one of them, Jason Irving (@ForageWildFood) is coming down the hill after me, using the pruning pole he’s carrying as a brake. I unravel myself and we clamber uphill to rejoin the expedition. Appropriately, we find out that evening that the area we had been walking through was known locally as The Fall!

Thus began the first afternoon of a collecting trip for Kew’s UK Native Tree Seed Project, a lottery-funded initiative to build a genetically comprehensive collection of the seeds of UK trees, to support research and conservation. The call had gone out earlier in the year for volunteers from across the organisation to join trips across the country. In July we had attended a training day at Wakehurst to practise using the equipment and to learn more about the species from which we would be collecting seed. We had spent the morning beside the River Manifold collecting rowan berries (Sorbus aucuparia), choosing at least ten trees growing in relatively close proximity, filling several cotton bags with the slightly sticky fruits. The target species we were aiming for that afternoon was native ash, Fraxinus excelsior, whose rustling bunches of ‘keys’ we clipped off using the parrot-headed pruning tool. At each site, in addition to recording the location of the collection using GPS and marking the trees from which we had taken seeds with a small metal disc gently hammered into the trunk, we collected the end of a small branch from one tree, including leaves and seedcases, from which a herbarium specimen sheet would be created. This involved sandwiching the sample of plant material between sheets of newspaper laid inside a wooden frame held together with webbing belts similar to yoga belts. As the week progressed the ‘press’ became fuller and heavier, a record of the various species collected.

On the subsequent days we harvested sloe (Prunus spinosa) in Lathkilldale, alder (Alnus glutinosa) in Topley Pike Wood and downy birch (Betula pubescens) in Yorkshire Bridge Wood. But one tree eluded us: the midland hawthorn (Crataegus laevigata). At each collecting site, our team leader, Dr Chris Cockel, cut open a haw from the several hawthorn trees we found, to check if it contained two seeds as opposed to the one seed found in common hawthorn (Crataegus monogyna). Although we found a couple of trees on one of the days, there were insufficient to constitute a population, making them unsuitable for the project.

Fast forward five years to yesterday. Planted a few feet from the boardwalk (a raised timber path created a few years ago to wind through the conservation area at the southern end of Kew Gardens) I see two saplings of the Glastonbury Thorn. Distinguished from common hawthorn by flowering twice a year, a sprig from the tree is sent to the monarch every year to be placed on the royal Christmas table. When the tree was vandalised a decade ago, cuttings were propagated in Kew’s Arboretum nursery overseen by Tony Kirkham, Head of the Arboretum. A young tree from one such cutting was planted in Glastonbury, on Wearyall Hill, in 2017.

Legend links the original Glastonbury Thorn, a type of C. monogyna, to Joseph of Arimathea, the wealthy man stated in John’s gospel to have arranged the burial of Jesus. Joseph is thought to have subsequently travelled to Britain, to Glastonbury. When he set his walking staff down, it is said to have miraculously taken root, growing into the tree that became known as the Glastonbury Thorn.

It seems that for a tree relatively modest in stature and appearance, there are many legends and customs associated with hawthorn. We are all familiar with the advice not to ‘cast a clout ’til may be out’. I adhere to the theory that the may referred to is the hawthorn blossom rather than the month of May. Given the high temperatures often experienced in May, I think we’d all expire with the heat if we clung to our winter woollies until 1st June.

Until I began reading about hawthorns for this post I ignorantly assumed that the blackthorn so often referred to in Irish folk tales was the same tree. It is another species altogether: sloe (Prunus spinosa) mentioned above. Like the hawthorn it bears five petalled white flowers in spring, but blackthorn flowers first, from March, and does so on bare wood. Both species are often found in ancient hedging and in fact both belong to the rose family (Rosaceae).

In autumn 2020 I contributed copy for a picture spread in the December issue of ‘Garden Answers’ magazine, ‘Decorate with Hips and Haws’. In the course of my research I discovered that waxwings, winter visitors to the UK, love red berries and particularly the fruit of the hawthorn, haws. According the the RSPB website, they will typically descend on hawthorn plants in supermarket carparks. Now that’s a sight that would cheer me up after a masked and hand-sanitised dash around my local Sainsbury’s!

I also found a recipe for hawthorn tea which I confess I haven’t yet tried but which is said to benefit the heart and circulation system. Using one teaspoon of berries per cup, pour boiling water over the berries and steep for 15 minutes before straining through a fine mesh and sweetening to test with honey and perhaps flavouring with a cinnamon stick.

When I take the shortcut across Osterley’s front lawn to reach the gardeners’ bothy every Friday, I pass two spreading hawthorn trees which bear strikingly large dark red fruits in autumn. These are Cockspur thorns (Crataegus crus-galli, literally a cock’s leg) and named, presumably, for their long curved thorns which can measure 3cm to 8cm. The species originates in the eastern USA. On bright autumn mornings I’m often late reporting for volunteer gardening duty because I’ve paused to admire and photograph these handsome trees!

Talking plants and gardens

Part 1

National lockdown in England has morphed into Tier 2 restrictions here in the London suburbs. During lockdown, because I work outside, I was fully occupied during in the daytime, tidying clients’ gardens, planting bulbs and creating winter themed containers. And thanks to a wealth of online talks and events I was busy in the evenings too, spending time in the virtual company of garden designers and plantsmen, touring a university botanic garden and a world famous garden in Kent and attending an awards ceremony celebrating the work of the garden media industry. Were it not for these webinars and films I doubt I’d have covered so much ground in such a short space of time. On a dreary late autumn evening I might have thought twice about venturing out to a Plant Heritage meeting in Cobham or a Garden Museum lecture in Lambeth and certainly not wearing my slippers and pyjama bottoms!

My horticulture vulture November began courtesy of the Garden Museum with a talk about gardens in the work of the painter John Singer Sargent (1856-1925) by his great nephew Richard Ormond. He described a career as a society portrait painter counterbalanced by summers spent painting in some of the great gardens of Europe: La Granja, outside Madrid; the Borghese Gardens in Rome; the Boboli Gardens in Florence. Many of these paintings featured Sargent’s favourite subjects of classical architecture, topiary, fountains and statuary.

Due weight was given to the atmospheric ‘Carnation Lily Lily Rose’ in which two young girls light Japanese lanterns at twilight amidst the flowers of the title. Although painted out of doors, the set-up we were told could hardly be described as spontaneous since the canvas was painted over the course of two seasons with the bought-in flowers being attached to wires.

Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose 1885-6 John Singer Sargent

The myriad of slides we were treated to included sublime still-lives of roses and gentians as well as gourds and pomegranates growing in a garden in Mallorca.

Two evenings later I was transported to the walled environment of the Oxford Botanic Garden by the Surrey Plant Heritage Group. The speaker Timothy Walker retired in 2014 after 26 years as the gardens’s Horti Praefectus (director). Engaging and erudite, he crammed the 400 year history of the garden into an entertaining hour and a half, prefacing the talk with with a reading list and historical context for the creation of the garden from 1621. But this was no dry academic lecture. As both a botanist and (Kew-trained) horticulturist, he revealed the site’s wonderful 30 feet depth of topsoil and referenced specific trees in the garden, including a Pinus nigra planted in 1834 said to be JR Tolkein’s favourite tree. We learnt of the acquisition in 1946 of land outside the city of Oxford which became the Harcourt Arboretum, where the acid soil favours the cultivation of rhododendrons. Timothy Walker also shared family photographs showing his children happily posing atop the enormous leaves of the giant waterlily Victoria amazonica to demonstrate the plant’s strength and rigidity. What makes it all the more extraordinary is the fact that the plants are propagated annually in the Oxford Botanic Garden’s glasshouse.

Giant waterlilies photographed this summer in the Waterlily House in Kew Gardens

Sir Joseph Banks (1743-1820), the first unofficial director of Kew Gardens or ‘the Richmond allotments’ as Timothy Walker dubbed them, was the subject of the next talk I ‘attended’. The Gardens Trust hosted Professor Jordan Goodman of UCL describing the global botanical projects launched by Banks to source plants for George III at Kew. The first of these, in 1787, was the notorious voyage of The Bounty, with Captain Bligh at the helm. The objective of the expedition was to transport breadfruit plants from Tahiti to the West Indies, returning to London with exotic plants from both the Pacific and the Caribbean. Banks had first encountered breadfruit 20 years earlier when he joined Captain Cook’s voyage to the South Pacific Ocean. To facilitate the transportation of living plants, the ship’s cargo included over 1000 empty pots and there was a gardener on board whose job it was to look after the precious cargo. The captain relinquished his cabin to accomodate the breadfruit plants which were duly collected in Tahiti. What happened next has been dramatised in several movies. Led by Fletcher Christian, the ship’s company mutinied, the plants were thrown overboard and Bligh and 18 seamen loyal to him, including the gardener, were set adrift in an open launch. Bligh and his men eventually reached Timor. By 1790 Bligh had found his way back to London and he commanded the next expedition organised by Banks. The voyage of The Providence (which, with a greenhouse installed on the quarter deck, was described as a ‘floating garden’) was a great success, visiting Tahiti, St Vincent and Jamaica. It docked in Deptford in 1793 laden with more than 2000 plants destined for Kew. Even the final stage of the journey took place on water, when they were transported along the Thames by barge to Kew.

Use of the Thames to transport plants cropped up again in Andy Sturgeon’s lecture for the Kew Mutual Improvement Society to raise funds for the Kew Diploma students’ third year field trip to Spain. During ‘Making the Modern Garden’, the Chelsea Gold medal winning designer described a project for a garden on the banks of the river in Putney. Apparently there are only 93 houses in London whose gardens connect directly with the Thames and the materials for the hard landscaping and the plants for this design were delivered via the river. More than 200 years since Banks’ botanical expeditions and plants are still being transported by water! This lecture was both a reflection on a hugely successful career as a garden designer and an assessment of changing fashions in garden design during the three decades since Andy began creating gardens. In locations from London Docklands to Bermuda, via a gravel garden in Snowdonia, his gardens share a spaciously elegant quality and often feature a restricted colour palette. This isn’t to say that the colours are muted or dull, far from it, but he argues that it is unrestful to use too many colours. I was encouraged to note that in the list of plants which Andy favours for his designs: euphorbias, Mahonia ‘Soft Caress’, Nandina domestica, Bupleurum and Astelia, I have used them all in planting schemes for clients save Bupleurum.

Plant names came thick and fast in Irish plantsman Jimi Blake’s tour de force for the Hampshire branch of Plant Heritage. We learnt that he grew up at Hunting Brook near Blessington in County Wicklow, to which he returned to create a unique garden of contrasts after training at the National Botanic Garden in Glasnevin and a stint as a head gardener. Deep beds on the sunny slopes of this steep garden sport flowers as colourful as Jimi’s extensive collection of floral shirts. The site descends into a tranquil wooded gorge intersected by a stream running down from the Wicklow Mountains, where Jimi has created an understory of shade-loving plants. Jimi spoke with such infectious enthusiasm about his garden, his passion for so many different geniuses: snowdrops, species dahlias, kniphofias, salvias, geums, that I felt uplifted listening to him. He loves woodland and spring plants, the latter ‘so good for your mind’, giving a feeling that ‘momentum is mounting’. He prefers daffodils to tulips. He breaks rules and obtains great results, dividing plants in summer rather than in autumn and winter, for example a favourite of his, Lychnis ‘Hill Grounds’. He creates unusual plant combinations such as foxtail lilies with alliums. By pollarding non-tender plants like Populus glauca he achieves the exotic look of larger leaves without the tenderness. A hallmark of his planting design is the use of narrow-leaved woody plants like Pseudopanax linearis amongst flowering plants to introduce an element of exoticism. He’s fond of orange-flowered plants: Geum ‘Totally Tangerine’, Cosmos ‘Tango’, the cigar plant Cuphea ignea. He loves silver-leaved plants: Artemesia stelleriana ‘Boughton Silver’ provides good ground cover. He gardens organically. His dogs Doris and Billy appeared in a few photographs and he advised pet lovers to avoid planting Aconitum, Euphorbia and Heliotrope. Needless to say I’m already day-dreaming about going to Hunting Brook Gardens when we can travel freely once more and to Costa Rica where Jimi described seeing hillsides covered in dahlias. In the meantime I shall make do with putting Jimi Blake’s new book ‘A Beautiful Obsession: Jimi Blake’s World of Plants at Hunting Brook Gardens’* on my Christmas list!

In Part 2 of this account of lockdown lectures I’ll report upon a conversation between the author of a new book about Sissinghurst and the director of the Garden Museum and attending an awards ceremony dressed up from the ankles upwards.

*ISBN: 9781999734527

To the Manor Born

A September afternoon at Chenies Manor

What links George W Bush’s Vice-President and the proprietor of Acorn Antiques? Answer: Chenies Manor in Buckinghamshire. According to the guide who related the history of the magnificent Elizabethan manor house when I visited a couple of weeks ago, both Dick Cheney and actor Celia Imrie are related to families who once owned the house.

Used to parking some distance away from the house when visiting a historic property, I was surprised to find myself being directed to the car park through the entrance gates and passing immediately in front of the house and through part of the garden itself. That brief glimpse from the driver’s seat promised I had arrived somewhere special. For here was a square lawn bordered on one side by a redbrick wall beyond which stood the parish church, a very picturesque scene.

The Inner Court

Once parked, closer inspection of the border beside the wall revealed a textbook blend of leaf shapes and textures: sword-like Phormium leaves interspersed with cream and yellow variegated shrubs (Euonymus and Cornus alba ‘Sibirica Variegata’) and the crisply serrated blue/green leaves of the giant honey flower, Melianthus major. The lawn is cornered with yew columns, and in the centre a stone cherub stands amidst a circular bed of burgundy leafed Heucheras and castor oil plants (Ricinus communis).

Melianthus major

The redbrick of the Manor House forms an L around two sides of this entrance lawn. Variegated hollies frame the doorway of a grand brick porch, one holly trimmed into a five tiered design, beneath which grow ferns and ladies’ mantle (Alchemilla mollis). Lead planters at the door blend shades of yellow and white, with dahlias, nicotianas and hydrangeas. Grouped containers feature elsewhere in the garden. Coincidentally, when reading the September chapter of Beth Chatto’s ‘Garden Notebook’ this week, I noticed she calls such arrangements ‘pot gardens’. The architecture of the house is perfect for tucking terracotta pots of ferns into shady corners or filling a courtyard with a collection of clipped box in pots, the evergreen foliage softened by a blue-flowered Salvia. A metal jardinière houses a collection of tender pelargoniums, amongst which I spotted Pelargonium sidoides, which I’ve grown for the first time this year in my own pot garden.

Dotted around the garden are a number of sculptures, all for sale, including a greyhound-lurcher which, according to Boo McLeod Matthews, the current chatelaine of Chenies Manor, who I chatted to whilst admiring the sculpture, is so lifelike that her two spaniels growled at it when it was first installed. Two angels in conversation and a swooping owl also appealed to me, nestling naturally in the greenery.

The garden consists of several rooms beyond which lies a larger expanse of lawn, clipped yew pyramids drawing your eye towards a pretty metalwork gazebo, a souvenir of the filming onsite of an adaptation of Dickens’ ‘Little Dorrit’. At the far side of this lawn stands an ancient oak tree, where legend has it Elizabeth I mislaid a piece of jewellery.

The Little Dorrit gazebo, viewed from the Rose Lawn

Chenies Manor is a popular wedding venue and it’s easy to see why. Everywhere you turn are vistas and flowery bowers, a wedding photographer’ dream. Boo explained that with no wedding business this year, she has worked almost-full time in the garden with the rest of a small team of gardeners.

The first room I explored was the Rose Lawn bordered on one side by plantings of frothy annuals, formality imposed by broad based clipped box cones. Purple Heliotrope and Verbena bonariensis flowerheads jostle against Cosmos (in pink and white) and graceful pink Nicotiana and Cleome. The pink and purple theme is continued around the Rose Lawn, pale and deeper pink dahlias interspersed with more Heliotrope amply fill beds trimmed with a foot high hedge.

Dividing that bed from an adjoining lawn, tall lavenders and nicotianas tumble either side of a gravelled path, on which stood a wheelbarrow of deadheaded Dahlia blooms, a clue to the garden’s immaculate presentation. The path continues beyond domed yews to a metal pergola-covered green alley, square slabs set into the gravel at an angle to create a diamond pattern. Luminous autumn crocus (Colchicum autumnale) illuminate the edge of this secret path which divides the next two rooms in the garden, the White Garden and the Sunken Garden.

Entered via an archway in a Wisteria laden wooden trellis screen, the White Garden’s restrained colour palette creates a calm tranquil atmosphere. The lawn snakes around imposing yew drums, embedded between which white dahlias (including the single-flowered ‘Twynings After Eight’) and tall Nicotiana sylvestnis dazzle against the dark green of the yew.

The Sunken Garden comprises a rectangle within a rectangle, a narrow strip of grass separating the planted sections. Repetitions of the shuttlecock fern (Matteuccia struthiopteris), blue/grey Euphorbias and ribbed-leafed hostas provide an understated backdrop for the stars of the show, dozens of dahlias in warm shades from peach through soft orange to scarlet and crimson. The skilful staking which must surely have been necessary to support the taller and larger flowered decorative dahlias was all but invisible.

Seated at a trestle table near the tearoom was Mary, one of the garden team, who generously shared her expertise in the annual propagation of many hundreds of dahlias, demonstrating the technique for taking cuttings from stored tubers early in the season. Arrayed on the table were several vases each containing a single bloom, in bright and pastel colours and of differing shapes: single, cactus, pompon, waterlily, collarette and the large bloomed decorative. By mid November, ideally after the first frost, the dahlias are dug up and dried off for a week or so. The stalks are cut down to 2 or 3 inches and the tubers are covered with dry compost or shredded newspaper in fruit crates and stored in every conceivable space that can be found, protected from frost, damp and mice. 60% of the dahlias in the garden are grown from cuttings. The rest are last year’s tubers or new varieties. Some are also grown from seed. Cuttings taken in January are started off in heated propagators. The new shoots from the tuber are sliced off with a small piece of tuber attached and dipped into rooting compound before being planted into pots with four other cuttings, watered and covered with a plastic bag.

The varieties Mary showed us included:

  • ‘Karma Prospero’: a longlasting waterlily style decorative dahlia
  • ‘Karma Choc’: a deep chocolatey red, good for flower arranging
  • ‘Spartacus’: a velvety red dinnerplate sized decorative dahlia
  • ‘Belle of Barmera’: terracotta fades to soft pink and buff
  • ‘Café au Lait’: cream blush blooms, a favourite for wedding bouquets
  • ‘Labyrinth’: apricot orange with wavy petals
  • ‘Honka Fragile’: White star shape with red edging

Massed tulip planting takes place before Christmas in preparation for a magnificent display each April. Judging by the impact the dahlias make, I can only imagine the spectacle that awaits visitors to this beautiful garden next spring.

Next time…..I pay a return visit to Chenies Manor. Having concentrated on the central areas of the garden on my first visit, I saw neither the Kitchen Garden nor the Physic Garden and have booked tickets to return with friends later this week. And I plan to take a closer look at the ancient oak tree with its royal connections.

Colour Palettes and Wooden Pallets

One of the joys of the gradual easing of lockdown since June has been garden visiting. From The Newt in Somerset to Vann House in Surrey I’ve enjoyed several days off from a busy gardening schedule to explore some beautiful sites. At the start of August I went to The Savill Garden next to Windsor Great Park. Despite low clouds and fine rain my overall impression was of concentrations of vivid colours brightening dense ornamental woodland. Dazzling pinks and purples welcome you in the double borders leading from the visitor centre. Edged with pinky mauve Osteospermum, a block of warm pink Salvia microphylla is given an airy feel by clouds of Verbena bonariensis hovering overhead. Alongside are dark-leaved Dahlias bearing pom-pom flowers in puce, a shade which here looks better than it sounds. Puce is one of those words describing colour (heliotrope is another) which I associate with gloomy Victorian parlours.

In the Bog Garden I found more colour than I expected with the soft sky blue of bog sage (Salvia uligonosa) contrasting in both form and colour with the buttery yellow daisy flowers of Inula. I should mention that a welcome feature of this garden is the presence of plant labels. Spoilt by proximity to the world’s greatest botanic garden, I expect to find every plant clearly labelled in all gardens which are open to the public! But I accept the argument that whilst Kew is the repository of a priceless living collection of plants from across the world, the plants in many other gardens are to be enjoyed in their own right without a similar emphasis on identification.

The Summer Gardens consists of plantings of herbaceous perennials dedicated to individual colours. Some were vivid,  indeed ‘brash’ as the visitor map put it (yellows, reds, pinks) and some cooler (white and blue). Mauve Cleome blended with the furry pink tails of Sanguisorba and a tall stand of Phlox. 

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In the blue border, alongside dainty Salvia ‘So Cool Blue’  with its almost black stems, I found a plant I’ve not heard of before, the blue lace flower, Trachymene coerulea. I mistook it at first as a form of Scabious, due to its plump lavender blue pin cushion flowerheads atop stiff stems. But the scale of the flowerhead (up to 5cm) prompted me to find the label. The RHS A-Z Encyclopaedia of Plants informs me that the plant is an annual or biennial from Western Australia, long-lasting when cut. The flowerheads are composed of tubular flowers which flare out into clusters of five petalled stars studded with anthers bearing white pollen, all supported by a claw of narrow sepals reminiscent of the setting for a large gemmed ring.

Echinacea purpurea ‘Virgin’ contributed its pearly white flowers to the green and white of another border, to one side of which Thalictrum ‘Splendide White’ was thrown into relief by the dark yew of an adjoining hedge. The mass of cup-shaped flowers resembled a 3m high swarm of white bees.

In another border red was represented by scarlet Dahlias with dark foliage (one of the bishop cultivars perhaps?), fronted by a profusion of red daisies which might be Echinacea ‘Hot Papaya’ although I cannot be sure as I failed to note the plant label.

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That area of The Savill Garden called Summer Wood hosts a wonderful collection of Hydrangeas in muted pastels, a contrast to the primary colours of the Summer Gardens. There’s an excellent plant shop in the Visitor Centre where I bought a Bog Sage to use as a stock plant from which to take half a dozen stem cuttings. A week has passed and the cuttings remain perky, so I am keeping my fingers crossed for a success propagation. When they have taken and grown larger I shall pot them on ready to be planted out in a moist part of a garden next year.

On 7 August I did my third session this summer at Osterley on a day when the temperature reached 36.4% at Heathrow Airport 4 miles to the west. Gardener Ed thoughtfully deployed us to weed the shady cobbled courtyard outside the Study Base. After lunch we worked under the awnings over the tables outside the bothy, tidying the pots of plants stacked in the nursery area.

On the subject of propagation, at home this summer I have created a couple of shelving areas for young plants where they have grown enough to leave the protection of the glazed vertical cold frame which I use like a mini greenhouse in the summer months, leaving the lid permanently raised to ensure plenty of ventilation. The new shelves are simply upended wooden pallets: one from a bulk delivery of shredded horse manure in February and the other kindly donated by clients who were glad to find a home for it. Not only that but they drove it over to me when it was far too wide to fit in my car. I’ve attached the pallets to the outside of the fence where it faces east to the alley between my end of terrace house and the neighbouring terrace. Barely 15 cm deep they take up very little space and have created additional space just outside the garden.

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I shall sign off with an image of the garden itself from a week or so ago, showing a palette of blue, white, pink and purple.

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(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

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.

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

 

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.