Daily Flower Candy: Primula vulgaris ‘Taigetos’

Primula vulgaris 'Taigetos', London, March 2015

I do so love it when a plant utterly defies the wrong situation and flourishes, when really it should turn and fail. In our London garden we count on such miracles, as the conditions we can offer are far from ideal. Last spring I purchased three pots of Primula vulgaris ‘Taigetos’ from Christine Skelmersdale of Broadleigh Gardens, and was advised by the great lady herself to plant them somewhere that would be dry in summer. This reflects the prevailing conditions in the mountain ranges of the Greek Peloponnese from whence these delicate little flowers originally came.

Primula vulgaris 'Taigetos', Broadleigh Gardens, RHS London Spring Plant and Design Show 2014

In our dank, sun-deprived London garden dry-anything is a big ask, so I planted my charges beneath a magnolia tree with minimal hopes for their future. Not once did the ground dry out last summer and I fully expected my primroses to slowly rot away, as so many other plants do in our poorly drained soil. But no, Primula vulgaris ‘Taigetos’ is a survivor, tougher than its Mediterranean origins might suggest. Delicate, milky-white flowers started to appear at the end of January and are now covering each plant, lighting up a very gloomy corner of the garden. Soon the blooms will completely swamp the plants, mingling with yellow epimediums and narcissi to create a pretty spring tapestry. They make look frail and vulnerable, but the flowers of Primula vulgaris ‘Taigetos’ are a lot tougher than they look.

Plants are available from Broadleigh Gardens priced at £4.50 each or £12 for 3. They are completely sterile so there’s no risk of polluting any native primrose populations you may have nearby.

Primula vulgaris 'Taigetos', London, March 2015

 

Hellebore Heaven

Apple-blossom pink hellebore, Bosvigo, February 2015

The weather forecast for Saturday was not promising – heavy rain and hail showers – but, as is often the case in Cornwall, the elements refused to conform. Instead we enjoyed sunshine, punctuated by the occasional, monumental downpour. We arrived at Bosvigo Hellebore Day slightly later than planned (there’s no hope of keeping to schedule with a baby in tow) and joined the queue for the plant sale. It was already forty strong, snaking back through Wendy Perry’s exquisite woodland garden in the centre of Truro. This is a special day when Wendy sells her surplus hellebore seedlings, the result of years of careful hybridisation and selection.

Yours truly enjoying the sunshine and the company of other keen  Cornish gardeners

Yours truly enjoying the sunshine and the company of other keen Cornish gardeners

Wendy’s garden is peppered with the fruits of her labours, exceptional hellebores with fine double and single flowers that she has decided to hold onto. Some have blooms that are slightly more upturned than usual, a feature Wendy looks for in a good plant. During February the hellebores are accompanied by drifts of snowdrops, chinodoxa and crocuses, protected by a canopy of colourful witch hazel. The fringed flowers of witch hazel always remind me of grated lemon zest.

A beautiful golden-yellow witch hazel provides eye-level colour in the winter garden

A beautiful golden-yellow witch hazel provides eye-level colour in the woodland garden

An exceptionally fine white double hellbore, ear-marked for further hybridisation

An exceptionally fine pure white double hellebore, ear-marked by Wendy for further hybridisation

Bosvigo Hellebore Day is now well known in Cornwall, with folk travelling from every corner of the county to bag a prize specimen. I have to admit I did not enjoy the sale aspect of this year’s event: it was a bit of a scrum, with some people diving recklessly for the plants that caught their eye. Mostly there were just too many people for the confined nursery patch to hold comfortably. Regardless of that, there were some delectable plants on offer, the best of which were snapped up in minutes. A healthy turnout will have made for a good day’s takings, which support both the development of the garden and local charity ShelterBox.

Hellebores enjoy the dappled shade of Bosvigo's woodland garden

Hellebores enjoy the dappled shade of Bosvigo’s woodland garden

An unusual, yellow-flowered seedling with burgundy centre and nectaries

An unusual, yellow-flowered seedling with burgundy centre and nectaries

Maintaining as much decorum as I could, I settled on four beautiful plants; two dark-flowered doubles, one with an almost metallic sheen on the petals; a seedling with soft yellow flowers and golden nectaries, and a named variety, Helleborus ‘Penny’s Pink’. Having been lashed by gales today they will be making the journey back to London with me on the sleeper train tonight. I can’t offer them anywhere as salubrious to grow as Wendy’s picture-perfect garden, but knowing the quality of her plants they will light up our spring with heavenly blooms for many years to come.

Hellebores mix well with snowdrops and crocuses.

Hellebores mix well with snowdrops and crocuses.

As dark as night, the flowers of this hellebore would look great amongst silver foliage or russet grasses

As dark as night, the flowers of this hellebore would look great amongst silver foliage or russet grasses

Other posts about Bosvigo and Hellebores:

Blooming Bosvigo – how the woodland garden is transformed by a carpet of spring flowers in April.

Plant Portraits: Helleborus x hybridus ‘Bosvigo Doubles’ - more about Wendy Perry’s double hellebore hybrids.

Bosvigo Hellebore Day 2014 - a post about last year’s Hellebore Day.

A Haven for Hellebores – an introduction to the gardens at Bosvigo.

The delicately veined reverse of these hellebore flowers more than compensates for their down-turned heads

The delicately veined reverse of these hellebore flowers more than compensates for their down-turned aspect

 

Gold Rush

Iris danfordiae, Chelsea Physic Garden, February 2015

There is one colour that’s inextricably linked with early spring, and that’s yellow. Whether it’s canary, lemon, sunflower, primrose or golden, yellow is the colour that heralds the start of the gardening year. Yellow flowers spread their sunshine at a time when very little is forthcoming from above. But when the sun’s rays do target their glossy petals, they beam the light back, bathing the garden in a golden glow. Soon they will be joined by the cool, complementary blues of the pulmonarias, brunneras, bluebells and forget-me-nots, but for now they alone brighten the dark corners where little else stirs.

My golden greats include diminutive Iris danfordiae, above, one of the easiest dwarf irises to grow and one of the cheapest to buy. Try peppering them in amongst blue cultivars of Iris reticulata, where they will pick up the yellow flashes that are characteristic of many irises. Give it sun and well drained soil and Iris danfordiae should come back to greet you year-after-year. Personally, I like to grow these little irises in pots, so they can be lifted up and admired at close quarters.

Eranthis hyemalis (winter aconite)

Winter aconites spring early from the earth and hug the ground tightly

A great companion for snowdrops, revelling in similar conditions, is the winter aconite, Eranthis hyemalis. Looking at the flowers it won’t surprise you to learn that aconites are closely related to our native buttercup, although they come originally from the deciduous woodlands of the Balkans, Italy and southern France. These tiny bulbs, rarely reaching more than 10cm in height, love to romp around in light grass and under trees, spreading gold dust as they go. They prefer a consistently moist soil and spread vigorously by seed when happy with their lot. Plant near snowdrops and blue pulmonarias for a succession of early colour.

Finally, spring is not spring without crocuses. I grew up with the bold, brazen Dutch-type crocuses, which have their place, but I prefer the natural look of smaller species and cultivars in my own garden. I wrote about Crocus chrysanthus ‘Herald’ a few weeks ago when it was still in bud. Now, at the faintest sniff of warmth, its flowers open wide to invite in pollinating bees. When the crocuses fade forsythias, narcissi and yellow tulips will continue the gold rush, and before we know it Easter will be upon us.

Have a great weekend and happy gardening!

Crocus chrysanthus 'Herald' is a solid gold choice for February colour

Crocus chrysanthus ‘Herald’ is a solid gold choice for February colour

RHS Seed Scheme

Poppy seedheads, Stonebridge Farm, July 2013

How often do we subscribe to organisations or take out memberships and yet fail to take full advantage of them? I have been signed up to the Royal Horticultural Society for almost 20 years, and the National Trust for longer (having joined at birth, obviously), but take advantage of little that they offer, very rarely.

For the last couple of years I have been determined to enjoy more of what the RHS provides its members, including access to the wonderful gardens at Harlow Carr, Rosemoor, Wisley and Hyde Hall. I attend the Chelsea Flower Show (I suspect for many the primary motivation for joining the RHS), Hampton Court Palace Flower Show and as many of the London events as I am able, but have never availed myself of the seed scheme. This exclusive benefit allows members to select up to twelve packets of seed harvested from the RHS’ own gardens. The choice, of 139 single varieties and 9 collections, ranges from bulbous plants to annuals and even trees. Many are not widely available and some require a little expertise to germinate. The RHS has all that covered with their handy germination guide, which any amateur gardener would find a useful companion.

A nominal fee of £8.50 is levied to cover the cost of collection, cleaning, packing and postage. At 70p a packet this makes the seeds an absolute steal, and definitely worth experimenting with even if you’re not 100% confident. The process of making a selection online is a little protracted, but how can choosing seed be anything other than fun? The RHS website instructions are clear, but it helps to have a printed copy of the seed list to hand. Orders can be placed until March 31st (so still plenty of time), but it may take until late April for seeds to arrive, which is a little late to be starting some varieties.

With such limited space, and a propensity to overdo it, I really struggled to choose as many as a dozen packets. However, I couldn’t let the opportunity pass and any seeds I don’t have room to sow this year will be given away as gifts.

The flower of Cleome hassleriana really live up to their common name, spider flower

The flower of Cleome hassleriana really live up to their common name, spider flower

My First Choice Seed List:

  1. Cleome hassleriana (spider flower) – an annual that I have never quite mastered the art of cultivating, but love the look of. The RHS mix has pink, purple and white flowered variants, all with the cleome’s conspicuous stamens.
  2. Eccremocarpus scaber (Chilean glory flower) – I have done well with this fast-growing, tender, evergreen perennial climber previously. The clusters of tubular, reddish-orange flowers that appear throughout summer are totally tropical.
  3. Ipomoea lobata (Mina lobata) – a tender perennial climber that I grow from seed every year, despite it being perennial. Each reddish flower stalk carries scarlet flowers which mature to orange and then fade to cream. Sown late, it will flower well into October and November.
  4. Gaura lindheimeri (white gaura) I am planning to plant this bushy perennial in dark grey troughs where the billowing clouds of blush blossom will conceal the fading stems of lilies.

    An effervescent cloud of  Gaura lindheimeri at Hotel Endsleigh, Devon

    An effervescent cloud of Gaura lindheimeri at Hotel Endsleigh, Devon

  5. Mirabilis jalapa (marvel of Peru) reminds me of warmer climes, such as India, where it really flourishes. Very easy to germinate and forms bushy, tuberous plants with fragrant flowers that open only in the afternoon. Flower colours range from white to lemon-yellow and magenta.
  6. Cyclamen mirabile – this is not a cyclamen I am familiar with, but judging by the catalogue it’s delicate and feminine with pink petals, slightly toothed at the tips. The rounded leaves are marbled above with a purplish underside.
  7. Gentiana asclepiadea (willow gentian) – this is such a graceful perennial, with its arching stems bearing stunning deep blue flowers just when everything else is starting to fade in early autumn. Every woodland garden should have some.

    The white form of Gentiana asclepiadea is named 'Alba'

    The white form of Gentiana asclepiadea is named ‘Alba’

  8. Hosta tokudama f. aureo-nebulosa – I have never considered growing hostas from seed before. It feels like establishing decent sized plants might take many years, but who cares? The RHS promise ‘green-yellow leaves, irregularly margined and splashed deep blue-green’. Sounds divine!
  9. Leonurus cardiaca – I fully admit this was a mistake. I took my eye off the catalogue whilst watching a particularly gripping drama on TV and thought I had ordered Leonotis leonurus, which is something magnificent, orange and quite different. This plant is a perennial with spires of pink to lilac flowers borne in whorls during July and August.
  10. Veratrum album subsp. lobelianum – the corrugated, apple-green leaves alone are enough to commend this gorgeous plant, but it flowers too! I can’t wait to have a go at growing Veratrum album, even if I don’t really have any space to plant it out.

    Veratrum album in the Nuttery at Sissinghurst

    Pleated leaves of Veratrum album in the Nuttery at Sissinghurst

  11. Rehmannia elata (Chinese foxglove) – I don’t fancy my chances with this one, but am happy to give it a go. I have killed at least two nursery-bought plants, so my ineptitude will cost me less dearly this time. Rehmannia elata is a soft, lanky perennial with deeply toothed leaves and floppy racemes of magenta pink flowers in summer. Too good to be confined to China.
  12. Euphorbia x pasteurii – regarded by many as superior to Euphorbia mellifera AGM, which grows brilliantly for me, however inappropriate the conditions. Similar habit and honey-scented, insignificant flowers, but broader, glossier leaves than its cousin.

I’d love to know if you’ve bought seeds as part of the RHS seed scheme and how you got on.

Trickery

IMG_0911

There’s a day or two every February when the sun shines, the air feels warm, the wind drops, and one could be fooled into thinking spring has arrived. Today was one of those days. I will not be duped, as all too often these balmy interludes are followed by bitter, cruel cold. The buzzing bees and honeyed scent of aromatic plants may transport me to the shores of the Mediterranean, but this is Broadstairs not Brindisi, and it will be two months or more before we are beyond frosts’ deadly grasp. The only thing for it is to grab the secateurs and do some pruning, or crack open a seed packet or two (sowing under glass of course). The sun on on your back will make any task ten times more enjoyable and the sight of crocuses, early daffodils and irises, their flowers turned expectantly to the heavens, will lift the gloomiest of spirits.

The most unexpected plant I found basking in the winter sun was Fuchsia ‘Space Shuttle’, one of a handful of tender plants for which there was ‘no room at the inn’ before Christmas, hence it was left outside to fend for itself. Against all the odds, perhaps thanks to the shelter of a huge Geranium maderense (above), it has survived. I am not naive enough to assume the fuchsia has been spared but, just for today, I am happy to labour under the illusion that spring has sprung.

Fuchsia 'Space Shuttle', The Watch House, February 2015

 

Daily Flower Candy: Iris reticulata ‘Spot On’

Iris reticulata 'Spot On', February 2014, The Watch House

As I predicted exactly two weeks ago, the latest bulb to start flowering in our coastal garden is Iris reticulata  ‘Spot On’, a new hybrid developed by Canadian breeder Alan McMurtie. It’s a tiny little thing by reticulata standards, a cross between Iris reticulata ‘Purple Gem’ and Iris reticulata var. bakeriana from Turkey. Each bulb carries pretty flowers of the most wonderfully rich purple. The falls are feathered brilliant white and splashed lemon yellow, creating a dazzling contrast. I particularly like Spot On’s tightly furled buds, faintly speckled and striped with purple, each with a dark tip as if they had just been dipped in ink.

Iris reticulata 'Spot On', February 2014, The Watch House

It is testament to Alan’s patience that this new variety finally reached the market almost 20 years after first flowering. I picked my bulbs up from Living Colour without knowing anything of their history or provenance, but will treasure them all the more now I know how special they are. These are the first pictures I have taken using my new Canon 60mm macro lens. I haven’t a clue how to get the best out of it yet, and of course I haven’t read the instructions, so I’m afraid these test shots are far from brilliant. I hope practice gets me closer to spot on – it will certainly be fun trying.

Iris reticulata 'Spot On', February 2014, The Watch House

Snowdrop Week: Be a Galanthus Geek

Galanthus 'Melanie Broughton', RHS London Plant and Design Show 2014

5 Things You May Not Know About Snowdrops:

 

  1. US military police stationed in the UK during WWII were known as snowdrops because they wore white caps with their green uniforms. They were also turned out with white webbing belts, white gloves and white gaiters, brightening their otherwise drab attire.
  2. Snowdrop bulbs contain an alkaloid called Galantamine, prescribed for people who suffer dementia. Whilst not a cure, it can alleviate memory loss and confusion. Galantamine was discovered about 60 years ago, when a pharmacologist noticed Bulgarian peasant farmers rubbing snowdrop bulbs on their heads to get rid of pain and other ills. I kid you not!
  3. Snowdrops are pollinated by bumble bees, which is why many have a sweet, honeyed scent. Bumble bees will not fly if the temperature is below 10 degrees centigrade, so the snowdrop has adapted accordingly: it’s outer petals only open wide when the mercury rises above 10 degrees, protecting its nectar reserves for its winged visitors.
  4. The Species name ‘Galanthus’ comes from the Greek: ‘Gala’ meaning milk and ‘Anthos’ meaning flower. The common name ‘snowdrop’ is more likely to have derived from the pearl drop earrings worn by women in the 16th and 17th centuries than from snow, which cannot technically form a drop.
  5. Snowdrops are the most heavily traded, wild-collected family of bulbs in the world. Although the whole genus Galanthus is listed on Appendix II of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES), which restricts international trade, snowdrops are still extensively collected and traded locally. Several European countries have pronounced the snowdrop ‘Near Threatened’, ‘Vulnerable’, or even ‘Critically Endangered’ on their national Red Lists, including Germany, Switzerland and Bulgaria. Fortunately our native Galanthus nivalis, considered to have been introduced to the UK by the Romans, is thriving.

Do you know any other fascinating facts about snowdrops? If you do, please let me know!

Above, Galanthus ‘Melanie Broughton’. Below, Galanthus ‘Galatea’

Galanthus 'Melanie Broughton', RHS London Plant and Design Show 2014', Avon Bulbs, RHS Spring Plant and Design Show 2014

Snowdrop Week: Solitary Seagull

Galanthus 'Seagull', London, February 2015

I have a love-hate relationship with seagulls. Living by the seaside, as I do, I would not be without the herring gulls’ screeching call to remind me where I am. But they are aggressive, thuggish birds that do not think twice about attacking old ladies and children with chips and ice creams, so I prefer to keep them at arms’ length.

Despite my reservations about these winged villains, it was a snowdrop going by the name Galanthus ‘Seagull’ that tempted me to part with £20 on Sunday. For that princely sum I acquired one beautiful specimen, complete with black plastic pot, compost and label. Spending that much on a plant comes with quite a sense of responsibility. For the foreseeable future Mr Seagull will remain in solitary confinement, holed up in the relative safety of my new, miniature greenhouse where his flowers can’t be splashed with soil, or the bulb chomped by squirrels. Unlike the flighted version I doubt this particular seagull would survive for long in the wild, and for now I prefer to keep it where I know it can’t upset old ladies or children.

Galanthus 'Seagull', London, February 2015

Snowdrop Week: Digging Diggory

Galanthus 'Diggory' (snowdrop), Chelsea Physic Garden, February 2015

Those folk who’d sell their souls for a rare snowdrop have two things in common – a willingness to open their wallet for a small, vulnerable bulb that flowers only briefly once a year, and an eye for detail. I mock not, for man has succumbed to uglier addictions, but one can understand why the uninitiated struggle to fathom galanthophiles’ fascination with these simple flowers.

When a collection of snowdrops is viewed together the differences between them become more apparent. One of the most distinctive cultivars, instantly recognisable once you have seen it once, is Galanthus ‘Diggory’. In bud it looks pretty ordinary, but once open the flowers puff out like a partially inflated balloons, the outer petals ridged and puckered like seersucker pillows. They attract me in the same way as the fuchsia buds I loved to pop as a child.

Galanthus 'Diggory' (snowdrop), Chelsea Physic Garden, February 2015

Galanthus ‘Diggory’ was discovered in a garden near Wells-next-the-Sea in Norfolk by Rosie Steele and Richard Hobbs and was named after Rosie’s late son. One of the parents is thought to be G. plicatus, which makes it a vigorous plant, although slow to increase. If you are digging Diggory, bulbs ‘in the green’, priced at £25, are available now from Avon Bulbs. Resistance is futile.

Galanthus 'Diggory' (snowdrop), Chelsea Physic Garden, February 2015

Snowdrop Week: Japanese Kokedama

Galanthus nivalis, grown as kokedama, Chelsea Physic Garden, February 2015

If they didn’t literally smack you full in the face, the sheer ingenuity of the hanging snowdrop decorations at the Chelsea Physic Garden last week would have stopped you in your tracks. One of the garden’s team was inspired to create them for the special snowdrop days following a recent visit to Japan. Here, trees, shrubs and ferns are often displayed or exchanged with their delicate roots tenderly enrobed in fresh moss. Known as ‘kokedama’, these fuzzy orbs are a traditional Japanese art form.

Galanthus nivalis, Chelsea Physic Garden, February 2015

Head Gardener Nick Bailey explained how they were created, using only natural materials such as moss, cotton and, of course, snowdrops, in this case our ‘native’ Galanthus nivalis.

How to Create Your Own Japanese Snowdrop Kokedama

Tools and Materials

  • Approximately 8-10 snowdrop bulbs per kokedama (choice of cultivar depending on your budget!)
  • 1 x 2.5 – 3 inch pot per kokedama
  • Rich, loamy compost with added moss and leafmould if available
  • Live moss (readily available from florists’ shops … or your lawn)
  • Thick tailors’ cotton in black, brown or green
  • Jute twine or fishing wire for hanging
  • Scissors

Step-by-step

1.  Starting in autumn, bring on clutches of snowdrop bulbs in small pots of humus-rich loam. Protect them in a cold frame which will encourage early blooming and guarantee flawless blooms.

2.  As soon as flower buds start to appear in late winter, remove the growing bulbs from their pots, taking care not to damage the roots and to retain a decent ball of compost. Gently wrap the rootball in a blanket of moist moss, pushing it into the compost.

3.  Starting carefully, use strong cotton thread to secure the moss around the snowdrops. Keep wrapping and tightening as you go, creating a firm ball with no straggly bits. The thread should be well hidden so don’t worry about going around a few extra times.

4.  Use a loop of garden twine cut to the desired length to hang your snowdrop ball from the branches of a tree. Fishing wire is less visible but not biodegradable. Should it be a very precious tree, use a piece of burlap or sacking to protect the bark from rubbing when the kokedama swing in the breeze. Alternatively, perch your creations on a table or wall where the flowers can be admired. Kokedama make a great temporary display indoors, or an unusual gift. (Throughout history snowdrops have been presented to a loved one on Valentine’s Day, a rather more demure love token than the hackneyed red rose.) Choose a shaded spot to preserve your decorations for longer.

5.  During dry spells your snowdrops will appreciate a good watering, especially if hung in a tree where they might be exposed to sun and wind. I’d suggest using a fine mist spray at the first sign of the moss becoming desiccated.

6. Stand back and watch as your friends (and befuddled garden birds) admire your handiwork.

The beauty is that once the display of flowers is over one can plant the whole kit and caboodle in the ground, where the moss and cotton will slowly disintegrate into the soil. Plant deeply, as snowdrops like a consistently cool, moist root run. This will also protect the bulbs from foraging animals looking for a midwinter snack.

Galanthus nivalis, grown as kokedama, Chelsea Physic Garden, February 2015