Early in February I went along to the Chelsea Physic Garden for one of their annual snowdrop days. I was lucky enough to bag a ticket for head gardener Nick Bailey’s ‘Best in Snow’ walk, where he described very eloquently a dozen or so of his favourite plants for winter colour. Not many of them can be found in your average garden centre, which made it all the more interesting. Nick was charming and down-to-earth, dressed smartly in his winter attire. My grandfather, himself a head gardener for many years, was never to be seen working without a tie, waistcoat and jacket, and would have approved of Mr Bailey’s timeless style (well, maybe not the jeans, but even timeless style has to move on!).
I was fascinated to hear Nick’s potted history of the site. Chelsea Physic Garden was founded in 1673 as an Apothecaries’ Garden, with the purpose of training apprentices in identifying plants. Three hundred years before I was born, microclimates were already well understood. The garden’s Thames-side location permitted the survival of many non-native plants, including the largest outdoor fruiting olive in Britain (now declared a ‘Champion’ tree). The river functioned as an important transport route, linking other notable gardens and royal palaces as well as facilitating the movement of plants.
The garden’s long-term future was secured by one Dr. Hans Sloane, who lent his name to Hans Crescent, Sloane Square, Sloane Street and, latterly the Sloane Rangers who inhabit the expensive houses in this part of town. Dr. Sloane, his statue standing proudly at the centre of the garden, was a British physician of Irish descent. A rich man, he purchased the Manor of Chelsea from Charles Cheyne and proceeded to lease about 4 acres to the Society of Apothecaries for £5 a year, in perpetuity. That arrangement still stands. Nick explained that Dr. Sloane was so clever in his wording of the lease that it would be impossible for the plot ever to be used as anything other than a garden, which explains why it is now Britain’s second oldest botanical garden. As if that gift to the Nation was not enough, Dr Sloane also discovered milk chocolate, a recipe for which eventually found its way into the hands of the Cadbury brothers.
I digress, but Dr Sloane is one of the many historic characters that made London great. If they were to return to the garden today I am certain the founding apothecaries would find much that they recognised, especially the beds which display plants in their Botanical ‘Orders’. Yet horticulture moves on apace with thousands of new species arriving at the garden’s gate over the years leading up to the present day.
As in any good garden, things never stand still. Nick’s team have been busy creating a new woodland garden to reflect the original 1700’s layout. Winding between steeply mounded beds, a serpentine path will lead visitors through different ethnobotanic regions, starting with North America, then Europe and on to Asia. The World Woodland Garden will open on April 1st 2015 and will be cause for a return visit.
Lest I spend any more time deliberating over this post, I will get straight on with sharing eight of Nick’s top plants for bringing colour to your garden in later winter and early spring.
Nick Bailey’s Top Plants for Late Winter and Early Spring Colour
1. Correa backhouseana (Australian fuchsia). A pretty, drought tolerant Australian shrub which flowers in February here in the UK. For showier, carmine flowers Nick recommends C. backhouseana ‘Dusky Bells’. Available from Burncoose Nursery, Cornwall.
2. Rosa x odorata ‘Bengal Crimson’ AGM. Forming a glossy mound the size of a London bus and studded with pinkish-red flowers it is hard to miss this rose, especially in February. Rosa x odorata ‘Bengal Crimson’ is known for flowering 365 days a year but is considered slightly tender. The Chelsea Physic Garden is one of the few sources of plants for sale, from around June each year. The flowers become redder in summer, the only drawback being that they are not perfumed.
3. Chrysoplenium macrophyllum (Giant golden saxifrage). Looking very much like a bergenia for much of the year Chrysoplenium macrophyllum transforms itself in mid winter when large umbels of pinkish white flowers appear, surrounded by pale bracts. Nick told us that it could be slow to establish, but that when happy it would send out long runners to extend its territory and form sizeable clumps. A unique and special plant from China which ought to do well in our own London garden. Available from Crûg Farm Plants.
4. Daphne bholua ‘Jacqueline Postill’ (Nepalese paper plant). One can generally smell daphne before seeing it, so powerful is its fragrance. We saw so much daphne when we went to Bhutan that it became a bit passé in my mind, but Daphne bholua ‘Jacqueline Postill’ is one of the very best shrubs for winter scent. It deserves a place near a path or patio where the fragrance can be appreciated. Available from Crocus.co.uk.
5. Galanthus elwesii var. elwesii ‘Kite’ (Snowdrop). Given the garden was celebrating snowdrop week, we were introduced to several of Nick’s favourite garden cultivars, including Galanthus elwesii var. elwesii ‘Kite’. The notable feature of this snowdrop is that it frequently carries two separate flowers on one scape (stem). This is a rare occurrence in snowdrops and hence highly valued by collectors. G. elwesii ‘Kite’ was selected in the middle of last century by Oliver Wyatt and named in association with snowdrop aficionado E. A. Bowles. The flowers are large and elegantly elongated. Available from Harvey’s Garden Plants.
6. Vinca difformis (Intermediate periwinkle). When I think of periwinkles, I think of trouble. The likes of V. major and V. minor are inveterate spreaders best banished to the wildest fringes of the garden. However, Vinca difformis is altogether better behaved. It spreads very slowly to about 120cm and enjoys the dry shade beneath trees where little else will grow. Flowering begins in late summer, when the five-petalled blooms appear white, tinged with blue. This bluishness fades to pure white through the winter, but the flowers do not. They continue to be borne in profusion above a healthy landscape of green foliage. A winter winner available from The Beth Chatto Gardens.
7. Iris unguicularis (Algerian iris). For over 30 years my parents have had a clump of Iris unguicularis growing in dry shade beneath a south facing verandah. This is where it is happiest, parched and baked as it would be in its native North Africa. For most of the year Iris unguicularis is a slightly untidy clump of grassy leaves, but just before Christmas hyacinth-blue flowers start to appear deep in the crown. Whilst the buds are frost resistant, the flowers are not. They are quickly replaced by new blooms after a cold snap. If picked for a spring posy their sweet fragrance can be properly appreciated. Nick recommends I. unguicularis ‘Mary Barnard’ for neater, shorter foliage and fine purple flowers which are darker than the species. The latter is available from Avon Bulbs.
8. Scilla mauritanica (Moroccan Squill). Arriving back where we began, at the Physic Garden’s rockery, we were introduced to Scilla mauritanica. The bulbous bluebell relative was just coming into bloom between substantial lumps of Icelandic lava brought to the garden by Sir Joseph Banks in 1772. Stones from the Tower of London, fused bricks and pieces of flint were also employed to create the landscape around a central pond. The oldest rock garden in England on view to the public, it is listed Grade II*. As for Scilla mauritanica, it prefers a loamy soil in light shade or sun and grows well in a pot. Available from Rareplants.co.uk.
Chelsea Physic Garden is open all year round. Summer opening hours begin on April 1st, just in time for Easter. From 1 April to 31 October 2015, the garden, café and shop will be open Tuesdays to Fridays, Sundays & Bank Holidays, 11am-6pm (the Café closes at 5pm). Late Wednesday openings from 1 July to 2 September allow visitors the opportunity for an evening stroll in the garden or dinner in the café until 10pm.