Our London garden offers few plants their perfect conditions – no surprise when you consider it was once no more than a shady patch of shattered Tarmac with subsoil dumped on top. And yet so many plants do make a go of it, helped along by a little (although not enough) soil improvement.
A plant that has done better and better every year, despite being moved a couple of times, is a handsome woodlander named Disporum megalanthum (fairy bells). Purchased several years ago from Harvey’s Garden Plants, this rare perennial didn’t make its mark until last year, when suddenly it found its stride. Early in April half a dozen burgundy stems surged up through the damp ground beneath last season’s foliage. From the vigorous new stems emerged furrowed, oily-green leaves, followed by hundreds of nodding, acid-yellow bells.
The flowers are intriguing rather than inherently beautiful, but the contrast with the dark, glossy foliage is something I enjoy. I have to clamber around the unstable edge of our pond to really appreciate them standing out cleanly against our London stock brick walls. Later in the year the chocolate tint in the leaves diminishes and tiny black berries appear. The foliage remains fresh-looking over winter, but falls to one side and perishes as the new growth emerges in spring.
I grow it by water in a sheltered spot at the foot of a wall, but woodland edge conditions are what Disporum megalanthum really calls for. Currently I have it underplanted with Brunnera macrophylla ‘Jack Frost’. Next year I intend to introduce greenish yellow Tulipa ‘Formosa’ (below, photo: Van Engelen) and T. ‘Spring Green’ around and about to pick up the unusual colouring of the disporum flowers. Standing about 24″ tall Disporum megalanthum will more than hold its own amongst the bulbs.
Plants of Disporum megalanthum are available from Harvey’s Garden Plants and other specialist shade plant nurseries.