Thursday, 31 December 2009

In the cottage garden 2009

Galanthus nivalis 'Green Tear'; February colour; Crocus 'Ruby Giant'; Pulsatilla vulgaris 'Rubra'; Tulipa sprengeri with Sambucus 'Black Lace'; Papaver orientale, wild form; Moraea huttonii; Iris pseudacorus 'Roy Davidson'; meadow in June with Thalictrum aquilegiifolium, Aconitum ferox, Papaver bracteatum; Euphorbia 'Excalibur', Aconitum 'Stainless Steel'; Delphinium elatum; meadow and border; foliage, including Mahonia 'Moseri'; Molinia caerulea 'Karl Foerster'

Wednesday, 30 December 2009




Photographs taken on 1 July 2009, at the Garden House, Condicote, Gloucestershire: Verbena 'Sissinghurst'; Dactylorhiza hybrid; white Papaver somniferum; border; Sibylle Kreutzberger, Pam Schwerdt, Gary Keim

Botanical big game

By way of a belated Christmas card, Tom Hart Dyke has sent me this amazing picture of a group of Puya raimondii in the Peruvian Andes, with himself providing scale. This is a plant I've always wanted to see, the largest bromeliad in the world, growing on exposed grassy mountainsides above treeline, rather like the giant lobelias and groundsels of East Africa. The rosette, made up of many long, viciously hooked leaves, takes decades to grow and then dies after it has flowered. Unfortunately it is now becoming rare, though on his recent trip Tom was able to find plenty of them, as well as numerous other species of Puya. Hopefully seedlings of them will soon be growing at Lullingstone Castle.

Monday, 28 December 2009

The Reeves connection

One of the projects here this year has been the raising of a brood of Reeves's Pheasants from a setting of eggs bought on Ebay and placed under a broody hen borrowed from a friend. The eggs took 24 days to incubate: all ten were fertile, but only seven chicks survived the hatching process. From minute, beautifully patterned chicks they grew very rapidly into adult-sized birds, reaching full plumage after about four months. After passing some on, and a couple of escapes, we have three left, a hen and two cocks. One of the males will have to be rehoused, and replaced by another female if possible, before the breeding season starts again in spring. Although extremely handsome they are not very satifactorily ornamental, being completely neurotic and ducking for cover or rocketing around when approached. The dominant cock shows signs of becoming tamer, approaching for food as in the picture above.

Reeves's Pheasants are found wild in forests in central China, but in consequence both of habitat loss and the fact that it is a large and (presumably) tasty gamebird its population has become reduced and fragmented, so that the total number of wild birds is considered to be less than 10,000 individuals and it is classed as Vulnerable in the IUCN Red List. The species Syrmaticus reevesii was brought to the attention of science in the late 1820s, when skins reached naturalists in London, presumably they were sent by the eponymous Mr. Reeves as both scientific and common names commemorate him. The first living specimen to reach London (a male) certainly came from Reeves, and was exhibited in the Zoological Society of London's collection in Regents Park in 1831: a second came in 1834. Since then it has been a popular avicultural subject and has become naturalised in a few parts of the world. In the Czech Republic, for example, it is sufficiently well established to be a prized hunting trophy.

John Reeves (1774-1856) was an employee of the East India Company, and was sent to China in 1812 to work as Assistant Inspector of Tea, rising to be Chief Inspector, and known to the Chinese as Li Shi, Tea Chief. He spent at least twenty years in China, returning to England only twice in that time: his son, also John, spent thirty years there. They were among a small, select group of Europeans established on the edge of China for trade purposes. Canton (now Guangzhou) was the only port at which European ships could come into for trade and the big European companies maintained warehouses for goods there, but their personnel were only permitted in Canton when trading ships were present. For the rest of their time they lived on the Portuguese island of Macao. One of John Reeves's neighbours was John Livingstone, a surgeon for the Honourable Company, who had a particular interest in vegetables and other 'economic' plants; another was Thomas Beale, who worked in China for fifty years until his death in 1841. Beale was another keen naturalist and gardener, noted for his hosptality and generosity. He is now most famously commemorated in horticulture by the winter-flowering, beautifully fragrant Mahonia japonica Bealei Group (formerly Mahonia bealei), but it is probable that many other early introductions of Chinese plants can be at least indirectly attributable to him. He kept a large collection of aviary birds and it seems that it was from there that Reeves sent home specimens of the exotic long-tailed pheasant that bears his name.

Since their movements on mainland China were greatly restricted these men had to obtain specimens of mammals, birds and fish from the market in Canton, while many plants came from the Fa-tee nurseries where choice specimens were grown for the local market, among them cultivars of Camellia, Chrysanthemum and Paeonia. When sent back to Europe these were often the first examples of their species to be seen, but they had to endure the long sea journey via the Cape, passing twice through the tropics. Even on a fast tea clipper this was a journey of several months, and a large proportion of plants did not survive. Reeves, however, was a cautious character and took great trouble in preparing plants for shipping to England, getting them establishing them in pots long before the journey.

For his return to England on leave in 1816 John Reeves prepared a selection of 100choice specimens, of which about 90 reached the Horticultural Society alive aboard the Cuffenels under Captain Welbank. Among them were camellias, but also the first living specimen of Wisteria sinensis to reach Europe. Shortly afterwards another arrived on the Warren Hastings ,captained by Richard Rawes. These two appear to have been grown by private individuals - the early history of the wisteria in England is as tangled as the vine itself - but early propagations from these, or perhaps other individuals, were soon planted at the Horticultural Society's garden in Chiswick, and another in the Royal Gardens at Kew. The latter plant still survives, growing over an ancient iron frame near the old Ginkgo. What is interesting about this Wisteria is that it was propagated by cuttings from a plant in the garden of a Chinese merchant in Canton, Consequa. This is probably still the commonest clone in cultivation - certainly most of the grand old specimens on old buildings are its descendants (including the old 1850s specimen here at Colesbourne): the cultivar name 'Consequa' has been proposed for it. Commemorating Reeves (or possibly his son) is the evergreen, berry-bearing Skimmia japonica subsp. reevesiana, still usually sold (as in several local garden centres at the moment) under the name S. reevesiana. It's great advantage is that the plants are hermaphrodite, so always set a good crop of fruits. The original clone, still the commonest in cultivation, is now named 'Robert Fortune' after the man who brought it to England in 1849, a worthy successor to John Reeves as an explorer of the horticultural riches of China.

John Reeves's other great contribution to knowledge was the set of paintings he commissioned from Chinese artists, illustrating the flora and fauna of Canton. In many cases it was these drawings that gave Western science the first glimpse of a Chinese species. They are now among the treasures of the Royal Horticultural Society's Lindley Library and the Natural History Museum's collection of art. Among them was a painting of Consequa's wisteria, now in the Lindley Library and shown here.

Alas, the name of Reeves is also attached to a much less desirable introduction to our shores, Muntjiacus reevesii, the small deer known to many gardeners and foresters as a menace to their plants and now spreading rapidly through England. Luckily it is usually known only as 'muntjac' (although often prefixed with an expletive) and it provides excellent venison, so revenge can be tasty.

Friday, 25 December 2009

White Christmas

Over a week of hard frost and snow has put paid to any hope of producing the traditional list of plants in flower on Christmas Day. Flowers on the winter-blooming shrubs have all been zapped, and anything smaller is covered. So it will have to be a New Year's Day list instead.

Galanthus plicatus 'Three Ships' is a reliable Christmas snowdrop, and would be looking good now, were it not bent to the ground by snow. In recent years it has sailed in earlier and earlier and this year popped its buds before the end of November, but as with all snowdrops, its flowers take a while to develop to their full size and shape. This picture was taken about ten days ago, of the clump in my garden.

Thursday, 24 December 2009

Colesbourne Park, 2009

Galanthus 'Lady Beatrix Stanley'; G. 'S. Arnott'; Iris 'Katherine Hodgkin'; border April; bog garden May with Primula japonica; bog garden late June, with Primula florindae; border, October; Sorbus sargentiana; lake in autumn.

Wednesday, 23 December 2009

Picea omorika

Our Christmas tree this year, just installed, was obtained from a well-known supermarket as a 'Pot grown Omorika.' It would be interesting to know what this mysterious-sounding name conveys to the average Tesco shopper. Like the frequently offered 'Nordmanniana' trees, it is shorn of its generic name (Picea, in this case) but the public seems happy and quite able to use these specific epithets for their Christmas trees. It's interesting, however, that the ordinary Norway Spruce, Picea abies, is never dignified with any name at all - it is just the baseline Christmas tree.

The English name for Picea omorika is Serbian Spruce - perhaps a less than happy name for marketing purposes - on account of its principal occurrence in the Drina River valley in western Serbia, but it does also ocur over the border in Bosnia as well. Now rare there, with possibly only a thousand or so trees left, it is classified by IUCN as Vulnerable, and is now protected. It is a slim-looking tree, with a characteristically slender trunk, with short, somewhat pendulous branches giving it an extremely narrow outline. This makes it of great ornamental value when young, both in the garden and, indeed, as a Christmas tree.

The photograph shows a handsome young specimen in Lord Heseltine's arboretum at Thenford House, growing vigorously upwards and at its peak of beauty, being clad with branches to the ground. As they age they become rather gaunt, though the neatness of the tree is maintained. One such grows on the lakebank at Colesbourne Park. It is the last survivor of Henry John Elwes's expedition of 1900, when he drove (horse and carriage!) 'a long day east of Sarajevo' to see native stands. Wearing both his forester's and hunter's hats, he noted that 'On the steep limestone cliffs..., which are a favourite haunt of chamois, Picea omorika was growing in clumps, and isolated trees occurred among common spruce, Scots and Austrian pine.' He collected seedlings, but had to fell a mature tree to reach the cones (which are always at the top). From these, or perhaps seeds he received later that autumn, grew the old tree at Colesbourne, shortly to enter its 110th year. It is not easy to measure its height, but it is probably about 25 m tall, though the trunk's diameter is only about 30 cm. Fortunately several more specimens have been planted in recent decades by Henry W.G. Elwes, though of less exciting origin, they will at least maintain the presence of Serbian Spruce at Colesbourne.

What happens to our Christmas tree will depend on its state in the New Year, but I have doubts about its identity. Its needles don't show the usual pale stomatal lines of a true P. omorika and are more flattened than quadrangular. I suspect it is a hybrid, with either P. abies or P. sitchensis as the other parent. Nonetheless, it is a neat little tree ideal for its purpose.

Oh yes, that mysterious-sounding word omorika means spruce in Serbian, so the scientific name means spruce spruce, which, as one of the tidiest members of the genus, it really is.

Sunday, 20 December 2009

Winter willow at Westonbirt

Salix alba 'Britzensis' at Westonbirt Arboretum this morning.

Friday, 18 December 2009

Exploring the Upper Dulong River

Yesterday's post brought a kind gift from Michael Wickenden of Cally Gardens, a nicely produced report (illustrated above) on a seed collecting expedition made in 2008 to the Upper Dulong River, Yunnan. This venture took a team of plant enthusiasts from the UK (Michael Wickenden & Michael Lear) to this seldom-visited part of far western China, in company with several Chinese colleagues, notably Prof. Dao Zhiling from the Kunming Institute of Botany: the expedition had the blessing of the Institute and RBG Kew. Seed and herbarium specimens collected on the trip were deposited at the Kumning Institute of Botany and the expedition seems to have been a model of cooperative collaboration.

The report mostly takes the form of a diary of the expedition, copiously illustrated in colour throughout and showing not only scenes and specimens from this trip, but flowering plants from Michael Wickenden's previous visits, when more plants were in flower. It's the sort of report that makes one wish one had been there - so many good plants in a fascinating place. The highlight of the expedition was evidently the 'discovery' of a large forest patch containing an excellent population of Davidia involucrata as well as many other magnificent specimens of other species. Long may they survive!

The report is available from Cally Gardens (

Monday, 14 December 2009

A new species of plant

The latest online issue of the journal Plant Systematics and Evolution includes the paper by Ben Zonneveld and Graham Duncan:
'Genome sizes of Eucomis L’Hér. (Hyacinthaceae) and a description of the new species Eucomis grimshawii G.D.Duncan & Zonneveld'. It can be found online at

Although the name is not strictly published until it appears in the printed journal (early next year), this is the first public announcement of the name and discovery of Eucomis grimshawii - exciting news for me!

The genus Eucomis is found only in southern Africa from the western Cape (E. regia) to Malawi (E. zambesiaca) but mostly in South Africa. Zonneveld & Duncan recognise twelve species, of which several (such as E. bicolor and E. comosa, are well-known cultivated plants of stately presence in the summer border. Eucomis grimshawii, however, would never win any prizes for beauty, being the smallest and least attractive member of the genus. It is short (8-10 cm tall), with a dumpy inflorescence of green flowers sheltering under a topknot of floppy bracts.

It was found on an Alpine Garden Society Tour of the Drakensberg in January 2002, growing in damp ground among clumps of Kniphofia caulescens, just below the only South African ski resort, Tiffindell, at about 2700 m. On the tour we had already seen a number of Eucomis - E. autumnalis, E. bicolor, E. humilis, and E. schijffii. It didn't match any of them, though seemed closest to the high-altitude species E.schijffii. But this has purple-tinged foliage, flowers and bracts, whereas the Tiffindell plant is all green. It didn't tally in other characters either, nor could anything be found to match it in the literature.

Seeds were collected for me later that year. The seedlings proved to be very dificult to grow, but one finally flowered in the summer of 2008 (see the picture above). This enabled a comparison of this plant with other species, including E. schijffii, and a table of characters was drawn up to show how they differ. This convinced me that it was a completely different species, Graham Duncan from Kirstenbosch Botanical Garden agreed, and roots sent to Ben Zonneveld in Leiden showed that the species had a different nuclear DNA weight to any other species. about a year ago Cameron McMaster was in the vicinity of Tiffindell and was asked by Graham to look for this plant. He found it there and one of his specimens now forms the type specimen, preserved in the herbarium at Kirstenbosch. I am extremely honoured to have had this plant named after me.

Saturday, 5 December 2009

Comparing climates

One of my regular sources of plant news and information is the excellent Pacific Bulb Society (PBS) discussion group which, despite its name, draws its members from all over the world. (Further information is available here One of its great contributions to plant knowledge is the member-maintained PBS Wiki, with a vast coverage of all sorts of bulbous plants - well worth browsing, or using if in search of information (

Although all British gardeners are convinced that they have a particularly challenging microclimate, the British climate is, in broad terms, rather uniform across the country. In consequence gardeners from, say, Dorset and Derbyshire, are able to discuss a plant's requirements and hardiness on more-or-less equal terms. This is not so easy on the PBS list, where Californians, Australians, Scots and Italians may each be attempting to cultivate the same species in widely varying conditions. In consequence one has to try to make sense of information provided and balance it with personal experience and the local climate.

Recently, one of the topics for discussion has been the comparison of climates around the world and this morning saw the arrival of a post by Michael Mace (from California) introducing the group to a useful website

This is meant to enable travellers planning a trip to work out what the conditions might be like in their intended destinations, but it is also a very handy tool for the curious gardener. I've been playing with it this afternoon and although it has limitations - only major cities are covered, and not all of them - it is rather interesting as a quick and easy way of visualising meteorological conditions. Assuming there is coverage, graphs are presented comparing average maxima and minima (separately)and mean monthly rainfall. I checked London against various locations and was reminded that despite its reputation, it is drier than a great many other places, often considerably so (but that still doesn't mean it has great weather). Two parts of the world were easily found to be climatically comparable at this broad scale: the Pacific Northwest around Seattle and Vancouver, which both have average temperatures only 1oC higher than London's, but respectively their average rainfall is 388 mm and 582 mm above London's mean. This congruity is quite well known among gardeners, but the other may be less so. Hobart in Tasmania differs by being warmer by 2oC, but has on average a mere 6 mm more rainfall than London. However, unlike in the Pacific Northwest (where there is a distinct summer dry period), this rainfall is spread fairly evenly through the year, just as it usually is in the UK. This is, inevitably, a rather crude comparison of climatic similarity - those microclimates are indeed important - but it is nonetheless interesting.

Gardeners in Tasmania evidently have a really remarkable climate, being able to grow all the British favourites but with a lot more besides. This results in some remarkable combinations, as shown in this photograph by Eric Hsu, of Lobelia keniensis and the shrubby Alchemilla argyrophylla growing with an Epimedium. Here the two Afroalpines would have to be cossetted under glass to have half a chance of surviving.

Tuesday, 1 December 2009

Impatiens tinctoria

We had a sharp frost overnight, the first of the season to cause ice to form on the ponds. There was a light frost early in October that ruined the dahlias, but many other frost-sensitive plants had escaped serious damage until now. Among them were many of the Impatiens, which had continued to flower until they froze last night. One of them was Impatiens tinctoria, one of the largest species in this remarkable genus and one of very few plants from tropical Africa to be hardy outdoors in the British Isles. This hardiness derives from its tuberous roots, which can survive anything but the most penetrating frosts - and evidently the -12 degrees we had here last winter did not cause the soil to freeze so deeply. The rootstock looks like that of a particularly large and robust Dahlia, and was used in Ethiopia as a source of red dye, hence the epithet tinctoria. If worried about its survival a mulch can be used to help protect the roots, but most years this isn't necessary.

The succulent stems emerge in spring and usually grow in a British summer to about 1.5 m tall, possibly a little more if sheltered or very moist. As the season goes on they become somewhat woody and knobbly-kneed: in the wild they can evidently persist for some years as they get quite thick and the plants reach at least 3m in the best conditions. The leaves are large and dark green, but not particularly exciting. Above them hover the large flowers, white with red markings towards the centre. The most conspicuous part of the flower is actually the two lower lateral petals, which are greatly expanded into butterfly-like wings, while the other petals are rather small and insignificant. The upper petal, however, extends into a spur of varying length, which curves down behind the flower. This is presumably probed by nocturnal moths in search of nectar; I am not sure whether it does produce nectar, but the flower is strongly and sweetly scented (though suggestive of cheap soap), especially in the evening.

The plant has been in cultivation for many years. I first knew it as a large plant growing by one of the old greenhouses at Wisley in the early 1980s. It seems certain that it was from the stock introduced by Patrick Synge in the 1930s from his expedition to Uganda (written up in his book Mountains of the Moon), although I believe he collected it on Mt Elgon. This stock has larger flowers and longer spurs than those of plants I've seen at various localities in Kenya, and is therefore much more garden-worthy, but like them is regarded as subsp. elegantissima. We saw I. tinctoria in a couple of localities on our recent safari, firstly on the banks of the Wanjohi river in the so-called 'Happy Valley' and then in the gorge below the spectacular Thomson's Falls at Nyahururu (pictured here). It always grows where its feet are wet: a few yards upslope at Thomson's Falls it is replaced by the much more drought-tolerant I. sodenii. The close-up image was taken a couple of years ago on Mt. Kenya.

Unlike most Impatiens it seems to be reluctant to produce seed so it doesn't spread itself about, at least in this country. Propagation is easiest by taking short side shoots as cutings, with a bit of a heel. They root easily in water or a suitable light compost in a propagator.