Thursday 29 April 2010

Scadoxus puniceus

This is Scadoxus puniceus, an African amaryllid, growing in my parents' conservatory. The species is widespread in southern and tropical Africa, but this plant was given to me as a seedling by Malcolm Coe (my doctoral supervisor in Oxford). He had grown it from seed collected from plants growing in sand dunes near Richards Bay on the KwaZulu-Natal coast in the mid-1990s. The seedling flowered in its third year, which seemed remarkably fast for a plant with a large bulb. It stands in the frost-free conservatory year round, emerging in spring and bearing its large leaves through the summer until they collapse in autumn. The pot is then kept dry until signs of growth reappear. Ample water is needed when in growth, and it receives occasional liquid fertiliser feeds.

Although it has not been repotted for several years, the plant grows extremely well and this year has twelve inflorescences, each standing about 45 cm tall. A cluster of flowers is surrounded by a number of brownish-red, somewhat fleshy bracts, which give the inflorescence its substance. The flowers are individually small, with short perianth segments and long stamens: these are responsible for the 'shaving brush' appearance of the flower-head.

New foliage at Wisley

After a meeting in Surrey last night I had the chance to spend the morning at the RHS Garden, Wisley, which is in all the magnificence of late spring. So many flowers to look at, but here are three foliage plants that caught my eye.

I have grown Paeonia lactiflora 'Madame Gaudichau' for years, valuing it for its uniquely dark foliage in spring, but it is surprisingly seldom seen. It is not a free-flowering plant, nor are the flowers particularly special, so it probably loses out in this way for those obsessed by flowers, but it deserves a place in the garden for its foliage alone.

Cornus controversa is a beautiful tree in all its forms, although best known for its white-variegated clone 'Variegata', the well-known 'Wedding-cake Tree.' I had not previously seen this one, 'Candlelight', which seems to have been introduced by H. Kolster Kwekerij of Boskoop in about 2003. The new growth is a very striking pale yellow, looking particularly good with a dark background. It becomes green in due course, apparently.

Iris x pseudata 'Kinshizen' is a representative of a group of hybrids made between Iris pseudacorus and I. ensata, incorporating good features from both these species. (Why the current trial of these moisture-loving plants is on a raised bed in full sun on the Portsmouth Field is a mystery - surely somewhere more amenable could have been found to trial them properly.) At this time of year it has wonderful greenish-yellow leaves that would look superb in the bog garden or rising from a pool; an internet search suggests that it has rather interesting, peachy-coloured flowers. Unfortunately it doesn't seem to be commercially available as yet in the UK.

Tuesday 27 April 2010

Tulipa clusiana

One of the prettiest of tulips, Tulipa clusiana, is now at its peak with all three clones grown here colouring-up and opening simultaneously. Grown in Britain since the early Seventeenth Century and known to generations of gardeners as the Lady Tulip, its botanical name commemorates Charles de l'Ecluse (1526-1609), the Flemish botanist usually known under the latinized form of his name as Carolus Clusius. Clusius is credited with having brought the first tulips to Holland when he moved from Vienna to set up the Leiden Botanical Garden in 1593, but there is little evidence to connect him with Tulipa clusiana. In his lifetime, or shortly thereafter, it was known as Tulipa persica (as illustrated here in Crispin van de Pas's Hortus Floridus of 1613) and the epithet clusiana was not attached to the plant until 1802, when it was published in Redoute's Les Liliacees.

As a wild plant Tulipa clusiana grows from Iran eastwards to Pakistan, where it is a variable plant, with flowers having pink markings on either a white or yellow flower, with or without a dark centre to the flower. Various names have been attached to different variants over the years, of which Tulipa clusiana var. stellata has been commonly used for the white and pink version from the western Himalaya, and var. chrysantha for those with yellow and pink flowers, of whiich 'Cynthia' is a representative. Current taxonomy regards the various combinations of colours and ploidies as forms of T. clusiana (see Richard Wilford's Tulips (2006) for details).

The top and fourth pictures show the clone cultivated for centuries as Tulipa clusiana. Its flower has a very distinctive, neatly triangular shape, with a rich cherry-red stripe on the outer segments. It is sterile and spreads by stolons, producing (if happy) patches of narrow grey leaves, with a few flowering shoots among them. It is a pentaploid (i.e. has five sets of chromosomes) which no doubt explains its sterility and vigour. This clone has never, so far as I know, been distinguished by a cultivar name, being what the Dutch bulb growers have always sold simply as T. clusiana. I have little doubt that it is an ancient selection grown by the Ottomans that reached Europe with the efflux of bulbs from Turkey in the late Sixteenth and early Seventeenth Centuries.

After four hundred years, however, it seems as if the Dutch may no longer be growing this historical plant. My bulbs came from the Irish company Heritage Bulbs (which specialises in old-fashioned bulbs) some years ago, and was said to have been from the last grower of the old stock in Holland. A couple of years ago I was sent some more bulbs by them labelled Tulipa clusiana , which they had received from Holland claiming to be the real thing, but over which they had doubts. They asked me to look into it and when the bulbs flowered it was obvious that the newer stock was rather different. With both clones flowering again today (fifth and sixth pictures) it was possible to look again at the differences. There's not much in it, though the flower is broader and less acutely triangular, the reddish colouring is a fraction paler and the plant is shorter. Other characters clinch the difference, however, with this impostor being fertile and apparently not stoloniferous. It is of course a very pretty plant and in botanical terms, a genuine representative of Tulipa clusiana forma clusiana, but it is certainly not the old original clone, which I think ought to be distinguished by a cultivar name that recognises its long history.

The third clone is 'Lady Jane' (final pic), which is attribtable to forma stellata on account of its yellow throat (I don't grow any with yellow ground colour). This is an extremely attractive clone, with soft pink markings externally: it is evidently a good doer in the garden.

Sunday 25 April 2010

A soft morning at Knightshayes

Parrotiopsis jacquemontiana; Rhododendron (labelled as johnstoneanum but I am doubtful of this) with Erythronium californicum; Erythronium californicum; Cyclamen repandum; woodland garden, Knightshayes.

After a couple of weeks of bright but chilly weather, with north-easterly winds, the Atlantic has reasserted itself and warmer westerlies are now flowing across the British Isles, bringing the first rain for a long time. We encountered it this morning at Knightshayes Court, Devon, where intermittent pulses of light rain came through as we enjoyed the combination of naturalised bulbs under a great diversity of woody plants. It is a pleasure to see a great woodland garden on acidic ground that is not dominated by rhododendrons!

Friday 23 April 2010

Garden Miscellany

A few images from the garden this evening: Lilium kesselringii; Trillium chloropetalum (Primrose Warburg's clone); Helleborus Ashwood yellows; Epimedium epsteinii; Erythronium 'Minnehaha'; Tulipa 'Exotic Emperor'

Wednesday 21 April 2010

A poor year for Pasque-flowers

Not too far from here is an unimproved hillside of limestone grassland that is the habitat for what is said to be the largest British population of Pulsatilla vulgaris, the native Pasque-flower, numbering about 20,000 plants. Someone must have counted very carefully, because the plants are tiny, minuscule tufts of foliage nestling among everything else in the short turf, and few of them flower each year. This year seems to have been particularly poor, for there were no more than a few dozen flowers across the whole site when we visited this evening. Rather disappointing and more than a little worrying: it would be nice to know what factors are involved in the success or otherwise of plants on this site.

But the Pasque-flowers were as beautiful as ever, rich dark purple on the short, still brownish turf. British Pulsatilla vulgaris are noted for their diminutive size, unlike the much larger, more robust continental versions that seem to be the origin of the familiar pulsatillas of gardens, and these plants are no more than a few centimetres high, with flowers in scale. A tuft with two flowers together is a rarity. Not much else was in flower - a few violets, early Polygala vulgaris, a Cowslip or two and the first purple buds of Orchis mascula - but the turf smelt of thyme and Salad Burnet (Sanguisorba officinalis) and a Skylark was singing overhead.

Tuesday 20 April 2010

Paeonia mairei

We are currently at the peak of the all-too short flowering period of Paeonia mairei, always the first peony to open here, beating P. mascula subsp. russii by some weeks. In most years it comfortably overlaps with the last snowdrops in late March, but not this year. According to the Flora of China it comes from deciduous woodland in western China: its name commemorates the botanical activities there of Edouard-Ernest Maire (1848-1932), a French missionary who had the resounding title of Pro-Vicar Apostolic of Yunnan.

The plants grown here at Colesbourne originated as wild-collected rootstocks from the infamous Chinese plant-seller Chen Yi, imported to Holland about ten years ago. They have proved to be extremely vigorous, making large clumps of stocky shoots flowering at about 60 cm high. Unlike other species, it has a rather short peduncle so the flower sits rather tidily quite close to the foliage. The flowers are not my favourite shade of pink, and fade off to a paler, washed-out sort of shade; the effect is nice at a distance, but they are always something of a disappointment, lasting only a few days.

For me Paeonia mairei is about travelling hopefully, as the red shoots emerge early and slowly develop through February and March, unfurling bronze foliage with dark red buds sitting conspicuously at its centre and thus giving a really rich effect among small spring bulbs (the last photo was taken 1 April). By flowering time, when it is more or less fully expanded, the foliage is green and stays that way until it gets tatty in late summer.

I lift and divide large plants of it in late August or early September, while the soil is warm, and it doesn't miss a beat. Any fragment with a bud will grow. Given its value in the garden, and its ease of propagation, it is surprising that it is not seen very frequently.

Monday 19 April 2010

A curious biography

Over the weekend I read the much commented-on biography Christopher Lloyd, His life at Great Dixter by Stephen Anderton: it's a surprisingly short book, and very readable, so this was not a chore. Readable it may be, but it is also disappointingly shallow. The subtitle says it all: it is a narrative of Christopher Lloyd's life with a minimum of analysis or context. The first 112 pages cover his first 50 years,including his emergence as an important gardening author, but are largely devoted to his relationship with his mother, Daisy, who is portrayed as dreadfully domineering. One feels that Anderton was actually at least as fascinated by Daisy as with her son, but even so there is no real attempt to analyse the relationship, or its implied consequences.

Christopher Lloyd emerged from her apparent shadow aged 50 and became increasingly famous as the years went by, until his death at the age of 85 in 2006. By this time he was grand old man of British (if not world) gardening, an outwardly gruff-seeeming old codger, known to everyone (rather familiarly) as Christo. I met him only once, towards the end of his life, and evidently missed out on knowing a remarkable man. Much of the Christo legend is enshrined in the latter part of the book, covering his last thirty-five years, but it is extraordinary that only 92 pages were allowed to cover this, by far the most important period of his career. In consequence, much is skated over and towards the end it turns into something of a catalogue of things he did. Interesting, but not terribly enlightening.

I was surprised to see how few people were acknowledged for their contribution, which suggests that Stephen Anderton did not canvass opinion widely, whether from Lloyd's friends, or his detractors. The voice of numerous gardening contemporaries and colleagues could have been heard; there are plenty of people who could expound on the relationship between Christo and Graham Stuart Thomas, for example. Neither do we hear from the Americans, especially the gay guys, he encountered on his tours, whose liberating presence was so important to Christo; although we are told that he revelled in their company there is no mention of the overt groping that went on. And only a straight author could include (in the distinctly mean allocation of photographs) no less than five pictures of the young Christopher with his mother, but fail to include a picture of Lanning Roper, 'the blond and preposterously good-looking' American who may have provided Lloyd's only physical relationship.

This absence of context and critical analysis is really the most disappointing thing about the book, but running it a close second is the lack of serious commentary on his gardening. I realise that this was not Anderton's intention, but gardening was what Christopher Lloyd was about and this is a big omission. We can of course re-read his writings from his copious output, but there is no attempt to discuss his place in the pantheon of horticulture or how his work has influenced the current generation of gardeners. The symbiotic relationship between Christo and Fergus Garrett that led to the burgeoning anew of the Great Dixter garden gets its due prominence, however.

This is a life-story, not a scholarly biography, and thus leaves the field open for this and much more Lloydiana to come.

Sunday 18 April 2010

Fritillaries at North Meadow, Cricklade

North Meadow at Cricklade, a National Nature Reserve, is one of the largest remaining ancient meadows in the upper Thames valley, covering 44 ha. Managed since the Middle Ages as a common, with hay-making and grazing rights governed by a Manorial Court Leet, it has preserved its natural high levels of biodiversity while most such lowland meadows have been destroyed by intensive agriculture. Its highlight is the population of Snakeshead Fritillaries (Fritillaria meleagris), accounting for 80% of the wild population in Britain and creating a shimmer of purple across the grass at this time of year. It is a lovely sight and was being enjoyed by many visitors this morning. It is ironic that current thinking regards Fritillaria meleagris as an alien plant in the British Isles, but its status as a protected rarity rightly remains in place, enabling it to act as an ambassador for less conspicuous inhabitants of its threatened meadow habitats.

Saturday 17 April 2010

Ave atque vale

Magnolia campbellii; Rhododendron 'Alison Johnstone'; Rhododendron pachysanthum (as lovely for its leaves as its flowers); Myrica gale; Leonardslee view

A social engagement on Thursday took us to Sussex, giving us the opportunity to do some exploring on Friday. The morning was spent at Leonardslee, the home of the Loder family since 1889, and famous for its great woodland garden set in a valley containg a series of lakes. Unfortunately the family link has been broken by the estate's recent sale to an 'international businessman' who 'at present has no plans to open the gardens to the public, and as a result the gardens will only be open until the 30th June 2010.' (

It seemed timely therefore to make what will probably be our first and last visit to Leonardslee, which under Sir Edmund Loder gave the world the magnificent Rhododendron Loderi Group, whose huge scented flowers epitomise the opulence of the wealthy Rhododendron fanciers of the early twentieth century. The rhododendrons were only just starting, with just enough to suggest the wealth of colour that will shortly appear. The late season meant that the early magnolias, including numerous M. campbellii were still in flower, though as always they were difficult to photograph satisfactorily and look best seen at a distance. The camellias were also in full flower, but many had already turned to that all-too apt tea colour that spoils them so dreadfully.

Amid all the calcifuge splendour, unattainable in the Cotswolds, I was delighted to see the insignificant little catkins of the Bog Myrtle, Myrica gale, our most deliciously aromatic native plant, whose spicy crisp scent evokes long tramps over Scottish moorlands. It should be in every garden that could grow it, but very seldom is.

Thursday 15 April 2010

Giving peas a chance

On his blog Transatlantic Plantsman, Graham Rice has published a picture of a graffito reading 'give peas a chance' painted on a railway bridge. Not to be outdone, here is the same slogan, more formally advertising a restaurant in London dedicated to the consumption of hummus... You have the chance to buy the t-shirt at

Wednesday 14 April 2010

Arum palaestinum

Visiting the University of Bristol Botanic Garden this morning to collect some trees, I was shown around by the Curator, Nick Wray. The garden has only been on this site since 2005 and development is an ongoing process, though much has happened since I was last there a couple of years ago and many parts of the garden are now looking well established. On the bank featuring Mediterranean plants I was astonished and delighted to see a fine clump of Arum palaestinum, the blackest of all the dark-spathed arums, in full flower. I have never grown this species, believing it to be tender, but the clumps at Bristol suggest otherwise, looking very well after this hard winter (-8 deg. C was recorded in the garden there this winter).

I had to have a sniff to find out how bad the smell is - it's not good, sort of shitty rotten fruit, but I have smelt worse.

End of the season

As of today there are no snowdrop flowers left at Colesbourne Park, for the first time since early September. The last (a G. elwesii) faded overnight.

Tuesday 13 April 2010

First "fruits"

Rhubarb 'Hawke's Champagne', picked five minutes ago.

Monday 12 April 2010

Primula vulgaris subsp. sibthorpii

For the past two or three weeks one of the highlights of the garden here has been the masses of self-sown seedlings of Primula vulgaris subsp. sibthorpii, forming large clumps covered in flowers in varying shades of pink and white.

The common primrose, Primula vulgaris, has a wide range in Europe and western Asia, mostly represented by the normal pale yellow subsp. vulgaris, but from Greece eastwards it is replaced, at least in parts, by subsp. sibthorpii. This commemorates, John Sibthorp (1758-96), Sherardian Professor of Botany at Oxford from 1784, succeeding his father Humphrey. The latter was said to have given only one rather poor lecture during his tenure: whether John Sibthorp ever gave any is open to question, as he almost immediately set off on a lengthy botanising journey around Greece accompanied by the artist Ferdinand Bauer. The ultimate result of their endeavour was the extraordinary Flora Graeca, produced and published following Sibthorp's death, using an endowment he left for the purpose. The tenth and final part was published in 1840: only 75 full sets were ever printed. In consequence this magnificent work is an incredibly rare treasure: the Department of Plant Sciences at Oxford holds a set, plus all the unpublished materials from the project, and a digitised version is now available online at

This enables us to see Bauer's painting of the primrose that would later be named after his employer, but was then known as P. vulgaris var. rubra - see

According to John Richards' book Primula (1993) Sibthorp's primrose varies from the common form in a few technical characters such as leaf shape and colour (grey-green below, rather than green) but the most obvious distinction is that its flowers are pink to purply-red or white (or very occasionally yellow), these differences being further supported by its distribution. It has been cultivated, it seems, since the early seventeenth century, when it was known as 'Tradescant's Turkie-Purple Primrose'. It is assumed to be one of the sources of different colours in garden primroses. For many years the standard "Primula sibthorpii" in cultivation was a dull-coloured plant that may even be a hybrid - this was the first plant I grew under the name sibthorpii, but in recent years wild material has been collected by several travellers to Turkey, resulting in much more interesting plants, including some that are really very dark indeed, such as the clone 'George Smith' (not illustrated here).

The pink forms of subsp. sibthorpii are a nice clean colour, with a white band around the central yellow 'star', thus differentiating them from plants with unpleasant muddy pink flowers that arise when common primroses cross with a garden selection. They vary somewhat in shade and in flower size. White forms are also in cultivation from wild origin, including one called 'Taigetos', apparently having been found in those mountains in the Peloponnese, although John Richards says that it does not occur in that area.

For many years I have grown a lovely primrose called 'Gigha White' (although this should properly be caled 'Gigha'), distributed by the late Richard Nutt and assumed to originate from the Isle of Gigha (last two pictures). It self-sows freely, breeding true if there are no other primroses around, and starts producing its very abundant flowers early in the winter: I rate it as a superb plant. Despite its apparent Scottish origin, I have little doubt that it is a representative of subsp. sibthorpii.

Bringing together a selection of clones of subsp. sibthorpii in this garden has had wonderfful effects on their fertility, and they are spreading rapidly thoughout my woodland area, evidently appreciating the light calcareous loam. They put themselves in all sorts of inconvenient places - in amongst hellebore crowns for example, and the plant in the second photograph is wedged into a brick stairway. So far I have not seen any evident intermediates with subsp. vulgaris (also present in the garden), but there are one or two plants that look as if they are hybrids with something of the 'Wanda' persuasion, and others that may have crossed with garden polyanthus. Whatever their genetics, these seedlings are making a really lovely contribution to the spring display.

Sunday 11 April 2010

Spring charm

Primula elatior and Adiantum venustum at the Garden House, Condicote, today.

Saturday 10 April 2010

Isopyrum thalictroides

Coming from the upland woods of central Europe, Isopyrum thalictroides
is a dainty plant with a passing resemblance to an anemone, but it is actually more closely related to Thalictrum. It is one of those plants that don't burden the literature much, and seldom appear in catalogues, but which add quiet charm to the garden. It grows from small tubers, and despite its apparent frailty, is rather vigorous, thriving in coarse grass here: books on alpines caution that it can be invasive on a rock garden. Like so many early spring plants though, it is very ephemeral, dying down and disappearing soon after it has flowered.

Friday 9 April 2010

April airs are abroad

Two firsts have occurred on this lovely April day. It was the first occasion when it was comfortable to take tea by the pond, and the first electioneering literature arrived, from the Lib Dems. They are the only ones, not excluding even Comrade Lord Mandelson, who know where we live. I read the Turkey Club Yearbook instead.

In the current rush of growth and flowering it is hard to make a choice on what to write about, but I think it has to be the Wood Anemone, Anemone nemorosa. This is possibly the most charming of our native woodland ephemerals and we are lucky that it is abundant in the grounds of Colesbourne Park as a wild plant. After the snowdrop display, the anemones on the lake bank in April are perhaps the prettiest show of flowers we have.

Although in the wild it is often a denizen of woodland understorey, Anemone nemorosa is also very successful in thin turf in the open and in this habitat it is a feature of the area around the ice house. On the lake banks, where it is most spectacular, it grows amongst fairly coarse grasses, ivy, etc, competing very successfully with them. The display there gets better and better each year as the other vegetation is reduced in vigour by strimming and removal of the hay each summer. We refrain from planting snowdrops in the best anemone areas to avoid the display of the latter being disfigured by coarse tufts of foliage.

Despite the abundance of the wild plant hereabouts, I have had very limited success at establishing the assortment of named clones of Anemone nemorosa in either garden. Some horrid creature eats the foliage and buds of anemones here: in the abundance of the wild ones this is hardly noticeable, even though perhaps a majority of buds are eaten, but small clumps in cultivated parts of the gardens are perhaps more conspicuous and the damage is severe. There is little variation in the wild plant here - slight differences in the width of the 'petals' for example, and a couple of clones turn a rich pink as they fade, but all are the standard white with a slight pink flush outside during the peak of their flowering period.