Wednesday 30 June 2010

Horticultural Trades Association National Plant Show 2010

The first Horticultural Trades Association National Plant Show has been held at the National Agricultural Centre in Warwickshire over the past two days. It has provided a forum for wholesale growers to exhibit their wares and promote new introductions, and new marketing concepts, to the buyers from garden centres and other retail outlets. As its name suggest, it was an exhibition only of plants, excluding the 'sundries' that appear at other gardening trade shows, and appeared to be all the better for it, enabling everyone to concentrate on their plant ranges. According to nurserymen I spoke to it was a great success, and it had drawn professionals from all over the country.

Graham Rice was one of the judges of the competition for new plants, and he has written about them and the show in more detail in his blog Transatlantic Plantsman. This post therefore reflects my thoughts as an outsider to the mainstream horticultural industry. I should say first, however, that because the lighting in the hall made photography very difficult, I obtained a set of images of plant entries from the HTA Press Office for use here - I am very grateful to them for this, and point out that the copyright remains theirs. The poorer pics are mine.

This was not the sort of horticultural show I usually go to, with specialist nurseries selling their plants to a discerning public. This was about the mass market, the garden centre and big store trade, where the vast majority of plant sales take place. It was about the future impulse purchase, and the emphasis is on novelty and presentation: horticultural bling. There is of course nothing wrong with this, quite the contrary, but the contrast with the specialist nurseries is extreme. It is very salutary for one who mostly lives in the  world of specialist horticulture to come down to the reality of garden centres, and to be reminded of the network of breeders, growers, producers and retailers who put the majority of plants into the majority of gardens. The show was for everyone from the producers of bedding plant plugs to suppliers of large potted specimens from Italy, specialist conifer nurseries to Dutch lorry traders. It made for a vibrant occasion.

Begonia 'Glowing Embers'

What of the plants? The majority on display were the standard range offered, from alpines to trees, all well grown and crisply presented, but the exhibition provided a great opportunity to show off the latest introductions either on the grower's stand or as part of the competition for new introductions.  Winners in the different categories of the competition are listed here. The Best in Show, and Best Annual awards both went, thoroughly deservingly , to Begonia 'Glowing Embers' shown by its distributors Allensmore Nurseries. It is a stunning plant (the HTA pic above does not do it justice), with dark (but lighter-veined) foliage and nice single, smallish orange flowers. I look forward to growing it.

Defining novelty is never easy. Those in the competition were suposed to have been introduced this year, and no doubt they were, but one often has to look very carefully to perceive differences in new cultivars of, for example, Heuchera  and Nemesia (there were several entries from both). Of the latter I liked two from Farplants, 'Framboise' and 'Mirabelle' (illustrated right). Heuchera on the other hand exemplifies what I call the 'anything but green' syndrome of the horticultural trade - the predominance of coloured foliage to catch the eye of the impulse buyer. Coloured foliage is no bad thing in itself, when judiciously used, but its preponderance in some displays - and by extension, in some gardens - is overdone. The winner of Best Shrub was an 'ABG' plant, Coprosma 'Tequila Sunrise' (from New Place Nurseries and Woods Nurseries) with dense, multi-coloured swirls of glossy foliage. It clearly has a potential place in the garden, and I can imagine it being particularly useful in winter.

Coprosma 'Tequila Sunrise'

Of the other entries I liked the look of Sambucus 'Black Tower' (yes, an ABG! ), a fastigiate Elder from Seoint Nurseries with broad, very glossy black leaflets, but hope that its green growing tip is a result of the conditions the plants were grown in, as it is a little disconcerting. There were several interesting daisies in the Hardy Nursery stock category. Leucanthemum 'Real Galaxy' , with a tutu of yellow rays around a broad disc is quite nice, and also from Farplants is the Atlas Series of Rhodanthemum cultivars. As exhibited these were not looking their best, but I thought that 'Casablanca' (below, left) with white flowers over silver foliage has some real promise as a rock plant. The Garvinea Series of Gerbera (Bell Brothers Nurseries Ltd) (below, right) are attractive, and claimed to be hardy - but I am wary of such claims!

Among the very many good plants in the hall one really interested me - a hybrid Eucomis from the Dutch supplier Javado. Labelled Aloha Lily 'Leia', it has soft purple flowers on a short plant, with green, slightly wavy-edged and spotted leaves. These characters, and its not very pleasant fragrance, immediately suggest to me that it is a hybrid between E. zambesiaca and E. vandermerwei, but where my such seedlings are dull and brownish, the breeder of 'Leia' has achieved a very pleasing colour. Several bulbs together in a pot make a fine sight - unfortunately the picture is not so good.

Eucomis 'Leia'

[I must confess to borrowing the phrase 'anything but green' from the title of an American publication that ran for several years but is now defunct, catering to the interests of the lovers of variegated plants]

Monday 28 June 2010


We are currently enjoying a lovely display of Foxgloves (Digitalis purpurea) of various forms and colours: despite being supposed to dislike alkaline soil they do very well in the gardens here. As a wild species Digitalis purpurea has tall narrow inflorescences just one or two flowers wide, usually in the typical purplish pink, but often with white or paler pinks among them, and with a degree of variation in the intensity of spotting. In our back border we have a group of this wild type, in various colours, that have germinated from seed in the soil. Among them is this one, with nicely spotted white flowers.

Inevitably with such a lovely and popular flower, gardeners have long been selecting different colours and inflorescence forms. Older cultivars such as 'Sutton's Apricot' and the soft yellow 'Sutton's Primrose' (right), typically have bells only on one side of the inflorescence, though generally have more flowers than the average wildling. These colours are now available in other cultivars as well, but I do like the simplicity of the one-sided spike. Selection in inflorescence shape has usually been for more flowers, especially to encircle the stem, as in the old Excelsior Group, the more recent Camelot Series and the shorter Foxy Group.  In all these the bells hang down or outwards.

Last year the cultivar 'Candy Mountain', with upward-facing flowers was released at the Chelsea Flower Show for the first time. It has been developed by the Dutch seed company  K. Sahin, Zaden B.V. (for whom I used to work) from originals with an upwards tendency, but a great deal of hard selection work has gone into it, mostly by Maarten van der Sar. The result is an extremely uniform cultivar with thick spikes that are very imposing. With all foxgloves careful selection in isolation from others is needed to produce seed that is true to type, as they are all interfertile and the bees soon muddle the genes very effectively. There are ways of keeping pure cultivars among a garden of mongrels, though: collect seed only from the lowest flowers, if they opened before the others, or remove the undesirables after their main show is over and collect seed from the later-flowering side-branches of your selection.

Digitalis purpurea 'Candy Mountain'

D. purpurea 'Pam's Split'
Another release from Sahin at Chelsea last year was 'Pam's Split' - an unfortunate name perhaps, but a lovely plant. It combines the dark purple throat and white flowers of the cultivar 'Pam's Choice' with a split corolla, as found in the cultivars 'Saltwood Summer' and 'Anna Radetzky', which have been around for a few years now, and the 2010 introduction from Hilliers, 'Serendipity'. I can claim some credit for 'Pam's Split', as I made the first cross from which Maarten later developed the true-breeding cultivar.The dark lip makes it much more dramatic than the other split-corolla cultivars, I think. Although 'Saltwood Summer' was proclaimed as the first such Foxglove, this mutation has been known since the Nineteenth Century at least. However, it has never been as common as the rather frequently seen peloric mutation in which an enlarged, rounded flower develops at the top of the stem and opens before or with the first flowers - it often causes people to send pictures in to the advice columns of the horticultural press, with a query to the effect of 'what's going on here?'

The plant illustrated below is a peloric form of Digitalis purpurea subsp. heywoodii (which is distinguished by its white-hairy leaves and pale flowers). This clone has been maintained by cuttings for many years, but the typical peloric D. purpurea comes true from seed if isolated.

Peloric clone of Digitalis purpurea subsp. heywoodii

Lastly and leastly is a picture sent to me by Matt Bishop of a Foxglove growing at the Garden House, in which the flowers are reduced to minimal nubs. It is not showy.

Sunday 27 June 2010

Icomb Place

The potager, Icomb Place

It is blazingly hot today and the breeze, while personally welcome, is only compounding the horticultural problem of rapidly drying-out soil. Unlike most of the nation we had no interest in staying inside, but not wanting to travel too far had a look in the Yellow Book for inspiration. It turned out that Icomb Place, near Stow-on-the-Wold was open today, its only opening in the year, so off we went.

Icomb Place, home of Mr & Mrs TLF Royle, is a beautiful large Cotswold house with a superb view. In parts it dates to about 1420, but developed into a grand Tudor manor house. A Victorian restoration removed part of the original buildings, but fortunately failed to replace them. The house is not open to the public.

 A previous owner, Capt Simpson-Hayward, developed a fine garden in the steep-sided valley behind the house in the 1920s-30s, and was one of the first to open for the National Gardens Scheme. The remnants of this are still visible, showing how attractive it must have been, with a series of pools in the valley surrounded by 'Himalayan' plantings - rhododendrons, conifers and bamboos. The conifers are mostly now enormous, the bamboos, Japanese knotweed, Petasites and Trachystemon are rampageous, but there are still some rhododendrons and just a hint from a crest or two among the ferns that at one time there were interesting varieties grown here. A gully rock garden, with a spring-fed stream runs downhill from near the house (pic above), and although very overgrown, with numerous 'dwarf' conifers now being rather large, one can again see that it must have been a fine bit of gardening in its time. Work is being done to control the worst weeds, and some nice new trees have been planted in recent years, complementing the mature Victorian plantings around the house.

Adjacent to house is a charming typical Cotswold garden - no high horticulture perhaps, but very appropriate with herbaceous borders and roses, and delightfully scented by lindens and Philadephus. The potager, installed by the Royles, is exceptionally attractive, with crisply-cut box edging and balls surrounding the beds, while a trickling rill runs through the brick paving and out to a small fountain under a cupola. There we had tea, particularly enjoying a delicately lavender-flavoured cake - definitely one for the repertoire.

Philadelphus 'Sibylle'

Flax field

A scene in the Churn valley near North Cerney this morning.

Two red-hot pokers

Kniphofia northiae is the largest and chunkiest of the genus, producing  long broad leaves that, when the plant is out of flower, suggest a bromeliad rather than a red-hot poker. The inflorescence is never very elegant - a  broad club rather a poker, and I think the plant's garden value lies mostly in its foliage effect. In the Drakensberg it grows in damp places along streams and seeps, flowering early in the season and thereby apparently avoiding the possibility of hybridizing with other species. In the garden it is happy in ordinary soil, but over the years I have lost a number of plants in the winter here.

Altogether smaller, in fact one of the shortest red-hot pokers, is Kniphofia hirsuta. It also has the distinction of being the only poker with hairy foliage. I have seen this only in the northern Eastern Cape around Naude's Nek and at Tiffindell Ski Resort, where it grows on the slopes of Ben MacDhui, the highest point in the Eastern Cape Province. It is perfectly hardy here and flowers reliably in June. The form usually seen in cultivation, often sold under the name 'Traffic Lights', is shorter and thicker in the spikes than this clone, which originated from seed collected on Ben MacDhui. This year it has escaped serious damage from slugs, which can browse on the buds as they emerge, wrecking the effect. It too seems to happy in ordinary soil - this plant is growing in a very arid stony bank - but I think it is important to ensure that nothing is allowed to grow over and smother the foliage.

Saturday 26 June 2010

A miscellany

Today's post features a few plants currently looking good in the gardens of Colesbourne Park. Campanula 'Hilltop Snow' was raised by well-known alpine grower and nurseryman, Graham Nicholls, of Timsbury, near Bath. It is a very easy plant in a trough, forming a clump rather than running about, though the stems tend to flop outwards to give the plant a wider radius.

Lilium monadelphum has persisted in the grass near the Ice House since the days of H.J. Elwes, so has been there for at least 90 years. Interestingly, in his review for the current issue of The Plantsman of The Wild Garden: Expanded Edition by William Robinson and Rick Darke, James Hitchmough expresses incredulity at the possibility of naturalizing this species, assuming that slugs will always get it. They don't here, or in some other gardens where it has become thoroughly established. It is a native of the Caucasus, a relative of L. kesselringianum featured earlier in the month, but flowering very much later than that species. Like it, however, it has an unattractive scent.

Delphinium 'Loch Leven' is one of the classic blue show delphiniums, producing magnificent thick spikes. The delphiniums have really benefited from the dry and generally quiet weather all spring and early summer, avoiding the damage caused by slugs and wind.

Rosa 'Pejbigeye' sold as Eyes for You, is one of a growing number of roses that incorporate genes from Rosa persica (formerly known as Hulthemia persica), typically visible in the dark blotch at the centre of the flower. In my youth the only hybrid of Rosa persica known was called xHulthemosa hardii, a funny little shrub that had a bad reputation for difficulty in cultivation. Hulthemia has now been recognized to be a true Rosa, so the hybrid name has disappeared. This selection was bred by Peter J. James and released last year. It is attractive, with the dark eye suggesting a Cistus, but in the current heat it is fading quickly (right). We're growing it for this year in a tub with a mixture of tender perennials around it, before finding it a permanent place in the garden.

Dianthus barbatus 'Heart Attack' is a perennial Sweet William selected by my friend James Stevenson while he worked at Plant Delights Nursery in North Carolina. It was named with typical PDN bluntness - I  have known people who have refused to grow it because of the name, but they are missing out on a good plant.

Friday 25 June 2010

Elephant Parade London 2010

For the last few weeks the streets and open spaces of London have been decorated by a 'herd' of decorated elephant models, bringing a great deal of charm and pleasure to a lot of people. They're there to highlight the plight of the Asian Elephant, whose habitat is fast disappearing, bringing them increasingly into conflict with people (not to mention the resurgent demand for ivory in China). The display has been organized by Elephant Family, a charity devoted to Asian Elephant conservation, especially through the establishment of corridors between areas of elephant habitat. Having been deeply involved with establishing a protected elephant migration corridor myself in Tanzania I understand the urgency and relevancy of this approach.

'Chelsea Pensioner'

The Elephant Parade is now in its last few days, and the whole herd is being gathered together for viewing at the Royal Hospital, Chelsea on 25, 26, and 28th June, with a show for a few indoor-only models elsewhere. More info about this and the project is available at
The elephants will be auctioned to benefit the work of Elephant Family on 3rd July - I imagine the bidding will be brisk, as these are really fun items. The pictures show three elephants that have been displayed at the Royal Hospital already: the turf version, which I think has a wonderful look in its eye, was there for the Chelsea Flower Show, but has since been replaced by an astroturf model (right).

Wednesday 23 June 2010

The "Polypodium Committee"

Polypodium cambricum 'Omnilacerum Rickard' (in August 2008)

I've spent much of today with a group from the British Pteridological Society, discussing the possibilities and practicalities of the society becoming an International Cultivar Registration Authority (ICRA) for Polypodium. Like so many fern genera, Polypodium contains a tangle of names, many relating to long-extinct and mostly forgotten selections made in the period of the Victorian fern craze, and saddled with complicated names in which a descriptor in Latin is coupled with the name of the finder or raiser. The aim of producing a register is to bring order to these and provide at least basic information on the cultivars in question - though I would really like it turn into a guide to this interesting and useful genus of winter-green ferns.

It was a good, productive meeting, and afterwards we toured the grounds of Colesbourne Park to look at the ferns there. Unfortunately there are not many polypodies visible at present, as they are still in their summer resting phase (and may be there some time if the current warm dry weather persists), but there were enough other ferns visible to keep everyone happy.

Hoo House Nursery

On Saturday afternoon we paid a visit to Hoo House Nursery near Tewkesbury (, one of the select group of good nurseries in Gloucestershire. Hoo House is a small business run by Robin and Julie Ritchie, specializing in good garden plants, with a wide range of alpines and perennials. It is the sort of place to go to acquire the solid foundations of a good border or rock garden - there are no flashy latest novelties of unproven merit - and plants are grown hard in the open, so they are conditioned for garden conditions.

Some of the Hoo House offerings have been raised there, and usually bear the names of Ritchie family members. I have grown Helianthemum 'David Ritchie' (right) for some years, and greatly admire its rich cherry-red flowers, while Erodium 'Julie Ritchie' is with pink anthers and the palest pink eye, over silvered foliage. It's also nice to see that they offer other local plants, including Elaine Horton's Anthemis 'Tinpenny Sparkler', which is almost white (image below). We came away with a small selection of nice things (and found spaces for them all!) and will be back as we develop our new border over the course of the summer.

Anthemis 'Tinpenny Sparkler' at Hoo House Nursery

Tuesday 22 June 2010

Sunday 20 June 2010

From the bathroom window

View from the bathroom window this morning.

Cirsium rivulare 'Atropurpureum' - has anyone ever seen C. rivulare in any other colour?

Dactylorhiza x grandis (D. fuchsii x D. praetermissa)

Delphinium elatum

Astrantia major, a 'Shaggy'-derivative selected at The Garden House by Matt Bishop (with Geranium pratense)

Saturday 19 June 2010

Colesbourne Fete

The Colesbourne Fete, in aid of St James's Church, held on the lawns of Colesbourne Park this afternoon - a quintessentially English occasion.

George Proverbs presiding on the plant stall

The dog show

Pony-trap rides organized by Gill Fletcher

Evening entertainment: the Wadworth brewery's dray and team at the Colesbourne Inn.

Pelargoniums at Fibrex Nurseries

Part of the National Plant Collection of Pelargonium at Fibrex Nurseries

Fibrex Nurseries in Pebworth, Worcestershire (, is a family-run business that is celebrating its fiftieth anniversary this year. Started by Hazel and Dick Key as a specialist Pelargonium nursery, it expanded to take on ferns and ivies, and is still the pre-eminent supplier of these three groups in the country as well as maintaining superbly grown and extremely comprehensive National Plant Collections of Hedera and Pelargonium. None of their specialities is perhaps as fashionable as it might be, but a visit now reveals the wonderful diversity of all three, especially the pelargoniums in all classes. I cannot believe that anyone, however prejudicedly anti-Pelargonium they may be, would not come away unconverted to the charms of at least one section of this wonderful genus.

Foliage of Pelargonium bowkeri

'Eskay Verglo' (Angel group) combines a pretty flower with beautifully crisped leaf margins

P. peltatum, the ancestor of ivy-leaved pelargoniums

'Romeo'  (regal)

The large heads and vivid scarlet of 'Paul Crampel' set a benchmark for 'red geraniums' for decades after its introduction in 1903.