Monday 28 February 2011

Petasites japonicus

Petasites japonicus
 On a rather dry bank under trees at Colesbourne Park grows a plant that stimulates more questions from our visitors than anything else in the garden:  'There's a plant over there... a bit odd... palish...'

The palish plant in question is Petasites japonicus, or rather its inflorescences. I usually ask if the enquirer knows the British native Butterbur Petasites hybridus (most don't), as it makes it easier to explain that this is a Japanese Butterbur, whose inflorescences appear now, to be followed by large 'rhubarb-like' leaves. There's no doubt that it has a very strange appearance, with the inflorescence appearing close to the ground as a cluster of flower-heads surrounded by broad pale green bracts: at this stage it looks rather like a miniature cauliflower, or perhaps, at a distance, a tuft of some odd primrose. Most years they get frosted at this stage, develop a manky black centre and do not develop much further, but this season they have escaped frost and have developed to their full stature, elongated on stems to 20-30 cm, and have thus become even more conspicuous than usual.

A slightly more developed
Viewed close-up they are really rather attractive, with numerous flowerheads making up the 'cauliflower', each packed with numerous small flowers. The combination of creamy white and pale green is attractive, and it's not surprising that it draws attention. Nor is it surprising that I'm quite frequently asked if it's a parasite - the pallor and general leaflessness reasonably suggesting that it could be. It isn't, of course, being a normal green-leaved plant with an extensive system of thick rhizomes, though neither of these organs is visible now. The flowers will fade away presently, and the site will be obscured by a mass of its large leaves, preventing anything growing in summer except ivy (though snowdrops and daffodils can coexist with it).

Petasites japonicus en masse, Colesbourne Park,
February 2011
It has been interesting to read opinions of  the plant given by the comparatively few authors who mention it. Bowles (My Garden in Spring) thought the leaves more attractive than the flowers, in which I cannot agree, while Graham Stuart Thomas (Colour in the Winter Garden) appreciated the 'toby-frill' of the bracts. In Plants for Ground-cover, however, he says of the genus as a whole: 'Rampageous spreaders in damp soil, preferably heavy. Not fit for use in gardens; ideal where large areas are to be covered and where a vigorous colonizer can be given an area to beautify and save all work.' In this he is quite right! The area in which it grows at Colesbourne is stony and dry, under trees, and the plant is undoubtedly stunted by these conditions: given a place in damp ground  it would be an utter thug.

I believe that our plant is normal P. japonicus; more frequently grown, I think, is var. giganteus, which is even larger and has larger inflorescences and bigger leaves on taller stalks. Scary. This also has a variegated version, 'Nishiki-buki', with leaves ' irregularly sectored and streaked with white to yellow' (but apt to revert),according to Graham Rice's Encyclopaedia of Perennials. More attractive-sounding is f. purpureus, with purplish leaves  - but how purple are they, and do they stay purple? (I suspect this is more alluring in name than in reality).

Petasites japonicus foliage at Birtsmorton Court, June 2010
A final point of interest about this plant is that in Japan, where it is known as fuki,  it is eaten as a vegetable. The petioles are cooked somewhat like rhubarb, or preserved, and the inflorescence bud  is regarded as a delicacy 'with a slightly bitter but agreeable flavour' (Plants for a future). I am sorry to say that I have never ventured to try any part of the plant, but really must give it a go.

Saturday 26 February 2011

Twenty-five years of inspiration

Needing to look something up, I brought a selection of books and the teapot back to bed with me this morning. Among the books was my working copy of E.A. Bowles's My Garden in Spring, first published in 1913 but reprinted on three occasions since. This is the Theophrastus facsimile edition of 1971. On the fly leaf is this inscription:
indicating that I've had this book exactly twenty-five years today (also showing how much later the RHS February show was in those days, and proving that I did once have legible handwriting).

I first met Bowles's My Garden trilogy in the public library near my school in about 1983. It inspired me to see plants as personalities, and to delve into the realm of plantsmanship. 'Come into Mr Bowles's garden and learn what true gardening is, and what is the real beauty of plants, and what the nature of their display' wrote Reginald Farrer in his preface, and this is indeed what these books do. One is gently led through the author's well-stocked garden, and the plants are described with charm and humour, such that one wants to go out and grow them for oneself. I cannot recommend the trilogy too highly to those have not read it, and to those who have, it constantly repays perusal.

Friday 25 February 2011

Flowering now at Colesbourne Park

View from the wood: Leucojum vernum in foreground.
Crocus tommasinianus 'Whitewell Purple'

Cyclamen coum, Galanthus 'S. Arnott'

Galanthus 'S. Arnott'

Galanthus krasnovii

Iris 'Katherine Hodgkin'

Scilla bifolia 'Praecox'

Galanthus 'James Backhouse'

Galanthus 'James Backhouse'

Thursday 24 February 2011


Thanks to a train journey to London yesterday, I've finally had chance to read through Hanneke van Dijk's book Galanthomania, this season's contribution to the snowdrop literature. It develops the theme of her earlier book (with Gert-Jan van der Kolk) Sneeuwklokjes, investigating the fascination for and of snowdrops. Sneeuwklokjes is entirely in Dutch, whereas Galanthomania, no doubt with an eye on broadening the market, is bilingual, with Dutch text on the left of the spread and an exact translation into good English on the right. This works remarkably well, especially as the photographs are spread impartially across the pages. As usual with Hanneke's books these are a mixture of the informative and quirky, with some acutely shot images catching the spirit of the snowdrop season (though they are perhaps not quite as charming as in Sneeuwklokjes). The book is very well designed, and the images have reproduced well though printed on matt paper.

About half the book is given over to portraits, photographic and written, of prominent galanthophiles, and I think this where the book has real value, capturing glimpses of personalities through the eyes of a perceptive observer. Enthusiasts from across northern Europe are portrayed and given voice (although some portraitees have noted that the words are not always direct quotes), but there are some notable omissions: John Morley, whose North Green Snowdrops is the patriarch of catalogues, is missing, and it would have been nice to have seen non-European enthusiasts represented too. One can think of Hitch Lyman, who has almost single-handedly supplied choice snowdrops to Americans for years, and Tomoko Miyashita, who flies the flag in Japan: both are prominent annual visitors to the European snowdrop season. What comes out very strongly in the text is how so many galanthophiles have been mentored in their enthusiasm by members of an earlier generation: among them Herbert Ransom (always spoken of in the warmest tones), Primrose Warburg and especially Richard Nutt, who had a huge influence on many of us.

In the first part of the book Hanneke propounds a classification scheme for snowdrops based on flower shape and markings, claiming that enthusiasts focus predominantly 'on the flowers rather than the leaves.' The result is ten new groups into which, it is claimed, all snowdrops can be fitted. Perhaps so, but such an approach is so broad-brush as to be of very minimal value in identification, and full of ambiguities and difficulties where the markings or flower shape do not accord with the simplistic definitions provided. For example, as I read the definitions, any snowdrop of normal flower shape displaying a single mark of any shape on its inner segment, is placed within the Imperial Group. This means that flowers with markings as diverse as those seen in (e.g.) the well-known cultivars 'S. Arnott' (a simple "inverted v"), 'John  Gray' (a diffuse X) and 'Merlin' (largely solid green) are lumped together, though they have no physical similarity or relationship whatsoever. The scheme may work better for smaller, more easily differentiated assemblages, but is riddled with ambiguities; 'Comet' which, like many other G. elwesii selections, sometimes has green markings on its outer segments (placing it in the Green Group: "outer segments significantly, or even just slightly, green") but often doesn't, is placed by the author in the Imperial Group. Or does an albino like 'Sibbertoft White' migrate to the Twomark Group if small markings are sometimes evident? (Fortunately there is no Primark group...). Vast, all-inclusive Cultivar Groups of the sort proposed have no practical use in either accurate identification or understanding of snowdrop cultivation. The unwarranted introduction of new names for these ill-defined units is not helpful either: many ignore the long history of galanthophilic usage that is so much part of the charm the book otherwise portrays.

Accurate identification of a snowdrop can seldom be achieved
 on flower characters alone. From its markings this flower could belong to at least four species.
The failure to recognize that leaves are a fundamental part of a snowdrop's identity and, even more importantly, its effect in the garden, is regrettable. Looking only at flowers tells you nothing about the plant's appearance or its garden merits, as well as concealing the fact that snowdrops of different species or parentage have different cultivation preferences. The gallery of 500 images at the back of the book is all of disembodied flowers, against varying backgrounds, and while interesting and the source of the first published illustration of several cultivars, emphasizes that one needs to see the whole plant (or at least know what to expect) for any sort of identification to be accurate.

The foliage shows that this plant is Galanthus plicatus subsp. byzantinus, and rules out G. elwesii, G. gracilis or G. fosteri, which all may have two distinct inner segment marks, but are immediately distinguishable by their leaves.
Galanthomania is actually a very pleasant book, which all galanthomanes will want to possess, and will enjoy - just don't pay too much attention to the classification scheme.

Monday 21 February 2011

Anemones in Israel

Anemone coronaria in Israel

My friend Ryan Guillou, a young American horticulturist currently working for a year at the Jerusalem Botanical Garden, posted these images on his Facebook page today and has kindly given permission to reproduce them here. The site is on the edge of the Negev Desert south of Tel Aviv and has been cultivated in the past, but has now been colonized by this astonishing mass of Anemone coronaria (and many other interesting plants).

A white form.

Iris palaestina

Leontice leontopetalum

Ryan Guillou and Anemone coronaria

Friday 18 February 2011

Some old photos

The transition from slides to digital images continues to be an awkward process; when most of one's photographic archive is still in transparency format it's often frustrating not to be able to use an image in a hurry. I've recently had a batch of scans made from slides taken in 1990, during my first year in Tanzania, when Charles Foley and I lived in an old hut at 2000 m on Kilimanjaro and undertook a census of the elephants in the montane forest. Even there, and when in residence for less than a year, I had to have a garden, seen in the image above. It was just a long narrow strip of dug soil, planted with bits and pieces of plants begged from friends (there were no nurseries in Tanzania in those days), or annuals grown from seed. It gave a lot of pleasure, and certainly brightened the rather drab immediate surroundings of the hut.

The hut, with our ancient Land Rover 109. The Afromontane forest behind is dominated by Cassipourea malosana (Rhizophoraceae), whose straight white trunks earn it the name Pillarwood.

The neighbours.


Elephant dung marked with an Alitag. We monitored these piles for months on end, observing their decay rate. The elephant census was based on a dung count, with three variables being important: the density of dung piles in the forest, their rate of decay, and the defaecation rate (the standard figure being 17/day). Knowing these three factors enables elephant numbers to be estimated with reasonable reliability.

Tuesday 15 February 2011

A golden Gold

If there is an official start to the gardening year, it must be the Royal Horticultural Society's February Show, held in its halls in central London, whose first day was today. It's a rare opportunity, too, for the Society to feel like a society, when a concentration of its members comes together to talk about plants and gardening, and generally catch up after the show-less winter. It was good to see that the RHS had moved the 'design' element of the show to the Lindley (Old) Hall, leaving the Lawwrence (New) Hall to the nurseryman's stands and displays of plants. As usual with my compact camera the pictures are not as perfect as I'd like, but these images give some idea of the plants on show.

Ashwood Nurseries' Hepatica display.
Two stood out, Avon Bulbs' elegant display of snowdrops and foliage plants designed by Alan Street, of which more anon, and the stand of hepaticas exhibited by Ashwood Nurseries. Both won gold medals, but that for Ashwood was a particularly noteworthy achievement - their fiftieth gold medal in unbroken succession. One wonders if this has ever been achieved before, but in modern times it is unique, and the Ashwood team deserves the heartiest of congratulations. John Massey's collection of Hepatica species and cultivars (see my post here) was the foundation of the display, complemented by the typical Ashwood touch of perfectly flowered small specimens of Prunus incisa 'Kojo-no-mai'. I gather from John that a good deal of careful manipulation of the plants was needed to achieve this perfection; some were in a cool store while others were brought on in warmth, but one can only imagine the devotion required (and the angst involved) to bring so many of these ephemeral flowers to such a state of perfection. 
Hepatica japonica x H. yamatutai

The New Hall in all its glory; Avon Bulbs' stand in front.

A probably new species of Daphne from China shown to the
Woody Plant Committte by Chris Brickell.
The magnificent foliage of Exbucklandia tonkinensis from
Crug Farm Plants, probably the first time this Vietnamese species
has been shown in public in the UK

Galanthophiles in conference: (L-R) Jane Leeds, Ronald Mackenzie,
Sue and Wol Staines, Rod Leeds

Part of Avon Bulbs' stand with the plant of the show, so far as I am concerned - a glorious yellow-green form of Anthriscus sylvestris, whose public appearance is long overdue. 

Saturday 12 February 2011

The Galanthus Gala 2011

A happy Gala-goer: Steve Owen with a new treasure

Melvyn Jope consults 'the book'
The premier annual snowdrop event, the Galanthus Gala organized by Joe Sharman of Monksilver Nursery, was held today at Banbury School. A few hundred enthusiasts attended, first hearing three short talks, then getting on to what they had really come for: the plant sale. The pictures and video capture the enthusiasm...

Tuesday 8 February 2011

A beautiful winter day at Colesbourne Park

Crocus tommasinianus, early morning
A sharp frost this morning was followed by a beautiful, calm day. Here are some pictures showing the diversity of winter interest at Colesbourne.
Lakeside oak

Polypodium interjectum on oak

Rosa nitida, from seed collected on the
aptly-named Brier Island, Nova Scotia

The ghost of Christmas past - blasted young
Trachycarpus fortunei

Galanthus 'John Gray'
Eranthis hyemalis and Galanthus nivalis

Double seedling from Eranthis 'Lightning'

Cyclamen coum and Galanthus 'S Arnott'

Cyclamen coum f. pallidum

Crocus tommasinianus, afternoon.