Spiny surprises

eryngium1There are lots of lovely eryngiums for gardeners: this is my favourite.  Positively dangerously spiny, this marvellous assemblage of bleached-out looking bracts make a serious garden statement.  Biennial, self-sowing if you don’t get around to it, it offered me a surprise this morning.

Watching bumblebees and tiny black pollen beetles whisking around it in a unusually excitable way, I wondered why.  The beetles usually prefer yellow flowers, whether daylilies or roses, yet here they were on these weird things.  The bumbles, feasting on the nectar of each floret seem, after a while, drunk, slow moving, then insensible, and sometimes even impaled on almost invisible blueish spines that protect every single floret.

It is odd, too, because they investigate and presumably sup from, from the mid-point flowers, in the sense that the flowers put forth tiny pale stigmas early in their development, and long before they put forth equally pale anthers but which, long stalked, hang well beyond any of the needle-like spines.  The bees could easily harvest the pollen without danger, yet there must be something in the nectar that drugs them…

Though the plants have been in the garden for many years, it never occurred to me to sniff such well defended flowers.  So, this morning, with care, I did.  A surprise: the lovely perfume has a dash of musk, a bit more of cloves, and a lot of vanilla.  Not strong for my nose, but obviously enough to pull in every bumble bee in the garden, and lure the beetles from Hyperion daylilies and Goldfinch roses.

The plant, should you not have it, likes open ground, light, almost any soil.  The first season’s leaves are green, not especially reptilian, and largely vanish over winter.  The plant flowers in the second season, then dies, leaving you with a quite outstanding skeleton.  If you want to sow seed, in late autumn run a blunt instrument over the by then blackish flower heads, and catch the falling seed in a newspaper.  Sow at once; the seed needs overwintering in soil to germinate the following spring.  Ideally, sow seed from whatever source two autumns running, so that you have flowers each summer.

The famous British gardener Gertrude Jekyll is supposed to have scattered a pinch of seed in each garden she visited, though as the seed remains encased in spiny membranes, that must have been a tricky thing to do with ease.  Anyway, the plant has become known as ‘Miss Jekyll’s ghost’.  She, too, was reputedly very prickly.  And if you want to find out why the bees are attracted, beware your nose.

Postscript:  today it rains and rains, yet there are still bees lying drugged amongst the spines.

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Tower Bridge and the Floating Gardens

Yes, they exist.  Yes, they are wonderful.  For the full article, see the page headings above.

Flowers and trees above, offices and workshops below, and the water of the Thames below that...

Flowers and trees above, offices and workshops below, and the water of the Thames below that…

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When plants switch cultures.

Thoughts brought on by a visit to London’s exquisite Chiswick House:

The first Chiswick House long demolished.  The second largely too.  This is really just a very lovely folly, built by Lord Burlington.  Some of the original garden plan and buildings remain.  Enchanting.

The first Chiswick House long demolished. The second largely too. This is really just a very lovely folly, built by Lord Burlington. Some of the original garden plan and buildings remain. Enchanting.

We were here to see the camellias, much vaunted in the press, and, well, of much interest.  Basically a Chinese enthusiasm stretching back century after century, they were discovered by European gardeners in the 18th century, and living plants began to reach the West late in the century, and early in the 19th.  The plants were misunderstood.  In China, they were essentially florists flowers, nurtured in pots, and brought into houses and courtyards  at their fullest beauty, admired, then grown on elsewhere until the following season.

At first hugely expensive in Europe, they were also thought not to be hardy.  Grand camellia houses were built or old-fashioned orangeries were adapted to keep them from the cold.  Chiswick got a purpose built camellia house in the 1820’s, got stocked up with lovely things, and, amazingly, some of the original plants still survive.DSCN7030However, gardeners here soon realised that the plants were cold tolerant, and therefore began to grow them outdoors as part of the shrubbery.  But the Chinese gardeners knew a thing or two…  However tough the plants, the flowers themselves are not especially cold tolerant, and both open flowers and buds get damaged by frost.  Many sorts, being very double, soon get soggy and rot after rain.  Strong sunlight burns the petals.  The flowers don’t easily drop once they are finished, hanging on the bushes in brown dereliction unless encouraged to fall.  The bushes are densely foliaged, and the leaves, polished and darkest green, show no form or variation of tone: in the open garden, big bushes make solid dark objects, dotted with splodges of white, or pinks, cerises, scarlets (or brown).  Perhaps ancient gardeners get too critical; as a very young person I visited the huge camellia plantings at the Villa Carlotta on Lake Como in northern Italy, and didn’t see any disadvantages, just finding the flowers to be totally, ravishingly, lovely.

The ones under glass at Chiswick, being such early introductions, are of historical importance.  So much so that they were rescued and rehabilitated by the International Camellia Society.  Most had lost their names, and the oldest, ‘Middlemist’s Red’, named after the nurseryman who first marketed it, would in any case have had a Chinese name in China, and perhaps a very ancient history too.  However, the loveliest are now given, presumably by the ICS, rather generic Latin variety names, along the lines of  ‘Elegans’ or ‘Imbricata’.


Camellia ‘Elegans’


Camellia ‘Imbricata’

More enticingly, the Chiswick plants are being propagated.  This is both brilliant and alarming.  Brilliant because the gardener can buy, and grow, a lovely piece of garden history.  Alarming because both camellia ‘Elegans’ and ‘Imbricata’ are so appallingly beautiful that  I must have them!  Better still, potted and shifted indoors for flowering, another of their qualities can be captured, for some are also fragrant.

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DSCN7063It’s not happened before.  It has often been expected, but the springs haven’t been, for many years, this complicated: summer for a week, suntan, breakfast outdoors, then … winter.  OK, I was expecting the forecast snow, but no clouds formed, stars glittered, temperature fell.  And this morning the astonishing display on the magnolias, the best ever, is no more.

The two trees, both supposedly the variety ‘Susan’, must be fifteen or sixteen years old.  They were leftovers of young ones from an avenue I’d designed for the bottom walk of a client’s walled garden.  The remnants got heeled in here, higgledy-piggledy, rather forgotten, until they began to flower two or three years later.  We fell in love with them, and so they remained, grew, hosted the rose Ispahan, which had decided it was a climber, clematises, and more.  Branches hang over the high wall, and into the cobbled lane down to the fields.

And the avenue?  It should have been looking enchanting.  The client, impatient for flowers, chopped them down.  Perhaps not as overwhelming as the magnolias that arch over the steps up from the Jousting Green at Dartington Hall, but fun nevertheless.  Ah well…

So far, the magnolias’ flowers seem the only casualty.  The apple blossom, buds still tiny and crimson, seems ok.  By the lower pool even the weird, vastly veined, and just unfurling leaves of Rogersia tabularis seem fine too, though the first ones usually get killed by late frosts.  A new fern, Dryopteris labordei, with golden leaves, and which we had planted next to a stand of narrow arching and equally golden leaves of ‘Bowles Golden’ carex, looks mortally offended. Also, ah well…DSCN7072

Still, the cold snap can’t last for too long.  I hope not anyway, for a blackbird couple have furnished a nest on top of the wood pile, and there are only half a dozen logs we can now remove without destablising the whole thing and causing the nest’s ruination.

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