The silence in the garden was a bit eerie. No buzzing. Well, an occasional bumblebee, and lots of hoverflies, but not that comforting background buzz from the apple trees as honey bees harvested pollen and nectar.
The very first bee, a singleton, was working not the apples, but the plant in the header, a herbaceous vetch called Lathyrus aureus. It’s a lovely thing – an unusual colour for the time of year with its rusty orange, happy in dense surrounding vegetation (a ‘must’ in our garden), and, obviously, a pull for bees. No perfume. The flowers are followed by purplish seed pods. Harvest the seeds, and sow. You can soon have plenty more. However, the seeds must be worth eating because unless you sow them yourself, you’ll get almost no new plants. The one in the photograph is the only self-sown plant in fifteen seasons.
It’s not the first vetch of the season. First in flower is the enchanting Lathyrus vernus – flowers a slightly lurid mix of blue and intense purple. It seems to come in two leaf forms, as you can see – one with broad, one with narrow, leaflets.
If you fancy rarities, there’s a nice pink and white flowered form (though its supposed not to come true from seed – I’ve not yet managed to check), and a pure white one, rather reluctant to grow and not particularly generous with its flowers.
Other good vetches are the powerfully clambering Lathyrus latifolius, sometimes called the ‘everlasting sweet pea’, with flowers in sharp pink, in white, and in intermediates. It’s easy from seed, doesn’t spread, but doesn’t smell either alas, and makes a good thing up wire fences.
With a good smell, though invasive in the garden (you might well not mind), and with a couple of large flowers for each flower stalk, is the old cottage favourite Lathyrus grandiflorus. It, too, can make a good summer screening plant, though once you’ve got it, you have it forever. I’ve not seen its seed pods, but if friends want a piece, a rooted stem will do the business.
It’s not the most subtle pink in the garden. A vetch that is, with a lovely garnet-rusty-red flower, a great harmonic thing when climbing through shrub roses of almost any colour, is Lathyrus rotundifolius. Seize seed when you can. I’ve not once managed to get it to germinate, and I have yet another pot on the windowsill which I view every morning hoping for a sign of life. So far, again, nothing. Maddening, as its annual relatives have given no trouble.
And the bees? There’s a bit more buzz in the garden over the last few days, but most of the fruit trees – bar the maddeningly late apple ‘court plat pendu’, which we grow because it’s supposed to be an ancient Roman variety – are finished. Nevertheless, in spite of a beeless spring, the fruit set is fine. The plums are going to be weighted down, all the apples seem as if they too will yield. Elsewhere, my sister’s cherries, pears and damson are laden… We’ve not checked the trees in Lincolnshire… Even so, something must have been pollinating, unless bees have learnt not to buzz, or have become entirely nocturnal.