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.

About david stuart

garden writer and journalist, and occasionally a designer, with a garden in the Scottish borders, and his pal's gardens in Edinburgh, London, and Lincolnshire. They keep both of us very, very busy. Books I've written listed on my website, and dozens of articles and garden and plant pictures. Currently working on several new projects. One of these was to return to painting - see the blog - and which is proving exciting! www.david-stuart.co.uk or, more fun, have a look at www.pinterest.com/davidcstuart
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