When I lived in Ireland, decades ago, every few months I would ride south from my home north of Dublin Airport to the garden at Mount Usher in County Wicklow. Ride on a battered old motor bike, I should say, not cycle: it was 38 miles (61 Km).
One of the first articles I ever wrote was about Mount Usher, for The Irish Garden magazine, which is still going strong. I criticized the maintenance at the garden and was then myself severely criticized for doing so – most of the angry responses, I seem to recall, assumed that I was criticizing the garden itself when in fact it was the lack of care: I was dismayed to see wild brambles growing out of ornamental grasses.
So, naturally, the first chapter I looked up in this splendid new book, The Irish Garden by Jane Powers, was on Mount Usher and I was delighted to discover how well it still thrives – and it certainly seems to be well looked after (although a local spy tells me this may not be the case). I remember it especially for its quietly compelling atmosphere and the fact that, then, you could cross so close over the river and streams. I also remember it for its rare South American evergreen shrubs, including Crinodendron and Desfontainea, and for its impressive Eucryphia collection. It now contains, Jane tells us, over two dozen trees which are champions of all Britain and Ireland.
Having visited many of the gardens featured in the book, mostly long ago, I was very pleased to discover elements of familiar gardens that were new to me as well as to have remembered enthusiasms rekindled. It takes four hundred pages to cover almost sixty gardens from an island the size of South Carolina (America’s tenth smallest state) and this and the very large format allows the expansive photography by Jonathan Hession space to make a real impact and the essays space to be reflective as well as descriptive.
This is both a book for the far away voyeur and a before-you-visit book. If you never visit Ireland you’ll enjoy this book anyway. If you intend visiting Ireland, all the gardens are open to visitors and their websites listed.
The Irish Garden by Jane Powers, with photography by Jonathan Hession, is published by Frances Lincoln at £40/$60.
In recent years, Barnhaven Primroses, originally from Oregon and now in France (via England) have been branching out. Nothing dramatic, but alongside primroses they’ve been expanding their choice of other primulas and also added hellebores to their range.
One exceptional, and much underrated, plant they’ve been championing is Primula sieboldii and they’ve recently announced the availability of some lovely forms from Japan, including the double-flowered ‘Flamenco’ (above). They’ve been quietly been building up stock for some time.
This is an exceptional species, with fresh looking, bright, divided leaves and a flurry of up to ten spring flowers held on upright stems. Sound like a polyanthus? Yes, but so much more delicate and stylish.
In the wild, it’s a woodlander creeping through wet woods in Japan, Korea, China, Russia and, as the canopy closes, the foliage fades away. In summer I find it will take drought, although it’s worth remembering that the plants dislike lime. And it’s very hardy: USDA Z4, RHS H7.
The only problem is that with no sign of it above ground from late summer until mid or late spring, it’s easy to forget precisely where you planted it and attempt to plant something else in its space.
Our plants here in Pennsylvania came from the late and much lamented Seneca Hill Nursery in upstate NY and I always pick a few stems to bring indoors from the expanding clumps. Some of the clumps have expanded so much that they’ve escaped the borders, meandered under the boards supporting the raised bed and emerged on the path.
Lazy’s Farm now seems to have the best choice in the US but, in Europe, always start at Barnhaven. They have seventeen varieties of their own raising, including ‘Trade Winds’ (right, click to enlarge) and twelve Japanese varieties available as plants, including the lovely ‘Flamenco’ (top) and some delightful forms with white picotee edges to the flowers. Nine more varieties are available as seed.
Barnhaven will send seeds, and also plants, to the US, with a phytosanitary certificate at a cost of 11.43 euros. If customers have a small seed lots permit there is no phyto charge for sending seeds. [After six months I'm still waiting for my small seed lots permit...]
Perhaps people are disconcerted by the fact that the plants disappear for much of the year, or perhaps the intolerance of too much lime puts people off. But considering how easy they are to grow, we really don’t see them enough. They’re much easier to keep over the long term than the special varieties of primroses and polyanthus which so often seem to fade away after a few years.
In Japan, the heyday of Primula sieboldii was from the beginning of the 17th century to the mid 19th century but now Barnhaven and others are re-inventing them after so many varieties have been lost over the centuries. And it’s not as if they need careful cossetting and conditions it’s tough to provide. They’re easy… give them a go.
I like to bring the various ventures of family and friends to your attention here on the Transatlantic Gardener, whether they’re horticultural or not, and there’s a flurry of them coming this autumn. All are special in their different ways.
First off, published yesterday, is a collection of essays edited by our friend the indomitable Amy Ferris and including a contribution by my wife judywhite. Amy is the author of one of the most extraordinary memoirs of recent times, Marrying George Clooney, and of the screenplays for the movies Funny Valentines and Mr. Wonderful. judy began as a humor writer for Seventeen and other magazines, transitioned into writing about and photographing plants and gardens. In recent years she's shifted focus again, writing the script for the movie Lies I Told My Little Sister… More on that when it’s released next week.
This book is called Shades of Blue: Writers on Depression, Suicide, and Feeling Blue – and the first thing to say is this is NOT a book that will make you feel worse. As Laura Davis, bestselling author of I Thought We’d Never Speak Again says in her review: “These compelling tales of depression aren’t depressing—they are emblazoned with hope—because every person in this book is a survivor. A survivor who doesn’t flinch from explaining exactly how they climbed out of their own personal pit of despair. How they chose life.” judy's piece is both agonizing, and funny.
With tenderness and tragedy, thirty five writers lay themselves bare, revealing a series of stories to inspire and hearten us, however close we’ve come to the desolation they describe. And, be assured, there are laughs, too.
Shades of Blue: Writers on Depression, Suicide, and Feeling Blue edited by Amy Ferris is published by Seal Press.
Find out more at the Seal Press website
The arrival of four new and recently published books, and the success of another, highlights an interesting trend. Locally focused books seem to be coming to the fore.
Victoria Summerley, my friend from my days as Gardening Correspondent at the London Evening Standard, reports on Facebook that her book Secret Gardens of the Cotswolds, published last winter, is the third best-selling garden book out of all those published in Britain this year – which is impressive for a book on a small, though picturesque and very well gardened, part of the country. Of course, it helps that it’s good.
And in my latest parcels of review copies come more books with a local focus. Month-by-Month Gardening: Pennsylvania, Garden Plants for Scotland the sumptuous The Irish Garden, as well as the stately Oxford College Gardens.
Month-by-Month Gardening: Pennsylvania by Liz Ball and George Weigel belongs on every Pennsylvania gardener’s shelf, especially in this revised and re-organized new edition. It will be all that many weekend gardeners need. There are companion volumes for most of the other states across the nation and, in a country where the climate varies so much from one state to the next, these locally focused books are invaluable.
Kenneth Cox has spent many years campaigning for the recognition of Scotland as different, horticulturally, from the rest of Britain. He instigated the creation of the Scottish Gardenplant Award to recognize plants specially suited to Scottish conditions. This revised edition of Garden Plants For Scotland describes the 500 winners of the Scottish Gardenplant Award and thousands of others suited to Scottish conditions.
These two books clearly have little use beyond their field of focus. Not so The Irish Garden. From the husband-and-wife team of Jane Powers, Gardening Correspondent for the Sunday Times in Ireland and previously at The Irish Times, and Jonathan Hession, who turned from photographing movies during shooting to landscapes.
Jane’s blend of historical and contemporary insight is ideal applied to gardens in country that has been through so much varied change over the centuries and her eye for the quirky is invaluable. More about The Irish Garden another time.
Oxford College Gardens from Tim Richardson, with photography by Andrew Lawson, features a great deal of architecture along with the gardens which vary from the impressive (including Magdalen and Worcester) to the unremarkable (Keble, St Hilda’s); of course, they all must be included but space is allocated accordingly.
Tim’s impeccable historical research and judgment predominate. He’s always interesting and not afraid to be critical. But once you’re inspired to visit some of these gardens there’s provides no guidance as to when, or if, these college gardens can be visited or how to find out - apart from remarking on “the strictures and opening time eccentricities of the colleges”.
The Irish Garden is a great example of how a book with limited focus can have universal appeal, Month-by-Month Gardening: Pennsylvania is a fine example of local book for local readers. More about The Irish Garden soon.
North American gardeners
Order Secret Gardens of the Cotswolds by Victoria Summerley (published by Frances Lincoln)
Order The Irish Garden by Jane Powers (published by Frances Lincoln)
Order Oxford College Gardens by Tim Richardson (published by Frances Lincoln)
Order Month-by-Month Gardening: Pennsylvania by Liz Ball and George Weigel (published by Cool Springs Press)
British and Irish gardeners
Order Secret Gardens of the Cotswolds by Victoria Summerley (published by Frances Lincoln)
Order The Irish Garden by Jane Powers (published by Frances Lincoln)
Order Oxford College Gardens by Tim Richardson (published by Frances Lincoln)
Order Garden Plants For Scotland by Kenneth N. E. Cox and Raoul Curtis Machin (published by Frances Lincoln)
There’s been a great deal of controversy about whether native plants are best for pollinating insects or whether non-native garden plants are just as valuable. On the whole, the debate has been informed by more opinion than science but, after a four year research project at their Wisley garden near London, the Royal Horticultural Society has the answer. This is the first ever designed field experiment to test whether the geographical origin (‘nativeness’) of garden plants affects the abundance and diversity of invertebrates (wildlife) they support.
“Until now the role native and non-native plants play in sustaining wildlife in gardens has been unclear and confusing,” say the lead researchers on the project Dr Andrew Salisbury and Helen Bostock. “Now, for the first time, gardeners can access robust, evidence-based information on the most effective planting strategy they can adopt if they wish to attract and support pollinators.”
Over on her Plants For Bugs blog, Helen Bostock summarizes the three main conclusions of the research (her emphasis in bold).
“1. The best strategy for gardeners wanting to support pollinating insects in gardens is to plant a mix of flowering plants from different countries and regions.
“2. Emphasis should be given to plants native to the UK and the northern hemisphere, though exotic plants from the southern hemisphere can be used to extend the season (there are a greater proportion of exotic plants flowering later in the season compared to UK native and northern hemisphere plants) and provide nectar and pollen for some specific pollinators. (Left, Verbena bonariensis from South America)
“3. Regardless of plant origin (native or non-native), the more flowers a garden can offer throughout the year, the greater the number of bees, hoverflies and other pollinating insects it will attract and support.”
So there you have it, research at the RHS (part of the research area above, click to enlarge) the best way to encourage pollinating insects is to “plant a mix of flowering plants from different countries and regions” – and not to rely only on native species.
Supported by the Wildlife Gardening Forum, this is exactly the sort of research we need to demonstrate the proven realities of an issue which has been dominated by the trading of opinions such as “Native plants will attract more native pollinators” masquerading as facts.
Let’s hope the RHS team will soon be looking at the relative importance of native and non-native plants in providing food for those larvae of native insects which do not require specific native plant species on which to feed – for although the point is pretty much proved in Jennifer Owen’s Wildlife of a Garden, it would be good to have research on the same scale this newly published RHS research to make the point.
* You can read the full details of the RHS research online in the Journal of Applied Ecology.
* Take a look at the latest addition to the RHS guidance on Plants For Pollinators based on this research.
* Read the background to the research and how it was done.
In the first waves of enthusiasm for heucheras, back in the 1930s and then the 1950s, it was the flowers that were key and in fact many varieties were developed specifically as commercial cut flowers.
More recently, of course, foliage has been the thing and an astonishing range of foliage colors and patterns has been developed although many have poor flowers which are best snipped away.
So, obviously, the next thing was to bring the two features together. ‘Rave On’ is pretty good in combining good foliage with good flowers, but flowering tails off as spring passes. But, so far, ‘Berry Timeless’ (left, click to enlarge) really does look the part - even if the name is a bit corny.
OK, this is its first season on trial here but it’s clear that its bright silver foliage with minty green veins makes a lovely low dense mound. The flowers open in pale pink and fade to richer tones and, unlike the flowers many heucheras, they don’t fall off. Even while the little green seed capsules are developing the dusky reddish pink flowers are still colorful.
It’s now August and there’s plenty of old flowers, new flowers and buds still on the plants (right, click to enlarge). And there’s another thing about the flowers: the length of bare stem below the flowers is relatively short so the flowers sit just above the leaves without a long length of bare stem in between. That’s a feature that really improves the look of the plant.
Developed by Walters Gardens in Michigan rather than the heuchera hatchery that is Terra Nova Nurseries, where most new heucheras originate; look out for more from them in the future.
Nurseries and plant breeders plunder a huge range of sources when dreaming up names for their new plants. Gone are the days of ‘Purple Prince’ and ‘Snow Queen’, most of the names in that traditional style have already been used – and you can’t use the same name twice for the same kind of plant. So new names are in constant demand.
One of the most popular tricks is to adapt a familiar phrase, often by creating a groaning pun – which may, or may not, have some relation to the plant itself. Here are a few examples from books, music and films.
Pulmonaria ‘Dark Vader’
We all know Darth Vader from Star Wars - not a very nice person. Indeed he’s become a popular symbol of evil. So it seems odd to adapt his name and attach it to a plant in the hope, presumably, that it will help sales.
Pulmonaria ‘Dark Vader’ (left, click to enlarge) is a lungwort developed by Dan Heims at Terra Nova Nurseries in Oregon and is known, depending who you ask, for its silver spotted, dark green foliage or its flowers which open pink and then turn dark blue. Neither the foliage nor the flowers seem especially dark to me - and certainly bear no relation to the black of Darth Vader’s costume - although its many months of brightly spotted foliage and its prolific spring flowering make it a valuable shade garden perennial. It was introduced in 1999 although ‘Cotton Cool’, introduced the same year, is a better plant and much more popular. Most of the other pulmonarias Dan introduced that year are no longer grown.
Pulmonaria ‘Spotted Dick’ (Yes, really!) I’ll get to this another time but, in the meantime, if anyone has a picture of this variety please let me know!
Tomato ‘Sweetheart Of The Patio’
Sweetheart Of The Rodeo was sixth album by American rock band The Byrds, and their first to fully embrace country music. Released in 1968, to this day it remains an iconic country rock album. It’s simply wonderful.
‘Sweetheart Of The Patio’ is a semi-trailing patio tomato for containers developed by John Burrows at Pro-Veg seeds near Cambridge, England. It is known for its early fruit set, its prolific crop of 1in/2.5cm fruits and especially its resistance to late blight disease. It’s closely related to the All America Selections winner ‘Lizzano’ and has been popular in the US since its introduction a few years ago.
Chili Pepper ‘Born To Be Mild’
Born To Be Wild was a single released by the American rock band Steppenwolf in 1968. It was written by the splendidly named Mars Bonfire – who previously went by Dennis Edmonton and before that Dennis Eugene McCrohan. Obviously, if you want to be a rock ‘n’ roll star, Dennis Eugene McCrohan doesn’t really cut it. Mars Bonfire is much more like it, and a pretty good name for a hot chili pepper, actually.
Anyway, Chili Pepper ‘Born To Be Mild’ is a slim, 3in/7.5cm long pepper with all the flavor of a jalapeno but none of the heat.
Heuchera ‘Grape Expectations’
Here, the name of the Charles Dickens classic has undergone a clumsy metamorphosis and been applied to a new heuchera with grape-colored foliage (right, in June, click to enlarge) and the failed expectation that it will retain that that rich coloring all summer. In fact, while grapey in spring and early summer and in fall, it turns silver in between.
Developed at Walters Gardens, MI and available retail next year, Walters have also developed the red-flowered ‘Berry Timeless’ so we can see where they’re going with naming their names. In the same style, there’s also Ilex verticillata Berry Heavy (‘Spravy’) and Berry Nice (‘Spriber’), selected by Dale Deppe at Spring Meadow Nurseries, MI.
As it happens, ‘Berry Timeless’ is proving to be an exceptional plant in its first year in the garden. More about that next time.
Slug resistant hostas? Yes, well, maybe…
Anyone who writes anything about hostas usually ends up saying that some varieties are slug resistant. But let’s stop right there: what do we mean by “resistant”? Well, we don’t mean immune, that’s for sure. What we mean is that they’re far less likely to be eaten than other hostas, that’s all.
These are varieties that have unusually thick and heavily textured leaves that the slugs struggle to munch through. They’re often related to the old favorite H. sieboldiana ‘Elegans’ and many of them have blue foliage.
Now, I was looking for a hosta for my daughter Lizzie’s small town garden recently. And slugs are definitely a problem. So, I took a look at the huge range on sale at the Plant Centre at the RHS garden at Wisley near London and picked out one I didn't know, ‘Brother Ronald’. The foliage is really tough and leathery, it’s a lovely puckered blue color and it doesn’t get too big. Ideal.
It turned out that it was raised by Britain’s only notable hosta breeder, Eric Smith, who also raised ‘Halcyon’, ‘Hadspen Blue’ and others that often hold their own against slugs. What’s more, I discovered that hosta wizard Mark Zilis marks it as “slug-resistant” in his superb Hosta Handbook.
Well, a couple of days later I had an email from Lizzie. You can see what happened (above). Too many starving slugs.
Here in Pennsylvania, we have not one slug bite on a hosta this year, in spite of the wet season. – although last night’s roof rattling thunderstorm has punched a few holes in one or two. But of course we have frogs and snakes around to help keep the slugs under control.
Diana Grenfell published a list of ten slug resistant hostas in her excellent book, A Gardeners Guide to Growing Hostas. She recommended: ‘Blue Umbrellas’, ‘Fragrant Gold’, ‘Green Sheen’, H. hypoleuca, ‘Invincible’, ‘Krossa Regal’, ‘Leather Sheen’, H. sieboldiana forms, ‘Silvery Slugproof’ and ‘Sum and Substance’. A good choice.
In my Encyclopedia of Perennials, I included a longer list of slug-resistant hostas that I and Mark Zilis put together. It included most of Diana Grenfell’s list plus: ‘Abiqua Drinking Gourd’, ‘Big Daddy’, ‘Blue Angel’, ‘Blue Dimples’, ‘Blue Mammoth’(above, good with us), ‘Blue Moon’, ‘Blue Wedgewood’, ‘Dorset Blue’, ‘Fragrant Bouquet’, ‘Gold Edger’, ‘Gold Regal’, ‘Great Expectations’ (great for us in PA), ‘Hadspen Blue’, ‘Halcyon’ (good with us), ‘June’ (below, good with us), ‘Love Pat’, ‘Northern Exposure’, ‘Sagae’, ‘Sea Lotus Leaf’, ‘Spilt Milk’, H. tokudama forms and ‘Zounds’.
I wonder if any of these recommended hostas can take the pressure that finished off ‘Brother Ronald’?
Order the Gardeners’ Guide to Growing Hostas in North America.
As I mentioned here recently, there’s a plan to change the classic botanical name of the Welsh poppy, Meconopsis cambrica. Chris Grey-Wilson, the world’s leading expert on Meconopsis, first proposed the idea of restricting the name Meconopsis to the Himalayan poppies in the botanical journal Taxon in 2012. He repeats the suggestion in his stunning new monograph on Meconopsis, which was published recently, and proposes a new botanical name for the Welsh poppy.
Actually, what he says, basically, is this: if you apply all the legitimate and agreed botanical rules, the Welsh poppy is in fact the only true Meconopsis. All the Himalayan blue poppies that have captured our imagination for so long are, botanically, so very different that they need a genus of their own. Fair enough.
But, because all the blue poppies are so fabulous and so well known to gardeners, we should call them Meconopsis and call the Welsh poppy something else. Technically, the Welsh poppy should probably be put back into the genus Papaver, where our old friend Carl Linnaeus first assigned it back in 1753. But, for various botanical reasons I needn’t go into, that would mess up the taxonomy of the seventy or so other species of Papaver. So Christopher suggests creating a new generic name: Parameconopsis. The Welsh poppy would become Parameconopsis cambrica.
He says that continuing to call the Welsh poppy Meconopsis cambrica and creating a new name for all the others “would be widely deplored in the botanical and horticultural worlds”. I wonder…
I’m entirely happy to accept that the two need to be separated. But, frankly, it sounds to me as if he simply wants to give the everyday, easy-to-grow, self-sows-everywhere plant a new name and retain the well known name for the tricky-to-grow ones with all the exotic and romantic Himalayan associations.
So I thought it would be interesting to see what the Welsh thought about all this and I asked Simon Goodenough, Curator of Horticulture at The National Botanic Garden of Wales.
“The Meconopsis debate has begun here in Wales,” he told me, “and there are a number of people who disagree with the idea of changing the botanical name of the Welsh poppy. However, I think changing its name will be a great opportunity to raise its status as a unique plant and one which Welsh botanists, gardeners and the people of Wales can be proud of. The National Botanic Garden of Wales will celebrate this change, however it plays out.” So, “always look on the bright side” is the message. Rather clever, actually…
As I said, it’s not the first time the Welsh poppy has had a change of name. Our old friend Carl Linnaeus named it Papaver cambricum back in 1753, but then in 1814 a botanist called Louis Viguier separated it out into a genus of its own. You see why here. It’s also been classified as an Argemone, a Cerastites and a Stylophorum – but let’s not dig all that up. Now, it’s going to be Parameconopsis cambrica. But I have the feeling that when someone finally takes a good long look at the whole poppy family it might be on the move again.
Oh, and in case you’re wondering… Gardeners in Britain and in North America can order seven different forms of the Welsh poppy, whatever its botanical name, from Plant World Seeds - including this double orange.
Guest blog by judywhite
I was in Bentonville, Arkansas recently, my first time in that state, and the first time in the town where Walmart got its start. It today dominates the landscape, culture and mindset. The drama-comedy film I wrote, "Lies I Told My Little Sister," had been chosen an Official Selection of Geena Davis' inaugural film festival, Bentonville Film Festival (BFF) and I was invited for the events.
What I did not expect – until I read up on Bentonville before going – was that a world-class museum opened there on 11/11/11. Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art was made possible by Alice Walton, daughter of Walmart founder Sam, and it is truly a spectacular building surrounded by spectacular grounds, all free to the public. I was there for the opening party and a lot of BFF panels on women & diversity (the festival's theme), and saw Robert De Niro and Rosie O'Donnell and of course Geena, among other A-list celebs, but managed to miss the museum art itself until I went back later specifically.
I went to see a big flower. In a painting that has always been one of my favorites. The amazing, huge work of iconic art called "Jimson Weed, White Flower No. 1" is a 48in x 40in oil on canvas painted in 1932 by my favorite artist, Georgia O'Keeffe. It was purchased by the museum last November, possibly to help put it on the map, because it brought the highest price ever paid for a work of art by a female artist - $44.4 million at Sotheby's for a Datura stramonium.
Deservedly, the Jimson Weed has its own room, on a huge green wall emblazoned with a quote: “I said to myself, I’ll paint what I see, what the flower is to me but I’ll paint it big and they will be surprised into taking time to look at it.” –Georgia O’Keeffe “About Myself,” 1939
Walmart's Bentonville is a surreal setting for a high-class film festival, and a surprising setting for the Jimson Weed. The museum's other acquisitions make for a simple curation arranged by year, usually with only one example of each American artist's work. There are actually three other pieces by O'Keeffe here, all minor, dwarfed literally and figuratively by the white flower on the wall opposite them. And during a film festival dedicated to championing women, despite the presence of such stars as De Niro and Courtney Cox and Nick Cannon and Bruce Dern, it was only the great Georgia O'Keeffe, now the most sought-after female artist in the world, who truly took my breath away.