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December 2006

Christmas flowers in London

Over the Christmas holiday we’re staying with my daughter Lizzie in Kingston-upon-Thames, on the southern edge of London not far from Henry the Eighth’s Hampton Court Palace. It’s the place where the Saxon kings of England were crowned, we just walked past the stone on which they were crowned on the way back from dinner this evening. And today I took a short walk.

I walked round the block where Lizzie lives and noted everything in flower in her neighbours' front gardens. It’s an area of semi-detached, brick houses built in the 1890s (duplex town houses to American readers, I think) with tiny front gardens. The number of plants in flower was amazing. Here is the list: Aster novi-belgii cultivar, Brachyglottis (Senecio) ‘Sunshine’, Calendula cv, Campanula poscharskyana, C. portenschlagiana, Centranthus ruber, Choisya ternata, C. ternata ‘Sunrise’, Convolulus sabatius, Cornus alba ’Sibirica’, Corydalis lutea, Cyclamen persicum cv, Dahlia ‘Bishop of Llandaff’, Escallonia cv, Fuchsia (various bedding types), Hebe (six different), Hypericum ‘Hidcote’, Impatiens cv, Jasminum nudiflorum, Kerria japonica ‘Flore Pleno’, Kniphofia cv, Lamium maculatum, Lobelia (trailing bedding type), Lobularia maritima (Alyssum) cv, Lonicera periclymenum, Mahonia ‘Charity’, Nicotiana alata, Pelargonium ( “geraniums” - more than a dozen different ivy-leaved and zonal types), Primula (five hybrid primroses and polyanthus), Prunus subhirtella ‘Autumnalis’, Rosa (seven garden roses of various kinds, including ‘Iceberg’ with leaves, flowers and hips), Solanum laxum (S. jasminoides ‘Album’), Viburnum x bodnantense, Vinca difformis, Viola (many different pansies).

If you count all the different cultivars, it comes to well over sixty – in just three or four hundred yards.

Many were hangovers from summer, a few were spring flowers feeling precocious. The most interesting, in many ways, was the dogwood, Cornussibirica500 Cornus alba ‘Sibirica’. Normally, it’s showing off its naked, bright red stems at this time of year. But it was more or less in full leaf, and in flower, and it also carried a couple of bunches of white berries! Its stems were less bright than usual because they were shaded by all the leaves!

Normally, only about three or four of these would be in flower at the end of December. It’s certainly been a strange season.

The world famous RHS Wisley bookshop

Back in England, and straight off the plane in London and off to the Royal Horticultural Society’s bookshop at their garden at Wisley in Surrey (just outside London, on the south side, for those across the Atlantic). I was there to sign copies of the British edition of the Encyclopedia of Perennials which, I’m delighted to say, is their top selling title in the run up to Christmas.

Wisleybookshop1 This is the most stupendous gardening bookshop – you’ll never see so many books on plants, gardens and wild flowers in one place. They have other books too, and a vast range of garden related gifts. And you can buy plants in the Wisley Plant Centre right next door. And of course there’s the world famous garden… The whole bookshop has recently gone online so now anyone, anywhere in the world, can take advantage of this unsurpassed range of garden books. Just click here.

Two other RHS books are in the top five sellers at the RHS Bookshop at Wisley this holiday season: the RHS Treasury of Flowers, an anthology edited by American Charles Elliott, and the latest edition of the venerable RHS Encyclopedia of Plants and Flowers. The Winter Garden by Val Bourne, which I’ll be reviewing in the New Year, is also in the top five along with The Curious Gardener's Almanac - Centuries of Practical Garden Wisdom.

Christmas roses - at Christmas or even before

Josephlemper500 A hellebore arrived in the mail yesterday. It’s a sample of a new Christmas rose, Helleborus niger ‘HGC Joseph Lemper’, bred in Germany by Joseph Heuger and distributed in the US as part of their Gold Collection by the good people at Yoder. As well as being the world’s largest chrysanthemum breeders they’re continuing to expand into other areas. It’s a lovely little thing, just coming into flower.

Of course, it’s been growing in a greenhouse. But a larger plant I brought back from Yoder in the summer opened its first flower out in the garden ten days ago, on a plant that’s been outside since spring. Will it flower outside every Christmas, here in north east Pennsylvania? That remains to be seen…

Russell Graham, a hellebore enthusiast Oregon, where of course it’s much warmer than here in Pennsylvania, has been on the trail of Christmas roses that really do flower at Christmas for six years and has been gathering early flowering plants from nurseries and from other enthusiasts. He had some in flower at Thanksgiving this year but plants have to prove themselves in a variety of different seasons.

Joshua500Another new Christmas rose from Yoder is ‘Joshua’ which the breeder says is the earliest, flowering in Germany in November. It also opened a flower on 5 December in my garden and ‘Edelweiss’, which I got from Edelweiss Perennials in Oregon in the spring, has been in bud for weeks and is also finally about to open its first flower.

But there’s another thing I noticed about ‘Joseph Lemper’ - the flowers face upward (as you'll see clearly if you click on the image above). Now this may be because of its cozy spell in the greenhouse or it may be a feature of this variety but it’s both a good thing and a bad thing. The flowers make more of an impact as you look down on them, but they also collect every drop of moisture and encourage the petals to rot. It will be interesting to see if the upward facing flowers are a consistent feature, year after year, as it’s not mentioned in the breeder’s description. ‘Joseph Lemper’ is small and neat in both foliage and flower, it looks a lot like ‘White Magic’ that I used to grow in England. I’ll be watching it with interest. And if you have a Christmas rose, Helleborus niger, that reliably flowers at Christmas click Comment below and tell us about it. I, and Russ, will be very interested.

You can find out more about these new Christmas roses, which will be available, in flower, in garden centers and nurseries in the US in the fall of 2007, at the breeder’s website. You can also download a pdf of information on the Yoder Gold Collection, and another on their Immanence Collection, also from of Lenten Roses, H. x hybridus, also bred by Joseph Heuger, from here. And there’s more on H. niger on my own hellebore pages.

In the meantime we can have a good laugh at the ludicrous “legend” quoted in the PR material. I give it here, in full: “One of the many legends surrounding Christmas rose tells the story of a young shepherdess who wants to visit the Christ child. She is very sad because she is poor and has no gift to bring him. An angel sees her crying and touches the snow-covered ground at her feet. The first Christmas rose springs up, and the shepherdess now has a very special gift to bring to the baby Jesus.”

Oh, please… What nonsense! There are all sorts of versions of this story but let’s just be clear. The Christmas rose grows nowhere near Bethlehem and never has. I’d say the nearest wild plants are about 1,400 miles away, not far from the Mediterranean in Croatia. Great piece of PR, though…

Why are trout lilies called trout lilies?

One theory is that they’re reckoned to open their flowers when the trout fishing season starts in the spring. Hmmm… surely trout lilies would have acquired their name back at a time when there were no official fishing seasons and people just went fishing when they were hungry?

The other reason offered is that the prettily marked trout lily leaves resemble the speckled flanks of a trout – which gives me an excuse to slip in a picture (click the image to enlarge) of this splendid fish Troutdecember9500 I caught this week in our lake. Five pounds, perhaps a little more, I’d guess. And safely returned to the water – much to the astonishment of my more hard-hearted gastronomic friends.

I suppose you could stretch a point, both fish and foliage are prettily patterned… and the trout lily does often grow along river banks; my trout lily picture was taken about six feet from the water. The other trout lily question, of course is why do we so often see great sheets of pretty foliage in the wild with hardly a flower?

I’m told that Dr Fred Case, author of a superb book on trilliums, has the answer. Growing by riversides, and on woody slopes, the trout lily, Erythronium americanum, has to cope Erythroniumamericanum500 with the fact that riverflow or water runoff may wash away the soil. So it tends to sink its bulb deeper and deeper to prevent them too being washed away. But the bulbs may then end up so deep that they don’t have the energy to send both leaf and flower above ground, And if river silt and leaf litter are not washed away and build up over the bulbs, the shoots must struggle even harder to reach the light.

In the garden they just grow deeper and deeper and flower less and less. So the way to encourage them to flower is to plant them over a wide flat stone so that the bulbs cannot drop down deep.

And the way to catch a five pound trout in December with ice around the edges of the lake, is to fish slow and deep with a large lure.

Italian arums – fantastic late foliage

Invasive man’s excellent Invasive Plants in Arlington blog (that’s Virginia, near Washington DC, for you Brits) recently highlighted a plant that may well prove a problem in his area. Italian arum, Arum italicum, is a delightful foliage and fruiting plant which he notes has appeared in the park at the Long Branch Nature Center and he’s worried about it becoming invasive. He may be right to be concerned, it could well prove to be a problem there, but his observation also highlights the fact that citing a plant as invasive is, well, not cut-and-dried.

Both in my garden in Northamptonshire, England, and up here in north east Pennsylvania I’ve been growing a number of cultivars of Arum italicum – indeed this is quite a hot plant with new introductions appearing in mail order nursery lists every year. Seneca Hill Perennials, from where a number of mine came, has an especially good range. They’re invaluable tuberous-rooted perennials, with beautifully patterned foliage in fall and winter followed by fat spikes of sparkling red berries. ‘White Winter’ is a firm favorite in Britain and growing in popularity in North America too.

Mcclements400Arum italicum is a rare British native and, in gardens, the brightly white-veined, arrowhead-shaped foliage is a feature all winter. It’s also escaped from gardens outside its native range on the British south coast but is never a problem. Here in Pennsylvania in zone 5, many forms seem to be hardy in the garden which is perhaps a surprise for a plant centered on a Mediterranean distribution; Britain, in zone 8, is at the northern edge of its range.

Goldrush400 But a recent dramatic overnight temperature drop to 0F/-18C has separated the men amongst the cultivars from the boys here in PA. Most looked pretty sad on that chilly morning with their foliage flat on the ground but have perked up well. ‘McLement’s Form’, photographed yesterday, is especially well marked with black spots as well as bold white veins and has recovered well. ‘Gold Rush’ features additional yellow markings on large leaves and still stands out. Jetblackwonder400 ‘Jet Black Wonder’, from Plant Delights, however, has never recovered and most of its foliage remains collapsed even after yesterday’s 50F/10C . Not exactly a star here at this time of year.

So these varieties which carry appealing foliage color into winter are invaluable. But will they prove invasive here in PA, where they overwinter but are not vigorous? I doubt it. And in colder areas? Highly unlikely. So when we cite a plant as invasive, we need to qualify our remark by saying where. And when we come across an introduced plant in the wild, let’s not instantly assume it’s going to blot out the native vegetation everywhere – “it’s not native so it must be invasive,” as I’ve heard said, is simply preposterous.

A non-native may prove troublesome, in which case we must take steps to deal with the problem. But if it simply settles down, becomes naturalized and behaves itself – so what? Invasive Man says he’s out with his weed whacker to wipe out the arums and as the plant is said to be “all over the place in one wetland in Rock Creek National Park” (which is nearby) maybe he’s right. But if a seedling turns up along the roadside outside my garden then I’m not going to whack it. I’ll just keep an eye on it.

I’m simply going to admire the unexpected cold-hardiness of many forms of these Italian arums and value their presence in the garden at a time of year when some interesting foliage color is so valuable.

Holiday garden books – 3: Hellebores

Helleborescbjtslant Having written two books on hellebores myself, I'm well placed to assess a new book on these essential winter and spring flowers by other writers and I have to say that Hellebores C. Colston Burrell and Judith Knot Tyler is invaluable.

Thirteen years have passed since my book on hellebores (see below left), written with pioneering hellebore breeder Elizabeth Strangman, was published during which time their development has been rapid and their popularity has grown enormously. This excellent American book, by a leading hellebore breeder and a leading garden writer, brings us up to date.

Grounded in a thorough treatment of the wild species based on studies in the wild and cultivation in gardens, their coverage reflects the latest thinking. The descriptions are clear, thorough and not obscured by too much technical language.

The increasing number of hybrids between species, some extremely surprising, are discussed and illustrated while the treatment of the vast variety of forms of H. x hybridus steers a commendably realistic course. There is no long descriptive list of cultivars, so few of which are actually available. Instead there are fascinating accounts of the work of a range of breeders and growers from both sides of the Atlantic. Readers will be impressed by recent achievements in North America building on earlier work in Britain. This generous inclination to recognize the work of other enthusiasts on both sides of the Atlantic is a striking feature of the whole book.

There are chapters on practicalities, advice on breeding and two hellebore problems are specifically addressed which have long provoked questions – “black death” disease, and cutting hellebores for the house. New research outlines how best to treat cut hellebores and for the first time clearly identifies the cause of the notorious “black death” and suggests preventative measures.

This comprehensive yet highly readable book, taking our knowledge of all aspects of hellebores a significant step further, is well illustrated by thoughtfully chosen shots of plants in the wild, in gardens, of selected cut flowers and foliage, and of practical matters. It being American in origin should not deter British readers, and American readers at last have their very own hellebore book. Indeed every hellebore enthusiast needs this book – and doesn’t that cover most gardeners? You can order Hellebores in North America here, and in Britain here.

[A version of this review appeared previously in The Garden magazine.]

Why a Blue Tit?

Aaldbluetit Today I received this postcard from the American Academy of Landscape Design (AALD), a professional development organization for landscape design professionals based in Glenville, IL. They run design courses in the quiet winter season, aiming to raise the skills, confidence, knowledge, and professionalism of American landscape designers. A laudable aim indeed and their courses look excellent. But their publicity postcard sent out to members of the American Garden Writers Association to increase interest in the Academy features a British bird.

The Blue Tit (it’s short for titmouse) is an iconic British garden bird, one of Britain’s favorites and a close relation of the American chickadee. It’s usually the first bird to find a new bird feeder and is famous (for the benefit of younger and American readers) for learning to peck through the tinfoil that is still sometimes used to seal milk bottles delivered to British doorsteps to get at the cream. Delightful bird, and it’s a lovely picture of one making its valuable contribution to spring pest control. (You can find out more about blue tits here and listen to its song here.) But what’s it doing publicizing the AALD? Are there no American birds that would have made an attractive postcard?

Holiday garden books – 2: Late Summer Flowers

Marina Late Summer Flowers by Marina Christopher is, I think, the first ever book on perennials for this sometimes difficult and frustrating season, a season between the summer finery and fall foliage colour which is rarely the subject of special focus. Marina runs Phoenix Perennial Plants, a superb nursery in Hampshire (southern England) - but, I'm sorry to say, a nursery without a website although you'll find details here. She also runs practical courses where she passes on the experience that she’s accumulated over the years working with plants.

Her passion for these plants and her practical experience run through this book like seams of gold and it's not just that she's grown and propagated them - but she thinks about what she's doing and develops her feelings about them and her techniques. And then she spills it all in this valuable book.

Her writing is direct, and her wisdom on how to associate these late season flowers with each other for the best effect encourages us all to integrate more late flowers into our borders or, if we have space, set aside an area specifically where late summer flowers can dazzle us as do flowers of earlier in the season. And it’s not just a paean to chrysanthemums and asters – we all know about those but there are so many other recommendations here.

Marina, a colleague in judging the Royal Horticultural Society’s trials, is of course British but her book has wider value as evidenced by this recommendation from Valerie Easton in The Seattle Times. Goodness, I almost forgot – there are also great pictures from Steven Wooster. You can buy the book in North America here, and in Britain here.

Holiday garden books – 1: The Well-Tended Perennial Garden

OK, the holidays are coming… so as well as suggest that the books of my own down there in the left hand column would make great gifts, I’m going to pick a few more over the next four days.

Welltendedslant First, today, is the new and expanded edition of The Well-Tended Perennial Garden by Tracy DiSabato-Aust which may not get the coverage it deserves as unfortunately many reviewers are discouraged by their magazine or website from reviewing revised editions of existing books. Not so here and I have to say that this edition is a big improvement on its earlier incarnation. This is, basically, a guide to growing perennials in the form of a detailed discussion of the principles and practice of planting and maintenance with a plant-by-plant A-Z encyclopedia discussing specific requirements.

The first edition was good as far as it went - and of course the problem was often that it didn’t go quite far enough. I found that many of the plants I looked up in its encyclopedia were simply not there and this, I'm afraid, has not been improved. I’ve not compared every single page in the two editions but as far as I can see there no new additions, not even in heucheras and echianaceas  where there have been many new introductions some of which need specific care. So unfortunately many good perennials are not mentioned, heucherellas and tiarella cultivars are not covered, grasses are all lumped together and ferns fail to feature. Instead, there are twenty seven identical pages at the back which comprise a Perennial Maintenance Journal in which readers can record their own experiences. Good idea – but one page and encouragement to photocopy it would have been ideal and we could then have had twenty six more pages of Tracy’s invaluable advice on specific plants.

But the pictures are far better and far more numerous with explicit before-and-after pairings which are very convincing. And how refreshing to see a practical book illustrated with many clear practical pictures and not solely with pretty plant portraits which are unhelpful in a practical context. The pictures are also better integrated into the book than in the earlier edition, and the paper quality and printing is improved.

This is an invaluable and groundbreaking book and an amazing 130,000 people bought the original edition; this new editions builds on its success. It’s taught me a lot. But in the next revision, can we have an expanded A-Z of plant-by-pant practical advice - or perhaps turn an expanded practical encyclopedia into a whole book? I highly recommend The Well-Tended Perennial Garden, you can order it in North America here, and in Britain here. I suggest you do so.

The Plantsman magazine wins top award

Plantsmanjun2006_2 I'm always bashing on about The Plantsman -- I tell anyone who'll listen (and some who, I'm sorry to say, pay no attention at all) that The Plantsman magazine from the Royal Horticultural Society is a vital magazine for anyone with a serious interest in plants.

It's not for new gardeners (for whom The Garden, also from the RHS, is more suitable), but for those of us with some experience of plants The Plantsman is simply  superb. And it's just won the award of Magazine of the Year from the British Garden Writers Guild. [The RHS website also won an award, you can check out the winners here.]

Published four times a year, The Plantsman includes examinations of individual plants and individual genera - often sorting out any problems with names; it brings details of advances in cultural and propagation techniques; it looks at new plants and specialist nurseries; You can see the contents of the current issue here. Only a few of the articles are available online but in this issue these include a piece on Thalictrums from Dan Hinkley and another of Hydrangea serrata from Sally Gregson. The previous issue has a piece on stokesias available online together with my own opinion piece on native plants – Too Much Gardening in the Wild.

The big problem is that, outside the UK, it's expensive – and the exchange rate doesn't help. I keep asking the RHS to make it more affordable outside Britain, and to make it easier to order online - no joy so far. Even so... This is great magazine - fascinating, well written with great pictures. And certainly deserving of its award. Oh, by the way… editor Mike Grant was valuable contributor to my recent Encyclopedia of Perennials.