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February 2011
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April 2011

March 2011

The under rated scented sweet box

Sarcococca,confusa,hookeriana,Schilling. Image © (all rights reserved)
Whenever I enthuse about Sarcoccoca, the sweet box, judy gets a glazed look in her eye which dissolves into a skeptical glint.

It’s true, they’re not the most flamboyant of evergreen shrubs, although the one I saw in flower at the RHS Garden at Wisley a couple of weeks back was very impressive. And the berries last for months, you’ll often find plants with flowers and fruits in their prime at the same time.

But it’s the scent that’s really special, wafting from what, in some species, are flowers hidden by foliage to transform the winter garden. Related to the more familiar box or boxwood, Buxus, with their rather unpleasant smelling flowers – well, you can’t trim a sarcococca into a spiral but it smells delightful.

Sarcococca confusa was the first species I came across, years ago. The fragrance from the hidden creamy flowers on a plant by the entrance to the old Kew Alpine House prompted me to beg a few cuttings. I still keep coming across their descendants in family and friends’ gardens. Here in Pennsylvania, it’s too cold: S. confusa is zone 6 plant.

So in the picture there’s S. hookeriana (also zone 6), brightly showing off its petal-less flowers, the color coming from the creamy stamens. Checking up, I see that this plant has been named ‘Schillingii’ (though that doesn’t look like a valid name, to me), having been collected in Nepal by Tony Schilling, who once ran Kew’s satellite garden at Wakehurst Place in Sussex.

And on the right, the berries of S. confusa still looking good after this winter’s freezing weather - although the foliage seems less resilient to the unexpectedly icy blasts.

So if your climate is suitable, I’d suggest you try any species you can find. And don’t forget to pass them round – you’ll often find self sown seedlings, and you can also often detach small rooted pieces at the base.

In Britain PMA Plant Specialities list eleven types (I’d better get down there as soon as I get back) while in North America, Forest Farm list four types.

Amsonia – The Perennial of the Year

Amsonia,PPA.Plant of the Year

Every year, since 1990, the Perennial Plant Association in North America has awarded their Perennial Plant of the Year. Thousands of members across North America, me included, vote each year to choose the plant that best deserves the award.

And, it turns out, they have a great track record of choosing plants that are also good garden plants in Britain. Take a look at the list and see. My only criticism of the selections is that sometimes the choices are too broad – Helleborus x hybridus covers a great many vary poor plants as well as many very impressive ones.

For 2011 the Perennial Plant of the Year is an American native perennial that many British gardeners may not know, and I’d say there’s also likely to be a good range of North American gardeners who’ve never grown it: Amsonia hubrichtii, sometimes known as Arkansas Blue Star or Threadleaf Blue Star.

So, what’s so great about Amsonia hubrichtii?
* Pale blue starry flowers in spring
* Attractive slender green foliage in summer
* Bright and buttery yellow foliage in the autumn
* Very hardy, happy down to -34C/-30F
* Happy in any reasonable soil and situation, and tolerates drought when established

On both sides of the Atlantic, Amsonia hubrichtii is well worth growing – especially for its bright yellow autumn foliage. It's available from nurseries all over North America and, in Britain, from these Royal Horticultural Society PlantFinder nurseries.

Two daffodils I’ll never grow (and two I will)


We all appreciate that daffodils can be amongst the most delightful of spring bulbs, that they’re so easy to grow and that they come in such vast variety simply adds to their appeal. But, there are exceptions. Some are just plain ugly.

These are two I noticed last year and in 2009 in the daffodil trials at the Royal Horticultural Society’s garden at Wisley near London. [This year the trial is cut back dramatically and hidden away, I’m sorry to say.] Why would you grow such horrors? It’s not just that they destroy the very concept of the daffodil – simply being different is no good reason for condemnation, after all. It’s that they’re inherently ugly.

‘Jersey Torch’ (above left, click to enlarge) has degenerated into a confusing mess of petals while ‘Apricot Whirl’ (above right) looks as if it’s been punched in the face. Doubtless these are, in a technical sense, triumphs of the plant breeders’ science. But what’s the point of devoting such high skill to create such pitiful results? I’m relieved to see that neither has been awarded an Award of Garden Merit (AGM).

But some new daffodils are really lovely, like the two varieties, ‘Reggae’ and ‘Intrigue’, that I spotted last year in Wisley’s now discontinued display of AGM winners. I wrote them up over on my (also discontinued!) Royal Horticultural Society Trials and Wards blog. These I’ll be ordering.

Snow, bears, spruces and Zimbabwe

Hamamelis,Pallida,snow. Image © (all rights reserved)

Now back in Pennsylvania, where some surprises (good and bad) awaited me.

Firstly, we’ve just had three or four inches of snow which has weighed down and smothered the snowdrops but given extra charm to the witch hazel. Its temporary beauty almost, but not quite, makes up for it not being what it was supposed to be (Hamamelis x intermedia ‘Pallida’) and so having no scent.

Secondly, just a few hours after I got back yesterday, a noise alerted me to a black bear rolling a bird feeder around the deck and getting the seeds out. We banged on the window and he made an unhurried retreat. A few hours later, another noise - he was back lapping up the spilled seeds. You know you’re home when there’s a black bear on your deck.

Thirdly, most of the needles on the three spruces outside my window have turned brown while I was away. Not sure why, but the trees are now far more brown than green.

Next, a copy of the new book, The Living Garden, from the excellent Irish garden writer Jane Powers was waiting for me. I’ll be reviewing it here when I’ve read it. One thing immediately strikes me, on a bleary flick through before collapsing into jet-lagged sleep. Each chapter is launched with a quotation, a thing many writers do, but her choices are especially thoughtful. No great dollops of Gertrude Jekyll, thank goodness, but there’s the wonderful Welsh poet R. S. Thomas:

“Out of the soil the buds come,
The silent detonations
Of power wielded without sin.”

Lastly, I’d listened to quite a lot of the radio news coverage on Libya while I was in England and never heard one mention of Zimbabwe, the former British colony where the atrocities committed by President Mugabe were certainly as appalling as those of Colonel Gaddafi. But, driving home from the airport, I was surprised to hear the lack of action on Zimbabwe promptly discussed on the otherwise pale and unremarkable public radio news.

More snow forecast for tonight. I wonder when the hellebores and snowdrops will emerge…

LATER (17 April): Last night's torrential rain and vicious winds finally ended the very very long display from the hamamelis. Snowdrops have come and gone, hellebores are almost at their peak.

Shrubs and climbers for cutting

9780881928921l Now that growing our own fruit and veg has swept the country in a surge of enthusiasm, it’s sparked a revival in the idea of growing cut flowers. But not just sweet peas, dahlias and all the old favourites.

Back in 2009 a book came out which takes the whole idea a big step farther. Woody Cut Stems for Growers and Florists by Lane Greer and John Dole (Timber Press) is a fat, comprehensive book on growing, harvesting and treating shrubs and other woody material for cutting. From Aucuba to Vitis, although this book is intended for professional growers and florists the fact that it gives detailed advice on such a wide variety of woody material makes the rest of us realise what a vast variety of woody cut material remains relatively undiscovered.

I should also mention that the book comes with a big dose of built-in reality. The first two sections of each entry are Why You Should Grow It followed by Why You Shouldn’t. It’s not one of those books bursting with unrelenting, but unrealistic, overenthusiasm. For example.

On Callicarpa: “All Callicarpa species offer fantastic shimmering purple fruit, the colour of which is absolutely matchless…”

And on Malus: “Crabapples are heavily disease prone. Most types need several years to get established. Flowers are short-lived. Fruits are favorites of bids.”

This real world approach is largely derived from then fact that the authors spoke to a wide cross section of commercial growers, many specialising in woody material, who are quoted throughout the book. So the advice on growing, pruning, selecting varieties, harvesting and how to treat the cut material to ensure the longest life is derived from the techniques of real growers.

Look up Cotinus or Hamamelis or Ligustrum or Physocarpus or Viburnum or one of the other hundred woody plants included and find out how to grow it, harvest it and treat it so it lasts. Suddenly the range of cut material you can grow is hugely enhanced.


Bird conservation success I can see every day

Red kite,Milvus milvus. Image ©Thomas Kraft (ThKraft). This image is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.5 Generic license.
One of the joys of sitting here at my desk in Northamptonshire, in a small town two hours north of London, is that almost every day a red kite flies by. Centuries ago these elegant birds of prey, with a wingspan of almost 6ft/1.8m, were common in Britain; Shakespeare described London as "a city of Red Kites and Crows". They filled the scavenging niche that seagulls took over more recently.

But, owing to poisoning by gamekeepers and the effects of pesticides, by 1939 they were reduced to just ten pairs in a valley 200 miles away to the west in Wales. Research has shown that in 1977 the entire British population was derived from just one female bird.

But, as pesticide use declined and gamekeepers became more enlightened, numbers began to grow. Birds were then re-introduced to parts of the country from which they’d been gone for hundreds of years. Not far from where I now sit, eleven birds from Spain and from earlier re-introductions further west in England, were released in 1995. Now, I see them from my office window every day and there are probably almost 2000 pairs in Britain. They've gone from 20 to 2000 in just a few decades.

Just a couple of days ago, driving round the M25 (London’s 117 mile orbital motorway), I spotted two red kites soaring in the sky above.

This is a truly successful conservation story.

Bergenias – fan or foe?

Graham Rice,bergenia,scilla. Image © (all rights reserved)
Graham Stuart Thomas, one of the great plantsmen of the twentieth century, was a big fan of bergenias:

“These plants provide the ideal evergreen ground cover with bold outline and are a godsend to those dry, windy gardens where hostas do not thrive… Apart from their value in contrast to sword-like and other foliage, few plants look so well when spreading in firm bunches over the edges of paving…”*

John Raven, one of the finest writers about plants of the twentieth century, hated bergenias:

“Goodness knows why, but the insufferably coarse genus of Bergenia is apparently coming back into favour. If you grow Bergenias for their leaves you can have no appreciation of elegance and if for their flowers you must be colour-blind….”*

What do you think? Got any other juicy quotes about bergenias? Or please provide your own!

* Graham Stuart Thomas in Perennial Garden Plants, 1990 edition, page 94
* John Raven in A Botanist’s Garden, 1971, page 133

Primroses I won't have in the garden

Primrose,Primula,horrid,color,colour. Image © (all rights reserved)
Strolling through the centre of town back in Northamptonshire today, I couldn’t help noticing the most horrible primroses offered for sale at the florist (above, click to enlarge). They were gross travesties of our delightful native wild primroses - in more or less the same shade, but in this hybrid the flowers are about three or four times the size of a wild primrose.

In fact one of the plants had a strange, rather putrid, green caste to its flower colour; in both the foliage was completely smothered by the far-larger-than-life flowers making them look noticeably unnatural; and they were offered as a mismatched pair in a lurid pink painted steel container – for £9.50 ($15.30). No thank you.

Primrose,Primula,vulgaris,wild,native. Image © (all rights reserved)
Then a few minutes later, in pot in a front garden, I spotted a true wild primrose, Primula vulgaris, plant looking delightful in a (slightly battered) blue-glazed pot (above, click to enlarge). I know which I’d rather have. And even in those pink pots, wild primroses would have looked good

The lesson? Bigger is not necessarily better.

The Communist Lilacs

Graham Rice,lilac,syringa,russia,communist,Korok let Komsomola. Image © Lattah Nursery
 Browsing through an old copy of The Gardener magazine – Tom Cooper’s superb but short-lived venture put out by White Flower Farm a few years ago – I came across a piece entitled The Communist Lilacs!

It was by Peter Schneider (author of Taylor's Guide to Roses ) and discussed the range of large-flowered, super fragrant lilacs raised in Russia in the middle of the last century. I’d forgotten all about them. They sound fantastic - especially the names.

Obviously they were all originally named in Russian – but in English they have names like ‘Beauty of Moscow’, ‘Banner of Lenin’, ‘Soviet Arctic Region’ and, from 1958, originally ‘Korok let Komsomola’ - splendidly translated as ‘40th Anniversary of the Communist Youth League’!

Now I often think that some of the names of modern hostas and daylilies are pretty extraordinary – Hosta ‘Outhouse Door’ and Hemerocallis ‘How Beautiful Heaven Must Be’, for example. But surely nothing beats Syringa vulgaris ‘40th Anniversary of the Communist Youth League’!

Image © Lottah Nursery, with thanks.

Hellebores at the airport

Helleborus,foetidus,stinking,hellebore,Stansted. Image © (all rights reserved)It’s not often you find hellebores growing by the side of the road in Britain, least of all by the entrance to one of London’s major airports. But on the way to lecture in Essex on Sunday, I rounded a corner by London’s Stansted Airport and came upon this drift of British native stinking hellebores, Helleborus foetidus, growing right by the side of the road (click to enlarge).

Quick look in the mirror, screech to a stop, take a quick snap through the passenger side the window and on the way without disrupting traffic or getting hit by a truck. The point-and-shoot is always ready, just in case.

The plants are growing amongst the British native dogwood, Cornus officinalis, with its dark red stems and really light up this shady bank. Even though the flowers are not yet open – it’s the pale leafy bracts that are so bright.