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November 2021

Christmas came early this year!


Yesterday brought the startling, and humbling, announcement - and I’m honoured to receive the 2021 Garden Media Guild Lifetime Achievement Award.

The Garden Media Guild is the British professional organisation for garden writers and photographers, bloggers, TV and radio presenters and producers – any communicator who specialises in plants, gardens and gardening.

I thank my peers in the Guild for this recognition of a life of writing about plants and gardens – starting in The Irish Gardener, and what was then Practical Self Sufficiency magazine, almost exactly forty years ago.

I’m humbled to find myself in the company, as a Garden Media Guild Lifetime Achievement Award winner, of such greats as Christopher Lloyd, with whom I wrote a book twenty years ago; Peter Seabrook who, since his own Lifetime Achievement Award in 1993, has done enough to receive another; Fred Whitsey and Graham Stuart-Thomas, from a very different generation, as well as Beth Chatto, Joy Larkcom, Roy Lancaster, Alan Titchmarsh, Anna Pavord and the other deserving recipients.

None of this would have happened without the legendary Geoff Hamilton. He hired me to my first trainee writer job on Practical Gardening magazine – on condition that I cut off my ponytail which, he insisted, would frighten the readers. I was then allowed on the front cover (above).

Thank you, too, to all but one of the many editors I’ve worked with over the years. It’s been fun, challenging, satisfying (and occasionally exasperating), but never a dull moment. The one exception is the section editor who fired me with a letter - which contained just one line: “You have written your last column for The Observer”. Needless to say: he’d replaced the editor who hired me and who’d long since been promoted. He, himself, was soon replaced!

Finally, I’d to thank all the many many people who’ve helped me along the way: gardeners and plantspeople, propagators and plant breeders, academics and field botanists - as well, of course, as friends, readers and other writers - who’ve generously shared their knowledge, wisdom, and experience over the years. Thank you for helping me ensure that my work has been as accurate and helpful as possible. It was up to me to make it all a good read.

• Please check out all the other winners at the 2021 Garden Media Guild Awards.

My Graham’s Garden blog
My Royal Horticultural Society New Plants blog
My Plant Talk blog for Mr Fothergill’s

You’ll also find me regularly in Gardeners’ World magazine, Horticulture Week and The Plant Review, in many issues of Amateur Gardening magazine and Garden News, in the December 2021 issue of The Garden in the 9 December edition of the RHS Podcast - and elsewhere.

You can also check out my folk music radio show The Wagonload of Monkeys.

Videos will be in the next post.

Why is my microwave like a daylily?

Hemerocallis 'Explosion In The Paint Factory ©Strictly Daylilies
Hemerocallis 'Explosion In The Paint Factory' - just like the inside of my microwave!

So. The pasta was bubbling, the tomato and chilli sauce, left from a couple of days ago, was in a bowl in the microwave. Then I inadvertently hit the 10 minute button instead of 1 minute.

‘Explosion In The Paint Factory’!

The whole inside of the microwave is covered in – well, you can work that one out. Very colourful. Just like this ground breaking daylily, which has hemerocallis enthusiasts on the boil.

Now, we know that daylilies stand out for their weird variety names. ‘How Beautiful Heaven Must Be’ – you get the message.

And some breeders have a special talent with names. ‘Explosion In The Paint Factory’ along with ‘Adventures, Love and Shenanigans’, ‘A Convocation of Eagles’ and, oddly, ‘Binders of Women’ were all raised by Connecticut daylily breeder Rich Howard.

‘Explosion In The Paint Factory’ won the 2018 Eugene S. Foster award for best late blooming daylily, the 2019 RW Munson award for the best patterned daylily, and the 2020 Lambert-Webster award for best UFo. Like the hosta people, daylily enthusiasts love their names. And no, I didn’t know what a UFo is either. “Unusual Form”, apparently – and the o is intentionally lower case.

Curt Hansen from Ohio is another breeder known for his, errr, distinctive names. I discussed him here back in 2014. His introductions include: 'Lavender Panties', 'Pink Panties', 'Pantie Raid', 'Panties in a Knot', 'Panties in the Wind', 'Don't Touch Me There', 'Long Legged Lap Dancer', 'Nude Yoga' and 'We Dare to Bare'. I’m not sure these would meet much approval, these days, and daylilies are clearly not his only enthusiasm.

‘Nekkid Woman Frying Bacon’ is from a different breeder, Joe Goudeau from Louisiana, and one of its parents is ‘Nekkid Woman on a Tractor’!

And hostas? Well, some are certainly strange but I have to say that they don’t quite match the daylilies: ‘Outhouse Delight’, ‘A Scape Plan’, 'You're So Vein', ‘Pineapple Upside Down Cake’ and ‘Rosedale Tractor Seat’ can’t really compete, can they.

And then, of course, who could forget the Communist lilacs. Bred in the 1950s, ‘40th Anniversary of the Communist Youth League’ is the star – well, the name is, anyway. Although see the comments appended to the Communist lilacs post for more on that name.

I also quite fancy 'Tipsy Imperial Concubine' – if you see what I mean. It’s an old Hybrid Tea rose.

As for 'Explosion In The Paint Factory' - it will be available in the UK from Strictly Daylilies when they've built up stock. Find out more about  it and order it in North Amerca, at Rich Howard's own website.

Meanwhile, where’s the oven cleaner?

You can check out more of my posts on plant names here.

Thank you to Strictly Daylilies for permission to use their picture of Hemerocallis 'Explosion In The Paint Factory'.

Up and down the hedgerow with old man's beard

Delivering foraged old man's beard to Foxtail Lilly for their autumn wreaths.
Delivering foraged old man's beard to Foxtail Lilly for their autumn wreaths.

At this time of year, I’m often out and about foraging for seed heads, conifer cones, dried heads of grasses, teasels and other wild plants plus anything else from the forest, field or hedgerow that looks good at this time of year.

It all goes to my florist friend Tracey Mathieson, who runs Foxtail Lilly, a lovely little barn shop here in Northamptonshire. Last week I was harvesting clematis seed heads from local hedgerows and, looking at them more closely than usual, interesting details are revealed.

Clematis vitalba, old man’s beard, spreads by its wind blown seeds and the different seedling plants scrambling through the local hedges vary in a number of ways. The seedheads of some have longer plumes than others, they vary in the number of seeds in each cluster, some are more grey while others are more silvery. The seed at the base of each plume varies in the depth of its colour and, in a few, the seedheads fall apart much earlier than others which ruins their decorative effect – indoors and out.

The most vigorous of all the three hundred clematis species from around the world, The Irish Department of Agriculture, Food and The Marine reports that the stems grow several metres each year, which is there for us all to see, but also that just one plant can cover an area of 180 square metres.

Seed head production seems to vary from year to year, presumably depending on conditions at flowering time in July and August. But seventeen thousand seeds can be produced in one year from just half a square metre of growth, they report which, I have to say, seems extraordinary – more like a typo than a fact.

A joint Irish/Czech study revealed that hoverflies were the pollinators making the most visits to flowers, with almost half of all pollinator visits; other flies are in second place with bees making up less than 10% of pollinating visits.

It also turns out that this species is eaten by the larvae of a wide range of moths, including many species that are reliant on it as their only foodplant; including the small waved umber, the small emerald, and the delightfully named Haworth's pug. Finches feed on the seeds.

At this time of year, though, the farmer’s flail mower is the enemy of finches and foragers alike. Having, over the years, noted the most productive plants in the local hedgerows, often where there’s a break in the hedge for a gateway, it’s disappointing to fetch up armed with secateurs and find the flail has got there first.

Seed heads of Clematis vitalba as it scrambles through a dog rose in a Northamptonshire hedgerow. ©GrahamRice
Seed heads of Clematis vitalba as it scrambles through a dog rose in a Northamptonshire hedgerow.

Clematis vitalba comes with two common names that will be familiar to most of us. John Gerard, he of the famous Herball, is responsible for one of them: “esteemed for pleasure by reason of the goodly shadow and the pleasant scent or savour of its flowers,” he reports, “and because of its decking and adorning ways and hedges where people travel, have I named it traveller’s joy." So this common name, that has long entered the vernacular, was invented by Gerard.”

Fifty years earlier, in 1548, William Turner had coined the name “Downi-vine”, which didn’t catch on, also recognising the feathery plumes – which are in fact, the styles of the original flower.

Gerard also notes that it “maketh in winter a goodly show, covering the hedges white all over with his feather-like tops,” and the “feather-like tops” give it another common name: old man’s beard.

We can always trust Wikipedia to come up with a few nuggets of interesting info on subjects such as this: “The French name for old man's beard is 'herbe aux gueux' – the beggar's or rascal's herb. This is a reference to its use by beggars; they used its acrid sap to irritate the skin to give it a sore and ulcerated look - in order to induce sympathy in, and perhaps a donation from, passers by!”

I also read somewhere that it was called traveller’s joy because people on walking journeys used to stuff their shoes with the seed heads to prevent blisters – but now I can’t find the reference. Sorry. And, frankly, the Gerard story seems far more plausible.

Wikipedia also reveals that: “Clematis vitalba was used to make rope during the Stone Age in Switzerland. In Slovenia, the stems of the plant were used for weaving baskets for onions and also for binding crops. It was particularly useful for binding sheaves of grain because mice do not gnaw on it. In Italy, the sprouts are harvested to make omelettes (called "vitalbini" in Tuscany, "visoni" in Veneto).”

You learn all sorts of interesting things on this blog: clematis omelettes, who’d have thought it. And poetry too. Edward Thomas, in his poem The Sign-Post, from 1917, reported that:

“The smoke of the traveller’s-joy is puffed
Over hawthorn berry and hazel tuft.”

And, while I hesitate to disagree with the great man, “hazel tuft”?! I suppose that’s what we might call “poetic license”.

Geoffrey Grigson, of course, has thoughts on the name: old man’s beard. “But observe that the Old Man, as so frequently in English plant names,” he says, “may also be the Devil. This is a devil’s twister, devil’s guts, which can twist and choke trees to death, and turn a south country copse into an Amazonian forest.”

So hesitate before planting it in your garden – after all, there’s plenty in English hedgerows . Although, sadly, much less in Scotland.

A beautiful Foxtail Lily autumn wreath that includes seed heads of both native old man's beard and Clematis tangutica from Kashmir and China.
A beautiful Foxtail Lily autumn wreath that includes seed heads of both native old man's beard and Clematis tangutica from Kashmir and China.

Kew’s dandelions died. Really?

Taraxacum faroense
Taraxacum faroense has this most wonderfully rich dark foliage.

* This blog post is about the different types of dandelion.

What do you mean, different types of dandelion? There’s more than one? You mean that there are red ones and blue ones?

* No, but there are two hundred and thirty nine different dandelion species in Britain alone - even if they do all have yellow flowers.

That’s ridiculous, they all look the same to me.

* That’s because you’re an ignorant buffoon. If you were the legendary dandelion expert Dr John Richards, it would be clear that there really are almost two hundred and fifty species.

How do we know this?

* He has a new book out, it’s called the Field Handbook to British and Irish Dandelions and it covers every single native species.

But they all look the same! Or most of them, anyway.

* That’s true, up to a point. But Dr Richards tells us that digital photography has revolutionised dandelion studies by easily revealing colours and forms not clearly visible in the traditional pressed and dried specimens used by botanists.

John Richards, the name rings a bell…

* Yes, he also wrote The Genus Primula, his uniquely comprehensive botanical monograph on one of our most popular plants. So his interests neatly combine the loved and the despised. He also discovered the black-leaved ‘Ravenswing’ cow parsley.

But if all British dandelions are yellow, what are the pink and white ones in the pictures here?

* When I worked at Kew, long ago, we grew a white-flowered dandelion called Taraxacum mongolicum. No one believed that we had a white one, so we had to take people over to inspect the plants. Until they died.

Hah! Kew couldn’t even grow a dandelion.

* Hmmm… But moving right along… The white one here is the Korean dandelion, T. coreanum, with grey green leaves and these beautiful white flowers. The honey and pink one, below, is T. pseudoroseum, from Central Asia. The one with the beetroot-coloured leaves, at the top, is T. faroense.

Taraxacum coreanum
The Korean dandelion, Taraxacum coreanum

Have to day, they’re quite pretty. But no one would be mad enough to try to sell seeds. Gardeners would never stand for it.

* On the contrary, Growild Nursery in Ayrshire, in south west Scotland, sell seed of all three – plus three more. And they offered two species as plants this year and sold out. People really like unusual dandelions.

Growild? It sounds as if the whole place is covered in weeds.

* Not at all. It’s just that they prefer to offer wild species rather than fancy hybrid cultivars and they specialise in growing rare and unusual species, in particular hardy perennials, from Japan, China and the Himalayas. They’re clearly highly principled, and say that “no peat-based products are used in the nursery. Neither chemicals nor animal derived products are used on our plants and only seaweed fertilizer is used.”

You know, Growild Nursery sounds alright. And those pink and white dandelions sure look pretty.

* Well, you can check their seeds and plants on the Growild website at

Not sure I need a three hundred page book on British dandelions, though.

* If you change your mind, the Field Handbook to British and Irish Dandelions by A. J. Richards is available from NHBS, the Natural History Book Service.

And find out more about dandelions here.

Images ©Growild Nursery. Thank you.

Taraxacum pseudoroseum
An Asian dandelion, Taraxacum pseudoroseum