February's flowers

Graham Rice,february,flowers,hellebores,snowdrops. Image ©GardenPhotos.com (all rights reserved)

A few years ago, in the middle of February, I shot this picture of flowers from my British garden (click to enlarge). An encouraging selection, I thought, for what is often the most harsh of the British winter months.

The picture not only shows what is only a selection of February's flowers, but reveals that even in the most icy month of a British winter there are many good plants at their best. It also shows some of the plants that make good companions for hellebores - one the most popular perennials on both sides of the Atlantic and the essential winter and early spring plant.

The plants in the picture are:
Arum italicum ‘White Winter’
Bergenia ‘Eric Smith’
Crocus chrysanthus ‘Blue Pearl’
Cyclamen hederifolium
Eranthis hyemalis
Euphorbia amygdaloides ‘Rubra’
Galanthus ‘Merlin’,
Galanthus ‘Ophelia’
Galanthus ‘Viridapice’
Helleborus foetidus
Helleborus odorus
Helleborus x hybridus forms
Pulmonaria seedling
Pulmonaria rubra
Ranunculus ficaria ‘Collarette’
Viburnum tinus ‘Gwenllian’

So, even as winter drags on (although this year spring has definitely sprung aleady back in Britain), there are attractive flowers and attractive foliage plants emerging to delight us.

You can buy postcards featuring this picture.


Hellebores and snowdrops

Graham Rice,east lambrook,margery fish,hellebores,snowdrops. Image ©GardenPhotos.com (all rights reserved)
Hellebores and snowdrops are classic late winter and early spring companions and, as this shot from the garden East Lambrook Manor in Somerset, England, shows they look great together.

East Lambrook Manor is the garden made famous by the pioneering writer and plantsperson Margery Fish, who brought cottage gardening back into fashion. She grew and introduced many fine plants and was especially fond of hellebores and snowdrops. Both have been allowed to self sow all over the garden in the decades since she died; when I was last there some years ago the hellebores were pretty but not special, but choice new snowdrops are still being discovered in the garden.

Allow bees to cross pollinate all the hellebores in their various colours and the resulting seedlings tend to become ever more dull and disappointing, even as the choice parents survive.

Allow snowdrops to do the same and not only does the purity of their colour remain largely untainted, unlike in hellebores, but new and intriguing forms turn up. A number have been sselected and named from amongst the great drifts and clumps of them at East Lambrook in recent years. These include ‘Dodo Norton’,  ‘Lambrook Greensleeves’, ‘Margery Fish’, ‘Sir Henry B-C’ and ‘Walter Fish’.

The lessons?
1. Always dead head your hellebores before they seed if you possibly can, and so prevent the appearance of lots of murky shades.
2. Don’t even bother to think about dead heading your snowdrops, although I know a few people do.
3. Look closely amongst your snowdrops to check if any unusual types have sprung up.
4. If you can, visit East Lambrook Manor and admire both hellebores and snowdrops for yourself.

Images © Graham Rice / GardenPhotos.com

Graham Rice,east lambrook,margery fish,hellebores,snowdrops. Image ©GardenPhotos.com (all rights reserved)

Snowdrop bulb sold for world record £357 ($576)

The recent sale of a single snowdrop - Galanthus plicatus 'E. A. Bowles' - for a world record £357 ($576) on eBay has collapsed into confusion. Apart from the madness of paying that much for an admittedly lovely variety, in just a few days all sorts of mistakes about this simple story have appeared in Britain’s newspapers and on blogs. Its origins, the grower, the seller, its price, the destination of the funds - all have been wrongly reported.

John Grimshaw, one of the world’s leading snowdrop experts, gave the news of the sale on his blog a week ago. Then yesterday he was forced to post again correcting all the mistakes that had arisen as a result of journalists not checking their facts. One paper even managed to get the world record price wrong. Then today he posted again, making clear (not for the first time) that he had not “bred” this variety himself.

You’d think it was a simple story.

What is definitely true - says he deftly changing the subject - is that the gardens at Colesbourne Park in Gloucestershire (managed by John Grimshaw) will be open for visitors to see the superb display of snowdrops every Saturday and Sunday afternoon in February 2011, plus 5th & 6th March, from 1 pm. So the first open day is this coming Saturday, 5 February. Guided tours for groups are available on weekdays by prior appointment. For more info check out the Colesbourne Park website. And don’t be digging up any of their snowdrops in the hope that you can make a fortune. Just don’t.

As I write, the same vendor still has other special snowdrops on sale on eBay.

Just too ugly to grow

Echinacea,coneflower,Doubledecker,ugly. Image ©GardenPhotos.com (all rights reserved) Some plants are just so ugly that you want to chop their heads off.

Look at this echinacea. What a mess! Such an ugly tangle of petals it disgraces the name coneflower. It’s the perversion of simplicity that so often make me want to reach for the shears. We all know the simple and elegant daisy shape of Echinacea purpurea, the purple coneflower. And this is what is said to be an improvement.

To be fair, Echinacea purpurea ‘Doubledecker’ (left, click to enlarge) is not supposed to Echinacea,coneflower,Doubledecker,ugly. Image ©Perennial Resource, waltersgardens.com (all rights reserved)be like this. It’s supposed to be like this (right, click to enlarge) – which I have to say is  not much better - but in all the years I’ve been growing it these horrid messy tangles have dominated ten to one.

Then there’s daffodils ('Jersey Torch', in case you want to avoid them). Isn’t this a Narcissus,daffodil,Jersey Torch,ugly. Image ©GardenPhotos.com (all rights reserved)horror? (left, click to enlarge – if you dare). Takes all the elegance away. You’ll never see these “Tossing their heads in sprightly dance,” as  William Wordsworth put it, as he “wandered lonely as a cloud”. The heads are so heavy with all those extra mangled petals that they’re more likely to simply hit the ground when it rains and never stand up. These don’t “flash upon that inward eye, Which is the bliss of solitude” – they make we want to reach for a long cane so I can swish their heads off.

And then... just today… This hibiscus opened in the garden, Hibiscus Sugar Tip (‘America Irene Scott’), a variegated sport of the popular ‘Lady Stanley’. Its neatly edged foliage is quite Hibiscus,Sugar Tip,America Irene Scott. Image ©GardenPhotos.com (all rights reserved) attractive and I was looking forward to a single rose pink flower, perhaps. Instead of which we get this pasty mess like a wrung out dish cloth. Well, now I’ve taken its picture I can cut the flowers off.

But don’t think I hate double flowers. There are some lovely double echinaceas and even at least one double daffodil that I’ve grown and enjoyed.

But these are just too much. Off with their heads!

What, exactly, is an heirloom?

Narcissus,daffodil,‘Tête-à-tête’,heirloom Image ©GardenPhotos.com (all rights reserved) Leafing through the tempting new White Flower Farm catalog this morning, I came across the news that the delightful little daffodil ‘Tête-à-tête’ (left, click to enlarge) is an “Heirloom, pre-1949.” Hmmm… don’t think so. Not an heirloom and not pre-1949. It was actually raised by Alec Gray, the noted breeder of dwarf daffodils, and introduced by him, in England, in 1956, at five shillings a bulb.

Two issues arise from that little phrase, “Heirloom, pre-1949.” The only place I’ve found that notes ‘Tête-à-tête’ as pre-1949 is an English academic website listing the daffodil varieties in its collection. Sorry, it’s mistaken. Full marks to WFF for researching the history of the variety, but that website is misled them.

But that little slip is not the really point, its more the implication that because it’s more than fifty years old it must be an heirloom – in spite of the fact that it’s a British variety, raised by a dedicated breeder of daffodils.

And I’ve come across this before – I once heard a lecturer describe one of David Austin’s early English Roses, the gorgeous ‘Mary Rose’ (right, click to enlarge), from 1983, as an heirloom – “you can tell by the old-fashioned look of the blooms”. Hah! Rose,Rosa,Mary Rose,'Ausmary',English rose. Image ©David Austin Roses

So what, exactly, is an heirloom? Joel M. Lerner had an interesting piece in the Washington Post earlier this year in which he says that “almost all heirlooms are considered products of natural pollination, generally not derived from hybridizing, grafts or other human intervention” and reports that Jo Ann Gardiner, author of Heirloom Flower Gardens , considers that “heirlooms are plants we know because we grew up with them.”

Wikipedia says: “An heirloom plant, heirloom variety, or heirloom vegetable is a cultivar that was commonly grown during earlier periods in human history, but which is not used in modern large-scale agriculture.”

Tomato,Tigerella,Mr Stripey,heirloom. Image ©GardenPhotos.com (all rights reserved) None of these definitions is very satisfactory. ‘Tigerella’ tomato (left, click to enlarge), often listed as an heirloom, was specifically bred (in Britain, by the Glasshouse Crops Research Institute, I seem to recall) to combine good flavor with the striped skin – not “a product of natural pollination”; I grew up with ‘Carefree’ geraniums in the garden but these are F1 hybrids, surely the antithesis of the heirloom concept; ‘Tête-à-tête’ daffodils now represent an amazing 34% of Dutch daffodil production – I’d say that qualifies as “large scale agriculture”.

So… the question is: What, exactly, defines an heirloom? Thoughts?

BTW The authoritative sources on ‘Tête-à-tête’ are Modern Miniature Daffodils by James Wells and Golden Harvest: The Story of Daffodil Growing in Cornwall and the Isles of Scilly by Andrew Tompsett. I'll come back to the intriguing origins of this variety another time.

Alpines and bulbs but not blogs

BulbLogpage597 We’re overrun with blogs these days. A few of the best are listed on the right but a couple which do not, perhaps, get the notice they deserve are hosted by the Scottish Rock Garden Club (SRGC).

The Bulb Log Diary is written by Ian Young, the President of the SGRC, and he posts on bulbs in detail and with superb photography about every two weeks. He grows an extraordinary range of small bulbs, and writes about them and photographs them with care and thoughtfulness.

Also, from the Royal Horticultural Society’s garden at Wisley in Surrey comes the Wisley Alpine Log written by Paul Cumbleton who runs the Alpine Department there. This provides a fascinating insight into the work and development of Wisley’s alpines and is well worth following.

Ian’s most recent entries are on tulips and especially on fritillarias, and then on corydalis revealing their extraordinary variety. Paul’s recent additions have been on the creation of new planting areas on the Wisley rock garden for hardy (zone 8) carnivorous plants and on hepaticas and other mid-March alpines.

They’re always interesting, always a good read – even for gardeners who never grow alpines or dwarf bulbs - and some of the photography is spectacular.

HepaticaHarlowCarrpage But here’s the problem: they’re not actually blogs. For some reason they’re formatted as pdf files so there’s none of the interactivity we expet from blogs. They display in the web browser and can easily be downloaded but you can’t comment about them on the spot, you have to go to a separate forum to which there is no link. In fact it’s impossible to go anywhere else except back to the contents list. There are no links on the pages at all.

This is such a shame, the unusual format is a definite deterrent going back regularly and to posting comments. We’re all so used to RSS feeds and just clicking on the Comment link at the end of a post to add our thoughts that I’m sure the SRGC miss out on many readers by using this approach.

However, in spite of all this, my recommendation is to go take a look. Regularly.

Go to Ian Young’s Bulb Log Diary

Go to Paul Cumbleton’s Wisley Alpine Log

Daffodils: good intention, rotten result

DaffsonBank600 Back in England, I was driving home from the airport and these daffodils just made me so mad I had to turn round, go back and take a picture in the wind and the rain.

Now I’m sure the people who planted these daffodils on a wild roadside bank amongst native shrubs, perennials and grasses had good intentions. But isn’t there an old proverb that fits right in here? “The road to Hell is paved with good intentions”. That would be the one.

You wouldn’t line up diagonal rows of yellow buckets on a country bank but you might just as well. The result is pretty much the same. And I’d feel a great deal better about kicking them if they were buckets. And you wouldn’t plant daffodils in diagonal rows in a garden so why plant them like that on a wild bank?

They just look so… (and so on for another five hundred words…)

Wisley visitors vote for their favorite bulbs

TulipWorldExpressionRHS There’s been a recent innovation at the Royal Horticultural Society’s trials at Wisley – the judges give the awards, but visitors now also get to vote for their favorites.

Clearly this would be a little impractical with, say, carrots which have to be dug up and tasted. But voting took place for tulips and hyacinths grown in the open ground this spring and there will be more opportunities during the summer and fall.

Top of the list of tulips was ‘World Expression’ with ‘Dordogne’ second out of the 196 entries on trial with RHS Award of Garden Merit winner ‘Maureen’ only getting one vote! Of the hyacinths, ‘King of the Blues’ came out top with ‘Blue Jacket’ second out of twenty seven entries on trial.

Voting is taking place for garden pinks now, while buddleias will follow. And if you’re visiting Wisley and look for the signs by the Wisley gate later this month. There will be opportunities to taste the raspberries on trial and vote for the tastiest – but only on days when crops are available.

The wrong daffodils

Daffodilshedgerow500I bashed on about this issue last year - here I go again!

As Head Gardeners at Vita Sackville-West’s garden at Sissinghurst Castle in Kent, Pam Schwerdt and Sibylle Kreutsberger had a powerful influence on gardening styles in Britain. They are still most insistent that plants must be suited to their surroundings and one of their special hates is the planting of large-flowered, hybrid, trumpet daffodils in hedgerows and in wild places in attempt to “add a bit of colour”. They just look so out of place.

Country villages are especially prone to plant drifts of yellow daffs along roadsides as you enter the village and even villages in areas where wild daffodils are growing naturally nearby plant blowsy hybrids. The example in the picture is from a hedgerow outside a village in Northamptonshire. They may be colourful, but they just don’t fit.

It’s easy enough to buy bulbs of the wild species, Narcissus pseudonarcissus,  these days – bulbs that have been propagated on nurseries and not dug up from the wild – and there are even vigorous hybrid daffodils in a more demure, naturalistic style.

So, please… why not dig up the heavy-headed hybrids and move them in a garden or park in the village? You can do it as soon as they’ve finished flowering, they won’t mind. Then, in the autumn, plant something wild daffodils or varieties that fit into the natural scene harmoniously.

English and Spanish bluebells

First, I apologise for the recent “break in transmission”. I’ve been away for a long weekend at a family wedding where I stayed in what must be the only decent hotel in England with absolutely no internet access of any kind (except for the front desk)! Then a day dashing about, flight back the US, my wife judy’s birthday… Anyway, normal service is now resumed.

Hyacinthoidesnonscripta400 Just before leaving our English home for the wedding I visited what may well be England’s finest bluebell wood, Short Wood in Northamptonshire. Voted England’s most popular wildflower in poll a couple of years ago, the bluebell, Hyacinthoides non-scripta, spreads to form wide rolling oceans of colour in many deciduous woods and even along hedges and roadsides. Over half world’s population grows in Britain, and I understand that nowhere else do they spread so prolifically. The bulbs were once used to make glue for book binding.

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