Regular readers will remember that every so often I report on an unexpected crop that I’ve noticed growing in a field as I’ve driven around one or the other of my countries.
There was the field of phacelia and then there was the field of echium (viper’s bugloss). There's also been linseed, lupins, and more. But it’s been a while since I’ve found a new example.
The latest, spotted by friends near the historic local English village of Fotheringhay – where Mary Queen of Scots was imprisoned by Elizabeth I – turned out to be a field of, mostly, red campion (Silene dioica).
The acres of vivid magenta pink flowers are impressive but even a glance reveals that it’s not that simple. Red campion is a common British wildflower found on roadsides and in woodland glades and along hedgerows generally in places that are not too dry and not too acid. It’s lovely, and there a few named forms – mainly with variegated or coloured foliage, double flowers or dwarf habit.
In the field at Fotheringhay there were plants with pale and with dark flowers, with red calyces and with green, and with wide overlapping petals making a very colourful flower and with slender petals with spaces between creating a starry look. There were also plants with white flowers and plants with pale pink flowers.
The plants with white flowers are, or are derived from the widespread close relative white campion, Silene latifolia; those with pale pink flowers are the result of hybridising between the two to create a hybrid known as Silene × hampeana.
So, this Fotheringhay field features acres of noticeably variable red campion with a few plants of white campion (which were a little taller and a little later flowering than the rest of the plants) and some hybrids mixed in. But what was it all for?
As far as I know red campion is not grown for its oil so I presume that it’s being grown for its seeds which will be sold as wildflower seed and go into wildflower seed mixtures. But with those hybrids included in the crop, and not rogued out, the one thing buyers will not be getting is pure red campion.
But what a lovely sight this field is… Another reason to visit the historic village of Fotheringhay and stop for a meal or a beer at The Falcon Inn.
The 30th anniversary edition of the Royal Horticultural Society Plant Finder has just arrived. And let’s be clear: just because it carries the stamp of the Royal Horticultural Society does not mean that it’s of no interest outside Britain. On the contrary.
The Plant Finder does two things and, in fact, it’s the one that’s not hinted at in its title that has universal value. Because, in order to establish which plants are sold by which nurseries, the names of the plants have to be standardised otherwise the same plant could be listed under three or four different names. And it’s the up-to-date determination of the correct plant names that’s so valuable across the globe. (The Royal Horticultural Society Plant Finder also tells you where to buy every one of the 72,000 plants listed.)
A team of Royal Horticultural Society botanists make decisions on names based on the latest research around the world and in consultation with experts everywhere. And the RHS has become more conservative, over the years, only this year determining that the hardy perennial sedums belong in their own genus, Hylotelephium, a change made in North America some time ago. But this up-to-date standardisation of the names is what makes the book valuable on all continents.
One of the features of this 30th anniversary edition of the Royal Horticultural Society Plant Finder is a range of contributions on the subject of the unique legacy of the 30th anniversary edition of the book. And one of the contributors is – me! I was asked to pick five plants included in the Plant Finder that I couldn’t do without. I chose a snowdrop, a hellebore, a sweet pea, a heucherella and a physocarpus.
Expert plantsman Tony Lord, who supervised the clarification of the plant names from the Plant Finder’s early days until soon after the RHS took it over, has included a history of the book but there’s one thing that he hasn’t mentioned. Eight years before the very first edition of the Plant Finder in 1987, I myself set out to produce exactly the same book. I had the support of leaders at Kew and the RHS and from one of the top British garden book publishers. So, early in 1979, I asked all the mail order nurseries I knew about across Britain and Ireland to send me their catalogues and I began collating their listings into a database from which the book would be produced.
I was living in Dublin at the time but no sooner had I set about acquiring catalogues than there was a postal strike – which lasted for eighteen weeks, that’s almost five months! And, of course, back then there was no internet and everything was done by post. So the whole project, which of course depended on being up to date, fell apart. And then I got a job as writer on the late lamented Practical Gardening magazine, hired by the influential UK TV gardener Geoff Hamilton, who was the magazine’s editor, and there was no time to revitalise the project.
Fortunately, Chris Phillip, his partner Denys Gueroult, and Tony Lord, with whom I trained at Kew (and who, let’s not mess about, usually beat me in the weekly plant identification test by a point or two…), made the Plant Finder the invaluable reference that it is today. Frankly, they did a better job than I would have done and I salute them and their RHS successors.
Every gardener, every plantsperson across the world, every nursery owner and propagator, every garden writer, every plant breeder - everyone with a serious interest in plants - should have the latest edition of the Plant Finder on their shelf. It’s that simple.
Order the 2017 RHS Plant Finder in the Britain and Ireland
Check out the Plant Finder's predecessor, the Plant Directory, produced by the Nottinghamshire Group of the Hardy Plant Society.
A few days ago, friends here In Northamptonshire reported on some orchids they'd found. They were growing in the grass on a roadside along a very quiet country lane. They thought there were about forty early purple orchids (Orchis mascula), so I went up to take a look.
Sure enough, there they were (below) – about sixty five of them as it turned out - scattered through the long grass, their vivid colours standing out from quite a distance. They were all together, none for miles on either side. Lovely.
And it so happened that this find coincided with the a new burst of publicity for the campaign by Plantlife, the British plant conservation charity, aimed at protecting the plants growing on Britain’s roadsides. [Their website helps Brits ask your local council to protect roadside plants.]
Just a mile or two away plants of the bold tawny spikes of the uncommon parasitic plant, the knapweed broomrape (Orobanche elatior) grow on their only host, the greater knapweed (Centaurea scabiosa), along another quiet lane along with literally miles of meadow cranesbill (Geranium pratense)
Close to home over in Pennsylvania, I’ve noticed that roadsides are often the only local location for a number of interesting plants. The only clumps of false Solomon's seal (Maianthemum racemosum) (below) that I’ve seen nearby are on roadsides and I’ve also noticed more may apple (Podophyllum peltatum) and Dutchman's breeches (Dicentra cucullaria) along roadsides than anywhere else.
Partly, I presume, this is because the deer tempted to eat roadside plants are more likely to be killed by traffic and so the plants are more likely to flourish.
The key factor, of course, is mowing. Just a few hundred yards from those early purple orchids the roadside grass has been shaved like a suburban lawn. Why?! Once a year is ideal, unless the mower turns up at flowering time; mowing too early can prevent flowering and seeding and debilitate the plants. In many areas of Britain, local councils are saving money by mowing less and in some areas special marker posts are used to warn the mowers off.
And then, today, the Journal of the Hardy Orchid Society arrives and there’s an article about a stretch of roadside in Essex, east of London, which is packed with orchids. Along a busy, relatively recently constructed road, there are 350 bee orchids (Ophrys apifera) and 250 pyramidal orchids (Anacamptis pyramidalis) - a dramatic increase from 50 bee orchids and 60 pyramidal orchids six years ago. Much of this increase is down to reduced mowing brought on by budget cuts.
So, when you’re stopped in traffic, look out of the window and see what you can see. When you’re a passenger, keep your eyes peeled. But please, when you’re driving, keep your eyes on the road!
Almost two hundred years ago Alexander Campbell, curator of the Manchester Botanical and Horticultural Society’s Garden, crossed a foxglove and a gloxinia (Digitalis grandiflora and Sinningia speciosa) to create what was known as Campbell’s hybrid foxglove.
It looks a little like a rusty D. grandiflora (below, right) but pollen from another foxglove - D. obscura, perhaps? - must have achieved the fertilisation that pollen from a gloxinia could never manage.
The first genuine foxglove hybrid between, D. purpurea and D. grandiflora, was made in 1849 but the seedlings were all sterile and it was not until 1924 that two hybrids that are still grown today were created at England’s John Innes Horticultural Institution: D. × mertonensis and D. ‘John Innes Tetra’.
Since then a large number of hybrids between different foxglove species have been created although, sadly, many have been lost including an interesting range created by the short lived Europa Nursery (anyone know where the owners, Tim Branney and Adam Draper, are now?).
Now, digitalis breeding is enjoying a bright revival with new hybrids being developed on both sides of the Atlantic. Goldcrest (‘Waldigone’) (above, left) was one of the first recent hybrids to make its mark. Three different breeding programmes in The Netherlands, in Suffolk (UK), and in Michigan, bring together the familiar British Native foxglove, D. purpurea, and D. canariensis from the Canary Islands. Foxlight Ruby Glow (‘Takforugl’) (above, right) is one of them. And, please, both parent plants are Digitalis. Let's not mess around with creating an imaginary new genus – Digiplexus.
Two new series of prolific dwarf hybrids are also just coming on to the market, the very short Knee High Series (‘Knee High Lavender’ above centre) from England and ‘Lucas’ and ‘Martina’ from The Netherlands.
I’ve recently published a long piece about the history of foxglove hybrids, from that early attempt using pollen from a gloxinia to the very latest developments. It appears in the current (March) issue of The Royal Horticultural Society magazine The Plantsman.
You can read my piece on foxglove hybrids online, but please take a moment to subscribe to The Plantsman: you can subscribe to The Plantsman here.
Easy online ordering is a huge boon, but there’s nothing quite like scanning printed catalogs by a winter fire (or in the smallest room in the house) and tagging the tempting plants. And it's too late to order for the coming season.
And you can see from my post-its marking the must-have plants in England’s Cotswold Garden Flowers plant catalog just how many tempting plants there are!
Owner Bob Brown has a fine eye for a good plant, picking out the best of the old favorites, the best newcomers and landing his eye on undeservedly neglected species. Bob also breeds new crocosmias, kniphofias, aconitums, and other plants and his son Ed has some developed some intriguing new Sambucus (elder) varieties.
One of those tags marks a rare hardy (zone 6a) climbing tuberous perennial cucumber I remember from Kew decades ago and have always wanted to grow - Thladiantha dubia. No edible cucumbers unless you have male and female plants, I’m afraid, but well worth growing for its yellow flowers.
And one of Ed’s elders will definitely go on the order: ‘Gate Into Field’ (!) is described as: “A very vigorous elder hybrid, very large heads of pink-flushed deliciously scented flowers later than normal, July – September, dark pink flushed foliage with pale midribs.” OK, it grows to 5m… I’ll just have to knock down the shed to make space, I suppose. Order going in just before I post this – so you don’t grab the last of the plants I’m ordering before I do!
The order to Missouri's Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds, who produce the extraordinary Whole Seed Catalog, has already arrived. The catalog is focused on its vast VAST array or heirloom edibles with a smaller section of flowers in the back. The tags only mark the flowers that appeal; I’d already taken out all the veg tags.
Have to say, this is the most astonishing catalog that I’ve ever seen. OK, it costs $9.95 (there’s a smaller free version). But there’s over 350 full color pages packed with goodies. Tomatoes, of course, feature strongly but there are also forty nine different lettuce varieties including the superb red leaved cut-and-come-again lettuce ‘Merlot’. I grew this last year and have ordered it again. It’s deep deep red in color, cuts for many weeks, tastes great and didn’t bolt. The three foot long Armenian melon from the 1400s is quite something, too.
I’ve also ordered the tall double America/African marigolds intended for cutting – never seen those before – and they also have some superb cut flower zinnias too.
Two oh-so-very-tempting catalogs. Here are the details.
Cotswold Garden Flowers
Order a fee printed catalog
Plants can be sent to most of Europe but not North America
Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds
Order The Whole Seed Catalog
Order a fee printed catalog
Seed can be sent anywhere in the world but they make it clear that sending seed to Europe is expensive and difficult.
On both sides of the Atlantic, independent trials of perennials are organized by a number of different organizations. But I’ve sometimes seen the Royal Horticultural Society’s Award of Garden Merit (AGM), often given after trial (phlox and sweet pea trial, above), used in American catalogs and wondered how much relevance this British award has in North America. And does the Plant Evaluation Program run by the Chicago Botanic Garden and, in Delaware, the trials run by the Mount Cuba Center (baptisia trial, below) have any relevance in Britain?
Well, this year I’m chairing a group of experts working to update the list of AGM heucheras for the Royal Horticultural Society (RHS) and I’ve sent all the participants copies of the reports of the heuchera trials at both Mt. Cuba and the Chicago BG.
Of course, the climate in Delaware and in Illinois is, well, rather different from the climate in Britain but, for hardy perennials, if they grow in Delaware or Illinois, they’ll generally grow in Britain. And while modern American heuchera breeding is often focused on suitability for specific climates, the way the plants look when they’re growing well is relatively constant; a harmonious combination of flowers and foliage works well in any climate. So these reports will provide valuable background to our deliberations.
At first I was skeptical, but now I can understand why the AGM appears in American catalogs – it’s one of a number of useful factors that inform choice. The problem is that some gardeners in Texas or Maine, while they may see that the plants look wonderful, may not appreciate that the plants are given their award in a climate that’s closer to that of Oregon or Washington state may not do well for them. In fact they may die their first year.
But it’s not just climate, there’s another thing going on. I suspect that most British gardeners, seeing trial results from Delaware or Illinois, will just assume that they’re of no relevance, or even interest, and ignore them. True, disease resistance in American trials is unlikely to be of value elsewhere as different forms of the same disease are found in different places. But if the flowers are a dingy color in Chicago they’ll be dingy in Britain, too
American gardeners, on the other hand, seem to have a more open attitude and although they may not want to read the detailed reports of the RHS trials in which plants were given the AGM, they’re happy to accept that this is useful information and allow the awards to inform their plant choices as they decide what’s right for their own gardens.
And perhaps, as the dissemination of information about plants becomes more global, these reports help writers and advisors and consultants develop a deeper understanding of the plants so that the guidance we pass on is more informed. And they help nurseries decide what to grow. These trials and their reports are certainly invaluable to me. Even something as simple as paying attention to the factors these reports consider important is useful.
* The Mount Cuba Center is based near Wilmington, Delaware, just over an hour north of Washington DC, and its primary aim is to foster enthusiasm for native plants and their conservation. You can download their trials reports here.
* The Chicago Botanic Garden has been organizing trials of hardy perennials, and other plants, since 1985 under the expert guiding hand of Richard G. Hawke. You can download their trials reports here.
* The Royal Horticultural Society has been running trials of everything from hamamelis to cabbages to marigolds since, it seems, time began. You can search their database of trials here.
Yes, really!! The whistling snowdrop! Let me explain.
Every year since 1929 the Royal Horticultural Society has published the Daffodil, Snowdrop and Tulip Year Book. It began as the Daffodil Yearbook, became the Daffodil and Tulip Yearbook in 1946 and more recently has added snowdrops.
I’ll tell you more about it in a moment but what about this whistling? Well, in the latest issue, there’s a short review of a German book called Schneeglockchen-ABC (The ABC of Snowdrops) by snowdrop wizard Matt Bishop. Here’s what he says:
“There is really only one way to describe Schneeglockchen-ABC: as very curious indeed... The text seems to be formed from a conscious and strange juxtaposition of fact and the wildly fictitious, with no attempt to differentiate them.… This is highlighted very early on, under the entry for a supposed cultivar ‘Alert’ which, translated, claims to be “described by Matt Bishop as the first snowdrop to produce loud whistling tones.”
He goes on to say, with remarkable restraint, it seems to me: “Much of the information… would have benefited from checking at source. The resulting text is marred by so many errors of information and spelling that it cannot be relied upon for accuracy.”
But let’s set that aside and point out the international value of this splendid annual. There’s a really useful summary of the rules governing taking plants to and from the UK, USA, EU and elsewhere; a fascinating piece on the wild daffodils of Morocco together with an overview of fifty years of daffodil breeding by Brian Duncan. Alan Street outlines how to start a snowdrop collection, there are reports from two tulip festivals in Yorkshire as well as from shows in Australia, New Zealand, various parts of Britain as well as the World Daffodil Convention held in St. Louis, Missouri.
There’s science, taxonomy, practicalities, conservation, awards and other info for both the serious expert and the enthusiastic newcomer. And the photography is excellent. And then there’s the whistling snowdrop. A splendid winter read.
* Unfortunately I’m able to provide you with a photograph of the legendary whistling snowdrop. So please enjoy Alan Street’s startling image of the variety ‘South Hayes’.
In the UK you can order the 2016 RHS Daffodil, Snowdrop and Tulip Year Book from the Royal Horticultural Society book store. They will also send copies anywhere in the world.
In North America you order the 2016 RHS Daffodil, Snowdrop and Tulip Year Book from the American Daffodil Society.
I’ve just discovered a nemophila I never knew existed! OK, perhaps that’s not the week’s biggest news. But having grown all the other forms of nemophila that have been available over the years, I was surprised not to have come across this one.
But let’s take a step back. What’s so good about nemophila (baby blue eyes) in the first place? Well, it’s one of the few hardy annual flowers that enjoys shade and also enjoys damp soil. The name comes from the Greek meaning, more or less, liking woodland.
These are low, spreading annuals that germinate in the fall in warmer climates (Britain and zone 8 in the North America) and make lush divided foliage to fuel the upward facing bowl shaped spring and summer flowers. Sown in spring, the plants are less lush but still delightful.
There are eleven species altogether but we generally only see two and most of the varieties are derived from wild forms of Nemophila menziesii, baby blue eyes. I say “derived from”, it seems to me that they’re nothing more than wild forms, selected for uniformity.
* “Baby blue eyes” is the popular Nemophila menziesii, sky blue with a white center; lovely. (above, bottom right)
UK: from Mr Fothergill's US (plants): from Annies Annuals and Perennials US (seeds): from Swallowtail Garden Seeds
* ‘Pennie Black’, 'Penny Black Eye' and ‘Total Eclipse’ are N. menziesii var. discoidalis, with chocolate-black white-edged flowers. Purple-centered forms are also seen. (above, top center)
UK: from Special Plants US: from Swallowtail Garden Seeds
* ‘Snowstorm’, “baby white eyes”, ‘Salt and Pepper’ and ‘Freckles’ are N. menziesii var. atomaria, pure white with delicate black spotting. Sometimes the broken lines of spots reach the edge of the petals, sometimes only half way; sometimes they’re purplish blue. The backs of the petals may be lightly blushed in blue. (above, top right)
UK: from Chiltern Seeds US: from seedaholic.com
* ‘Five Spot’ is a different species, N. maculata, the white flowers have a bright to inky blue or purple spot on each of their five lobes. (above, bottom center)
UK: from Mr Fothergill's US: from Swallowtail Garden Seeds
The one I’ve just discovered is called ‘Snow White’ (above left, and below) - pure white. It seems to be a form of var. atomaria – but with no spots. Looks lovely.
Just one US plant supplier Annie's Annuals and Perennials. And one American seed supplier Eden Brothers. So far, not available in the UK.
And then, of course, I had a look in some old books on annuals to see if there were any more. In addition to those already mentioned, I found:
var. alba has white flowers (sounds like ‘Snow White’).
var. argentea has “white flowers with blue stripes”. Very tempting…
‘Coelestris’ has “white flowers banded in blue”. Banded?
var. crambeoides has “pale blue flowers veined with purple”.
var. discoidalis is described as having “brownish purple, white bordered flowers”.
var. grandiflora has “much larger flowers”.
var. liniflora has “white or pale blue flowers with a black center”. Black with a blue edge!
var. marginata has “pale blue, white bordered flowers”.
var. oculata has “white flowers with a purple center”.
var. purpurea-rubra has “claret-cultured flowers”.
var. vittata has “velvety-black, white bordered flower”.
Not much consistency in the naming of the dark eyed types, as you can see.
There are more species from the western USA, the Flora of California (The Jepson Manual of the Higher Plants of California to give it its suitably dignified proper title) lists another five, and I also came across a trailing species with deep purple flowers, N. aurita, found in California by David Douglas probably in the early 1830s. But there are precious few references to it these days. If anyone has seed of that...!
So, an intriguing diversion into the delightful nemophilas… I haven’t grown these for a year or two, I’d better get some seed ordered… How big is my garden? Is that all?!
And don't get me started on pink flowered poached egg flower (Limnanthes)!
Recently I’ve been looking at some plants from long ago and seeing if they’re still around or have been re-invented in recent years. I did some posts about this on my Plant Talk blog for Mr. Fothergill’s: one on striped snapdragons and another on frilly pansies and another on 'Ostrich Plume’ asters.
Then recently I came across the colored engraving (above left) of green-edged petunias and I thought: Pretty Much Picasso! Nothing new under the sun… The engraving is from a German book, Gartenflora, published in 1855, and Pretty Much Picasso (‘BHTUN31501’) was introduced, what six or seven years ago.
The engraving is captioned “garden variety of Petunia violacea” (P. violacea is now P. integrifolia) and looks to be a group of similar, but far from identical, green-edged seedlings. More variation among seedlings was accepted in Victorian times but, at the same time, plants like petunias were also propagated from cuttings which ensured that all the resulting plants were identical.
A hundred and fifty years ago petunias were often grown in conservatories or orangeries because the flowers were so easily damaged by rain; today’s varieties are far more resilient.
Later, growing petunias from cuttings went out of fashion for many many years until the Surfinia trailing types arrived from Japan twenty plus years ago. Now, petunias from both seed and cuttings are of course widely grown – and one such is Pretty Much Picasso, selected in California back in 2007.
But there are still some old petunias that have not yet re-appeared. The dark-veined form with a chocolate and white star pattern (above left) is captioned simply Petunia violacea in the Belgian book from 1867 in which this engraving appeared. But although some chocolate veined varieties, such as Designer Latte (‘Kerlatte’) and Designer Cappuccino (‘Kercappuccino’) from British breeder David Kerley, are now available the combination of dark veins plus a chocolate and white star seems not to have yet been re-invented.
It’s a different story with the frilly and rufffled petunias that were so popular in Victorian times and were available both from seed (below left) and from cuttings. But then, again, these too went out of fashion but were re-invented a few years ago by the British plant breeders Floranova as the seed-raised Frillytunia Series (‘Frillytunia Pink’, below right) in three colors. When these were first introduced they were often greeted as an innovation rather than a re-invention.
Casting an eye over the catalogs and books of the nineteenth century reveals more different petunia types that will, probably sooner rather than later, be re-invented and re-introduced – but with today’s weather resistance and consistency added in.
In Europe, this year is – wait for it – The Year Of The Bean! Yes, really!
Each year a flower and a vegetable are chosen for special attention by The Home Garden Association, a European industry organization that promotes seed-raised flowers and vegetables. So 2017 is The Year Of The Bean – as well as The Year Of The Zinnia (we’ll get to zinnias another time).
But, when I remembered that it was The Year Of The Bean - actually, it’s hard to forget, don't you think? – the first bean that came to mind was one that’s never grown for its beans.
Well, just take a look at this crimson flowered broad/fava bean (above) - it’s called, well, ‘Crimson Flowered’! Isn’t it lovely?
What we grow today is a descendant of the 'Red Blossomed' bean that was first mentioned in England in 1778, and discussed in a report from the Horticultural Society of London in 1831. The report says: “Stem about four and a half feet high. Blossoms varying, sometimes of a light red, at others of a dark crimson color. Pods short and much pointed, seldom containing more than three Beans, which are small, short, and thick, of a rusty white color when ripe. This is only fit for ornament; it is but a moderate bearer, and will not keep long after gathering, as it soon turns black.” So, the flowers were the thing, and they still are.
So here's the story: The only reason that we can grow it today is that a gardener from Kent, Miss Rhoda Cutbush, donated four seeds to Britain's Heritage Seed Library exactly two hundred years after its first mention in print. It had been handed down to her many years previously by her father, who’d been given it before the First World War, and she’d saved seed every year and kept it going. The Heritage Seed Library increased stock and passed it around.
But I’m sure that today’s ‘Crimson Flowered’ is a different plant from the one that the Horticultural Society of London reported on in 1831. Selection, conscious or not, will have taken place by a number of gardeners over the decades and things change.
Today, it grows to about 90cm/3ft, instead of the 1.4m/4.5ft noted back then. Also, the British catalogue from Mr Fothergill's describes the beans as “flavourful” and Chiltern Seeds describe it as “very tasty”. I have to say that the last time I grew it I seem to remember that “unremarkable” was a better description.
In North America The Sustainable Seed Company describes them as “much shorter” than most other fava beans (Not in my experience) and Heritage Harvest describe them as “tasty”.
But there’s no doubt that this is a lovely thing and I’ll be growing it again this year – and will report on the flavor of the beans, and the height of the plants. And be prepared for more occasional bean-related (and zinnia-related) Year Of posts later this year.