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

News from northern travels

Dahlias protected from earwigs with organza bags
Dahlias protected from earwigs with organza bags at Cloudberry Flowers.

I’ve been on a little jaunt. A week in the Scottish borders and in Northumberland making horticultural stops – not to mention startling fellow drivers by singing sea shanties as we were stuck in traffic.

I stayed with my old friend, the award-winning botanist Phil Lusby, author of Scottish Wild Plants: Their History Ecology and Conservation, and his weaver wife Ellie. Sadly, amazon has priced his splendid book more than a little high (£77.99), although they also say that it was published in 1679 so what do they know! Oh, wait. There's a revised edition at a proper price: £11.43. That's more like it.

I learned some very interesting background on the genetics of native roses, which I’ll come back to here another time, and we found a puzzling variegated honeysuckle in a hedgerow. Puzzling, because there was so much of it: not just a single shoot or a single plant – there was masses of it. I suspect virus.

Lonicera periclymenum with mysterious variegation
Lonicera periclymenum with a mysterious variegation growing in a Scottish hedgerow

We had a lovely visit to Cloudberry Flowers in Peebles, one of the new breed of cut flower growers supplying fresh, locally grown, sustainably produced flowers for local customers. Catherine Duncan’s cutting gardens seem steadily to be taking up more of the acre of garden that surrounds the house, encroaching on the lawn.

I was especially taken with the ghostly dahlias (at the top): organza bags keeping out the dreaded earwigs.

In Northumberland I visited Halls of Heddon, celebrating their centenary this year, and from whom I and my friends order dahlias and chrysanthemums. Apart from the fine quality of their plants, customers who’ve had occasion to use their customer service cannot speak too highly of the response.

I always enjoy seeing plants on trial, lined up in rows, side by side, and that’s what you’ll find at Halls. It makes it so easy to compare varieties and I guarantee you’ll be delighted when come across a treasure that you didn’t know. I was very taken with ‘Blyton Everest’, a very tight, white small decorative with lavender tints in the centre.

Of course, we can’t all get to visit but their website is easy to use and comprehensive.

Halls of Heddon display garden
The Halls of Heddon display garden

In Northumberland I also paid a visit to another cut flower grower, Kate Norris at Northumbrian Flowers near Hexham. Busy with weddings, there’s a flurry of brides desperate for flowers as all the pandemic-postponed weddings are back on the calendar, the cutting garden was nevertheless looking very prolific.

Rudbeckia 'Sahara' at Northumbrian Flowers
Rudbeckia 'Sahara' at Northumbrian Flowers

Her bed of Rudbeckia ‘Sahara’ was impressive – such lovely tones – and there was bed after bed of helichrysums in separate colours. Kate had also recently planted more woody plants for cutting, especially hypericums, so I was able to recommend some physocarpus and point her to me my earlier blog post.

And finally, apart from enjoying the magical Borders scenery, I also got to spend a couple of evenings in a delightful little shopfront pub in Newbiggin-by-the-Sea on the Northumberland coast. The Ink Spot is only open a few hours a day, three or four dys a week, there’s no loud music, no food – just cheerful locals and their dogs enjoying drink and conversation. Seats, at a guess, eighteen. Marvellous. I’ll be back.


Two ways to grow chrysanthemums

Chrysanthemums as footstools and in a crowded border. Image ©
I spotted these “mums” on the left (above, click to enlarge), growing outside the hospital where I’ve been going for my cardiac rehab. They’re replacements for petunias grown in exactly the same way and look like nothing more than a display of footstools outside a furniture store. Although they’re perfectly hardy, they’re treated as seasonal bedding plants and will be replaced when they’re over.

This is one two main ways we see chrysanths here in the US, the familiar alternative is to grow similar varieties as individual specimens in pots, on the front steps perhaps. These, too, will be discarded after a couple of months.

Interestingly, this approach replicates the way plants were grown hundreds of years ago when it was so often the individual plant that was important, and each was allowed space from its neighbor so that it could be appreciated as an individual.

An alternative style is shown above right, where tall single flowered types are planted in a slightly chaotic effervescence of color. As it happens, this much more British way of growing them is seen at the New York Botanical Garden, where all these so far unnamed varieties were developed. But they’re planted so closely together, and so in need of support, that getting in to dead head is impossible.

Personally, I wouldn’t grow them either way. I choose varieties in the same style as those single Korean At 88 cents/50 pence each these chrysanthemums are just too cheap. Image ©GardenPhotos.comtypes at the New York BG, but mix them with perennial asters of various kinds as well as eupatoriums, heleniums, sedums and other late perennials plus shrubs such as physocarpus and euonymus with a long season of fall leaf color. But unfortunately we don't have enough sun here in Pennsylvania for the these sun-loving autumn perennials to thrive, it’s now just too shady.

And while we’re talking about of chrysanths I thought you might like to see these bargain plants I spotted on sale (click to enlarge). Yes, 88 cents – that’s fifty pence. Too cheap, they’re too cheap. No one can make a living from producing plants that sell at that price.

Faded chrysanthemums - they didn't last long. Image ©GardenPhotos.comUPDATE: Today, nine days after I took the picture of the footstool chrysanthemums in full color - they look like this (left, click to enlarge). Ghastly.

Nearby - this is at the Pocono Medical Center at East Stroudsburg, PA, where I've been going two or three times week for my cardiac rehab - are plantings of New Guinea impatiens which have been looking good for months.

Today I also spotted some double yellow French marigolds which also look as if they've been there for months are are flowering away merrily.

OK, we can't expect a hospital to grow chrysanths like they do at the New York Botanical Garden. But first there were petunias - which we poor - and then there were these chrysanthemums which were colorful for about a week. The marigolds were surely the best value - by far.

$20 makes for a pricy perennial

xHeucherella Copper Cascade: retailing at $19.95! Image ©
I’d read about xHeucherella ‘Copper Cascade’ and it sounded wonderful. A small-leaved trailer or ground cover with rosy coppery gold leaves all the year round. It seemed ideal to cover the bare soil around the edge of one of our dark-leaved Physocarpus opulifolius ‘Mindia’ – known as Coppertina in North America and as Diable d’Or in Europe – with its amber shoot tips.

So when I spotted a ‘Copper Cascade’ in a nursery on my way back from cardiac rehab a few weeks back – I immediately put it in the cart. But I should have looked more carefully. OK, it was in an 8in pot, but when I got to the checkout I discovered, to my shock, that the price of this one plant was – $19.99! (plus sales tax). Twenty bucks! I’m glad my creaky heart could take the shock. For Brits that’s £11.73.

Now, over the years, I’ve more than once said here that plants are too cheap but twenty dollars for one Heucherella is just too much. I’m not sure how much the White Flower Farm branding has upped the price - they have to take their cut, after all – but don’t you think that price is a bit steep?

White Flower Farm are not offering ‘Copper Cascade’ on their website, but the related ‘Redstone Falls’ sells for $19.45 (plus $9.95 shipping) (£17.14) in a 3in pot which is even less of a bargain. Almost thirty dollars for one heucherella in a 3in pot…! Come on, be reasonable…
xHeucherella 'Copper Cascade' - you can see why I was tempted. Image ©Terra Nova Nurseries

Unique British sweet pea - also available in the US

Sweet Pea 'Cherub Northern Lights', gorgeous colours on a dwarf plant. Image ©Mark Rowland

The dwarf ‘Cupid’ sweet pea, with white flowers, was first discovered in California in 1893 and, after a flurry of favor, and the addition of other colors, by 1914 interest had faded away.

In the 1950s enthusiasm revived, more colors were selected in the Cupid Series, the semi-tall Jet Set, Knee-Hi and Explorer series were created and more recently Mark Rowland of Owl’s Acre Sweet Peas (who send seed to North America as well as Britain) developed his own improved dwarf series, the Cherub Series.

Now in fourteen colors, ‘Cherub Northern Lights’ is the latest in the series and is unique in dwarf sweet peas. “The flowers open pale with a delicate crimson flare gracing the centre of the standard and a blue picotee edge to the wings,” writes Mark in the 2013 British National Sweet Pea Society Annual where he gives an interesting account of the development of ‘Cherub Northern Lights’. “The colours slowly spread to suffuse the petals and it was this ever changing effect that inspired the choice of name.” Bred from his unique modern Grandiflora sweet pea ‘Fire & Ice’, it brings the subtle colouring and outstanding fragrance of ‘Fire & Ice’ to a dwarf plant. By the end of the season plants form a mound about 30cm/12in high (below).

Sweet Pea 'Cherub Northern Lights' in a hanging basket in the UK in June. Image ©GardenPhtos.comMark’s Cherub Series, launched at the Chelsea Flower Show in 2006, and now available in fourteen colors and a mixture, has proved an excellent series for containers. “To give of their best they need plenty of sunlight, good drainage and plenty of air movement,” Mark says on his website. “This makes them ideal for container growing, and three or four plants in an 45cm/18in tub will give a spectacular display.”

Mark also has the first two varieties in a completely new dwarf series, the Sprite Series, which flowers much earlier than plants in the Cherub Series or Cupid Series. ‘Dark Sprite’ is a maroon and violet bicolor, while ‘Lavender Sprite’ is clear lavender and won an Award of Garden Merit in this year’s Royal Horticultural Society sweet pea trial. I saw it in baskets (left, click to enlarge) and it was lovely. Both reach about 25cm and should be begin to flower in late May in Britain.

Gardeners on both sides of the Atlantic can order these and many other sweet peas from Owl’s Acre Sweet Peas. Dwarf types can be tough to find in North America.

You can read more about sweet peas in my recent piece in Britain's Daily Telegraph newspaper and I’ve brought together news of all the new sweet peas introduced in Britain this season on my Royal Horticultural Society New Plants blog.

The natural spread of Sweet Pea 'Cherub Northern Lights'. Image ©Mark Rowland

Thanks to Mark Rowland for the images at the top and bottom of this piece.

Buying clematis by mail order (US style)

Clematis plants from Donahue's Greenhouse. Image ©GardenPhotos.comNot long before I came over to England, I decided to order some clematis. We don’t have all that many and I thought it was high time we added some more. Local nurseries have a very limited selection, and they’re not cheap, so I looked at some mail order suppliers.

I wanted small plants – I prefer not to pay to ship big pots full of soil across the country; if I order smaller plants, much lighter in weight, I can have plants more for the money. OK, I know that what I’m actually paying for when I buy large plants is time, maturity. But they’ll probably have to be cut back to fit in the box anyway.

So, I had a look at some recommended mail order clematis suppliers. One nursery sells two year old plants at $22 each, with 20% minimum shipping: so five plants would cost $132 (£82). That seemed too much, I’d rather have smaller plants. Another mail order specialist I looked at does not give a shipping cost until they ship the plants – so you have no idea how much the shipping will actually be when you order. Two clematis nursery websites I looked at had searches that didn’t work properly.

So I asked Linda Beutler, a fellow Timber Press author who wrote Gardening with Clematis, for advice. And as well as some I’d already tried, she suggested Donahue’s Greenhouse. They don't immediately sound like a clematis nursery, but I’m glad she told me about them.

Donahue’s Greenhouse supply younger plants, in 31/2in pots, all at $10.50 each. Input your zip code and the shipping cost is calculated as you go along – it came to $12 for ten plants. So a grand total of $117.00 (£73). I thought that was great value. Another good thing I sported: Donahue’s Greenhouse absorb the royalty charge levied on some new varieties so both old and new cost the same.

The plants arrived in a USPS Priority Large Flat Rate Box (for UK readers: same charge whatever the weight). They were packed tight – the only way to be sure they don’t move about and damage each other in transit. Each plant was still in its pot, in a protective plastic sleeve, and each plant tied to a short cane. All were well rooted plants, damp but not wet. The soil was a little loose in a few, but they’d travelled over 1100 miles so it’s hardly surprising. They took two just days to get here.

Problems? Not really. They even emailed to ask if their proposed shipping date was OK. True, the website is a little old-fashioned and could do with a new look, but it functions perfectly well. They also need to improve their seaarch engine rankings, when I searched on "buy clematis" they were not in the first 300 results.

So. A day or two to let the plants recover, a little liquid feed for each one, and then into the garden. Some will be flowering later this year.

New blog launches today

My new blog - Simply Blogging with Graham RiceToday, I start a completely new blog. The idea is to give British gardeners friendly, practical advice on growing and planting. It’s called Simply Blogging with Graham Rice and is hosted by my friends at the Norfolk mail order nursery Simply Seeds and Plants.

I’m starting off with some tips on how to deal with the Great British Drought – the use of sprinklers and hand held hosepipes is banned across the southern and eastern England from 5 April. Of course, it turned out that posting a blog about drought instantly produced a deluge. But I’ll also be talking about growing plants, suggesting planting ideas and occasionally sounding off about things that get me excited or drive me mad.

Simply Seeds and Plants are expert growers of sweet peas – they grow 30 million sweet pea plants a year… 30 million! - but they also grow patio and vegetable plants, chrysanthemums, fuchsias, and perennials. So hosting my new blog on the Simply Seeds and Plants site allows their customers find on-the-spot advice.

And let’s be clear – I’ll be blogging about what I think will help, interest and entertain gardeners. And the nursery will be offering discounts to blog readers. Sounds like a good deal to me.

So please take a look at Simply Blogging with Graham Rice. Why not subscribe to its feed, or you can sign up to get the posts by email.

* By the way... Owing to the wonders of online communication I was able to switch on the new blog at 9.45am from the back room of Joe's Bar in Union, New Jersey - just before taking my place as an extra in my nephew's latest movie...

Transatlantic crocosmias

I’ve always had a bit of a thing about crocosmias. At one time I grew about forty different ones, till spider mite took its toll during a couple of long hot dry summers. And although some people worry about how often they turn up in natural habitats in the west of Ireland – well, I still think they’re amongst the most valuable of perennials.

Crocosmias do two great jobs: they’re colorful and stylish in the garden, and they’re also really useful cut flowers. What’s more, last week I discovered what looks to be a fine American mail order specialist out in Washington State, Far Reaches Farm, to go with the leading British specialist Trecanna Nursery, in south west England.

But there are two questions which come up. For American gardeners, it’s a question of hardiness. These are South African plants, after all, and we can’t reasonably expect them to thrive in the more frigid parts of North America.

Sue Milliken and Kelly Dodson, from Far Reaches Farm, tell me: “We always tell people in colder areas to mulch the heck out of them. We just heard from a new customer in Illinois who grows them successfully in her 6a garden (winters down to −10F/-23.3C). She sent us pictures of her ‘Star of the East’ as proof.”(above, click to enlarge)

‘Distant Planet’, said to be unusually hardy, from the late lamented Seneca Hill Perennials in chilly upstate New York, has vanished here in Pennsylvania (also zone 6a, just) although we didn’t mulch much, just wanting to see how tough some of these plants really are. Now we know.

As for cut flowers, Tracey Mathieson at Foxtail-Lilly, just up the road from our British base in Northamptonshire, finds that her cut flower customers are looking for softer, more pastel shades rather than vivid reds and oranges. Crocosmia-Debutante-6-FarReaches500

Kelly and Sue say: “Pastels. Hmmm. ‘Debutante’ (right, click to enlarge) just enchants us. Small and petite and probably not the first choice for cutting due to her stature but very pleasing open-faced flowers in nice pink tones. ‘Severn Sunrise’ is vigorous and would qualify. ‘Okavango’ would rock for cutting as it is tall with big flowers clustered close together. The flowers go through various color phases in the peachy realm.”

Tracey didn’t approve of my choice of less strident colours from Trecanna Nursery - too vivid. So I’ll get her some ‘Debutante’ and see if her customers like it. And I’ll also be looking out for the double-flowered variety that Trecanna have on the way.

Heucheras: Changing through the seasons

Heuchera 'Tiramisu', Multiseason. Images ©
As I mentioned the other day, I've been thinking about heucheras recently - working on the next book, the new one is only just out. There are hundreds of heucheras now available, originating both in North America and in Europe, and I've especially been thinking about the qualities that make the very best varieties really stand out.

In the previous post I concentrated on those Heuchera varieties that combine good flowers and good foliage, now I've been wondering about those whose foliage changes with the seasons, providing different appeals at different times of the year.

Again I came up with my own list, and then got some advice from a real expert. My list was:

'Autumn Leaves'          

'Electric Lime'               
'Ginger Ale'
'Midnight Bayou'           

'Peach Flambé'
             'Southern Comfort'
'Tiramisu' (above, click to enlarge)

I then asked advice from Jooles Burton who, with her husband Sean, runs Heucheraholics. Apart from having just about the best nursery name in Britain, Heucheraholics is one of the two British Heuchera specialists who've done so much to popularise the plants in Britain.

"I think you've picked out the best of the Changelings," she said, "but these are a few that are also very good and always doing something different. 'Berry Smoothie' is the most amazing spring colour I have ever seen - squashed raspberries – and 'Snowstorm' has lovely pink winter colour, very different. But 'Pinot Gris' is favourite (but don't ask me why!), the gingery foliage with its silvery overlay ages to smoky rose.

"'Midnight Rose' has burnished black leaves, thickly spotted hot pink in spring and then the summer leaves are paler and dotted with cream and pink.

"I'm sure there's lots more, 'Ginger Peach', 'Encore', 'Beauty Colour', 'Georgia Peach', 'Marmalade, 'Mahogany', 'Pretty Perinne'… As you know they can appear totally different depending on shade/sun/water/cold etc... I love the way the colours become richer as the nights get colder."

Again, it's good to know that real expert who's been growing old and new heucheras for years doesn’t think my choice is completely mad! And with her great suggestions it just proves how many of these plants have that quality which is so valuable, especially in small gardens: growing plants whose foliage changes its color and tones as the months pass is like growing two or three different pants in the same place.

You can check out the Heucheraholics nursery website, run by Jooles and Sean Burton, at Please note that they do cannot send plants to North America.

And don't forget to check my earlier post on heucheras with both good flowers and good foliage.

Heucheras: for flower and foliage

Heuchera 'Rave On' Images ©Terra Nova Nurseries
I've been thinking about heucheras a lot recently. I know, there are lot to think about - and actually that's the point. There are so many that are good foliage plants, but what is it that makes the special few really special?

Two things I think. Varieties that change during the year, their foliage color shifting from one color to another so that the one plant looks different at different seasons is one important factor, I'll be giving a few thoughts on that next time. The other feature I look for is varieties that have good flowers as well as good foliage.

This is the list I came up with for the best heucheras for both flower and foliage. Of these 'Rave On' (above, click to enlarge) is my top pick.

'Café Ole'                        
'Cinnabar Silver'

                              'Peppermint Spice'
'Pretty Perrine'                 'Rave On'

'Stainless Steel'

I then asked Vicky Fox of Plantagogo, one of the two British nurseries who specialize in heucheras, what she thought of my list and if she had any other recommendations. She's grown more heucheras than I've ever heard of so she's well worth asking. Here's what she said:

"All the ones you mentioned are good although I find 'Rave On' (above, click to enlarge) can be hit and miss - a bit thin on the foliage sometimes, flowers well though. 'Shanghai' (below, click to enlarge) has fabulous flowers here continually flowering all summer, it has beautiful foliage on a compact plant. It would be a sin not to mention it. 'Fireworks' and 'Ebony and Ivory' are good flowering varieties too, with attractive foliage.

"Out of the older varieties 'Rachel' flowers for a long time and 'Jade Gloss is really good too, it flowers all summer with lovely foliage.

 Our favourite picks in the UK would be 'Milan', 'Paris', 'Rachel', 'Jade Gloss' and 'Shanghai' (below, click to enlarge). 'Havana' is nice but must have plenty of shade, it flowers very well in right position and of course the foliage is stunning."

Heuchera 'Shanghai' Images ©Terra Nova Nurseries

Well, it's good to know that I've not gone completely mad and that Vicky likes my list. I should mention that 'Stainess Steel' and 'Moonlight' have not yet made it to Britain so she couldn’t really comment on those two. It's such a help when you get advice from someone who really knows the plants and grows them all.

You can check out the Plantagogo nursery website, run by Vicky and Richard Fox, at Please note that they do send plants to North America.

Next time, heucheras whose foliage changes with the seasons.