Thursday, 24 February 2011

Witch Hazel...

Witch hazel has soothed many a bump and bruise and has been a household medicine cabinet favourite for generations. This one-time cure all was first fashioned by native north americans from a stew of the leaves and bark of their local species, ‘Hamamelis virginiana’. The distillate made from that same sort of soup today is what goes into the medicine bottles and makes for one of the best, scientifically proven herbal remedies on the market. 

Those plants which looked so much like our own British Hazels never made it into our gardens in a big way. Although winter flowerers, the blooms were too small and few and far between to create much of a following. Then came along the discovery and introduction of the Asiatic species just over a century ago and everything changed. Although still not all that common, when you see one you will want one as nothing beats them through late winter into early spring...

Hamamelis mollis’ is the parent of most of the Witch Hazels varieties you will find, though generally the many named forms only differ slightly in flower colour from lemon yellows through to oranges and red. All make large shrubs in time with an interestingly crooked branching habit. They have superb autumn colour, often in shades of deep reds and purples. It is for their flowers that they are chiefly celebrated however, and the fact that these will begin to appear when there is little else around to lighten the dark days of winter.
Throughout January, February and into March the bare branches are covered in countless small spidery blooms giving the overall impression from a distance of a golden cloud. Like tiny explosions of colour, the long, thin ribbon like petals zig zag out of the dark red calyces. Clusters of crimped strips of lemon zest, these delicate looking flowers may shrivel and shiver under frost and snow, but they take it in their stride and easily bounce back at every thaw.
Honey bees home in on this early nectar source on sunny days and you will too, drawn on by the wonderfully citrusy scent, just like the tangy peel of oranges. The fresh, fragrant golden flowers of Witch Hazels are a tonic at this time of year and the best cure I know for the winter blues.

Thursday, 17 February 2011

Spotted Laurel...

Fashions in gardening, garden design and garden plants come and go just as fashions do in clothing, it’s just that the timescale is a little different. Fads may pass in a season on the high street, but in the garden their development and decline can be measured in decades.

Take for example the Spotted Laurel, Aucuba japonica. This large evergreen shrub, originally a native of China, Japan and the Far East reached its peak of popularity here in the Victorian era. Back in those times, anything that held its leaves throughout the winter months was considered invaluable and those plants that brightened the often dark and sombre flavour of their gardens were seen as a great novelty. These spotted laurels hit both targets and were planted everywhere. Their fall from grace has been slow but steady ever since, but perhaps it’s time to reassess their virtues...

These aucubas really are amongst the toughest of performers in the garden, ably coping with conditions even the worst weeds would turn their noses up at. Densely shaded areas and dry rooty soils under the corrosive drip of trees are their speciality, and it is from these immensely difficult spaces that they shine out best. Their leaves you see are not just a dense dark green, but are speckled and spangled with yellow variegation, looking at its best like splashes of dappled sunshine reflecting off their glossy surfaces.
It is this ability to shine out from dark and unattractive settings and to grow in even the most unpromising of circumstances that have led to them, perhaps unfairly, to be associated with landscaping around parks public conveniences. Their success here and to the rear of smoke stained town houses has marred our view of these hardy survivors. 
Even the unfortunate name, ‘spotted’ laurel does them no favours, bringing to mind images of poorly, measled bushes. Although some of the older varieties may have had a chlorotic, jaundiced look, newer types such as ‘Crotonifolia’ have healthy, jagged leaves much more boldy marked. Female plants can also hold a crop of big shiny red berries right through the winter. Perhaps we should take the american’s approach here instead and call them “Gold Dust Plants’. 

The Aucubas, those one time megastars of the garden, fall from favour has surely lasted long enough. It is time to welcome these bright, good doers back into the garden...

Thursday, 10 February 2011

Silk Tassel Bush...

It always seems spring is such a long time coming, but at last the earliest snowdrops are showing, and the slightly longer, brighter days are tempting the birds into song. Soon, that other welcome sign of seasonal change, the dangling catkins of wind pollinated shrubs will be lengthening and opening, shaking their loads of golden dust into the passing breeze. But for one plant at least, those pendant flower parts have been an impressive decorative feature for months...

Garrya elliptica, the ‘Silk Tassel Bush’ a native of the far west coast of America, grows wild along a narrow strip of the Californian coastline within sea breeze distance of the mighty Pacific Ocean. Though, for nearly two centuries now, its solid constitution, adaptability and winter beauty have ensured its dispersal to gardens throughout the world.

This densely clothed evergreen has tough dark shiny leaves with felted, drought resistant under-surfaces. In its natural habitat it copes well with dry conditions and salt laden winds. Over here, it will happily do the same, but also handles shadier sites without complaint. It is for its off-season flowering however that it is chiefly celebrated. Its long smooth, grey-green catkins stand out against the more sombre leaves from November onwards. Looking almost like dangling bunches of caterpillars ready to spin silken cocoons, overall they give the plant a very attractive bluish grey appearance.
In this species male and female flowers appear on separate plants, but strangely enough both take the form of catkins. The males bear the largest with the celebrated variety “James Roof” taking credit for the longest of all, measuring in at an impressive 20cm. 
 As free standing specimens they are good, but they are often seen used to strikingly best effect when wall trained. Here the branch structure can be loosely tiered up the surface giving plenty of room for those magical catkins to hang down. They get some protection from the worst, biting drying winds in this position and can be surprisingly happy even in darker north facing situations. Pruning where required is best done in early spring as the tassels begin to fade, but before the new season’s growth gets fully underway. 
These splendid shrubs are festooned with stunning silvery tassels every winter and give the garden a spectacular and extremely long lasting display when little else is available.

Thursday, 3 February 2011


You have to admire the resilience of those plants that have toughed it out, fully leaved, through the worst of the winter. Most other sensible plants drop their leaves in October; they go deeply dormant and do not dare sprout again until spring has well and truly sprung. Evergreens however take all the bad weather that is thrown at them and help furnish gardens that would otherwise seem very bare and windswept scenes.

The Mahonias doubly deserve our gratitude for not only boldly holding onto their leaves throughout the year, but for brightening the darkest and dreariest months with their beautiful sweetly scented flowers. 

The most commonly found example of this group of shrubby evergreens is Mahonia x media ‘Charity’. Growing to about two metres in height and as much across, it makes for a fine architectural specimen. Each long upright branch is topped off with a whorl of very long leaves made up of up to twenty or so shiny holly-like leaflets. Their slightly prickly nature and the tough, impenetrable quality of the bush make this an excellent screening shrub and a plant to keep out unwelcome visitors. The fact that it will grow and perform well in unpromisingly shady situations only adds to its potential for almost every garden.

Easily overlooked through the summer when there is so much else to draw the eye, the Mahonias are at their best in deepest winter. That is when, with little else around to compete, they produce their spectacular tassels of sweetly scented flowers. Exploding like catherine wheels or golden fountains atop the long stems, each string of small, primrose yellow flowers can be over a foot long. Their lovely perfume is like that of Lily of the Valley and if some of those long lasting flowers are brought inside, they will subtly scent whole rooms.
These exceedingly tough and dramatic good-doers survive and thrive in virtually any situation short of a waterlogged site. Left alone they dependably fill their allotted space, controlling and dominating competition through shading, saving much time and trouble weeding. If and when some pruning is needed to prevent potential legginess, then this forgiving shrub will respond well to the treatment, best done in Spring. That is when you will discover their other, usually unseen and totally unexpected extraordinary feature. The wood is the most startlingly bright yellow!
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