Thursday, 26 May 2011

The Peony...

Flower fashion is being set for the season right now at Chelsea Flower Show, the world’s foremost horticultural event. Plant breeders and nurserymen vie with each other to produce the best displays and promote their finest new varieties. Garden designers painstakingly create stunning mini landscapes just for the week. Celebrities mingle, attempting to outshine the dazzling displays. Garden pundits air their opinions on what is in and what is out in the garden world. 

Some plants always seem to feature though. The timing of the show and the opulent and abundant beauty of Peony flowers have made them a regular there for the past century. But, they have been prized and cherished around the world for a lot longer than that. Legend has it that many years ago in ancient China, it was only the emperor that could own the magnificent tree peony. Fortunately that is now a privilege we can all enjoy.

Peonies actually come in two forms. The more commonly seen herbaceous types shoot up from the ground each season and the tree types which produce a woody framework. Don’t expect towering giants with the latter though- six to eight foot high shrubs are more on the mark. Whichever type is chosen, these long lived plants will reward with the most gorgeous flowering display through May and into June.

There are some natural species with more restrained single flowers, but it is the highly bred, spectacular double blooms that once seen are never forgotten. Almost indecently glamorous, they range in colour from deep ruby, crimson and scarlet through various shades of pink to white, often with a dramatic boss of yellow stamens in the centre. These luxuriantly rich flowers can be vast, up to a whopping ten inches across and their fully developed weight means that support of some sort is almost essential.

Peony foliage is an attractive reddish bronze colour as it emerges in spring, and its deeply dissected outline continues to have presence throughout the season. The plants resent disturbance and can often take a few years to flower after moving, but given a sunny site they will go on to give great pleasure for decades.
Peonies are hardy, tough plants that have certainly stood the test of time. Whatever fad or fashion Chelsea throws up this year, their rich, sensual, and seductive beauty will continue to captivate gardeners for many years to come.

Thursday, 19 May 2011

The Laburnum...

As spring merges into early summer we are yearly rewarded with the emergence of fresh foliage on trees. Throughout the landscape they are looking at their absolute best. Their bright, light greens are seen in every shade and texture, far removed from late summer’s duller leaden hues. Its the time of year too when many of our favorite flowering trees erupt into bloom and none is a finer sight this month than the Laburnums.

They are covered for weeks around now with long pendant groups of clustered flowers giving rise to their common name of ‘Golden Rain Tree’ or ‘Golden Chain Tree’. Closer inspection of the flowers and their fresh green, clover like foliage shows this small garden tree is actually part of the pea family. 
It was first introduced to the UK in Elizabethan times from the mountains of Southern Europe and has proved hardy, decorative and useful ever since. Its heartwood is the most extraordinary shade of deep olive brown surrounded by contrasting creamy yellow sapwood. It is ideal for turning and interestingly was once widely used for bagpipe parts.
Laburnums’ big breakthrough came in the mid 1800s however when a cross occurred between the two sparse flowered natural species, creating the cultivar Laburnum x watereri ‘Vossii’. This is the form you see planted everywhere now as its longer golden chains of abundant flowers can reach up to two feet in length. Although not large, or long lived, it has proved immensely popular. The spread of the suburbs over the last century, vastly increasing its welcome presence. 
If it has a downside it must be that every part is poisonous and the seeds that develop after flowering are particularly so. Children mistaking them for peas in a pod have been severely affected in the past. As unsupervised outdoor play becomes less common though, the chance of this happening becomes rarer. Sadly too, most children now associate peas with frozen bags at the supermarket rather than pods plucked fresh from the plant.
So, don’t be put off this wonderful, colourful tree as a potential addition to your garden. If you have more space, go one step further and train it over arched supports to create a tunnel of flower hanging down over a pathway. However they are grown, Laburnums create stunning showers of ‘Golden Rain’ overhead...

Thursday, 12 May 2011

Bleeding Hearts...

Surprisingly, some of our most delicate looking plants are amongst the toughest and this is certainly the case with the beautiful ‘Bleeding Heart’ or Dicentra spectabilis as it is scientifically known. Its fleshy pink shoots appear so brittle and tender when they first push through in spring. They quickly reach up to two feet or more in height and seem strangely insubstantial in holding aloft the graceful ferny foliage. Those watery stems are well up to the job however and more than capable of supporting the plant’s copious flowering too.

Those flowers look just like little pink hearts and dangle down in a long line beneath the slender, arching flower stems. They really are the prettiest things and are seen to best effect where a shaft of sunlight can shine through them, showing off their almost translucent quality. It is little wonder that they have been cottage garden favorites since the 1840s when they were first introduced from their native China.
A plant so popular and so pretty has picked up a few other common names along the way. ‘ Lady’s Locket’ and ‘Lyre Flower’ describe perfectly the shape of the blooms. As does ‘Dutchman’s Breeches,’ if you are familiar with Dutch trouser fashion of times gone by. My favourite name for it though is ‘Lady in the Bath.’ To see how this works, you must pluck off an individual flower, then holding it upside down, gently pull apart its deep pink sides. There, revealed within, is the pale slim lady of the name enjoying the moment in her victorian roll-top bath. 
Whatever you call them, these are beautiful plants in the garden. Quite content in part shade, they also cope well with full sun so long as the soil always remains moist. There is a white flowered form and a lovely golden leaved variety, but to my mind, the original is still the best. The particular pink hue of its flowers is hard to place, but somehow it seems to remind me of 1950/60s plastics. Don’t let this put you off, but do take a closer look next time you meet one, and see if you agree.
Their only failing is that their late spring/early summer magnificence does not last. As temperatures rise and the ground dries, the plants die back and disappear. They are only resting though and burst through with renewed vigour, yet apparent delicacy, next spring.

Thursday, 5 May 2011


We have long enjoyed the beauty and benefit of naturalising bulbs in grass. Those early spring favourites, snowdrops, crocus and daffodils have been the staple of such displays. The lengthening grass serving to effectively hide the bulb foliage as it dies back.

There is increasing interest however in extending this flowering meadow effect. As intensive agriculture and modern farm practice leave less and less space for wild flowers, it is becoming fashionable to create a more naturalistic look in the garden. 

European style ‘prairie plantings’ are at the forefront of this design movement. Here, the more vigorous herbaceous perennials are released from the cosseted environment of flower borders and introduced to rougher grassland. The results can be quite beautiful in a larger landscape setting and economically, the low maintenance regime is another part of the attraction. 
While we may not be ready quite yet to go to such extremes, there are lessons to be learned for all of us. If nothing else, it shows us the way to become more adventurous in our smaller scale ‘mini-meadow’ plantings.
‘Camassias’ may be the way ahead here as the various species will lengthen the flowering season through May and into June. They are bulbous plants whose original home was North America, though conditions here suit them well enough. From a rosette of grassy leaves their single flower spikes shoot up to a height of about two foot. Each one holds up to a hundred star shaped blooms opening from the bottom upwards. From pale china blue to deeper blues, violet blues and even a few forms in white, each spidery petalled flower has an array of contrasting golden yellow stamens. 
They make a striking feature amongst longer grass, and may begin to naturalise if conditions suit them. But even if you have neither the room nor inclination for flowery meadows, they make for an equally eye catching border feature.
Bulbs, bought and planted in the autumn would be the best way to introduce Camassias to your garden. Then, if, after a few years they thrived and you built up a surplus, you could always thin them out by eating some... To native North Americans they were a super sweet delicacy. You may not want to go to the trouble of cooking them though, as pit roasting for up to three days was the preferred method of preparation! 

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