Thursday, 28 July 2011

Opium Poppy...

A garden’s structure is made up of the long established elements of walls, steps and pathways. Alongside these, there are the seemingly permanent fixtures of trees, shrubs, hedges and climbers. Herbaceous plants return to fill their allotted space year after year, so it is often down to our use of annuals to introduce an exciting element of change into the scene. Through them, the artistic gardener can experiment and paint with an ever changing palette of colour and form.

It is not always our best laid plans either that work out well here. Some of the finest seasonal plantings and associations are happy accidents. Self-seeders will cheerfully volunteer their presence in the least expected places. The ‘Opium Poppy’ is one of these, and once sown is a never without, welcome guest to the garden.

Botanically ‘Papaver somniferum,’ this plant has been cultivated for thousands of years. Its derivative drugs were once widely used to lull children to sleep and adults into darker dreams. Still unsurpassed as morphine where a strong painkiller is required, it is its deadly illegal trade as processed heroin that has given the Opium Poppy a bad name. So much so that it has been widely rebranded “Peony Flowered Poppy’ in these politically correct times!
Whatever we call it, as a hardy garden flower it warrants space from all of us. Its leaves are a beautiful greyish blue giving rise to strong, thin wiry stems, holding high the fat flower buds. These burst open through early summer to reveal the jumbled explosion of crumpled tissue paper petals within. Singles or doubles in white through varying shades of pink to purple, these fleeting flowers are soon followed by the big, round pepperpot shaker seedheads.
Where self-sown in the garden, best results come from thinning the seedlings to allow the selected few room to develop fully. Not at all fussy as to soil or situation so long as it is sunny, the finest one I came across this year was squeezing out of the improbably small gap between a busy tarmaced road and nine foot wall. It proudly stood waist high, pushing numerous full petalled flowers skyward. 
Opium Poppies are ephemeral beauties perhaps, with something of a reputation. But these surprise, self-siting summer guests are a welcome addition to any garden...

Thursday, 21 July 2011

The Cotton Thistle...

Sometimes a patch of garden is just crying out for an ‘architectural plant,’ something bold and angular, something that makes a statement and shouts ‘Look at me!’ Standing up to nine feet tall in a single season, the jagged silvery outline of the Cotton Thistle certainly does this and would be an imposing and eye-catching feature in any garden.

Its scientific name is ‘Onopordum acanthium’ which very roughly translated means ‘prickly donkey food.’ I suspect only a starving donkey would be tempted to even go near it though as it is fully and visibly armed with a fearsome array of protective prickles. 

In the garden though, beyond reach of all hungry donkeys, it makes for an imposing and attractive specimen. Shooting quickly up to over head height, the widely branching stems are topped off in typical purplish thistle heads, only these flowers are impressively larger and splendidly spikier. The whole plant can be three feet or more across and from top to bottom a dazzlingly brilliant white, thanks to a thick felty covering of fine silvery grey hairs. 
This is a plant with a split personality, as far as touch is concerned. The fine cotton flocking all over makes for a very soft feel, temptingly touchable in fact. But, catch your hand on one of those leaf edge prickles and you will quickly learn to avoid close encounters in the future. Even the stout stems carry long vertical wings of leafy material lined with these protective thorns. Grazing animals around its Mediterranean home may learn to leave them alone, but bees and butterflies love them and will bring the plants to life on warm and sunny afternoons.
Easy to grow is perhaps an understatement. Once resident in the garden, it is just a question of ignoring a few of the self sown seedling and allowing them to fend for themselves. Either that or transplant a few whilst small, before their taproot fixes them firmly in place. They are best sited where their display will be a welcome bonus rather than a prickly hazard to passers by. These plants are biennials which means they have a two year life cycle... In the first year they produce a relatively inconspicuous looking weedy rosette of silvery foliage. It is then in their second year that they quickly shoot up to spectacular heights as prickly grey giants of the garden...

Thursday, 14 July 2011

The Giant Scabious...

Plants are like people. Some are challenging to keep and cultivate, whilst others are easygoing and content to merge into the background. Then there are those few flamboyant performers who like to take centre stage. Too many of the latter could be hard work, but now and again in life and the garden these characters can lift the scene...

So, some plants earn their keep in the border by nature of their larger than life personalities and the outsize impact they create. The ‘Giant Scabious,’ or if you prefer botanical latin, Cephalaria gigantea, certainly fits into this category. Any plant with the word ‘Giant’ as part of its name is worthy of at least a second look and although some might ultimately disappoint, this particular supersized wildflower would work well in many gardens.
Thankfully, it’s not irritatingly extrovert in terms of brash colouring or blowsy overblown blooms, but it is truly over the top in terms of height. An average plant produces flowers six foot up, with well fed specimens in good years soaring much higher than that. Eight to ten feet or even more is not unusual!

If that sounds too overpowering, don’t be put off. The proportionate flowers are spaced widely enough not to offend and are held aloft on strong wiry stems, well overhead. The main mass of attractively divided foliage sitting down at a much more discreet and manageable waist height.

Although we may associate scabious with pin cushion flowers in shades of light blue or even pink, this eastern european giant blooms in the most delicate shade of primrose yellow. The individual flowers are quite large at a couple of inches across but seem perfectly in scale up there floating above the rest of the border. And, if the garden is blessed with a little sunshine, the sight of them waving gently in the breeze, lemon yellow against a deep blue sky is truly wonderful. Both bees and butterflies think so too and are drawn irresistibly to these aerial feeding platforms. They can be buzzing with life on a warm day. 

Remarkably tough and easy to grow perennials, they are quick off the mark too, reaching full height within a season from a seed sown start. The ‘Giant Scabious’ may be a plant for the back of a large border, but this plant has a big personality and always draws the eye up to its dancing flowers in the sky.

Thursday, 7 July 2011

The Red Rose of Lancaster...

Mid-summer is when roses really begin to get going, and for the true old roses it is their only period of bloom. What these may lack in repeat flowering, they more than make up for in the quantity and quality of their annual display. 

The ‘Red Rose of Lancaster,’ Rosa gallica ‘Officinalis’ is one of my favourites in this group and is certainly a rose of great antiquity. Introduced from the East by the Romans to Gaul (France), throughout the middle ages it was grown there in vast quantities around the town of Provins. Unusually, the dried petals retained much of the fragrance, and this led to their early international trade and use in herbal remedies. Its other common name, still widely used today, is ‘The Apothecary’s Rose.’

Although it takes its place in our pre-tudor history as the ‘Red Rose of Lancaster’ the flower seems far from red to our modern eyes. The semi-double blooms are a shade of bright pink we might in fact more simply describe as “rose” coloured. Individual flower’s slightly ruffled petals open wide to reveal the cluster of bright golden yellow stamens within. Gorgeously and heavily perfumed, they are as attractive to bees as they are to ourselves.

The tough and very hardy bushes grow about a metre high and are more prickly than sharply thorny. They thrive in full sun, but otherwise don’t require rich living, doing well in relatively impoverished soils. The foliage is a strong deep green, and each stem carries one, three or more flowers. Throughout late June and into July the plants are literally smothered in bloom, the branches hanging low with their weight, particularly after rain. Sadly though, something so good does not last forever, and in time those fabulous flowers fade and pass away.
It is at just this point in time that pruning can be most effective. Although secateur work generally can be taken to the level of an intricate art form, operating on these red roses can be much simpler... 
We take a big petrol hedge-trimmer to them and slice everything off to half height. A nervous few days follows when we search for signs of life amongst the remaining brown sticks. But, luckily they always quickly green up, going on to give a superb display again the following year.

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