Thursday, 29 December 2011


Perhaps you have had your fill of snow already or perhaps the coldest weeks are yet to come. Although the days may be getting imperceptibly longer, the new year usually brings with it the deepest freeze of the season. 

Snow though, or no snow, there are still a few plants out there that can bring a bit of pleasure on even the darkest and chillest of days. One such is the ‘Snowberry’ or Symphoricarpos albus as it is more correctly and scientifically known. This small shrub has lovely clusters of waxy white ball like fruits held amongst its bare branches. Like shining pure white marbles or tiny globe lights amongst the twigs, they are quietly satisfying and surprisingly long lasting. Break them open and you will find a snowy sparkling white pulp surrounding the two seeds. Birds do eventually eat them, but as in all the best berrying garden plants, they are far from their favourites and will last a long time on the bare shoots.

This plant spreads slowly by suckering and occasionally by self sown seedlings but can be easily kept in check if need be. Usually though, its spreading habit can be quite an asset as it can be left to happily colonise slightly shady areas beneath trees where it makes for an excellent and trouble free ground cover. It grows to about a metre in height, and although not the showiest plant in the summer garden, is certainly one of the more useful. It thrives in full sun and good soils, but can also fill those marginal spaces with no fuss, providing useful cover for birds and excelling at out competing the weeds.
Its flowers in summer are small, modest and pretty in shades of pink, opening in small clusters at the tips of the branches. These later go on to develop into the groups of pea sized fruits which lighten and brighten the branch tops through from autumn’s leaf fall right through into the new year. 

The berries are said to be poisonous, though seldom sampled as we have a natural inbuilt aversion to the look of white fruits. Interestingly, over in their native north america their ghostly whiteness led to their alternative name of ‘Corpse Berries’ and they were believed to provide sustenance to wandering ghosts...

Friday, 16 December 2011


Mistletoe is a rare and mysterious thing. For most of the year it remains hidden and camouflaged amongst the leaves and branches of other trees.  But in the the darkest depths of winter it stands out as living green amongst the frozen bare branches. Its pearly berries shining out in moonlight, speaking to our ancestors of the rebirth of the year from the cold, frozen midwinter solstice.

For millennia it has been associated with those other evergreens, holly, ivy and yew in ritual celebration of the turn of year, from death into life and future fertility. We have come a long way since then but a kiss under the Mistletoe is still a powerful echo from the past.

‘Viscum album’, as it is scientifically known, is a seldom seen partial parasite usually spotted in the branches of gnarled old apple trees. It has no roots of its own, instead it steals sustenance from its host. Surprisingly, the biggest and best specimen I have ever seen is only half a mile from our house, high in the crown of a Lime tree. The most prolific and widespread ‘infection’ I sighted however was in a group of poplars.

We have tried to establish it in the orchard here at Levens, but with no success. Seed left over after Christmas, pressed beneath old bark is not the answer. This year we will try again with fresh seed smeared across younger branches in March. With luck, in ten years time we will have more than enough of mistletoe’s magic.

Saturday, 10 December 2011


As Christmas comes around again each year, so too does the urge to decorate our homes with seasonal greenery. Christmas trees of course bring the living wood inside, but there are older traditions relating to evergreens and their power in the depths of winter. The Holly, Ivy, Mistletoe and Yew are all reminders of a pagan, pre-christian connection to myth, legend and beliefs long forgotten. Alive still in the depths of the darkest, coldest months when all other plants are seemingly dead. They have long celebrated the renewal of life and turn of year at the winter solstice.

2011 has been a good berrying year here for holly, and according to folklore that in turn brings a hard winter. Perhaps it relates more to good weather at flowering time, but with snow and sub zero temperatures coming early to Lakeland the prediction certainly seems to have come true this time. At Levens Hall, we gather branches of this along with our other native evergreens to decorate in seasonal style...

Wreaths are a speciality, their large wire frames hidden by being built up slowly with layers of sphagnum moss tightly bound on by thin wire. This gives the framework onto which the other components are pinned with stubs of stiffer wire. A broad ruff of conifer foliage is first placed at the rear, then concentric rings of prickly plain green holly shoots followed by a smaller central whorl of darker, softer irish yew. They are finished with balancing tufts of golden variegated holly and extra clumps of berries. They are neither quick nor easy to make, but are a magnificent tribute to a traditional craft.

We also often create an imposing evergreen over-mantel above the main fireplace in the great hall. A long beam with a broad central boss and matching swags, entirely created from Holly. The finished article is a fine festive centerpiece with a grandeur and scale to match its imposing surroundings.

Fortunately for us, holly berries are not the tastiest fruits of the forest for our overwintering birds. Unless conditions are particularly grim, they may be left altogether and can sometimes be seen still in May as the following year’s small white flowers are produced. Trees can either be male or female and where we collect ours from the local estate woodlands there are plenty of both. But, if you are planting one in the garden make sure it is a female form if you plan to gather festive greenery with plenty of ripe red berries...

Sunday, 4 December 2011


Fantastic flowers and fabulous foliage are so thick on the ground in the summer that individuals can sometimes become lost in the glorious whole. But, get to this time of year and the cold dark days mean most have packed in, dropped their leaves and gone dormant until the better days of spring arrive. We are left then to take a second look at some of the plants with real staying power. Those that may not shine out in summer, but without which, our winter gardens would be a much barer and more barren place.

Top of my list for reassessment is the much maligned ivy. Seldom given a second glance in summer or even seen as a damaging weed or tree toppling parasite, even the commonest native form retains its beauty through the worst of the season’s weather. Its shiny green leaves, often attractively marbled along the veins, look at their best under a sprinkling of snow, or rimed with an icing sugar edging of frost.

Their flowers too, while perhaps not spectacular are produced in large quantities on the maturer growth. Their ball like heads are made up of many individual open florets which ooze with sweet nectar and are an immensely important food source when little else is available. From early autumn right through till Christmas, though seemingly out of step with the rest of nature, they prove an irresistible last chance hotel for bees, hoverflies and other insects. The resulting seeds ripen to a deep, dark almost black colour in late winter, giving a fresh feast for birds long after autumn’s supplies have been taken and some time before spring’s new opportunities begin.

Broad leaved evergreens as tough and hardy as this are rare, and rarer still those which will grow and thrive in the most difficult conditions. Ivy may go unnoticed for much of the year, but we should appreciate its willingness to occupy ground and situations which would kill lesser plants. It happily gives weed smothering ground cover even in the deepest and driest shade. It also shows its versatility in its ability to clothe dark north facing walls, as an efficient no fuss self clinging climber. Add to that the shelter, nesting and food opportunities it provides for insects, birds and wildlife in general, and you can see why ivy should play a part in every garden.
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