Thursday, 27 January 2011

Strawberry Tree...

Imagine stumbling across a tree laden with frosted strawberries in sub-zero conditions in the middle of winter! No, I wasn’t dreaming, and nor was I wending my way back from a party or the pub. I spotted them the other day on a city street and it was a truly startling sight.

The tree that caught my eye was a ‘Strawberry Tree’ whose ripening clusters of ball like fruits are indeed the same size and colour as a strawberries and have the slightly roughened skin to match. There the resemblance ends however, as they look much better than they taste. Although edible enough, the mealy insipid flesh has none of the sweet tanginess that we would associate with a fruit. Interestingly, the plant’s latin name hints at this. It is Arbutus unedo, and the ‘unedo’ part apparently means ‘I eat one’, suggesting that no-one with fully functioning taste buds would ever bother with a second...

We might turn our noses up at them, but that does not mean they are not a treat for the birds, ripening through autumn and winter at a time when other food can be scarce. They have had to wait a long time for them to reach that stage though as the flowers are produced a full year or more before, opening as large trusses of pinky white bells in October and November. Strange timing indeed for insect pollinated blossoms to be out, though the show of flower and fruit at the same time can be really eye-catching.
It makes a very attractive small tree or sometimes a large multi-stemmed shrub up to about twenty feet high and as much across. It has fully evergreen shiny dark green leaves which contrast pleasingly with the reddish twigs. The older branches have beautifully flaky cinnamon colored bark and the craggy trunk’s darker surface peels off in strips revealing the lovely lighter wood beneath.
These tough tree’s got pushed back by the last ice age to tip of Southern Ireland, France and ‘the Med’ where they can still be found growing wild. Where planted in gardens they thrive in some of the most difficult dry, hot conditions as well as wet and windy coastal sites. Smoky cites too, they take in their stride.
Despite coming from a famous family of acid soil addicts, it is unusually happy on Limestone, so I’l be adding it to my garden wish list. The ‘Strawberry Tree’, one of the tastiest looking plants I have seen in a long time...

Thursday, 20 January 2011

Viburnum farreri...

Six weeks is a respectable length of time for most of our garden plants to flower. Whether they be trees, shrubs, herbaceous plants or bulbs, most then get on with their prime purpose of setting and spreading seed for the next generation. An impressive sixteen week blooming might be achieved by some of the most highly bred, half hardy annuals grown for their artificial summer spectacular. The wholly natural six month plus performance by the shrub I shall be focusing on this time is therefore truly outstanding. That it gives so much over the darkest and coldest part of the year when all else has seemingly shut up shop is nothing short of remarkable.

Viburnum x bodnantense ‘Dawn’ is the form you are most likely to come across, but one of the parents of that 1930s hybrid, Viburnum farreri or fragrans is also commonly found. The ‘fragrans' part of the name gives away one of the plants finest features, its intensely fragrant, long lasting flowers which when cut and placed in a vase indoors will sweetly scent the whole house. Small clusters of the little trumpet shaped blossoms regularly appear, deep, rosy pink in bud, then slowly fading to white. They are dotted throughout the bare branches from leaf fall through till Easter. Although they may be browned off by the severest winter weather, bowed they may be but certainly not broken, as they soon bounce back during milder spells.

Even in leaf, it has its plus points. In spring, its freshly expanded foliage is often tinged bronze, through summer the healthy ribbed leaves are said to smell of citrus when bruised. Then, before their fall, they turn vibrant shades of red and russet orange.
The cracked and crusty, flaking cinnamon brown bark on the upright branches is also an attractive feature of this three metre tall shrub. In time it sends up a great thicket of shoots that will slowly spread outwards, rooting into the leaf litter as they go to produce a clump just as wide as high. Pieces from the outside can be easily dug up and detached to make more to place elsewhere or give away. Sunshine or part shade suits this totally hardy shrub equally well, but the best position for it would be close to a well used path so that those wonderful winter blooms can be savoured every day...

Thursday, 13 January 2011

Winter Jasmine...

It is the low point in the year for colour in the garden, so those plants willing to stand up against the weather and stand out against the grey, overcast skies during these short dark days are to be applauded. One of the few hardy and plucky enough to shine forth despite all the obstacles stacked against it is the wonderful ‘Winter Jasmine’.


Its bright primrose, six petalled flowers explode like little stars along the length of its bare branches right through the coldest months. Snow fall and the sharpest frosts may set it back slightly, browning off the open flowers, but fresh blooms soon follow as conditions improve. It is certainly one of the most reliable and hardy of garden performers. Although this plant is easily overlooked for much of the rest of the year, just at the moment its cheerful yellow flowers are a sign that winter’s grip will not last forever and garden life’s low ebb will soon take a turn for the better.

It is closely related to other jasmines, but ‘Jasminum nudiflorum’ as the ‘Winter Jasmine’ is more scientifically known, lacks the group’s famous scent and also the usual twisting stems. So, it must be given a little support through which to scramble, or some wires or trellis onto which it can be initially tied. It is therefore almost always found trained hard against a wall near a door or beneath a window where in time it may spread or grow up to about 3 metres. It is forgivingly happy in sun or shade, facing north, south, east or west!
The small, fingered leaves may fall like so many others in autumn, but the impression is not then of bare, brown branches. Instead, the long, whippy new shoots retain their olive colour and the overall look is that of an evergreen spangled with gold. In early spring, as its flowering season comes to an end, these flowered growths can be pruned or sheared hard back to the wall and new shoots will emerge to do duty the following year.
The older I get, the more I appreciate these out of season flowers. In Spring and Summer, blossom and blooms may lay thick on the ground, almost overwhelming us in their rich profusion, but those plants brave enough to brighten winter’s dark and dismal days are the most wonderful of all, well worth seeking out and cherishing...

Thursday, 6 January 2011

Stinking Iris...

Colour is always welcome in the winter garden at a time when flowers are scarce, the light low and the days are short. Bright barked dogwoods and willows may bring something to the picture and evergreens, especially the golden or variegated forms may brighten the scene. Long lasting berries however can sometimes be the most dependable and satisfying elements...


The unfortunately named ‘Stinking Iris’, is certainly one of the best performers in this respect. Its fat green seed pods burst open from late autumn to reveal the pressed lines of its extraordinarily vibrant orange fruits. Each seed a shiny, waxy capsule which fortunately proves much more attractive to our eyes than to the hungry birds. They can sit like glittering jewels amongst the tough evergreen spears of foliage for months before finally fading from sight as spring’s fresher gems emerge.
This is actually a not so common British native plant, and an immensely useful garden plant. It can however be overlooked during its early summer flowering time, as its typical iris flowers although pleasant are a dullish grey-blue and are held rather low amongst the foliage. It is certainly a versatile ‘good-doer’ however. Unlike most of the showier iris, its deep green sword like leaves are held throughout the year and it slowly builds into large ground-covering clumps. Best of all, it will thrive virtually anywhere, including those desperately difficult to fill dry shady areas at the bases of trees.
So where does the stink in the name of these ‘Stinking Iris’ come from? It is not from the flowers, which if they have an aroma of any kind, is just a feint but pleasant perfume. Neither is it from the plant itself, unless and until you go to some trouble to extract it... Crush a leaf and have a sniff, and the distinctive, slightly artificial and over-strong flavour of roast beef crisps comes across. It is so particular an aroma that one alternative name for it is ‘The Roast Beef Plant’.
‘Gladwyn," “Gladden”, “Gladdon”, or “Gladwin” are yet more alternative names for this remarkable plant, described in some ancient herbals as "of a lothsome smell or stinke, almost like unto the stinking worme”. Don’t be put off though, a kinder name for this beauty is the “Coral Iris” and it is well worth seeking out...

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