Friday, 29 April 2011

Amelanchier Blossom...

This is that wonderful time of year when hedgerows, woods, orchards and gardens explode into exuberant blossom. First off the mark are the snow white drifts of Blackthorn threading their thick lines through the countryside, soon followed by the wild white clouds of damson. Plums too, for fruit or garden ornament swiftly follow.

Then it is the Cherries, my favorite being the native or wild ‘Bird Cherry’, the ‘Gean’ of our woodlands. This big, fast growing tree with loose clusters of single flowers will later provide feasts of bitter fruit adored by the birds. The widespread suburban plantings of smaller Japanese Cherries, lining housing estate roads and house drives are certainly eye-catching too. Their dense clumps of double flowers in shades of white, cream and bright pink completely hide the branches. Stunning to see, but to my mind they are perhaps just a little too full, too highly bred, too over the top.

Adding to this perfect storm of blossom are the Apples, whose often pretty pink buds open out white to entice in the bees, the all important pollinators each tree competes in beauty to attract. Then, rounding off this spring season of delights, hedgerow hawthorns burst into bloom, lighting up lanesides with their frothing clouds of white blossom. Usually seen at a distance, or driven past at speed, the individual flowers are actually quite beautiful and strongly scented too.
Everything seems to happen so fast at this time of year... No sooner do these delicate flowers begin to open than those first out start to drop. Their lifespans can be counted over just a couple of days before their petals blow away like confetti in the wind or flutter down to create colorful drifts in the grass. Perhaps it is their ephemeral nature that make springtime blossom so precious.


My favourite blossoming bush or small tree of the moment, however would be the ‘Snowy Mespilus' or ‘Amalanchier’ to give them their scientific name. They are always smothered with delicately spidery white flowers which are set off to perfection against the coppery pink young leaves. Clusters of dark berries develop in early summer and bright reddish autumn colour rounds off the display. They are tough, grow anywhere shrubs, which can be pruned up to form small multi-stemmed trees. Natural beauties for every garden...

Thursday, 21 April 2011

Toothwort...


April’s showers and warm spring sunshine are getting our plants off to a flying start. But, great conditions in the garden will also make for good growth in weeds. They would happily take over if it were not for our timely interventions, but I still have the greatest respect for these ‘plants in the wrong place’. After all, they are generally just our most successful and better adapted native wild flowers. They were around long before our plots came into existence, and justifiably see your well prepared soil as their rightful home.

Weeds will always be with us and I find its worth getting to know them as individuals. I like to be able to identity every one, not just as an aid to their easier eradication, but to bring interest to weeding, an otherwise thankless task. So treat these floral wonders with the respect they deserve before consigning them to the compost heap.

Its not just flower borders that get their share of weeds either. Walling, gravel drives, pots, ponds, shrubs and veg areas all provide particular niches for their own specialist plant invaders  - native flora whose specific habitat you have kindly re-created. 
Lawns too, fill up with weeds, or wildflowers, depending on your point of view. There is of course a place for an impressive monoculture of grass, perhaps on the bowling green or cricket square. But, elsewhere surely we can all take pleasure from lesser lawns decorated by daisies and studded with the bright spring yellows of celandines and dandelions, and sky blue carpets of speedwells. 

This is also the time of year when of one of our more unusual lawn residents pops its head out to flower. It is the ‘Toothwort’, Lathraea squamaria, whose short, ghostly white flower spikes push through the grass blades at the base of our big old lime trees. It contains none of the green pigment chlorophyll, that converts sunshine to energy for the rest of the plant kingdom. Instead, this parasite stealthily steals its sustenance from the roots of others around it - a true vegetable vampire!

You see, there can be interest in all our weeds, or wildflowers... Those ‘Toothwort’s’ deathly pale flowers sprouting straight from the ground gave rise to the theory they were sustained by rotting bodies in shallow graves. Their other chilling name being ‘Corpsewort’!
What’s lurking at the bottom of your garden?

Friday, 15 April 2011

Lungworts...

The longer a plant has been in cultivation, the more common names it collects along the way. This week’s focus is on ‘Pulmonaria,’ and this lovely spring flowering, cottage garden favourite has picked up many through the years...




It is most widely, but perhaps least attractively known as ‘Lungwort.’ The broad hairy leaves are covered with grey markings, and apparently look just like pock marked, diseased lungs- urgh! If only someone centuries ago had seen them in a more enthusiastic light. Perhaps they would have been called ‘Silver Rain’ for their shiny spotting. But, there was then a twisted logic in the name they were given...
In ages past when the most popular cure-all was the removal of ‘bad-blood’ by the application of leeches, there were also herbal alternatives, potions based on sympathetic magic. Here, if part of a plant resembled a diseased organ, it was obviously put on earth as the cure. Thus leaves that looked like sick lungs were thought to fix all manner of chest problems. Science certainly didn’t come into it back then. We know now treatment based on Lungwort would do more harm than good!
One of its other old names, ‘Jerusalem Cowslip’ alludes to a bible based tradition. Apparently the white spotting on the leaves commemorates an incident where the Virgin Mary accidentally splashed a few drops of breast milk upon them. In fact, the silver markings are air pockets beneath the leaf surface to help keep it cool.
The plants are also sometimes called ‘Soldiers and Sailors,’ this time in reference to the flower colour. Unusually and rather attractively, the small tubular flowers open from the bud in shades of red, then after a few days change to blue. Cunningly reflecting armed force uniforms of an earlier era!

Shady conditions suit them best and they are happiest where the ground does not dry out too much in summer. Their only fault is a tendency to mildew in drought conditions. The remedy for that though is easy enough. Just cut everything off and water well. Fresh, clean leaves will soon shoot through.
Whatever you call them, these ‘Pulmonarias’ make for superb spring flowering ground cover plants. Spreading out slowly, they lift and light up dark areas with their pretty flowers and silver splashed foliage.

Friday, 8 April 2011

Dog's Tooth Violets...

The first and earliest plants of spring often have a delicate and natural beauty. Fragile but fleeting, they are up, out and over before much else in the garden has even begun to get going. Where these plants grow in the wild, they are often inhabitants of deciduous woodland. There, they must quickly come to the point of flowering and set seed before a dense canopy of leaves opens above, casting their growing space into deep shade for the rest of the season.



The beautiful ‘Dog’s Tooth Violet’ is one such woodlander, storing energy in its fleshy roots to give it a fast start as soon as the first signs of spring arrive. Its pointy fang-like roots look just like a dog’s canine teeth and give rise to its common name. 

The lovely nodding, star shaped flowers are held on long thin stems and are a daily entertainment... They close tightly shut at night in protective embrace around the floral centre. Then, as the sun strikes them each morning, the long petals curl right back and up. They would even be worth growing for the leaves alone. They are broad, blunt ended and mottled with maroon. Their speckled and patterned appearance has given rise to another of its common names- the ‘Trout Lily.’

Although violet in colour, and violet in name, these plants are not really violets at all. They are actually in the Lily family. To avoid all confusion, seek them out by their scientific name- ‘Erythronium dens-canis.’

Ours grow at the base of an old walnut tree. Or rather they did, as one wild and stormy night gale force winds blew that old tree down. They still thrive though and slowly increase there, gaining some shelter from the stump’s regrowth. They are happiest in leafy soil, under some shade and do not like to dry out. With this species it is therefore best to get hold of potted plants rather than buy the shrivelled up ‘bulbs’ in summer. 
These delightful Dog’s Tooth Violets have been highly prized and grown for many centuries in gardens. Interestingly, the ancient herbals have this to say about the plant... 'It provoketh bodily lust if it be only handled, but much more if it be drunke with wine.' Well, I can’t vouch for that, but it certainly makes for a wonderful garden plant...

Friday, 1 April 2011

Moss...

As spring’s warmth gets the grass growing again, our thoughts turn to tidying up our lawns. We seek to transform them from winter’s moss and mud, changing those weedy, threadbare patches to perfect summer green carpets. It is usually the moss that is top of peoples’ hit list for eradication. But I’d like to put in an enthusiastic admirer’s word or two, for this most humble of plants.



Mosses are real survivors, and as a group have been around for a long time, many millions of years before any flowering plants had even been thought of. They thrive in damp conditions and have the simplest of needs. Not dependent on roots to take their sustenance from soil, instead they pluck their food from the air or the raindrops that fall upon them.
The Japanese have long admired their varying shades and textures, and also the peace they bring to a space. Their simplified, symbolic garden landscapes can often just consist of this small plant, strategically placed rocks and areas of gravel. A whole world distilled into miniature through moss and stone. 

Here, woodland floors are often coated with mosses, encouraged by damper shadier conditions beneath the canopy of leaves. In gardens we often have similar ‘problem’ areas where little else will grow, and it is in just such spaces that mosses thrive if left alone. In time they can produce a wonderful weed smothering, green ground cover.

Perhaps the best living landscape I see every day is the mossy carpet spreading naturally across the slate roof of our potting shed. The low hummocky forms of the many differing species gradually merging into one another. Yet this is one of the most inhospitable habitats imaginable. The windswept smooth stone surface is in full sun throughout the summer, getting too hot to touch and suffering long months of desiccating drought. In winter, its exposure is complete and on cold nights surface temperatures may plummet to minus 20 degrees Celsius. Yet the moss somehow survives and even thrives. Greening the roof and making, with no help from ourselves, one of the most beautiful and natural scenes in the whole garden.

So before going out to eradicate it, look again at the lowly mosses. Even in lawns they can be appreciated with the right mindset... After all, they take much less mowing than grass, always remain green and give a wonderfully soft feeling underfoot. 
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