Friday, 30 March 2012

Violets are blue - or are they?

A rather blue Sweet Violet in a Cotswold hedgerow.

I've always thought the jingle 'Roses are red, violets are blue...' was rather silly, because violets aren't blue - they're violet! But colour perceptions vary and their nomenclature and usage varies - and flowers vary too. There is a good technical description of what constitutes violet in terms of wavelength of light, etc, on Wikipedia, but the important conclusion is that it is a shade of purple leaning more to blue than to red. It is indeed the predominant colour, in different shades, of the flowers of Viola section Viola, the group known as violets.

Viola odorata
The past few days of glorious warm sunny weather have seen violets at their peak round here, with all four local species in flower. The unscented V. reichenbachiana, V. riviniana and V. hirta are rather unvaried, but the scented Sweet Violet, V. odorata, appears in a wide range of colours and shades. I've always taken the dark purple form (left) to be normal, and indeed the archetype of the colour violet.  It is a plant of shortish, woodland edge or hedgerow vegetation, but also thrives in short grass that isn't mown too intensively.

As a wild plant round here the flower colour varies considerably, with paler and darker shades of violet, becoming almost blue, as above, or to reddish purple, and white forms are common. These may or may not have purple or pink patches on the outside of the petals or spur, though some pigmentation is normal. In the gardens at Colesbourne Park, thriving in the grass, are masses of violets in the volet and white ranges plus a lot in tones of (it has to be said) a rather dull and dirty pink, but together and en masse they look delightful. It is possible that these are descendants from old garden cultivars rather than truly native here.

A posy of violets from Colesbourne Park, showing the range of colour variants.
Three colours together in the turf at Colesbourne Park.

Viola odorata spreads quite vigorously by stolons, and produces masses of apomictic seed, so it is possible for quite large patches of a single form to develop: white forms are most conspicuous and their large colonies can often easily be spotted from the car, as I did with the patch shown below.

White violets in a roadside ditch.

Gardeners have selected a large numbers of Sweet Violet cultivars for flower size, fragrance and colour. There are many good red and clear pink ones and a soft yellow, 'Sulphurea'. Visiting Cotswold Garden Flowers last weekend I pounced on a pot of 'Phyl Dove', which has astonishingly peach-coloured flowers, a shade I'd not seen before. It is said not to be scented, but it is fragrant in the evening. Another acquisition was an abundantly flowering pot of 'Bruneau', one of the double-flowered Parma violets (which are probably hybrids), which has an incredibly strong scent: brought inside it perfumed the whole house, and had to be removed at dinner time as its scent interfered with the flavour of the meal.

'Phyl Dove'

The wonderfully fragrant 'Bruneau' - outscents all the others.

Monday, 26 March 2012

Matthew Ridley, 1925-2012

Matthew Ridley presenting a tree on behalf of the IDS, October 2010
I was extremely sorry to see from the Daily Telegraph obituaries webpage this morning that Viscount Ridley died last Thursday, at his home in Blagdon, Northumberland. He was a great landowner of  and a businessman, but devoted most of his life to extraordinarily diligent public service, especially within his beloved Northumberland, but also nationally and to the Royal Household, for which he was made a Knight of the Garter. The record of this service is given in the obituary.

Despite his status and achievements he was a very modest man. When I first met him, at an Internationl Dendrology Society function, I greeted him as Lord Ridley, to which he growled 'It's Matthew', and that was that. He was a great supporter, in all ways, of the New Trees project, and I spent a very enjoyable day and overnight stay with him and Anne at Blagdon so I could see the trees in his collection - but also discovered his connections with Kenya and love of flamingoes! He was a great supporter of what is now Plant Heritage, and held National Plant Collections of Acer, Alnus and endemic British Sorbus - and was delighted last autumn to hold an IDS Study Day on whitebeams, which he organised despite being then in very poor health. Alnus is not a very fashionable genus, despite containing some excellent trees, but he flew their flag and there are two A. rubra f. pinnatisecta here from him, as well as the rather nice purple-leaved Acer ×pseudoheldreichii 'Blagdon', which he found as a chance seedling in the garden (Acer heldreichii had crossed with a purple-leaved Sycamore). Another great passion was the conservation of native Red Squirrels and it was a matter of great sadness to him that they died out at Blagdon before he did.

Acer ×pseudoheldreichii 'Blagdon' at Colesbourne.
Matthew Ridley was the grandson of Edwin Lutyens and his daughter Jane has written a great biography of the architect, and his son, who succeeds him, is the evolutionary biologist Matt Ridley. The funeral will be private, but there is to be a memorial service in Newcastle Cathedral on 20 April, which I imagine will be packed - he touched the lives of a lot of people, for the better.

Saturday, 24 March 2012

Miscellaneous nice plants

Hacquetia epipactis 'Thor, with bumblebee, in the cottage garden.

Primula 'Don Keefe' at Cotswold Garden Flowers.

Lamprocapnos spectabilis 'Valentine' - a really red bleeding-heart, at CGF.

Petasites frigidus var. palmatus, at CGF.

Illicium simonsii at The Garden House, Condicote.

Narcissus 'Mitzy' at The Garden House, Condicote.

A rare treat

Fresh-squeezed blood oranges...

Thursday, 22 March 2012

Spring in the Valley Gardens

Magnolia campbellii
 One of the few books of horticultural interest in my school's library was a copy of Lanning Roper's The Gardens in the Royal Park at Windsor (1959). It tells the story of the creation and early days of the Savill and Valley Gardens under the guidance of Sir Eric Savill and Hope Finlay, generously illustrated (for those times) with pictures of the work in progress and the results. In consequence those two gardens have always been of interest to me, with visits stretching back almost thirty years. I was lecturing today for the Advanced Tree Course of The Plant School, held in the Savill Gardens Visitor Centre, so once it was over this afternoon I took the opportunity of getting out into the warm sunshine and had a lovely turn round the Valley Gardens.

As expected, the large-flowered magnolias were at their peak, exquisitely beautiful but very difficult to photograph well, with their flowers held high on the canopy against a slightly hazy sky. Smaller magnolias, early rhododendrons and camellias were also flowering well, but the big magnolias stole the show and, unexpectedly, perhaps because it was so mild, scented the air around, so the woodlands were softly fragrant.

Magnolia sprengeri ex 'Diva'

Magnolia campbellii forming a large canopy tree.

Labelled "Magnolia hybrid".

Less unexpected, though I'd never seen them in full glory before, were the vast drifts of Narcissus pseudonarcissus, with areas densely filled with N. cyclamineus and N. bulbocodium var. citrinus as well. Not a Narcissus cultivar in sight, so the beauty of the wild species is unalloyed and the effect is ravishing.

Unadulterated by cultivars; meadows of Narcissus pseudonarcissus
Narcissus cyclamineus

Camellia 'E.T.R. Carlyon'

Pinus montezumae

Wednesday, 21 March 2012

A threat to Hadrian's Villa

Part of Hadrian's Villa
Last August I wrote about a wonderful day visiting Hadrian's Villa, a Unesco World Heritage Site and one of the great relics of the classical world. By some madness it seems that the Extraordinary Commissioner of Refuse - great title, he must be very proud - has decreed that an area just outside the villa's boundary should be used for a landfill site to accommodate Rome's rubbish. Not surprisingly, there is a good deal of opposition to this decision and there is an online petition for anyone concerned to sign. Who knows if it will do any good, but if you wish to express support for the cause, the petition is available on the iPetitions site.

Monday, 19 March 2012

Monday morning

Mist on the lake banks.
 Every Monday morning it is the ritual for Will Fletcher and I to walk round the garden, enabling us to check that all is well (or find that it is not), to plan the work for the week ahead and of course to catch up with the gossip, such as there is in Colesbourne. I think it's the most important thing we do each week, especially as in a large garden there would otherwise be little need to visit some of the remoter corners at other times.

I recently acquired a copy of John Evelyn's Directions for the Gardiner and other Horticultural Advice, edited by Maggie Campbell-Culver (OUP 2009), a charming volume bringing together three of Evelyn's horticultural works: Kalendarium Hortense, Directions for the Gardiner and Acetaria. All are full of excellent advice from an eminently practical man. The Directions for the Gardiner was a manuscript set of instructions for an apprentice gardner, Jonathan Mosse, who came to Evelyn's garden at Sayes Court on 24 June 1686, for six years. Not published until 1932, there is much that is of relevance to modern gardeners, including the instruction: 'The Gardiner should walk about the whole Gardens every Monday-morning duely, not omitting the least corner and obeserve what Flowers or Trees & plants want staking, binding andredressing, watering or are in danger... and then immediately to reforme, establish, shade, water etc what he finds amisse, before go about any other work.'

This Monday morning was crisp and bright, warming up rapidly after a sharp frost - a perfect spring day. Here are some pictures from our weekly walk.

For the last time this winter - frosty teasels.

Narcissus obvallaris

Prunus mume 'Beni-chidori'

Saturday, 17 March 2012

A long-awaited flowering

Zantedeschia odorata
In the late 1990s Kees Sahin gave me a plant of Zantedeschia odorata from his nursery at Ter Aar in Holland. It had been grown from South African seed. I can't recall now whether it had flowered by then, or whether it did in the next year or two once ensconced in the greenhouse at my parents'. I do know, however, that it has not bloomed for at least ten years and for much of that time it has been in something of a lingering state and on several occasions I've considered giving it the push. I brought it to Colesbourne a few years ago and have nurtured it along, though some years it has barely unfurled more than a leaf or two before going back into dormancy. Now at last it has managed to produce two inflorescences, the first of which opened earlier this week - the second is still to come. It's not easy to say what has triggered this success this year, but I think they had a good growing season the winter before, and I got them back into growth in late summer so they benefited from the longer warmer days of early autumn. I've also heard the recommendation that they should be kept very hot and dry in dormancy, but mine have not had those conditions.

Zantedeschia odorata was only described in 1989 and grows only in a limited area of the Bokkeveld near Nieuwoudtville (Northern Cape, South Africa) and even here it is limited in habitat to cracks in dolerite rock outcrops where its tubers cannot be dug by porcupines. The locus classicus is the area that is now the Hamtam National Botanic Garden, but when I visited in 2004 was still Glenlyon Farm, carefully managed for its wildflowers by the unique Neil McGregor. It was flowering well at the end of August, rather incongruously emerging from the rock, and it could be seen to be rather different to Z. aethiopica, with narrower spathes, narrower leaves and of course the pleasantly attractive scent. After flowering the infructescence arches to the ground instead of remaining upright as in Z. aethiopica. The two species will hybridize in cultivation, giving the potential of fragrance in white 'callas', though hopefully with the vigour and growability of Z. aethiopica.

Saturday, 10 March 2012

Not a snowdrop weekend - a few flowers from the cottage garden.

A multi-segmented Leucojum vernum
- about the nearest to a double-flowered form there is.

Hepatica nobilis 'Walter Otto' - a lovely double form of the hardy European species, selected in Germany.
Saxifraga juniperifolia

Cyclamen pseudibericum

A pale form of Chionodoxa forbesii

Small but perfectly formed: Narcissus 'Lionel Bacon'

Helleborus x ashwoodensis 'Pink Ice'

Galanthus nivalis 'Virescens': the original 'green snowdrop' and still beautiful, though it often doesn't last long in flower, thanks to its late flowering season.

Tuesday, 6 March 2012

Developments and challenges at Myddelton House

E.A. Bowles's alpine meadow at Myddelton House:
Leucojum vernum flowering with L. aestivum subsp. pulchellum in the foreground.

This afternoon I attended my first meeting of the Myddelton House Gardens Advisory Group, a body convened to advise the property's owners and gardeners on the management of this historic garden - and to keep a watchful eye on things too. I must say that it is rather a privilege to be asked to join the group, and be able to contribute something to the running of the garden which, through the writings of E.A. Bowles, inspired so much of my own gardening.

Free-fruiting mistletoe, Viscum album
I wrote in May last year about the reinvigoration of the garden thanks to a generous Heritage Lottery Fund grant, the backing of the Lee Valley Regional Park and particularly the dynamism of the Head Gardener, Andrew Turvey. As I hadn't been to Myddelton since last May Andrew showed me around before the meeting began, giving a chance to see a larger area of the garden than we covered in the official meeting. Daffodils are succeeding the last of the snowdrops and the alpine meadow, after several seasons of careful mowing, is now looking good once more.

Looking after a historic garden such as this, and bringing it back from a very low state is a huge challenge, which is certainly being risen to at Myddelton. Fifty or more years of entrenched weeds from Allium back to Acer are a constant problem and the more recent problem of increased pathogen load is evident in the unhealthy state of the box edging of the formal terrace beds,  probably afflicted with box blight. Managing these issues without compromising the integrity of the garden is a constant juggling act for all involved.

Unhealthy box edging on the terrace.

Fortunately, on the other side of the coin are the successes. Most notable, perhaps, is the restoration of the kitchen garden and its glasshouses. The Peach House was inaugurated last May by the Duchess of Cornwall - the peach tree she planted is now flowering - but since then a beautiful new range has been erected on the footprint of Bowles's glasshouses, incorporating the original tiled pathways. It has only recently been completed and most of the beds are still empty, though there is an impressive assemblage of succulents on the benches, but Andrew Turvey has ambitious plans for each of the three climate regimes available. Does anyone know a source for Strongylodon macrobotrys? The glasshouse will be officially opened in May, but we had a preview guided tour and were duly impressed.

Andrew Turvey (l) answers questions from members of the Gardens Advisory Group.