Sunday, November 22, 2009

Winter is nearly here again and I realize that I have been away for a whole year – apologies, my constant mind has been having inconsistencies! I have written little this year, I spent the first third of it in Australasia and it completely turned my life upside down (quite literally being down under!). I am just coming back to my senses but I am afraid my eyes are still glazed over by the sheer beauty of New Zealand and Australia. I could never do them justice in words, I hope you will enjoy the photos!
Abel Tasman Park, South Island, New Zealand

Echiums at Lake Tekapo, South Island, New Zealand

Astilbes at Maple Glen, near Invercargill, New Zealand

Freycinet Peninsula, Tasmania, Australia

Idyllic Monsalvat, Melbourne, Australia

Melaleuca leucadendra, Cairns, Queensland, Australia

Heaven found! north Queensland, Australia

Towering structures in Sydney, Australia

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Aux palais de rois Mauresques
Sont plantés oliviers, cyprès et datteraies
Un murier ancien, serein
De grands chênes lièges tristes
On espère que dans la plaine rocailleuse en bas
L'amandier refleurisse

Aux grands châteaux d'Espagne
Caravelles lusitanes
Vents chauds et autres Sirroccos
Les dunes Mauritanes tourbillonnent
Des grands cèdres du Liban aux pins parasols de l'Italie
Le sud se dessine sur canvas d'or et d'argenterie

Aux Silhouettes, forteresses
Guitars, vielles et Castagnettes
Mer Méditerrannée, vagues du passé
Roseaux, palmiers et orangers
Mes gloires, mes joies
Souvenirs de Calabria''

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

From wonder of the world to bomb site

I went to the British Museum yesterday to see their new exhibition 'Babylon' which relates the history of this ancient city of Mesopotamia, an area situated between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers in modern-day Irak (from the Greek meso 'between', and potamus 'river'). It is also known as the fertile crescent because it was home to several prominent ancient civilizations (including the Sumerians, Assyrians, and Persians) who revolutionized, amongst other things, western agriculture, law, language, the written alphabet and city planning. Of all these great societies, none inspires the mind more than the rise and fall of the Babylonians and their holy city Babylon ('Gateway of the God'). It was under the ruler Nebuchadnezzar II about 2600 years ago that this city became one of the most powerful place in the western world with its pyramid-like Ziggurat 'Etemenanki' (refered to as 'The tower of Babel' in the bible), its 'Ishtar Gate' (originally one of the Wonders of the World but later replaced by the Lighthouse at Alexandria) and, most famous of all, its Suspended Gardens. It was in the hope that I might be enlightened on these mythical gardens that I made my way to the exhibition. I knew that they had long disappear, together with most of the other wonders of the world (only the Great Pyramid at Giza still persist), but thought there might remain some ancient pieces of puzzle about them. As it turns out, there is no tangible evidence whatever about them or what they might have looked like. This in itself could be a great disappointment, but it was quite interesting to look at the various renditions painted or drawn by artists over the centuries. Some imagined them as a pyramidal garden but like others, I like to think they might have been an early form of roof top gardens. Were they lush and exhuberant like oases or formal and contrived as some depict them?
My botanical mind wonders what plants might have been grown in the hot desertic climate of southern Irak; the date palm, the pomagranate, the olive, the cypress... my knowledge of middle eastern plants is sorely lacking. My horticulturist mind, on the other hand, wonders how such construction might might have been watered. Ancient tablets at Ninveh (another ancient city of Mesopotamia, further north where, some say, the gardens might have been instead of Babylon) mention some form of irrigation device similar to an Archimede' screw to lift water upwards. Some archeologists allude to simpler tools like the shadouf of ancient Egypt as a possibility. I like to think that the Babylonian might have had a drip system of sorts. In a world where one can draw water from a tap, it is awe inspiring to think of a lush suspended garden in a desertic climate solely watered by hand!
If nothing remains of the Suspended Gardens, precious little remains of the ancient city of Babylon itself. The Germans salvaged what remained of the Ishtar gate and some precious fragments of clay with inscriptions in the early part of the past century but recently Saddam Hussein, followed by the American army managed to destroy what was left. Saddam, thinking himself a modern day Nebuchadnezzar began rebuilding a modern version of the city on the old ruins but his ambitions were soon cooled when the United States set up military base on the very spot of the ruins. Whilst most of us want to cling on to ancient history for our mental salvation, some think nothing of wiping it off to make way for helipads and war trenches. Incredible really.

Sunday, October 26, 2008

Childhood desires...

They say if you believe in your dreams strongly enough, they eventually come true. As far as my own dreams went as a child, I was a bit of an odd ball. Whilst most other boys marvelled at big trucks and fire engines and dreamed of becoming Formula 1 champions, I liked the natural world and wished for a galop with the giraffes in Africa or a picnic in amongst the Giant Redwoods of California. At that tender age, I didn't know where I would be able to experience these adventures, but I knew it was much further afield than mother and father had ever taken me and that I would even have to get there in an airplane - something I didn't even contemplate as a possibility. My dreams seemed very distant indeed and I could never have imagined that 20 years on in my life I would be eating my sandwich under the bows of wild Sequoias.

Last month I travelled to the west coast of America to see the delights of San Francisco, Monterey and the Wine valleys and among many of my anticipations was, or course, the one of seeing the mighty redwood forests. Before I go further I should perhaps mention that there are two different trees known as redwoods; the Coastal redwood (Sequoia sempervirens) and the Giant redwood or Wellingtonia (Sequoiadendron giganteum). They are both found in California, the first, as its name implies, along the coast from Southern Oregon down to Central California, the other some 4 hours drive inland from San Francisco, on the foothill of the the Sierra Nevada mountain range. They are closely related plants but quite distinct and easily identified. the Coastal redwood has flat green needles and a slender, somewhat scruffy silhouette whilst the wellingtonia has scaly blusish needles and a stout billowing appearance. Both hold a record for size - the wellingtonia for sheer bulk ('General Sherman' with an estimated size of 1489 cu. meters, making it the largest living single entity on the planet), and the coastal redwood for height (the 'Hyperion tree' at 115.55 meters (or 379.1 feet, a somewhat more impressive number!)). Both trees have a wood of excellent quality and most of their population has been decimated by humans in the early days of colonisation of California. The coastal redwood was worse hit, being closer to the ocean and more accessible to logging companies - less than 5 percent of the original old growth forest now remain and is found in protected areas such as the Big Basin Redwoods State Park in the Santa Cruz mountains near Saratoga where I had the great fortune to find myself only a couple of weeks ago.

The experience of walking in amongst the tallest trees in the world is a difficult one to share in writing, one can only say that it is a very humbling one! With so many gentle giants surrounding me, I felt really protected, peaceful. For a while I managed to forget about the crumbling state of the world and of the madness of my own modern life and really enjoy the moment for what it was; a dream come true.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Gramineusement vôtre!

L’équinoxe nous sonne le glas de l’été, l’automne est déjà là! Son arrivée nous apporte les matins embus de fraîcheur et les brumes mystérieuses qui givrent les toiles d’araignées de rosée. Les bordures, quelque peu ternies en fin d’été s’illuminent soudain d’or et de paillettes, c’est la grande valse des graminées qui ouvre son jeu!

D’un coté, les grandes dames et les grands ducs de la Pampas, Cortaderia selloana, toujours aussi impressionnants de leur stature et de leur générosité, mais quelque peu démodés aux yeux des Anglais qui les cultivent de moins en moins. On les trouvent trop raides et surtout trop clichées. On ôse peut-être encore planter la variété ‘Rendatleri’ aux plumes rose cuivré dans les grands domaines, mais du haut de ses échasses de ses 4 mètres elle est souvent bien trop grande pour le jardin moderne. Deux variétés, de taille plus réduite méritent à mon avis, un peu plus d'attention et une place dans la bordure : ‘Icalma’ particulière de ses épis fournis comme des queues de lapin brunes (à gauche) et ‘Patagonia’ dorée et légère et au feuillage bleuté (à droite). La plus élégante des Cortaderia n'en n’est pas une des Pampas cependant. Elle est d’origine Néo-Zélandaise où on l’appelle toetoe, c’est la Cortaderia richardii. Sans aucun doute la plus merveilleuse des graminées, elle commande toute l’attention et doit être placée contre un fond vert sombre pour être appréciée à son meilleur. Elle est débordante et demandante cependant et seuls ceux choyés d'espace grandioses pourront l'accomoder.

D'allure semblable mais beaucoup plus populaire parce que plus réduite de taille, la Stipa gigantea a aussi belle figure. Elle fleurit longtemps celle-là, étirant ses grandes tiges dès juin, de beaux épis légers qu'elle gardera au moins jusqu'à noël. C'est une graminée au feuillage persistant qui nous vient d'Espagne et qui malheureusement, comme l'herbe de la Pampas, manque un peu de rusticité dans les climats continentaux. N'ayez de déceptions cependant, braves jardininers nordiques qui rêvez de démesure, il y a toujours le Miscanthus sur lequel jeter son dévolu! Et s'il est moins impressionnant que la Cortaderia, il n'en est pas plus laid pour autant, au contraire, il est plus léger et mobile et sait jouer avec le vent. Pour les fous de hauteur, 'Giganteus' est le cultivar a adopter, mais il ne fleuri pas et moi je lui préfère 'Malepartus', la variété la plus belle et la plus élégante de tous les grands Miscanthus. Je l'ai vu briller de ses 2m50 dans les jardins du Domaine Joly de Lotbinière, Québec (zone 4) il y a quelques années déjà et depuis je le convoite et le courtise et il me réjoui toujours de sa généreuse floraison argentée.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Ginger bread anyone?

I have a new best friend. She is called ‘Tara’ and comes from Nepal. She is most elegant, a svelte figure with an arched back and strong legs; she would be right at home on a high fashion runway. She has a bright complexion, exotic looks and smells faintly of gardenia, she could have been the queen of Sheba. She has a very flighty personality yet she is a completely devoted character; she is a ginger!
I bought my first ornamental ginger two years ago from the wonderful Architectural Plants nursery in Horsham. I had already admired tropical gingers but I hadn’t realized that there were many hardy ones we can grow here in our mild temperate climate.
I already knew of the diminutive Roscoea, a pretty plant indeed but not one that makes a great statement in the garden. It does have the exotic look of the family Zingiberaceae with its large fleshy orchid-like blooms and strappy leaves clasping the stem, and really I do love it, but it cannot compare to its larger relatives. I discovered the ginger family through its tropical species. I had encountered them in my travels to Malaysia, Thailand and Singapore (where a whole section of the Botanical Gardens is devoted to them). I also learned a lot about them when staying and working with friends in North Queensland three years ago. It was Suzie and Alan who introduced me to their native backscratcher ginger, Tapenochilos annanassae, the beehive ginger, Zingiber spectabile and most exciting and impressive of all, the stately Torch ginger, Etlingera elatior. This last one I recognized as ‘La Rose de Porcelaine’ from a photograph I had seen many years before in a French gardening magazine. It had caught my imagination as a teenager and it was somewhat unreal an experience to see it in the flesh, also perhaps because its large waxy flower didn't look quite real in itself.
Apart from these beauties, I had also acquainted with gingers in my kitchen. Apart from the ginger root (Zingiber officinale) which I use profusely in my cooking (delicious grated on a toast with melted cheddar on top - I promise, try it!), there is also cardamom (the seeds of Elettaria cardamomum), galangal (the root of Alpinia galanga) and tumeric (the powdered root of Curcuma longa), to use as spices. I think cardamom is grossely underused. It has a most wonderful citrus-meet-cedar-meet-ginger fragrance. It is one of the mysterious spices that gives Indian food its unique flavour. Here, I use it mostly in sweet cooking as I think its lemoney taste goes well with fruits and cakes. I first discovered it through a poppy seed bread recipe and have been faithful to it since. See what you make of it:

Poppy seed bread

125 g granulated sugar
125 g light brown sugar
3 large eggs (or 4 medium)
140 g spelt or wholemeal flour
140 g plain flour
250 mL vegetable oil (sunflower or rapeseed)
125 mL milk (soya is fine)
75 g poppy seeds
1 ½ tsp. baking powder
1 tsp. each of cinnamon, crushed cardamom seeds
½ tsp. allspice, powdered ginger

oven: 350F/180C

Mix the sugars with the eggs. Add the oil in a slow and steady trickle, beating as you go along. Mix the flour with the baking powder the poppy seeds and the spices, then incorporate this mix into the mixture, alternating with the milk. Put in an extra large bread pan (30 cm X 15 cm, no smaller otherwise the edge of the cake burns before the centre is cooked) and bake until it is soft and tender in the middle, approximately 60 minutes.

Sorry we are getting sidetracked, the belly takes over the brain so fast sometimes! I was about to extol the virtues of the hardy gingers, not so much for their edible properties as for their ornemamental ones - although - before I do this, I feel the urge to mention just one last edible ginger, a hardy one this time and one that I have been growing for a couple of years with great success. I visited Japan a few years ago and for a month experienced its culinary exoticism. On one occasion I was presented a pale pink teardrop-shaped sliced pickle which was absolutely delicious, similar to pickled ginger we get in the west, but with a more fruity taste and a crunchier texture. I enquired about it and was told it was 'myoga' - as I don't speak Japanese, this could have meant anything to me. I was eager to find out more and seeing my vivid interest, the host took me to the garden to show me the plant. It looked just like a dwarf ginger but had no flowers, or at least it didn't seem to...until my host pointed them out, hiding amongst the foliage, just coming out of the ground. I recognized the shape of the pickle and realized that that was what I had been eating, the flower buds! I didn't hear of myoga after that for a long time, I hadn't been able to source it upon returning here and had not researched it further. Then two years ago, whilst perusing through the list of the excellent nusery Crûg Farm, I cam across it, Zingiber myoga! It wasn't long before I had paid them a visit and bought myself a nice pot full of it. It said on the label that the hardiness was unknown, but I knew it would survive here, for when I had seen in Japan I was in Hakodate, Hokkaido, where temperatures can drop to -15C. Not only did it survive the last two winters, it thrived (like other gingers, it positively romps away when happy) and I now have three large patches of it giving me, as I write this, my very own myoga to pickle in rice wine vinegar - how so special!
Sorry, once again we are neglecting our hardy ornemental gingers! If 'Tara' is the most impressive of all the hardy Hedychiums, there are many more to excite our senses. I don't grow many others at the moment, only H. flavescens, which hasn't flowered being in its first year (gingers do grow fast, but usually need a settling period before they begin flowering). Tony Schilling, who introduced 'Tara' from a wild collection in Nepal also brought back a lovely plant he called 'Stephen' (right). I don't grow it but have been told it does very well in the United Kingdom. I used to have H. densiflorum 'Assam Orange' in my previous garden, but the rabbits found out how tasty it was when I was on leave and ate my small clump, root and all. It is quite similar in colour to 'Tara' but it has slenderer spikes. It is different enough that I should really like to have it again.
Then there is H. yunnanense, which I have admired at the entrance of the RHS Wisley but haven't encountered for sale yet. It looks similar to the tropical butterfly ginger, H. coronarium but is hardier and freer flowering in a cool climate. It doesn't have the same powerful scent but a subtle exotic fragrance nonetheless.
Kew Gardens has a really nice collection of rarer hardy gingers by the herbarium and this makes me want to try and source more for next year. What about you? Ginger beer anyone?

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

Fire burning bright

'Torch lily', 'Red Hot Poker', 'Satan's embers'; such are the firey names given to the South African Kniphofia, and how appropriate they all are! No other perennial can rival this amazing plant for boldness of colour and stature. From the first flower in June till the last one in October, there is always a poker to brighten up the garden.
People often associate the Kniphofia with a a tawdry mix of deep burned orange and yellow, but there are some marvelous hybrids of various colours to choose from nowadays. Take for example the wonderful 'Rich Echos' (above) with a mixture of lemon, bronze and pale orange, the equally elegant 'Timothy' in its dark salmon robe (below, in one of Clive Nichols's beautiful photographs of Pettifers) or the most intense of them all, 'Lord Roberts' (below). The argumentative person might like to point out to me that not all Kniphofias are vibrant, that there are some which display quite cool shades of cream and green that couldn't even ignite a dry pile of straw, and I have to agree for the most scrumptious I possess, 'Coolknip', is indeed positively icy looking. Even if it cannot match the vibrant orange and red ones in terms of sheer drama I wouldn't be without it for it is a very special plant. I bought it from plantwoman extraordinaire Ellen Hornig who runs Seneca Hill Perennials in Upstate New York, USA. She herself had received it from a friend in California, so it has made a long journey to come all the way here in my English garden. It is a most impressive poker with stately green flowers very late in the summer (or more likely this year, early autumn). As I am writing it has yet to show its flower buds through the foliage and it probably won't do so until the end of the month. I like that because it extends the season. I have many other kniphfias in bloom at the moment, including the similar but smaller 'Percy's Pride', so 'Coolknip' can wait a little longer.
Apart from 'Percy's Pride' I've got K. uvaria 'Nobilis' putting up a show at the moment. This is, I believe, the tallest of all Kniphofias, and although mine is quite tall at about 6 ft, the ones at Kew Gardens had to be seen to be believed this year, they must have topped a good 9 ft - the sight of them in the Cambridge Cottage garden transfixed me for a moment. How I wish I had had a camera handy! Next year perhaps. In the meantime there is also the smart 'Toffee Nosed' in flower in the cutting border. It is one of the most elegant forms with slender flowers of various shades of cream and bronze - well done to the person who named it so cleverly!
The one small snag about Kniphofias is their strappy foliage, which can be a little overwhelming or untidy in some varieties. Those I have mentioned so far are pretty neat in growth generally and there are several others which are good, two of which are even outstanding: Kniphofia caulescens with large blue rosettes and the king of all of them, K. northiae with huge succulent leaves like a hardy aloe (right).
There are of course some smaller daintier forms than the ones I have mentioned so far such as 'Little Maid', 'Bressingham Comet' and 'Nancy's Red' which I used to grow and loved. I tired of them evntually though, they just lack the punch I want from Kniphofia. They are too posé and polite somehow - and lets admit it, if one felt so inclined to refine one's taste it would be better to start collecting bone china tea cups - much less work on the long run!

Thursday, August 14, 2008

La Alhambra, Granada

''Aux clochers de Jérusalem, je voudrais voir en même temps briller à l'aurore prochaine, la croix, l'étoile et le croissant

Aux campaniles de Sardaigne, aux mosquées de l'Afghanistan, je voudrais tant un jour que règnent la croix, l'étoile et le croissant

Le cœur des hommes est fait pour danser sur des manèges de colombes, sur des collines d'oliviers.
Il y a aux rives anciennes beaucoup d'amour et trop de sang. Où sont-ils donc tous ceux qui aiment la croix, l'étoile et le croissant

Ils ont pris des sentiers de haine. Dieu sait pourquoi ils ont voulu aller jusqu'au bout de leur peine, bientôt ils ne le voudront plus
Le cœur des hommes est plein de dangers, il s'offre au jour mais il y pousse toute fleur que l'on a semée

Aux clochers de Jérusalem, je voudrais voir en même temps tous ceux qui portent au fond d'eux-mêmes la croix, l'étoile et le croissant

Et ceux qui n'ont jamais eu même de croix, d'étoile ou de croissant''

Eddy Marnay

Saturday, August 2, 2008

Fragrance of the Orient...

Lilies and fragrance! Can you think of a plant that epitomises scent in the garden better than the lily? Personally I can only think of another one, the Daphne - but as luck would have it, they both flower at the opposite end of the calendar, and since I generally prefer to linger in the garden in July than January, I really rather enjoy my lilies more. Of course one might feel more lenient toward the winter Daphnes if one didn't live on chalk, if one had huge bushes of D. bholua from which one dared to cut armfuls to bring into the warmth of the house but this is not the case and lilies grow far better for me.

Lilium is a genus that contains very many interesting plants and it would be very difficult to say which one I like the most for they are all very beautiful. Not all of them have a fragrance though and as with roses, one feels rather cheated when there is no scent to the beautiful flowers. The martagons with their clusters of nodding flowers are such example. One really would love them to have a myrrh scent, especially the dark dalmaticum sort or the ghostly pure white form. But alas! the only way to get a fragrance out of them is to spray away with Baldessarini on a regular basis. Very expensive and not nearly as convincing as one would hope for. No, it is much easier to cultivate them in conjuction with a few regal lilies. Lilium regale is undoubtedly the most elegant and perfumed of all lilies. Its slender stems are puncuated by very narrow leaves that give it a light ferny appearance. They always bend slightly downwards in a polite Japanese salutation as if to show they have humility when really they are quite blousy flowers! From long purple-flushed buds open large white corollas with a yellow throat and conspicuous orange anthers. Even a blind person couldn't fail to notice them for they have a heady fragrance that permeates the air with astonishing effectiveness. This lily was introduced only at the beginning of the last century by one of the last great plant explorers, Ernest Wilson. What a sensorial experience it must have been for him when he came upon a valley covered with this plant in full flower in 1903! The collection of it very nearly cost him his life when he was caught in an avalanche and had one of his legs crushed under a boulder and still, this is the plant through which he wanted to be remembered. Luckily for us, this lily is most amicable in cultivation and has now become readily available, as has it's pure white form, L. regale album.

What prompted me to write this note about lilies is not actually the regal lily but another magnificent fragrant lily, the oriental 'Golden Stargazer' that I have flowering in pots at the moment. Oriental lilies are hybrids with open flowers derived from the two Japanese species, L. speciosum and L. auratum. Both plants are very beautiful but prone to virus and usually short lived, especially the latter.
One wish it was easier for it is a lily of exceptional beauty. It has tall pliable stems from which dangle gracefully the large white and yellow flowers. 'Golden Stargazer' doesn't share its elegant habit, but has in my opinion the most beautiful flower of all the hybrids and a vigour that isn't diminished over the years. It's a bit short for my liking and I grow it in long tom pots to give it extra height but otherwise I really adore it and think it lives up to its name - not a small feat when one thinks that the original 'Stargazer' is the most cultivated lily in the world!

Oriental lilies are the easiest thing to grow in pots, being perfectly happy for several years without needing repotting. They seem to thrive on neglect and all one has to do to keep them happy is to top dress them with a handful of well rotted manure in the spring. Here, I water them when I think about it (they prefer to be on the dry side) and without fail they come into flower in August. I move them where they can be appreciated whilst they flower and when they have finished blooming I put them back in the nursery where they are almost forgotten until the following spring.

Thursday, July 24, 2008

''Botte de foin, épis de grain
Serais-tu blé ou encore orge?
Barbes de soie ou de satin
Avoine sauvage des forges
Semeur à tous vents
Entrelacé de soleil
Égrettes légères du temps
Virtuosité sans pareil''

Friday, July 18, 2008

Larger than life; Kew's superstar

Kew Gardens can proud itself of having some 50 000 different live plants in its collections, reputedly the largest in the world. Many of these are diminutive and not very exciting to the untrained eye but there are also, as one might expect, many wonders of the vegetable world. I like to amaze people by showing them some of these striking plants on my guided visits and I think it is fair to say that none excites them more than the giant waterlily. In a world where size is everything, Venus fly trap cannot compete with Gunneras and Redwoods, but Victoria certainly can and indeed there is enough here to satifsy a size Queen.
The first westerner to discover the giant waterlily was the Bohemian (Czech) botanist and naturalist Tadeáš Haenke. Although this happened in 1801, it it was only in 1849 that the plant was grown successfully in Europe - by the English, at Kew (of course!), Chatsworth (Derbyshire) and Syon (across the Thames from Kew). It was in the great glasshouse of the Duke of Devonshire at Chatsworth that the first flower opened and was presented to Queen Victoria, whose name it comemorates. No doubt that made the gardeners at Kew green with envy, but the record does not tell us anything about that. All we know is that theirs flowered a year later. Strong of the first successes, many people of the European Elite built glasshouses to accomodate the beast in their collection and here at Kew the waterlily house was put up in 1852. Having this small glasshouse meant that the exacting growth requirements of the waterlily were met and that it its ebullient foliage was displayed beautifully, as it is still today. Hailing as it does from the hot tropics, Victoria needs warm water and hot temperatures to grow well and to walk in there on a sunny day is a stiffling experience, with all this humidity in the air!
The most amazing fact about the Victoria at Kew is that it is grown from a seed every year. In the wild, the plant is perennial, but it does not take very kindly to the British winters and is more difficult to keep going than to grow from seed every year. The seed is sown in January, is put in the pond in April and almost at once starts growing at a phenomenal rate. By August its leaves are about 5 feet (150cm) in diameter and the plant fills most of the pond. Only one plant is put in and even if it is pretty impressive, it would pale next to one of the record breaking plants of 'La Rinconada' in Santa Cruz, Bolivia - but then they do have the advantage of the perfect climate! After seeing this, no one would doubt that, although the night-blooming flowers of the giant waterlily are beautiful, looking somewhat like a large peony or double camellia, it is the leaf of Victoria that really capture the imagination. It is a construction of great ingenuity, having a netting of veins that give it tremendous strenght. As the leaf unfurls, it traps air underneath and a mature leaf can withstand a charge of 45 Kg or so if well distributed on the surface. Also it has a slit on one side that allows the rain water to escape and is covered with spines on the undersides to deter fish and other aquatic life from damaging it.
There are two species of Victoria, V. amazonica et V. cruziana. The first has the largest pads but the upturned edge of the leaf is narrower. It also needs hotter conditions to grow well and so at Kew V. cruziana is the one usually grown as it does better and looks more dramatic. Some years a vigorous hybrid of the two species, 'Longwood Hybrid', is also grown.

Saturday, July 12, 2008

A thug for your garden anyone?

It's officially summer! I know so because the Rosebay willow herb is flowering. Well, you know sometimes here in England it’s difficult to gauge when spring gives way to summer. Especially in a cool and wet year as we are having now. Of course, the calendar is a useful tool for that kind of thing, but as I tend to live a rather pedestrian life, nature often guides my way a little. I cannot think of a weed that could epitomize summer better for me. Where I come from in Canada, Épilobe or Fireweed as it is known there, is a ubiquitous native - it grows everywhere that has been tampered by man (or fire, hence the name) - and as a teenager I awaited the brightening of the roadsides and woodland edges with its bright magenta flowers with great anticipation. Strangely I remember them a more vivid shade than I see them here now, but that could be because there they were often found growing amongst the dull pink corymbs of Eupatorium purpureum. In any case, whatever the intensity of the colour, it still lifts my spirits up to see them growing abundantly on the road to town at the moment.

It is good that Chamaenerion angustifolium (previously Epilobium angustifolium) grows wild here as in my native Canada, it saves me having to grow it in the garden, but the one I do grow here is the white form, simply called ‘Album’. It is less vigorous than the type and has very pale green leaves, two things which lead me to think it might be an albino. This said, it still isn't the best behaved of plants, spreading about the garden in an insidious way. I just about tolerate it in the white border because it is easy enough to pull out, but I have to keep an eye at it regularly! Sometimes I wish it grew more thickly, but it has always refused to do so with me. I try pushing the spade through the clump to sever the roots and encourage more stems, but I can never manage to have it as a solid mass as does Mr. Francis Cabot in his garden ‘Les Quatre Vents’, La Malbaie, Québec. There I saw it thick as a wild stand, looking wonderfully ghostly on a moonlit evening. A sight I shall never forget.
I had often read in nursery catalogues of another cultivar of this great weed, ‘Stahl Rose’ but it was only this year that I had the pleasure to see it. I was a bit suspect at the idea of a pink selection, but what a lovely thing it turns out to be! I visited Phoenix Perennials a couple of days ago and it immediately caught my eye from a distance.It has petals of the most delightful shade of pale pink and deep red stems, a most successful combination. The fact that it had come out of its pot and was growing up other plants' pots gave me a clue as to its equally invasive nature (apparently it runs more than the white one) and so I refrained from buying a plant – for now at least!