Friday, 31 December 2010

Memories of 2010

Galanthus 'Green Tear'
  A few 'unpublished' photographs of plants that have caught my eye this year, taken in the cotttage garden except where noted. Happy New Year!

Crocus sieberi 'Bowles's White' and 'Firefly'

Primula 'Peter Klein'

Magnolia maudiae, Portland, Oregon
Quercus crassifolia, RBG Kew

Bupleurum longifolium and Bromus inermis 'Skinner's Gold'
Anemone fanninii

Lilium martagon var. album

Lilium regale, The Garden House, Condicote -
in belated commemoration of Wilson's 1910 expedition to China
Leucospermum reflexum, Kistenbosch

Lespedeza thunbergii 'Gibraltar'
and grasses, October

Ligularia 'Britt Marie Crawford'

Berberis sp., Colesbourne Park

Polypodium cambricum 'Omnilacerum Superbum'

Thursday, 30 December 2010

Harry Hay 1922-2010

Harry Hay and Graham Duncan, May 2005
One of the omissions from this Diary this year was any mention of the death in June of Harry Hay, the great but reclusive plantsman from Surrey. The grapevine failed, for some reason, and I did not receive the news until the end of August.

Last year, Harry was nominated to receive the Herbert Medal, presented by the International Bulb Soociety to someone who has done meritorious work on bulbous plants, and I was asked to write a testimonial in support. This is it, modified very slightly, offered in tribute to the memory of a great gardener:

"For much of my life the name Harry Hay has been heard in reverential tones, usually in the context of a good plant that had been received from him, or of some prized specimen known to be in his collection. A series of pictures in books by Martyn Rix and Roger Phillips, captioned ‘at Harry Hay’s,’ only added to the mystique.

I finally got to meet him a few years ago, and on several occasions have had the privilege of being shown round his collection, housed in a series of greenhouses and polytunnels as well as in the open ground. It lived up to expectations, with every inch of space crowded with rarity after rarity, all flourishing in carefully chosen conditions. Needless to say, I also joined the group who could exhibit a choice plant and say proudly, ‘it came from Harry Hay.’

Harry’s influence on plantsmanship is not to be measured in erudite publications or public displays. It has been the best sort of influence, derived from the art and craft of growing bulbs, maintaining them in cultivation with meticulous records, and distributing them with sage advice to grateful but carefully chosen recipients. In this way he has helped a broad generation of gardeners, improving their collections and horticultural practice alike."

Galanthus elwesii 'Yvonne Hay',
named by Harry in honour of his wife

The Herbert Medal was duly awarded to Harry and was presented not long before his death. A great article about his life and plantsmanship appeared in the September 2009 issue of The Plantsman.

Wednesday, 29 December 2010

He that watereth

duck sprinkler
In July I had the pleasure of staying with my friend  Judge Ernest Cavallo at his home on Long Island, New York. I got to know him as a galanthophile, but as his entry on the New York Courts page says, he has another hobby as well - 'he spends his spare time in his garden and on Ebay where he collects vintage lawn sprinklers.'

Dayton Rotary Co. sprinkler from 1913.
The lateral jet of water turns the aluminium
 wheel, which turns the sprinkler head.

The result of his quest is a large collection of sprinklers, all of the pre-plastics era, in an unimaginable diversity of shapes and sizes, ranging in date from the Nineteenth Century to the 1950s or so, but all with the sole original purpose of watering the lawn. Ernest very kindly put on a demonstration of some of them to show their competence, and in some cases, the beauty of their watering pattern - I hope these pictures convey something of the interest and charm of the collection.

the duck in action, with other sprinkler models
a 'Pluviette' sprinkler from the 1910s


Carolina Duck sprinkler

'he that watereth shall be watered also himself.' Proverbs 11: 25

Ashes retained

Like anyone with any interest in cricket I have been keenly following the current England tour of Australia, enjoying the spectacle of  a victorious England team, for once. The Melbourne test, which finished so satisfactorily last night, was played in the magnificent Melbourne Cricket Ground, a 100,000 seater stadium packed to the brim in the early stages of the game, but curiously deserted by Aussies yesterday...

The Melbourne Cricket Ground
Apart from the appeals of the cricket and cricketers, what I particularly admired about the MCG was the field with its beautifully patterned turf, whose lushness stopped so many shots going to the boundary. The groundsmen must be proud to have produced such an immaculate surface, especially with  it also being used for Australian rules football and other sports. The secret, according to the MCG's website, is the sandy substrate on which the turf is grown, and also the fact that the pitch, on which the batting action takes place, is prepared elsewhere and dropped into place before the start of the cricket season, thus ensuring that the sacred square is not damaged by other sports - and not an obstacle to them either.

Now all we need is for England to actually win the series...

Update, 7 January 2011: They did! But the turf at Sydney did not look quite as good as it did in Melbourne.

Monday, 27 December 2010

Dan Hinkley's socks

I realise that a cardinal rule of stripping is to lose the socks first, but when getting ready for bed last night I rediscovered that I was wearing two pairs of socks, and that the uppermost pair had once belonged to Dan Hinkley. That's largely irrelevant: the point is that it was so cold that I was compelled to wear two pairs of socks yesterday. The thermometer on the hen run registered -15oC at 7.30 am and was still at -12 three hours later. It really didn't seem much warmer inside - hence the need for extra insulation of the extremities.

-15oC is the coldest temperature I have experienced in this country and I await with trepidation the effects in the garden. Fortunately the ground is deeply covered in snow so underground parts have not been subjected to these temperatures - though there was no such protection when the ground froze hard in late November. Exposed parts have borne the brunt, however, and there are going to be some extensive casualties among evergreens I think - even Phlomis fruticosa looks thoroughly 'fried'. For the moment we can only wait and see what comes back with the spring.

The good news is that the temperature then rose through the day yesterday, hovering at zero at dusk, and is now 'comfortably' positive at 3oC and the forecast suggests positive temperatures for the rest of the week, though there may be an unpleasant mix of rain and snow tonight.

Saturday, 25 December 2010

Stocking fillers

Snowman, by Martha and Ruth MacLaren
A few photographs from our Christmas visit to my parents, taken between courses...

Agave parryi var. huachuchensis
This plant has been in the ground for very nearly 20 years and in that time has never shown any blemish attributable to cold - a genuinely hardy plant in this location. From one small plant it has built up into quite a mound of large rosettes, but no longer sends out long stolons producing offsets at some distance from the parent.

Echium boissieri
 Echium boissieri is a native of southern Spain and is the largest hardy Echium I have encountered. It makes a large prostrate rosette in its first year, and produces an inflorescence to at least 150 cm in the following year, then dies. The flowers are creamy pink and not particularly showy, but the inflorescence as a whole is strikingly architectural both in flower and later - this one was almost flat now, hence the strange angle, looking down the main axis to small basal branches.

Myrtus communis
 Another long-term survivor in my parents' garden is the common Myrtle, Myrtus communis, which produces heavy crops of berries every year.

Wisteria sinensis fruits
This clone of Wisteria sinensis was bought as an unselected seedling from a local garden centre and has proved to be a lucky find. Not only does it flower freely along the lengths of the whips of last year's growth, but it is very fertile, and reliably produces heavy crops of fruit. The pods persist for much of the winter, looking extremely decorative, before eventually dehiscing explosively in spring.

My mother's hall decorations this year include Cape Gooseberries (Physalis peruviana), the fruits of Nicandra physaloides with their inflated calyces, and dried husks from the pods of purple peas (the peas were eaten in due season).

Merry Christmas

River Churn, January 2010
 A beautiful, bright and sunny, but very cold Christmas morning - my dreams have not been realised. As a friend said recently 'Two days of snow is one too many...'  Whether your Christmas is white or green, I hope it is enjoyable for you. These pictures are among those I've used for cards this year. The river scene is just below the cottage, and although taken last January, is how it looks today. The Silver Sebrights (though a little tarnished, I note) and crocuses are a reminder of the joys of spring.

Thursday, 23 December 2010

When icicles hang by the wall

Icicles on the north side of the cotttage today. The longest is 133 cm.

When icicles hang by the wall,
And Dick the shepherd blows his nail.
And Tom bears logs into the hall,
And milk comes frozen home in pail,
When blood is nipp'd and ways be foul,
Then nightly sings the staring owl,
To-who! - a merry note,
While greasy Joan doth keel the pot.

When all aloud the wind doth blow,
And coughing drowns the parson's saw,
And birds sit brooding in the snow,
And Marian's nose looks red and raw,
When roasted crabs hiss in the bowl,
Then nightly sings the staring owl,
To-who! - a merry note,
While greasy Joan doth keel the pot.

Shakespeare, Love's Labour's Lost.

Tuesday, 21 December 2010

A tree at Christmas

Chamaecyparis lawsoniana, Siskiyou Mountains, Oregon
'Garden planning in Britain is primarily the study of Lawson Cypress. Other plants are just infilling.' (Alan Mitchell 1996).

One of the botanical highlights of the year for me was seeing Chamaecyparis lawsoniana in the wild when I visited Oregon in early March. Whether one agrees with Alan Mitchelll or not, this is one of the most important of all conifers, not only for its ornamental qualities but also for its excellent timber, which is still very much in demand and rather valuable. Despite its adapatability in European conditions, in the wild it is confined to a small area of southern Oregon and northern California, growing from the coast up into the Siskiyou and Trinity Mountains in those states respectively. It was in the Trinity Mountains that seed was collected in 1854 by William Murray and sent to Lawson's Nurseries near Edinburgh where four seedlings germinated. It was promptly named in 1855 by William's brother, Andrew Murray, in honour of this establishment, presumably on the strength of dried material received with the seeds (though no early specimens are extant). In the following year a larger quantity of seed arrived: some was sown by Lawson, and some by Anthony Waterer in Surrey, with the result that the species quickly became freely available in the British horticultural trade at the peak of the Victorian conifer craze. The result is that it is responsible, according to Alan Mitchell, 'for so much monotonous funereal gloom in suburban parks and gardens.'

The British have always known it as Lawson Cypress, but in the United States it is most commonly referred to as Port Orford Cedar, after the port on the Oregon coast from which much of its timber was shipped. The finest stands close to the coast were logged long ago, though trees of 70 m or so still survive (29 m is the tallest attained in Britain,so far). To the damage done by logging now must be added the ravages of the waterborne rootrot fungus, Phytophthora lateralis, which is killing many trees in the remaining forests, and also makes the species a poor choice for gardens. (It's therefore alarming to hear this week that this disease has been recently found in Scotland, and it is to be hoped that it is swiftly contained.) The trees I saw in the Siskiyou mountains, under the guidance of Sean Hogan, seemed to be free of the disease, perhaps because of the chemical properties of the serpentinite rock on which they are growing. They were certainly reproducing freely, with abundant seedlings springing up (left).

The lack of variation seen in wild trees of Chamaecyaris lawsoniana has been commented on by many authors, usually in contrast to the proliferation of cultivars that have been selected in horticulture. I cannot think of any other plant that has given such an extraordinarily protean diversity of shapes and sizes in its basic morphology. The process started early, with the selection of an 1855 seedling by Waterer that combined an upright habit with lush verdant foliage. This is what we know as the cultivar 'Erecta Viridis' "which disfigures nearly every churchyard in the land", again according to Alan Mitchell, principally because it has a habit of dropping branches. There are some venerable specimens of it at Colesbourne Park, certainly of Victorian planting, that have avoided the fate of becoming too ragged and still present an attractive sight. In the picture below an old tree is visible behind a younger specimen. Variegated seedlings also appeared quite promptly in nurserymen's seed beds, and numerous selections have been made over the years. An early one was 'Lutea', selected in about 1870: again, there is a fine specimen at Colesbourne (below). Sparingly used, these yellow conifers are of inestimable value, bringing rich colour to the winter landscape.

C. lawsoniana 'Erecta Viridis'
C. lawsoniana 'Lutea'

In all, well over 200 named cultivars have been selected, ranging from really tiny dwarves, that stay as compact buns, to apparently slow-growing, smaller clones that given time can form a monstrous blob, as in the case of one we saw growing at Icomb Place earlier this year (picture below), obscuring half a fine view.  I cannot imagine why nobody has removed it.

C. lawsoniana at Icomb Place

C. lawsoniana 'Blue Surprise'
 There are good blue cultivars, such as 'Pembury Blue' and 'Blue Surprise' (right), which also has the distinction of retaining the juvenile form of its shoots and leaves, as several others in the 'Ellwoodii' complex do.  My favourite cultivar, however, is the extraordinary clone known as 'Imbricata Pendula', in which the shoots have been reduced to long narrow whipcords by a failure to branch. A normal dark green in colour, this is the most see-through conifer I have encountered: I'd love to use it to make the shimmering walls of a bower. Despite its lack of foliage it is surprisingly vigorous, but it does need a stake when young to ensure that the leader has some support.

C. lawsoniana 'Imbricata Pendua' in hoar frost,
December 2010

male cones in early April
One feature of the Lawson Cypress that I particularly enjoy is the display provided by its male cones in spring, with each shoot covered in little red and black blips that look almost like tiny insects. In some cultivars, especially the congested but columnar 'Wisselii', the effect is almost floral (one always has to be careful to make the point that the reproductive organs of a conifer are not flowers, however tempting it is to think of them as such). The male cones, or strobili, produce pollen that fertilizes the female structures, enabling them to develop into the familiar fruiting cones. They are opening now, shedding their seed on the snow.

fruiting cones of C. lawsoniana, early December
The late great dendrologist Alan Mitchell has supplied some humorous quotations for this post, but here is his opening paragraph in which they appear in context (from Alan Mitchell's Trees of Britain, 1996):

'The tree which is responsible for so much monotonous funereal gloom in suburban parks and gardens is nometheless surpassed in no less than three important aspects. In cultivation it is a great deal more variable than any other conifer, despite being singularly uniform in its native stands. It has yielded cultivars of an extraordinary range of patterns of foliage, textures and every colour which is available to a conifer. It is, with its cultivars, the prime tree in garden layouts for shelter, winter colour, backbone and winter form, for eye-catchers and other colour-features, for cover for birds nesting and roosting. It can also be shaped into topiary. It is bone hardy and grows happily on most soils. It is the ideal, general purpose and ornamental tree, with forms available to suit any space.Garden planning in Britain is primarily the study of Lawson Cypress. Other plants are just infilling.'

Sunday, 19 December 2010

I'm dreaming of a green Christmas

... just like the ones we used to know!

falling snow yesterday
 But I don't think it's going to happen: 15 cm of snow came down yesterday, and hard frosts are forecast all week. Here are a few pics from yesterday and today.

Yucca x karlsruhensis

"frost-resistant" rhubarb pot

When icicles hang by the wall...

Friday, 17 December 2010

Christmas plants

We are very lucky that not far from here, at Shurdington on the outskirts of Cheltenham, are The Dawn Nurseries, a family-owned traditional nursery producing flowering potplants. In spring they supply us with pelargoniums and other bedding and tub plants: at this time of year they are offering their winter specialities, cyclamen and poinsettias (as well as doing a roaring trade in Christmas trees and associated evergreens). It is a pleasure to see really well-grown plants that are properly cared for - look at the spacing of the cyclamen on the tables in the picture above, for example. They are placed to allow ample room for air circulation between the plants, thus reducing the risk of botrytis in their centres. The plants are offered at prices that are only slightly higher than those charged by supermarkets for a far inferior product. For some weeks I've been scowling at poinsettias in our regular supermarket that claim to be guaranteed for so many weeks, yet have clearly been chilled and are already dropping their leaves.

Euphorbia pulcherrima 'Tapestry'
It is a very curious fact that, despite being apparently a very long-established part of the Christmas tradition, poinsettias only started to become widely known in the 1920s. They were first vigorously promoted by Paul Ecke, a Californian nurseryman, who grew them as an outdoors, open-ground crop, on a large spread just north of San Diego, and his son Paul Ecke Jr, who brought them into the greenhouse, until they became an essential feature of the All-American Christmas, and the rest of the world followed suit. The Ecke Ranch, now under the management of Paul Ecke III, continues to lead the way in poinsettia breeding and cultivation, as may be seen from their catalogue. Their plants are sold across the world, being shipped as cuttings from their production nursery in Guatemala, for growers (such as The Dawn Nurseries) to produce into finished plants according to the strict growing schedules provided.

Joel Roberts Poinsett (from WikiCommons)
 Having had some dealings with Ecke Ranch and Paul Ecke III while I worked at Sahin I've paid more attention to poinsettias than might otherwise have been the case. The name itself is interesting, commemorating Joel Roberts Poinsett (1779-1851). He is decribed by Wikipedia as 'a physician, botanist and American statesman' - his life story is well-worth reading. He became involved with Euphorbia pulcherrima during his appointment as the United States' Minister (i.e. Ambasador) to Mexico, when in 1828 he found it growing in the area around Taxco del Alarcon. There it was known as Flor de Noche Buena (Christmas Eve flower) and valued for its winter-flowering (it is stimulated into flowering by the onset of short nights, which enables easy manipulaion of greenhouse-grown plants). Poinsett sent specimens home to his estate in South Carolina, and from there they became distributed into the nursery trade, being sold under the name poinsettia from 1836, if not before. It is a far cry from the wild type, which can be quite a large, straggly bush, to the clones now ofered by Ecke Ranch, with their improved branching, programmable production and a plethora of colours and shapes in the bracts, but there is something wonderful about an old-fashioned poinsettia  flaunting its scarlet heads, often on almost leafless stems, against the blue of a tropical sky.

Euphorbia pulcherrima at Kiambethu, Kenya, November 2009. The typical flowers of a Euphorbia are borne in the middle of the ring of brightly-coloured bracts