June goings-on…

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The Mix, caught in early sunlight, Tostat, June 2019

At this time of year, the light becomes so bright that photography is an early morning or late evening activity. The light creeps over the house in the morning like a ranging searchlight, and the other day, it was the right place and the right time.  Standing by the Mix, my now 3 year old perennial planting with the occasional small shrub and grass, the sun spotlit the tops of the clumps of perennials, picking out the Monarda fistulosa and the Lychnis chalcedonica ‘Salmonea’ as the tallest in town just yet.  This area has been a real experiment- made even more experimental this year by the one-armed bandit requirement of ‘no weeding’.  About 6 weeks ago, it looked pretty awful.  But now, with the rain and sun we have had, the perennials are powering upwards, and, unless you have a pair of binoculars, you mostly can’t see any serious weed activity.  There is a lesson here for the future.

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Papaver somniferum, from Biddy Radford, Tostat, June 2019

This has been a good year for self-seeding- another bonus for one-armed gardening.  Opium poppies, Papaver somniferum, have popped themselves all over the gravel paths and into some of the more orthodox places as well. As self-seeders, you can get years when the colours are very washed out- but this year has been loads better with good mauves and soft pinks.  The bees and insects love them- and I do, for their unfurling architecture as much as for the flowers.

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Unfurling Opium poppy and Penstemon ‘Dark Towers’, Tostat, June 2019

Playing with Penstemons has become a bit of an obsession.  I grew some Penstemon digitalis ‘Husker Red’ from seed the year before last, and so with the wait, this is the beginning of seeing the plant in action.  Slim, upright growth, dark beetroot colouring on the stems and leaves, and buds which are creamy-yellow.  Not yet a big player, but with potential.  I also bought some Penstemon ‘Dark Towers’ a cross between ‘Husker Red’ and ‘Prairie Splendour’.  Now this is a big, beefy plant.  Strong upright, dark crimson, darker than ‘Husker Red’, stems and leaves, altogether bigger and more imposing, and then, on filigreed stems, big pale mauve flowers. So far, so very good.  Not yet tested for drought tolerance, but that will come.

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Trifolium rubens, Tostat, June 2019

Two years ago, visiting the stunning gardens at Kentchurch Court, I was seriously smitten by what seemed like giant clover flowers on speed.  It was a variety of Trifolium, and so I have been growing some from seed since last summer, and it is just about to flower.  This is the species form of Trifolium ochroleucon– more to follow.  But, I have also bought plants of two more Trifoliums, Trifolium rubens and Trifolium pannonicum ‘White Tiara’.  Both are doing well so far in their first year, seeming to cope well with the conditions- the true test will come.

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Trifolium pannonicum ‘White Tiara’, Tostat, June 2019
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Philadelphus ‘Starbright’, Tostat, June 2019

A bargain basement buy this year in the new area, still covered in cardboard, and holding its own, is a newish variety of Philadelphus called ‘Starbright’.  A recent Canadian selection, it has dark-red stems and strong, single white flowers and is very cold and drought tolerant- hence my giving it a go.

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Phlomis longifolia var. bailanica with Allium nigrum behind and a sprinkling of Dianthus cruentus, Tostat, June 2019

This has been the year of the Phlomis- all my plants have adored the weather and conditions.  Phlomis longifolia var.bailanica has doubled in size, and has emptied the custard tin over itself, with incredible Birds Custard coloured flower heads.  I am responsible only for the Phlomis and the Allium nigrum, also enjoying life- the Dianthus cruentus is self-seeded, I think from a few feet away.

Tomorrow, we are off to visit Jardin de la Poterie Hillen– this should be a lovely garden day with great patisserie as well.  Not to be knocked.  And some splendid planting, such as this extraordinary rose, Rosa ‘Pacific Dream’, photographed by my friend Martine in case I missed it….

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Rosa ‘Pacific Dream’ Jardin de la Poterie Hillen, Thermes-Magnoac 65, June 2019.  Photo credit: Martine Garcia







Alchemilla epipsilla, Oloron Sainte Marie, May 2023

This Spring has brought new learning about what planetary warming is also about- volatility. We are not in the Pyrenees, but we are very close and that does bring some special characteristics into play, such as swirling rapidly developing storms and some more rain than we had living in Tostat on the plain of the Adour river. But, this year, has been a strange one since the end of March. Up until then, Spring was coming along nicely, plants were doing roughly what they usually do, and if anything, I was hoping that big heat might not arrive until July. Big heat and tiger mosquitoes having dominated from early June until October last year- and perhaps the mosquitoes were the worst bit, being someone who blows up like a balloon once bitten, and reliably, always bitten.

This year, we have had weeks of torrential rain and a very grey Spring since early April. On the whole, setting aside the human frustration, this has been good from a plant point of view, particularly for the newer shrubs in the Barn Garden, which have bashed though with aplomb. From a flowering point of view though, it’s all still waiting to happen really, which seems quite weird after last year’s late Spring and early Summer.

Alchemilla is one of those magical plants that look fabulous after rain. This Alchemilla epipsilla completely vanished last year in our drought and I was doubtful that it would return. But it did. It’s smaller and therefore easier to lose in the underplanting, but every bit as charming as the bigger one. One plant didn’t make it, but this one did, so I think I’ve got it now. Sporting a coronet of diamond raindrops, it is really worth seeking out in the early morning.

Cistus x cyprius var. elipticus ‘Elma’, Oloron Sainte Marie, May 2023

This Cistus with the very long name has really thrilled me. It is, believe it or not, a 3 year old cutting from Tostat. It really languished for 2 of it’s 3 years and I despaired, but I planted it on the might-as-well principle, and although it is still so small that I lay down to photograph it, I am sure it will make it now. It isn’t the fastest growing Cistus in town anyway, as I remember having bought it at least 10 years on a trip to the celebrated Pépinière Filippi in Sète, and even in Tostat, it took a while to get going. But the flowers are large, sublime and with the most gorgeous stamens, that I would recommend seeking it out for a hot, dry, spot. The leaves are very fragrant, glossy and almost sticky, another plus.

Geranium x cantabrigiense ‘Harz’, Oloron Sainte Marie, May 2023

I was a hardy geranium nut when we gardened in Scotland. Tough, cold hardy, flowering reliably, and great ground cover, especially under trees in shade, they were a boon for a time and energy frustrated family gardener. I tried some in Tostat in drier shade situations, but they never made it. This newish variety, bred in Germany, is specially recommended for dry shade, and I liked the pearly pink of the small, but many, flowers. So a couple of plants went in, under the Mahonia ‘Soft Caress’ in the Barn Garden, and enabled me to pull out some more of the Lamium which had gone mad as it does in it’s imperial way. Let’s see how they handle the summer heat.

Iris Louisiana Black Gamecock, Oloron Sainte Marie, May 2023

I have always fancied a Louisiana Iris. I think I am a sucker for something a bit different, and the phrase ‘rarely grown’ is like a red rag to a bull for me. There is often a comeuppance, as I find out why something is ‘rarely grown’! So, I have had several attempts at the Louisiana Iris. When we made the bassin pond out of the old cattle trough, I bought a tiny cutting on ebay, not wanting to risk more money. And this year, it has flowered, and even has a backup bud, so I then had to scrabble to remember which one I had bought. It is a stunner.

Rosa ‘La Belle Sultane’, Oloron Sainte Marie, May 2023

Here’s another ‘rarely-grown’ purchase, which is utterly unjustified in my book. Rosa ‘La Belle Sultane’ has a patchy history in that, apart from being a Gallica, which guarantees toughness, there is very little record of it. Most probably it was bred in the Netherlands at the end of the 18th century. I was drawn to it, full story here, and it’s now in it’s second year. An upright, sturdy rose, which has taken everything that the weather has flung at it, including huge hail the other week, without flinching. The flowers are numerous, with damask colouring and those incredible golden stamens. It should be a world beater this rose.

Rosa ‘Woollerton Old Hall’ and Nepeta ‘Zinser’s Giant’, Oloron Sainte Marie, May 2023

‘Woollerton Old Hall’ has the most extraordinary rose scent that even I can small. Polite reviewers call it ‘myrrh’, which I have never smelled so I wouldn’t know, cloves, pungent, not sweet but still lovely covers it for me. It starts off a gentle gold colour and matures to big blowsy cream flowers. It can be grown as a shrub, but it is pretty lax, and needs more support than we have given it, so next year, the home made bamboo tripod will be erected. Nestling into the picture is a last remaining plant of a great, but floppy, Catmint, Nepeta ‘Zinser’s Giant‘, that I grew from seed in Tostat. Having said floppy, it does a good flop, and you can cut it back after flowering to force it back into new growth. It is pretty obliging really and insects love it.

Salvia spathacea and Heuchera ‘Firefly’, Oloron Sainte Marie, May 2023

Another Tostat survivor, grown from seed in a hot, dry situation, and now revelling in dryish semi-shade in the undercover of the Amelanchier in the Barn Garden is Salvia spathacea. It is a creeping plant, spreading underground slowly if it likes where it is. It flowers according to mood, last seen flowering in late November and then again starting out last month. The leaves have a wonderful pineapple-ish smell when brushed against. In Tostat, it grew to almost 2m, and, here in Oloron, it was just over a metre tall before the hail bashed it last week. Behind it, is a last remaining plant of Heuchera ‘Firefly’, that I grew from seed in Tostat. A terrific plant, pretty cream tinged leaves in a scallop shape, and long lasting scarlet sprays of tiny flowers, no trouble and so much reward, working hard as a backing singer to the Salvia.

Photinia serratifolia ‘Crunchy’, Oloron Sainte Marie, May 2023

In the 90s in Scotland, every other garden had a Photinia ‘Red Robin’ in it, usually as hedging. Back then, it was a sort of amazing plant because it was so colouful so early in the year. I fell over this new variety, ‘Crunchy’ last year in the catalogue of the remarkable Cathy Portier in Belgium, and having been a complete snob about Photinia, I have been converted. Yes, you get the coral coloured early foliage, but the stems are also coral coloured and the leaves are long, glossy and almost holly-like. It grows obligingly upwards for as long as you want it. I have three in a group in the front garden, nearly under the two old cherry trees, and I love them.

Comebacks and juniors….

Disporum longistylum ‘Night Heron’, Oloron Sainte Marie, April 2023

This is such a strange and fabulous plant. Disporum longistylum ‘Night Heron’ was collected by the great plantsman, Dan Hinkley, in China in 1996. So recently discovered! I discovered it from an online catalogue, not quite the same thing as China, and then very nearly lost it last year in the great heat, despite the shade. So it has lost a year of real growth. But, now in a pot, taking shade from the gingers in the summer and getting regular watering, it has flowered for the first time. It is bamboo like in the sense that single stems rise up from the ground, but the flowers are unlike anything else, very muted, elegant and draping beautifully. I wondered about the name ‘Night Heron’, but this photograph kind of explains it, as a wide, dark wingspan is formed by the leaves. I am so looking forward to it really settling in.

Disporum longistylum ‘Green Giant’, Oloron Sainte Marie, April 2023

This is the big cousin of ‘Night Heron’. ‘Green Giant’ is a much beefier plant, and if anything, the flowers drape even more from the firm stems. ‘Green Giant’ took the heat a little better, but had to be moved all the same. Both patients are doing well.

Cestrum elegans, Oloron Sainte Marie, April 2023

Poor old Cestrum elegans has had a rough time of it. The drought last summer and the heat put it under a lot of strain and it attracted cestrum-eating predators and, for a while, it was just leafless stalks. I thought about lifting it, but then decided to see what would happen as the heat decreased. It enjoyed winter, though it was a fairly dry one, but maybe the stress it was under set up this plethora of small flowers, which have covered the stems. I gave it a clipping to take out the dead wood, and once it has flowered, I will try pruning it back to a good re-starter shape. It would be nice to see it back in 2019 shape, fingers crossed.

Cestrum elegans, Tostat, January 2019

When you plant in difficult conditions, you have to allow for slow growth and time for a root structure to form that will support the plant in those conditions. So, for the ‘garrigue’ garden at the front, I now count two years at least before a plant really looks ready to take off. ‘Juniperina’ is reckoned to be the hardiest of the Grevilleas, but even so, these plants have needed all the time to settle in. It’s the same pink-red tone as the Cestrum, but the intricacy of the flower structure is enchanting, I think. Over 15 years in Tostat, my Grevilleas grew to 3-4m high and wide, so I am really hoping for that effect in the future. By contrast, another Australian plant that I love, Callistemon’Widdecombe Gem’ is still looking moody, I hope for the best.

Grevillea juniperina, Oloron Sainte Marie, April 2023

I couldn’t remember when I bought the seed for these Kniphofia rooferi, so I trawled back through my emails to find out. Back in the auumn of 2021 I bought and sowed the seed, so here we are, nearly 2 years later, and six junior plants are installed in a pot, looking young but ready. I am looking forward to the day when these juniors have made big clumps that I can dot about in the Barn Garden for splashes of red. Another gardening task that requires patience and time.

Paulownia tomentosa, Oloron Sainte Marie, April 2023

By contrast, Paulownia tomentosa will become a 30m tree if you let it. I grew two of these from seed that a friend gave me, and this is their 2nd year of being chopped almost to the ground late autumn/early winter. Last year they grew back to over 3m, so I am guessing they will be looking over the garden wall this year, with massive plate-shaped leaves. Ok, no pretty purple flowers grown this way, but the leaves are very dramatic and utterly unstoppable. The latter is true, because the giant stems that we cut down and are now using to protect the potato plants from the cats, are actually budding! Given half a chance, we would have a Paulownia forest if we upended the sticks and stuck them in soil. Kind of sc-fi-ish really.

Scilla peruviana, Oloron Sainte Marie, April 2023

A Tostat friend gave me 6 small bulbs of Scilla peruviana, which I planted out in the dry ‘garrigue’ garden in early Spring. Only one has flowered so far, and it is a starter flower, so quite modest. I think that they will like it there, so a shot of blue would be lovely next year.

Rosa chinenesis ‘Mutabilis’, Oloron Sainte Marie, April 2023
‘Mutabilis’ at home in the ‘garrigue’ garden, Oloron Sainte Marie, April 2023

Rosa chinensis ‘Mutabilis’ has become Rosa x odorata ‘Mutabilis’ in the UK. It is a fabulous rose, tough, undemanding and flowers for months on end, with the beautiful colour changes it is famous for. It can be a bit of a toughie, so this plant, only 2 years old, has been given a bit of a perch to sit on in the ‘garrigue’ garden, which also means we can see it a bit better from up the hill. And look how well the Achillea crithmifolia has worked as a ground cover underneath it, it has taken a year or so but has really done the job, and I like the feathery foliage and the small cream flowers as a bonus.

Salvia cacaliifolia, Tostat, June 2019

Thought I had lost this fabulous blue Salvia cacaliifolia. I bought it several years ago from the best nursery in SWest France in my humble opinion. Bernard Lacrouts is not only an expert plantsman but a very helpful source of advice and counsel, and his nursery is always worth a visit. I was there last week hoping to find another plant of this Salvia, but he has stopped growing it commercially, so instead I bought some other Salvias, of which more later. But, two days later, with some of our first warm sunshine this month, I could see it re-growing in the 2 pots I had been about to replant. Phew! It is an unusual Salvia, the gentian-blue flowers are gorgeous, but so is the almost twining foliage, which you could probably persuade to climb a little with some support. I will do that.

Small miracles….

Acanthus sennii, Oloron Sainte Marie, April 2023

Spring can sometimes be very forgiving. Over the years, I have killed off so many plants or lost them accidentally or been robbed by the weather. Being robbed by the weather has become more frequent, though it’s probably, truthfully, head to head with my own planticidal tendencies. And linked to these two reasons for death is often my refusal to play it safe. Sometimes, the idea of a plant is overwhelming and caution is thrown to the winds. And now and then rejecting caution is rewarded.

This spiky small clump, just emerging from the ground, is Acanthus sennii. An acanthus from high ground in Ethiopia. We had an amazing few weeks in Ethiopia in 2017, such a beautiful country and such warm hearted people. So that’s why I bought two of these last year. It is fairly new to France as a plant, which can mean that descriptions are way too optimistic- but I know that. I always check round the world for plant commentaries just to be sure. It also has an incredible red flowering spike, another terrible weakness of mine, anything red. Here is the photo from Beth Chatto’s nursery.

Acanthus sennii photo credit: www.bethchatto.co.uk

To complete the story, both plants were super straggly last year, but with my poor, light soil, I thought that this would not pose a problem. One of them may yet still emerge as temperatures begin to warm up steadily, but one has made it back. I am so thrilled, it’s ridiculous.

Syringa laciniata, Oloron Sainte Marie, April 2023

Syringa laciniata is a planticidal survivor. It has come back from the dead twice. In Tostat, although it is dry tolerant, I pushed it too far, and then again, here in Oloron, misled by a damper summer by far in the first year than last year, I was forced to dig it up and it went back into the recovery room. A year later, I planted it out at the very top of the front garden, with wall protection and, for me, pretty reasonable soil. And it has flowered- properly! It flowers on old wood so it will be another year before the it is out of the clutches of the past. It is a really charming lilac, as much for the ferny, feathery, bright green foliage as for the clusters of mauve flowers. Phew.

Amelanchier alnifolia ‘Obelisk’, Oloron Sainte Marie, April 2023

This lovely Amelanchier has also had a torrid time. I bought two very small plants, probably 10 years ago, in Tostat. They do prefer a moistish soil, so I did the best I could, but over the years, they disappeared into the emerging undergrowth and I completely forgot about them. Maybe 4 years later, I found them again. They hadn’t done much having been overwhelmed by their surroundings. I dug them up and put them into large pots at the back door where, over the next 4 years, they recovered pretty well and even began growing- some. But, the move to Oloron has been really good for them. They love the Barn Garden, the protection of the wall, and also the overhang of trees from the next garden. Strangely, they have adjusted to the dryness and were still in good shape after the roasting of last summer. This one is even pretty much in shade and it is looking fabulous. It is such a good variety. Slim, goblet-shaped growth, short lived but very pretty blossom, and then small fruits. Height-wise, mine are a bit stunted but are now growing well, each about 1.80m tall.

Rosa ‘New Dawn’, Barn Garden, Oloron Sainte Marie, April 2023

Rosa ‘New Dawn’ is an outstanding rose, drought tolerant, forgiving of most conditions and flowers later than others, and sporadically again after the first flush. These two plants were one year old cuttings from my Tostat plant when they went into the ground here in Oloron. They have done a fantastic job of almost covering the old wall behind the vegetable beds, and we have done a good job with them too, with wires and tying them in. It is quite a strong rose, only bendy when young, so tying them in is essential or they career downwards. Even I can smell the fragrance, tick, and the flowers, though not single, are a very pretty shell pink, which even works for me.

Rosa ‘New Dawn’, Tostat, May 2019

And now for more caution being thrown to the winds. I have bought another rose. I am going to plant it it in the hot, dry soil of the sunnier bit of the Barn Garden. Am I mad? Actually not. There is a very interesting, and growing category of roses being identified in Texas, which might mean that we can carry on growing roses in hotter climates. This category is called Earth Kind Roses, and the link takes you to their home page. I have bought ‘Perle d’Or’, a French bred rose from the late nineteenth century, regarded as excellent in terms of performance, and cited as an Earth Kind example. So I am going to test it out. Less caution thrown than you might have thought!

Rosa ‘Perle d’Or’ photo credit: www.trevorwhiteroses.co.uk

Spring awakening…

Salvia regla, Oloron Sainte Marie, March 2023

Yes, I think it is almost safe to say that Spring is just stretching it’s toes. The photo above tells me this. This is a survivor plant, which I risk being too optimistic about every winter. But so far, I am ahead. With eagle vision, you may be able to make out 2 or 3 very small leaves at the top of the tallest twigs. Salvia regla is a fabulous sage. One year, I just left it and it has done it’s own thing ever since, but although it’s twiggy, it is a great backdrop for shorter plants and looks exotic against the pink of the barn wall. Here it is in high summer in 2021 before we painted the barn wall pink. It is a beautiful coral-red flower with paler calyxes, and almost geranium-like leaves, which seem jolly to me.

Salvia regla, Oloron Sainte Marie, July 2021

Meanwhile, back in 2023, the Aristea ecklonii are gearing up to flower. Short of a Gentian, there is nothing more sparkling blue than an Aristea flower in my book. These plants sulked for me in Tostat, but have adored the move to Oloron, so much so that I am in danger of being overrun with Aristea babies, but they are such good plants I carry on keeping them. The foliage swoops gracefully all year, and the flowers clearly want to be Japanese, they are so elegant. All will be revealed in the next few weeks and you will see that I am not talking this one up. I have them in tall zinc containers so that the swooping is accentuated, one of my better pot choices! I grew these from seed, and they are so worth it. Burncoose says half-hardy. That’s probably about right, the barn wall does a great job of keeping them going through the winter.

Aristea ecklonii, Oloron Sainte Marie, March 2023

The bananas are at the embarassing stage, see below. It is so hard to imagine that in 2 months time, there will be wafting banana trees under which I can shelter the less heat- friendly pots. The blue pot in the photo contains a big risk which will be entirely dependent on the bananas playing ball. I am trying a largish hydrangea in a pot so that it will be watered regularly and be in semi-shade, courtesy of the bananas. Hydrangea villosa ‘Velvet and Lace’ has just joined us in the courtyard. Fingers crossed. Most sites have it as reaching 2m high and wide, which would be great.

March bananas, Oloron Sainte Marie

Two years ago, we took out a massive, very dull, conifer at the front of the house and I bought a columnar form of Liquidamber called ‘Slender Silhouette’. Liquidamber being generally an immense tree, this selection is narrow and grows quite tall but fits in beautifully at the front. I don’t remember seeing these complex flower structures last year, but we have them all over the tree this year. The leaves are a cheering fresh green, and the flower spike looks as though it will produce several small football shaped flowers. Good, isn’t it. The tree is very happy at the front, as I discovered that the roof downpipes drop straight into the ground a few feet away, so giving it an automatic watering system.

Liquidamber Slender Silhouette, Oloron Sainte Marie, March 2023

I bought this hornbeam as a teeny plant about 10 years ago. It was doing well until our dog, the much loved Peggy, cannoned into it and broke most of it off. So, patiently, it started off again. Now, having made the move, it is happily installed in the Barn Garden, and is maybe 7 feet tall, or 2 metres. I love it for the fan-shaped leaf buds that open up, the fresh green colour and for it’s determination. ‘Frans Fontaene’ is a columnar form, so I am not growing a giant, but it will grow tall eventually.

Carpinus betulus Frans Fontaene, Oloron Sainte Marie, March 2023

And another Spring miracle. Having lifted out all x Alcatheas last Autumn as even they were struggling in the Barn Garden with the drought, I had pretty much stuffed them into pots and forgotten about them. The cream one is my absolute favourite. It has a complex flower, with tones of pink and apricot cutting through the cream, and is, normally, a totally reliable doer. But what this shows me is that the drought was bad last year, and will probably be the same again this year. So let’s see if they mind being in a pot.

x Alcathea suffrutescens ‘Parkallee’, Oloron Sainte Marie, March 2023

Here is a reminder of how lovely it is. Can’t wait.

x Alcathea suffrutescens ‘Parkallee’, Oloron Sainte Marie, July 2022

In praise of Dianella and Libertia…

Dianella caerulea ‘Cassa Blue’, Oloron Sainte Marie, August 2020

Dianella and Libertia sound a bit like obscure Greek deities as celebrated in a very long poem by Alexander Pope in the 18th century. They are actually part of a wonderful group of strappy, elegant, evergreen plants that are vital to the feel of the garden in the Spring particularly, but which I constantly overlook simply because they are such stalwarts. They deserve several odes to their qualities, but I am not an ode maker, and so this post will be my celebration of them.

They are such stalwarts that all of them got left behind in the move to Oloron nearly 3 years ago. Fortunately, Libertia ixioides ‘Goldfinger’ had inserted itself into pots single-handedly, but the Dianella had to be rebought, and then, all of a sudden, some seedlings appeared self-managed in pots. I couldn’t believe my luck. Just shows you- sometimes the overlooked can sort themselves out.

Libertia ixioides ‘Goldfinger’ was originally bought as three small plants easily twelve years ago. Forming a tuft of upright, slender leaves, this plant is a 365 days of the year hero. It takes anything that weather and sun chuck at it, and once it is happy with you, there will be sprays of small flowers later in Spring, but honestly, that is a cherry on the cake. The foliage darkens to a bronze-gold colour in the winter, and backlit by sun, it is magnificent. It will make more tufts and spread gently, and will happily poke through any other plant to accompany it. I haven’t tried to grow it from seed, but would have if I hadn’t rediscovered it. A brilliant plant.

Libertia ixioides Goldfinger, Oloron Sainte Marie, March 2023

The Dianellas are just as tough and useful in all sorts of ways, in pots, in drifts, weaving in among other plants, you name it. UK sites often say that these are tender, but that is not my experience. I agree that they would not fancy waterlogged ground, but I have grown them in poor soil in full sun with very little irrigation, in shady and semi-shady spots in better soil and no irrigation, and it seems to me that they always bounce back from the cold and the sun.

‘Cassa Blue’ will get to 0.5m tall, maybe a little more, has a glaucous blue tinge to the green leaves, and will clump up vigorously. It has never flowered for me, but that’s no loss as the plant itself is so good. In Tostat, I grew it threading through small grasses and it makes a great linking plant bringing a planting together. Here in Oloron, I have small groups of it on the ‘garrigue’ slope, and in very hard conditions. This means that the plant is taking more time to establish but this year, I think it will have cracked it.

Dianella revoluta ‘Little Rev’, Barn Garden, Oloron Sainte Marie, March 2023

Dianella revoluta ‘Little Rev’ is growing really well in the shade and semi-shade of the Barn Garden, and I am already dividing clumps and threading the new plants through the roses and other shrubs. Above you can see it lining the rough path to the new Loropetalum ‘Fire Dance’ in the blue pot. Dividing it couldn’t be easier. Each clump consists of many smaller plants that are growing together. The rootballs are compact and strong but can be gently pulled apart to make ready-made starter plants of whatever size you want, and will quickly root back into a new position. ‘Little Rev’ is shorter than ‘Cassa Blue’ and is a strong green.

Aristea ecklonii, Courtyard, Oloron Sainte Marie, May 2021

Not related other than thematically is another Spring favourite, Aristea ecklonii. Again, this is an older photograph, but two years later, I now have 2 tall zinc vase-shaped tubs and will need to divide up and repot them in the autumn to make 2 more. I grew this from seed originally about eight years ago, and though it is evergreen in our protected courtyard against a wall and with half a days sun to warm it, it’s real hightime is the late Spring, when the plants almost sit up in the pot and then fire the elegant flowersprays out for the world to see. The tall pots really show it off the best and I raise them up balancing them on the wide ledge of the stone trough where the gingers are still sleeping. By the time the gingers get going, the Aristeas will be happy to sit down and regroup. It is easy from seed, just needing the patience to wait as you do for perennial seed.

Almost oriental in the their elegance, the flowers of Aristea ecklonii, Oloron Sainte Marie, May 2021

This will do instead of an ode I think.

A very chilly olive…

Snowy olive, February 2023, Oloron Sainte Marie

Winter returned good and proper at the weekend and for most of this coming week, and, rare, for Oloron, we had a good dusting of snow yesterday. The temperatures have been so volatile that I think the spring bulbs are stopped in their tracks until they have good experiential evidence of spring being on the way. But, I was really pleased to see all these baby Allium nigrums growing in amongst the clumps that I planted on the stony, ‘garrigue’ slope at the front. I think that I planted about 80 bulbs in groupings up and down the slope in the early winter of 2021, and probably 95% of them came good and flowered in May last year. After May, the slope was pretty much baked right up to October, But this seems to have really suited the Alliums.

Heavens knows why I didn’t take a photo last year, but here’s one from 2019 in Tostat. It is the simplest and, I think, the purest of all, white heads with emerging green seedheads as the flowering goes over, so though they may only be in flower for 3 weeks or so, the green heads remain until felled by weather. They are not expensive so lavish drifts are available to all! And if they reproduce as much as they seem to have this year, I will be joyfully awash with them, hooray.

Allium nigrum, Tostat, May 2019
Allium nigrum babies, February 2023, Oloron Sainte Marie

A first timer to flowering, my pretty small Cornus Mas, now a good Im tall and wide having been planted as a stick 2 years ago, has flowered on bare stems last week. There is a scent, but my nose not being the greatest, I didn’t catch it really. The brilliant yellow flowers may be small, but they will pack a punch in years to come.

First flowers ever, Cornus mas, February 2023, Oloron Sainte Marie

This photograph below is what inspired me to plant my one very small Cornus mas. This big planting of Cornus mas in the garden of The Pineapple, was so incredible that sunny day three years ago. I’ll have to wait a bit.

Massed Cornus mas planting in flower, the Pineapple, Scotland, February 2020

And here, whilst on the subject of Cornus mas, is the variegated form. The leaves are almost ghostly and make a fantastic effect cut through bright light. I have a suspicion too that the variegated form needs a good deal more moisture, so lusting after it is probably a dud idea. However, the regular form is actually really tough and drought tolerant, as evidenced by the fact that it is coping really well with the front slope.

Cornus mas Variegata, Greenbank Garden, Glasgow, May 2019

On the ground level of the front slope, I have many Euphorbias, but this one, Euphorbia rigida, is a real favourite. It needs the sharpest drainage possible and then it creeps along the ground and will eventually start sitting up more to form a small bush. Yellow is the colour.

Euphorbia rigida, February 2023, Oloron Sainte Marie

I am really pleased with my two Medicargo arborea, each now standing a good metre high and beginning to fill out. They have what I would call a firm presence in the’garrigue’ garden because they remain green and upright regardless of the heat and drought. And I am a bit surprised that they have each produced one or two bright custard-coloured flowers despite the cold. I think the bit of rain that we finally had last week probably kicked them into action. It’s a pea relative as you can see.

First flowers on Medicargo arborea, February 2023, Oloron Sainte Marie

One of the saddest things I did when we moved was to fail to properly protect my Plectranthus ‘Erma’ which I had grown from seed. I have never yet been able to find seed again, though I routinely look for it throughout Europe online. Last summer, though, I bought cuttings of Plectranthus zuluensis from an Etsy seller in Hungary, which amazingly rooted and filled out a terracotta trough. This winter, I brought it into the house and it is cheerfully flowering away in the sitting room window. The buds are brilliant, like a multi-headed arrow, and the soft blue flowers are small but quite lovely.

Plectranthus zuluensis bud, February 2023, Oloron Sainte Marie
Plectranthus zuluensis flower, February 2023, Oloron Sainte Marie

Sometimes the light is just right and I am there with the camera. So, below, from left to right is, a pruned down Caryopteris ‘Hint of Gold‘, a clump of spikey Dianella ‘Little Rev’, a couple of Helleborus sternii, Pennisetum alopecuroides ‘Black Beauty’, Mahonia eurybracteata ‘Soft Caress’, and more Dianella ‘Little Rev’.

Barn Garden in the winter light, February 2023, Oloron Sainte Marie

Kitchen crocus

Kitchen crocus, Oloron Sainte Marie, February 2023

Ok. Buckle up. We now have a new climatic phenomenon, winter drought. I am not complaining, especially as Venice has drying out canals. But just realising that there is a new experience to integrate into what and how we garden. Newly planted shrubs in the Barn Garden are crying out for water, and I did crack this morning and give a can or two even though, for the first time in more than 30 days, some rain is expected this week. But, unless it is slow and unrelenting, and continues for days and days, it will not restore the water table and we will go into the Spring with a big deficit. I would never have thought, being so close to the Pyrenees that I would need a water butt. But I do. And will be installing one very soon.

So, in the garden things are looking very sorry for themselves and not really very early Spring-like at all, whereas we already have had sunlit evenings lasting until 7pm. A spot more plant removal has been going on this week. Four clumps of hellebores that are seriously struggling with the drought and the unexpected sunshine have been lifted and are being convalesced prior to finding a spot in the Barn Garden, where at least I can guarantee some shade, if not damp. That might be enough to restore their fortunes.

My Derry Watkins Helleborus sternii, February 2023, Barn Garden, Oloron Sainte Marie

About 5 years ago, I had a go at growing Helleborus sternii from seed bought from Derry Watkins‘ fantastic Special Plants. She has a seed list to die for. I grew five little plants successfully, gave one away to the Eldest Daughter, and kept four in the Barn Garden. Ironically, the one that is doing the best is actually the one almost in some winter sunlight. The others are nearby, but underplanting a Mahonia eurybracteata ‘Soft Caress’. The snag is that the Mahonia, grown young in semi-shade, is a spot contorted and has provided almost too much cover for the Hellebores, which have responded by flowering almost along the ground. Never mind, some corrections to be made later on.

Helleborus sternii is not a blingy plant, it has tough, spiked, deep green leaves, and almond shaped buds that open to a soft green flower, with prominent stamens. I really love it. Two of the other plants have gone the bruised look- a strongish purply crimson colouring in the green of the leaves, and flowers that look as if they’ve been in a boxing ring- losing. But they are also very beautiful in a discreet kind of a way.

Helleborus sternii- losing the bout, Barn Garden, February 2023, Oloron Sainte Marie
Mysterious cerinthe, Barn Garden, February 2023, Oloron Sainte Marie

Only 5 or 6 years ago, I used to grow Cerinthe from seed in the Autumn, plant them out before Christmas and would know, for sure, that they would be bushy plants by March. This I did last year, and now I am looking at spriglet plants trying their best, but essentially only a few leaves bigger than when I planted them out. This is a bit sad. But they are flowering, and they are not just yellow but also have these inky bottoms to the flowers. I can’t remember if I bought a special variety- but on the whole I do like the yellow form although the ubiquitous blue is also good. Easy peasy, bu they do need rain.

Loropetalum chinensis ‘Fire Dance’, Barn Garden, February 2023, Oloron Sainte Marie

I wouldn’t want to oversell this. I bought this Loropetalum because I have lifted all the wayward growing Eucomis bulbs, of which more another time, and replanted the big pot with this early flowering shrub. I do love the pinky crimson finger shape of the flowers and am really looking forward to this becoming a very handsome addition to the Garden. But this is it’s first winter, and probably because it flowers on old wood, all the flowers in this first year are underneath the leaves. Still, this will change. The foliage is a lovely dark purple and so looks great even in the winter. I really wanted a darker red variety, but this is a newish shrub to France and there wasn’t much choice. No big regrets so far.

Back on the kitchen table, I briefly adored the bright yellow crocus flowers with brown striations, which our lovely bio lady at the market had sweetly potted up with her own moss. Gone now, but they were fabulous as a precursor to the bulbs in containers outside. This is the frustrating part of early Spring when waiting for plants to get going seems to slow down. Let’s pray for rain.


Abutilon pictum, old overwintering, Tostat, November 2017

I don’t remember when I first fell for abutilons big time. It’s the bell shape, the colours, the pretty, lax foliage in a maple shape- the colours maybe most of all, I am still lusting after a plant of Abutilon ‘Orange Hot Lava’ an American introduction which is taking its time to infiltrate France. Some UK nurseries have started to stock it. The abutilon is generally tougher than the Victorians thought. It’s largely South American lineage would seem to indicate a delicacy that it doesn’t usually need. If you think of it like a large dahlia, that would probably be enough to keep it going. Though if you regularly have winter night-time temperatures below -4C, the plant would be happier and safer in an open, roofed space with some wall protection.

I started out with an unknown orange one, see below. It was just a cutting and I planted it near the house, in one of our stony soil rectangles, and pretty much left it. It coped with annual fortnights of cold down to -10C, and always bounced back. The free draining conditions probably helped, so I’m not proposing those temperatures as a recipe for success anywhere! It became a rangy shrub just under 2m tall, about 1.5m wide, and it often flowered for almost 10 months of the year, with an endless supply of these soft orange flowers. It was such a staple that when we left Tostat, I forgot to take cuttings. I regret that!

Abutilon unknown orange, Tostat, January 2019

I had no luck with the red ones, an unknown cutting failed, and ‘Red Trumpet’ passed away here in Oloron in the Barn Garden after limping along for a year when we moved. Another opportunity beckons when I next bump into one…

Meantime, a beautiful Abutilon, see the top photograph, Abutilon pictum has gone from strength to strength here in Oloron, and is in its pot, underneath the collapsing banana tree, outside, but with the substantial protection of the big banana leaves giving it a bit of a duvet. I bought this as a well rooted cutting from the legendary Gill Pound in Caunes Minervois, when she did a final sale before retiring from her nursery business. It is such a good colour, deep marmelade with prominent red veining, and is still flowering now in the winter, although the cold does dim down the colour a lot. Each spring, I just prune it a fair bit, as it is leggy, and use a seaweed fertiliser diluted with water. This year I will repot it, just to give it a freshen-up. Full sun is a bit much for it here, assuming we continue in the same vein as last year, so I just bring it out a bit more from under the banana, so that it gets some but not all of the sun.

Be careful though, many nurseries offer Abutilon pictum Thompsonii, which has variegated leaves. I find them a bit sickly in colour myself, so if you like the plain green leaves, you need to find Abutilon pictum without the Thompson tag, they are a bit harder to find.

Abutilon Red Trumpet, Tostat, September 2019

Making a lightening dash to Leeds last weekend, we walked around Temple Newsam House and park. Inside the old glasshouses inside the walled garden, there were a number of good abutilons under glass, including this red one below, with a very old label just describing it, in fairly general terms, as Abutilon x hybridum ‘Light Red’. Red is such a hard colour to photograph and you have to imagine the colour as a really vibrant scarlet. Growing against wires on a wall, it was easily 3-4m high and wide, and very floriferous.

Abutilon x hybridum ‘Light Red’, Temple Newsam, Leeds, January 2023
Abutilon x hybridum ‘Light Red’, Temple Newsam, Leeds, January 2023

It reminded me of why I love them, though I prefer it as a shrub shape. But, below, is a great way to grow Abutilon megapotamicum. It loves a wall, or a structure to flop over, and has these bi-coloured ‘chinese lantern’ style flowers. It is really pretty tough, any space, any situation, barring total dry and hot sun. I have one in the Barn Garden, romping away, and a tad too enthusiastic for the wires I put up, so I am thinking of collecting it all up and draping it over a bamboo triangle or some such this Spring. And on an old photograph on my old camera from the early days of blogging, I found this photo taken in Gill Pound’s garden. It’s a full circle back to almost where I started!

Paddock Plants have a great selection in the UK. Mouthwatering. More about Gill Pound and her legacy here.

Abutilon megapotamicum, Gill Pound’s garden, Caunes Minervois, August 2016

Hallo again….

It’s been a long time! So, what’s been going on? well, it is a story of heat and drought really…

Back in September, all that was happening was the waiting for rain, which didn’t come in anything like enough quantity to break the iron-dry soil. So the plants that I had planned to plant in to combat the likely effects of 2023 being as tricky to manage as 2022 had been, all these plants stayed under cover in the courtyard and waited, like me. We went on holiday for 3 weeks to Croatia and Albania, came back and still no perceptible rain. It was so warm, apart from 2 days of normal winter weather, that even our turned-down heating didn’t come on. By the end of November, we had had some rain at last. But, in fear of winter turning up, I hung back with planting. Christmas and New Year came and went very enjoyably with returning adult children and lovely friends visiting.

A garden in the rain which I watched from inside a shelter, finding it very inspiring for the use of shaped shrubs and resiliant evergreens- Zadar, Croatia, September 2022

So this week, bitten by the unavoidable New Year feelings of excitement and optimism and continuing warmish weather, also some more rain, I finally spent 2 days in the garden, planting and sorting. It felt wonderful, an almost visceral feeling of re-engagement with the garden, and, as reliably inspiring and exciting as ever. Thank goodness. That was a hard sit-out this Autumn, doing nothing whilst heat and drought raged on. But, I think I need to start thinking very differently about the gardening year, and really shift my focus to the winter and early Spring, up to maybe April, for doing serious planting and revision. The other eight months from end of April to November, I need to view as time for enjoying (as in sitting), planning, small bits of this and that, but nothing more. It has to look after itself. My job is to enable it to do that with good choices, small risks, and saving big work for the winter and Spring.

In the summer this year, I wrote an article for the Mediterranean Garden Society for the first time. It describes the first 2 years of making the stony front slope into a garrigue-inspired garden. This article was quite a challenge for me. I have always started the blog articles here with the photographs that I have taken near the time of writing. The MGS journal had to be tackled in a different way as the journal has no photographs in it, but instead, some rather pretty line drawings. I also wanted to build a good narrative to tell the story, so I really worked the laptop to get there, but, at the time, the experience felt strangely denuded without photographic stimulus. However, this article is being written in the same way, text first and then I will find the photographs I want to include. And this time it feels exciting, like going on a long journey you have planned for months. Change is good for me!

Meanwhile, back in the garden….

I have taken quite a few big plants out of the barn garden, mainly because they were really toiling, and some because I have changed my mind. Changing your mind really is a part of gardening, I love that about it. Sometimes in life, there is too much investment to be able to change your mind, another liberating feature of gardening as a life pursuit. The garden in Zadar proved to be prophetic, as I have essentially removed any plant that was suffering last summer, and am focusing instead on tough but beautiful evergreens, with some spikey and tough perennials. The barn garden should look stronger this year as a result.

Salix gracilistyla ‘Mount Aso’, Oloron Sainte Marie, January 2021

So, first into the survival bin was a really beautiful Salix, Salix gracilistyla ‘Mount Aso’, which I had bought when we moved in, and which had done really well in the first 2 years. In August, the dieback was so bad that I thought it was a goner. But slowly, the remaining 20% that was living is clawing back and although I reckon I will have to wait another 2 years, it will make it. It will stay in a pot in the shady part of the courtyard from now on. Add to that, a Syringa laciniata, which was being cooked in the front garden, my seed-grown Elsholtzia stauntonii, and a young witchhazel, Hamamelis intermedia ‘Orange Beauty’, now also in a pot and resting, and recovering well, in the courtyard.

Elsholtzia stauntonnii, Tostat, September 2019
Hamamaelis intermedia ‘Orange Beauty’, in full recovery, Oloron Sainte Marie, January 2023

And changes? I have taken out a couple of very good Caryopteris clandonensis ‘Hint of Gold’ from the back as they were doing, well, too well, actually so I will give them more of a romp in the front garden in a not-too-exposed position, also two Buddleia lindleyana are about to make the move to the front. They were a silly choice in a too-tight spot, and so will have some room to breathe at the front. I will replace them with another Pittosporum ‘Green Elf’, a fabulous, elegant plant with delicate green leaves on dark black stems, which will make a soft and airy chain with three others already doing well, to shade us a bit from the fence behind.

Pittosporum ‘Green Elf’, Tostat, January 2019

And I am giving Skimmias a try in the barn garden where conditions have been so dry and hot this year. To be precise, Skimmia japonica ‘Kew Green’ and ‘Kew White’. One of each, to ensure good berries as you need a male and a female. British sites generally say that Skimmia need moist soils but US sites insist that Skimmia are drought tolerant and pretty forgiving of soils conditions, so I am going to try them. I am already a little in love with the form and foliage colour, a graceful goblet shape and bluey-green glaucous leaves holding up like open hands. I have been a snob about Skimmia I confess.

Skimmia ‘Kew White’, just planted, Oloron Sainte Marie, January 2023

A bit of spotted laurel? Nearly. How about Aucuba japonica salicifolia? All of the tough and adaptable virtues of spotted laurel, but instead of the spots, you have long, slightly spiky deep green, glossy glossy leaves and a lovely arching shape. The glossiness cannot be over-emphasised, the leaves almost shine in any light, and though I will need to wait a while for serious growth to happen, I am already deeply in love with this plant. It combines tropical beauty with serious toughness, and did I mention the startlingly scarlet berries? Hooray. It wasn’t easy to find here in France, just a couple of nurseries stock it in small quantities, so I had to wait, but it is really worth it.

Aucuba japonica salicifolia, even glossier in the rain, Oloron Sainte Marie, January 2023- spot the berry

So, now in the all-change bay in the courtyard, sit pots of Alcathea suffrutescens ‘Parkallee’ and ‘Parkrondell’, Phygelius ‘Moonraker’, two pots of Lavatera ‘Frederique’ that never got planted out last year, and other bits and bobs. These will be rehomed in the front garden, once we have located a good space. They are all tough plants, but need better topdown sunshine that they got in the barn garden in order to straighten up. Their drought tolerance will be tested though to the max. I am also repotting and moving my four big lots of Eucomis bulbs, which I adore, but they need topdown sunshine too to avoid looking like the Leaning Tower of Pisa.

It is wonderful to be back in action. A very Happy New Year to us all. Gardening is a good salve for the rigours of a heating planet.

Summer slides but not fast…

Leucophyllum frutescens ‘Green Cloud’, September 2022, Oloron Sainte Marie

The summer is waning a little- some cooler nights and some rainfall every week to 10 days, though not nearly enough to break the drought stranglehold. We will have to wait till the end of the month, I reckon, to begin to see rainfall on a more regular basis. South West France has suffered plagues of mosquitoes, including the new extra-sized tiger variety, this summer, starting at the end of July and only just beginning to slow up. Being the person who blows up like a balloon and is always eaten alive by flying biting things, it hasn’t just been the heat that has kept me indoors, glowering balefully at the sunshine. It has been a fairly hard summer.

But difficult times call for re-thinking. On the plus side, the ‘garrigue’ garden at the front, having wobbled a little at the first of the heatwaves, has come through really well. One or two losses, a completely cooked tree lupin for one, but most other plants have dug in to successfully wait for the rain when it did come. Leucophyllum frutescens ‘Green Cloud’ was looking pretty sick in July, with barely a leaf in sight. But it has recouped, and even flowered, which is brilliant. In fact, I walked past it to start with, as I had been semi-averting my gaze in preparation for what I thought would be bad news. I couldn’t find a UK site with decent details of it, so the Texan site will have to do. And mine is still pretty spindly, but I live in hope.

A stray Gladiolus murielae flowered fleetingly from the compost heap! Always cheers me up when an escapee breaks out.

Gladiolus murielae, September 2022, Oloron Sainte Marie

But returning to the re-thinking, I now know for sure that the back Barn Garden is far drier in the summer than I had orginally thought. This year we have slid headlong into summer-drought conditions, far too hard for some of my original choices of plant, and I need some more heat and drought tolerant presence during the summer months. This means, I have decided, taking out my 3 Sambucus nigra, grown from twigs years ago, and using the space differently. They won’t be wasted, I had originally planted them for their uprightness and their greeny purple foliage, but I need some colour and seasonal activity to hold the space together, so I will find them a home in the front garden where we are slowly making a tree and shrub space with some wildness. I cannot remember now what variety they are, but they aren’t ‘Black Lace’ which might have kept them where they are. I also have too much Calla lily, Zantedeschia aethiopica, sprawling around, so some of that will go too.

And in will come….Physocarpus opulifolius. I was won over completely to this shrub in Tostat, where I planted ‘Tiny Wine’. It was wine-coloured by the summer but an astonishing vibrant orange-bronze in the spring, and stunning in the autumn. Tiny it was not, easily 2 metres high and 1m wide within 4 years, but what a good plant. Pretty spring flowers as well, so it wins on all fronts really. It also does well with other plants, being not so dense that other plants can’t weave their way amongst. So, a generous soul.

Physocarpus opulifolius ‘Tiny Wine’, March 2019, Tostat
Physocarpus opulifolius ‘Mindia’, September 2022, Oloron Sainte Marie

But I decided to try ‘Diable d’Or’ or as France seems to prefer it, ‘Mindia’. Working the name out took a while. So, ‘Mindia’ ups the ante, dark colouring in the summer, and souped-up bronze in the spring, and similar strongly coloured stems, another bonus. I am also very drawn to Diervilla x ‘Kodiak Orange’, but haven’t bought it yet. I think I will give it a go, as it sounds tailor made for me. Proven drought and heat tolerance, enjoying semi-shade, good colouring, structure, flowering in the spring, but it is a new introduction. However, my favourite shrub nursery, the wonderful Coolplants, run by a plantswoman of great taste, Cathy Portier, is stocking it, so I travel in faith.

The other change I will make in the back is to bring a little more structure and lushness into the sunnier end, where I have some great tall perennials but which need something else to lean on. So, I am going against a long-held dislike of Choisya, for the sake of this new variety, ‘Greenfingers’. It’s not at all related to a Fatsia, but ‘Greenfingers’ has just enough of the Fatsia about it, to draw my eye, and it flowers apparently with bigger blooms than the regular Choisya. And even I can smell the scent. I think it looks great, and there may be another one bought before I get planting in October.

Choisya x dewitteana ‘Greenfingers’, September 2022, Oloron Sainte Marie.

And lastly, for the front, where we are slowly developing a treescape, with shrub support, I rather fancied this new variety of smokebush, Cotinus coggygria ‘Winecraft Black’. It does the smokebush thing, but makes a smaller rounded shrub than tree, and should handle the exposed, drier conditions at the front easily. The new growth starts out bronze, another plus. There’s a bit of a theme here, you will be saying.

Cotinus coggygria ‘Winecraft Black’, September 2022, Oloron Sainte Marie