The best blues ever…

Landscape at the Col de Marie-Blanque, April 2021

We have two friends called Jim, and both of them would have loved this walk from yesterday. One of the strange after-effects of lockdown for me is the strange need for order in the day- which, is, no doubt, something to with trying to stem the chaos of nothingness that floods in sometimes. So I had to be persuaded to come out and do a walk. Of course, once we got out, on a warm and hazy day, I forgot my apprehension. We drove for 40 minutes to the top of the Col de Marie-Blanque, which is at just over 1000m, and then did a meandering 2 hour circuit that took us up and around. Another three friends called Elizabeth, Kate and Shelagh, who, like the Jims, don’t all know each other, would have gone potty at the wildflowers. As did I.

Anemone nemerosa growing in charred mountain pasture, Col de Marie-Blanque, April 2021

Burning the hillsides is a spring activity in the Pyrenees, I have never asked why. But, here amid the burnt out stubble, the wild Anemones seemed to be on growth hormones, I have never seen such huge flowers, easily 1.5 ins across, with the pure white of the flowers standing out against the burnt backdrop.

Polygala calcerea growing on rocky hillsides, Col de Marie-Blanque, April 2021

And then there were the blues- such a blue. Bluer than blue. Firstly, this little Polygala calcerea. I am pretty confident of this id of the plant, though it took ages and crossed eyes to find it. It looks like a small, fat bluebell that has been scrumpled up, and it was everywhere on the sunny, rocky slopes- so much so that, at first, I didn’t spot the gentians. I blame the sunglasses.

Gentiana verna, Col de Marie-Blanque, April 2021

These small Gentiana verna huddle together in groupings, and are very tiny, but brilliant. The blue is bluer than the photograph which blandifies the colour a little. Their perky five petals stand out proudly and there are so many, you need to watch your feet. But then, the big brigade appears. The trumpet gentians, Gentiana acaulis, did really make me think of trombones, but there were many more than 76. Looked at closely, they are almost sci-fi in their construction with deep speckled throats- and again, the colour. These trumpet gentians seem to grow as often singly as in a group. Pollination must work well for them in spreading them around the landscape.

Gentiana acaulis, Col de Marie-Blanque, April 2021
Gentiana acaulis loving the sandy draining soil and position, Col de Marie-Blanque, April 2021

And just one orchid- all alone, nestled in a grassy hollow on the rocky hillside. Andy spotted it before me, as I was way behind with the camera. I am not entirely sure about the id here, but I favour Orchis mascula because the colour was like the deepest burgundy wine. Purple doesn’t remotely cover it.

Orchis mascula, probably, Col de Marie-Blanque, April 2021

I love Hepaticas in the spring, and there was a lovely mix of them showing the full range from white to blue to a delicate pink. the latter a bit lost in the sunshine. And for added effect, just a touch of wild Pulmonaria in pink.

A parade of Hepatica nobilis, Col de Marie-Blanque, April 2021
Looking to the Plateau of Benou, Col de Marie-Blanque, April 2021

We sat looking at the view before coming down the rocky path, waiting for a bit whilst an entire local college group of 11-16 year olds came up the path with several teachers. The school bus was parked at the bottom, the driver no doubt taking a snooze in the sunshine through the windscreen.

We got home and picked up the news on tv, to hear that we are in a third national lockdown, and schools are closed from tomorrow. No more trips to the Col Marie-Blanque for a month. Glad the school kids got their walk in. And how I missed doing and seeing all of this without the friends who would have loved it.

Lockdown spring…

First shoots on Koelreuteria paniculata ‘Coral Sun’ last week, Tostat, March 2020

I had almost completed a blog post about visiting the Airth Pineapple and Culross when we were in Scotland only 3 weeks ago- but within less than a week, we are in covid19 lockdown here in Tostat, and it seemed out of time and place to finish that post.

What a strange and frightening experience this all is. Today, we expect to be told that we are no longer able to walk more than 500m from our house even with documents and that this will continue for at least 2 months. We have been in daily contact with family, spread between Scotland and England and Spain, and this has been a real relief. But it is the surreal, amorphous nature of the necessary lockdown which has taken us all week to come to terms with. The village is silent. Birdsong seems to have reached operatic levels, which is wonderful, but it feels very strange. Luckily the weather has helped, warm afternoon sunshine has turned the corner on winter and you can almost hear plants growing and changing.

Anemone nemerosa this morning, Tostat, March 2020

So, it feels as if the garden needs us to buck up and get on with freeing it from winter, whilst simultanously, I am reviewing and rethinking much of what I would normally have done at this time of year. So, I am only digging up dandelions and really pervasive perennial weeds in the beds- everything else is being left. The one-armed gardening of last year taught me that annual spring weeds are killed by drought and heat by mid June, so I am thinking that I will leave them. At the very least, they will cover any bare ground until the summer perennials get going, thereby retaining soil moisture for later. I just have to get used to that itchy period before the perennials fire up, and resist messing about with the balance. In fact, I am sticking roughly to this rule pretty much everywhere in the garden. This means excessive self control has to be applied after any rain, when the pesky annual grasses pop up at a great rate.

But there are also some lovely surprises. Back in Scotland, I had a gorgeous clump of the double Anemone nemerosa- and not being able to find that here, I experimented about 10 years ago with a couple of the single wood anemone, Anemone nemerosa. They have only flowered maybe 3-4 times in 10 years, and are roughly the same size as when I planted them. So, conditions are certainly not idea for them. But when they appear, as two days ago, I am joyful, no matter what the lockdown conditions are.

Doronicum ‘Little Leo’ this morning, Tostat, March 2020

‘Little Leo’ is another tiny plant that has not really enjoyed life in Tostat, but one or two small plants are hanging on in there. My mum adored Doronicum, and so this is in memory of her.

Gunnera manicata, Tostat, March 2020

The Gunnera is already more than a metre high, courtesy of the mild winter and the recent rain and storms. You couldn’t make it up really, as it is surely a bit player in every sci-fi film going with the strange prickles on the stems and the leaves opening like hands reaching for you.

Eriostemon myoporoides last week, Tostat, March 2020

This is going to be a great plant. Eriostemon myoporoides has died for me twice, mainly because I bought baby plants and then wasn’t careful enough of them in their early lives. Mea culpa. So, a glutton for punishment, I had another go with more mature specimens. I am really impressed. This plant has thickly cuticled leaves, a little like Choisya ‘Aztec Pearl’ to look at and tiny white, star-shaped flowers (allegedly smelling of gin and tonic, not yet apparent to me) in profusion in early Spring. It slowly makes a rounded shrub and will apparently grow to about 2m all round- mine is barely 0.5m all round and must be 3 years old. But it is bone-hardy, drought tolerant when established, and with time, will make a good evergreen presence in difficult areas. Works for me.

Anemone x fulgens Multipetala, Tostat, March 2020

This fabulous pillar-box red Anemone x fulgens Multipetala is a Spring favourite of mine. I bought 6 bulbs for a king’s ransom about 6 years ago, and since then, the plants have gently swivelled themselves to where they want to be, underneath Physocarpus ‘Tiny Wine’ and, aware of the photo potential, right in amongst Spanish bluebells which are about to flower. I adore them for their raggly-taggly look and the fabulous colour which leaps out amongst the green of the bluebells.

Koelreuteria paniculata ‘Coral Sun’, this morning settling into coral from lobster pink, Tostat, March 2020

I love this baby tree, Koelreuteria paniculata ‘Coral Sun’. It is a slow grower, well, so far. But tough, it takes heat, drought, frost, wind and rain with aplomb. This is the beginning of the show, when the new foliage (see top) starts out lobster pink then moves to coral. It is such a good plant. I hope it will get going this year, it’s 3rd year in the ground- but whatever it does, it will be noticeable and I will be watching. There’s going to be a lot of watching for the next 2 months- and a good season to be doing it.

Leiden, Von Siebold and d’Incarville

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Clusius Garden, Leiden Hortus Botanicus, March 2016

Earlier this month, on a crisp, cold and sunny day, I had the pleasure of wandering round the Leiden Hortus Botanicus.  One of Europe’s oldest botanical gardens,  it was founded in 1594 expressly to curate and acquire knowledge and understanding of medicinal plants, and from the beginning, it rapidly built up a vast collection of plants from all over the world, fuelled by the merchant adventurers exploring both to the East and the West.   Carolus Clusius was recruited by the University of Leiden in 1593 to set up the garden, and Clusius himself was an ambassador for a new understanding of internationalism and plants.  Speaking eight languages himself, he was a well-known scientist, geographer, engraver and plant collector, who had already published a respected work on the flora of the Iberian peninsula, ‘Rariorum aliquot stirpium per Hispanias obseruatarum’, published by Plantin in 1576.

The engraving above, dated 1610, by Woudanus shows us how closely the modern reconstruction has followed the plan for the original garden, although it is a little smaller in size to allow for a modern width of path, and it is now contained inside the perimeter of the Hortus Botanicus.  The engraved portrait of Clusius, above left, was made in 1575 by Martin Rota.

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Another view of the Clusius Garden, Hortus Botanicus Leiden, March 2016

Through his work, until his death in 1609, the world came to know and love the tulip, in particular.  He was particularly fascinated by the colours of tulips, and worked ceaselessly to try and understand how ‘breaking’ happens, when striping can change the colouring of a tulip.  Surviving terribly hard winters and two years, in 1596 and 98, when thieves broke into his garden and stole tulips, Clusius worked tirelessly to try and understand the ‘breaking’ problem.  But it was not to be.  The world had to wait until 1928 when Dorothy Cayley, a British scientist, discovered ‘potyvirus’, the virus responsible for breaking and colour change in the tulip.  A good article in the New York Times tells more of the Clusius tulip story.

In the garden today, although not much was up as it was early in the year,  there were still some memorable sights to be seen.  I loved the way, in the massed planting of daffodils, how smaller varieties like Narcissus ‘Tete-a-Tete’ had been grouped in with the bigger varieties, it made for lovely undulations of colour.

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Massed daffodils in the sun, Hortus Botanicus, Leiden, March 2016

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Anemone nemerosa under a vast, spreading tree, Hortus Botanicus, Leiden, March 2016

And beneath a vast, spreading tree, clumps of Anemone nemerosa had been encouraged to spread.  Visible as a bright blue mist beneath the tree, you had to get up close to see what was actually flowering.

Thinking of plant exploration and connections with Leiden, a 19th century medical doctor working at the Dutch trading post in Nagasaki in Japan, was another important contributor to our expanding knowledge of the plant world.  Philipp von Siebold transformed the world of gardening almost single-handedly.  Before his travels to Japan, only 34 East-Asian plants were known in the West.   Today, 70% of all shrubs and trees planted in Dutch gardens and parks originate from East Asia.  The Acer palamatum specimens which can be seen in the Hortus, are in fact more than 150 years old and were brought back by von Siebold on his second visit to Japan between 1859-61.

Back in Tostat, my Sophora ‘Sun King’ has just burst into flower.  It is such a good, small tree and was discovered in China by a plant explorer 80 years before von Siebold, a French Jesuit priest called Pierre Nicholas le Chéron d’Incarville.  d’Incarville gave precious seed to a Russian caravan to bring them back to Europe sometime around 1747 and the first seeds were successfully germinated in the Jardin des Plantes in Paris, with the first trees appearing in England in 1753.   This first Sophora, Sophora japonica, is now known more commonly as Styphnolobium japonicum, but it is the plant from which other varieties were bred, including my own Sophora ‘Sun king’.  It is a fabulous, spreading, pinnate-leaved tree, small and perfectly formed, with stunning pendulous golden blossoms that hang in handfuls in early spring. Tough, not demanding, it is a perfect small tree.  Mine has grown from 50cms to 2ms tall in about 5 years, so it grows reasonably fast, but will not get much bigger, I think.  Beautiful.

NB. A great Hortweek article here with more information about the varieties available, and  news of an original Sophora at Kew from 1760…amazing.  Get down there now to see it!

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Sophora ‘Sun king’, Tostat, March 2016

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Close up, Sophora ‘Sun king’, Tostat, March 2016