New and old surprises…

Aristea ecklonii, resting temporarily in a trough, Oloron Sainte Marie, May 2021

We are nearly at mid-May, and yet, despite some warm days, the season so far has been so dry and latterly cold, that it feels as if everything is only now beginning to trust the conditions enough to get going. I grew Aristea ecklonnii from seed probably 7 years ago now, and it has never quite found it’s stride- till now. I am astounded by it. It’s in the same pot, no extra anything except for a very wet January, and it has loved it here. Maybe all it wanted was to be against a wall and more in the shade than before. Compared with previous years, it is looking positively baroque and commanding attention and notice. Which I am giving it, with a lot of congratulatory pep-talk every morning. The blue is as close to a gentian blue as a non-gentian can get, and the flowerstalks reach out to 80 cms either side of the plant. Even without the flowers opening, it was looking splendid. I keep it outside all the time so I think it is a tad hardier than the link site suggests.

So pretty close up…

I had never come across Dietes grandiflora until we saw it growing all over Brisbane and in botanical gardens in the Australian Spring of 2018. So, spotting the bulbs for sale was an offer not to resist. I am a sucker for tall, thin, striking plant shapes, and in an Iris-alike sort of way, that’s what happens until the flowers come.

Dietes grandiflora, new to me and Oloron, Oloron Sainte Marie, May 2021

And when the flowers arrive, I am hoping for this….or something similar. This close cousin was flowering fabulously in Sydney in October 2018.

Dietes robinsonia, The Royal Botanical Gardens, Sydney, October 2018

In the same vein, though with fatter, stumpier leaves, is this Bulbine frutescens ‘Medicus’ which is in a twinned position across from the Dietes pot. Three baby plants are so far doing fine. Like the Aloe, the stumpy fat leaves are apparently good for healing abrasions on the skin. But whatever the medicinal qualities are, I love orangey yellow and so it is already scoring highly in my view.

Bulbine frutescens ‘Medicus’, Oloron Sainte Marie, May 2021
Helleborus x sternii ‘Pewter’, Oloron Sainte Marie, May 2021

With little belief that I would be successful, I sowed some seed for this beautiful Helleborus x sternii ‘Pewter’ in the late summer of 2019. Some while later, 4 tiny plants came through and made it to the small plant stage- one found a new home in Glasgow with the Assistant Gardener, and three came to Oloron- and wow, they look happy. it is a lovely variety with almost translucent or even pearlescent foliage with small teeth and finely pointed ends. Delicate veining and red stems just add a little pzazz. Well worth the wait. And they have quadrupled in size since I planted them out in late February.

Physocarpus ‘Panthers’, Oloron Sainte Marie, May 2021

This is a new Physocarpus to me, but guess what, it has the darkest purple, almost black crinkled foliage, and it grows to be a nice, slim column- even though it looks rather fatter in the link photograph. I grew Physocarpus ‘Tiny Wine’ in Tostat, and grew to love it for its toughness, the stunning foliage in the Spring and Autumn and for being a really handsome shrub. Cuttings didn’t seem to take, but, luckily, the last one did and I have a strong small plant ready for planting out next year. So, ‘Panthers’ has a lot to live up to.

Physocarpus opulifolius ‘Tiny Wine’, stunning spring foliage, Tostat, April 2020
Caryopteris x clandonensis ‘Hint of Gold’ and Plantago major Rubrifolia, Oloron Sainte Marie, May 2021

This limey-green Caryopteris x clanonensis ‘Hint of Gold’ was one of those reliable small shrubs that, in theory, should have done really well in Tostat. In my view, though, it was just on the limit of dryness tolerance that it could take, and so, often struggled with my no-watering policy. Here, in Oloron, I am trying again with a good sized cutting plant that I brought. It’s in the back barn garden, in a semi-shaded position, and so I am crossing my fingers. The brightness and vivacity of the foliage is the key for me, but if it flowers, which would be a good sign in late summer, the deep blue flowers are a gorgeous contrast with the foliage. Chumming up with the Caryopteris is a real star perennial, grown from seed, and such a good and tough performer- and it’s a plantain, that plant you pull out in your garden. Well, give in and grow this beautiful green and maroon plant, it will colonise any space with any soil in pretty much any position and looks superb. I give you Plantago major Rubrifolia. In my case, I bought seed through the post from the wonderful Derry Watkins at Special Plants. No more thanks to Brexit.

An incredible storm with the full thunder and lightening show, plus huge rain and twirling winds hit us last night with more to come this week. Maybe I give up with the rain dancing.

Early May…

Natrix maura in our pond, Tostat, early May 2020

No, not the Loch Ness monster- but maybe almost as exciting for the new pond. A native watersnake, non-venomous, has moved in. Our water snake, is actually only about 8cms long and it required David Attenborough-levels of patience to take these two photographs. It swims like the Loch Ness monster, though, doesn’t it?

Our dog Molly in lockdown has taken to barking at all birds in the garden, on the wing, on the ground, big and small. So the Hoopoe has only flown by, but it did drop in for a poke about in HG’s garden and he managed to get a great photo of it. The hoopoe is a theatrical costumier’s delight, see the black pompoms on the crest. A short appearance for a couple of weeks until next year.

The hoopoe in the our friend’s garden, Tostat, early May 2020
photo credit: HG, Tostat

The flowers are all out on ‘Tiny Wine’. I have often raved about this gallant shrub and the flowers are just as lovely as the rest of it. Some people might draw the line at a crimson bronze shrub, but I am not one of those.

Physocarpus opulifolius ‘Tiny Wine’, Tostat, early May 2020

In Spring, the Aristea begin to look lively. I have left both Aristea major and Aristea ecklonii out in the open this year, though given the shelter of the thickly-growing wisteria on the pergola. They look all the better for it, though I would have rushed in with fleece if needed. This is a true, strong sky-blue embellished with golden stamens. This Ecklonii sprig is leaning against the big brother, Aristea major.

Aristea ecklonii, Tostat, early May 2020

For my money, this is the best-ever Cistus. Cistus x cyprius var.ellipticus ‘Elma’ wins no prizes for the length of the botanical name, but it is quite the best flowerer in my view. The foliage is a strong green, glossy and slightly sticky with a highly pungent fragrance, and the flowers are big, bold and the whitest of white with deep golden stamens. Not rain-proof sadly, though. This weekend will have given it a good smashing- lucky that the foliage is really bright and healthy all year round. One of the plants I bought several years ago at the dry garden specialist, Pepiniere Filippi.

Cistus x cyprius var. ellipticus ‘Elma’, Tostat, early May 2020

Another pretty crinkled Cistus is this one- Cistus heterophyllus, which I bought from Jardin Champetre in Caunes-Minervois about 3 years ago. It has, as ever, taken some time to settle in but it is looking really good this year. It is a lovely tumbling variety, so would look amazing hanging off a step or terrace wall.

Cistus heterophyllus, Tostat, early May 2020

Note to self- buy some more Allium nigrum bulbs for next Spring. This is the only Allium I have ever really succeeded with- and it deserves a medal for endurance. I love the architectural look it gives with the simple white/green flowerhead.

Allium nigrum and Phlomis longifolia ‘Bailanica’, Tostat, early May 2020

Rosa ‘Mrs Oakley-Fisher’ is a great love of mine. I have written about her before, and this year she is even earlier with the first of her apricot-honey coloured simple flowers.

Rosa ‘Mrs Oakley-Fisher’, Tostat, early May 2020

Lockdown makes me look even harder at the garden and the plants. So this is the first time I have ever noticed the Stipa flowering, and the light was just right making the contrast work in my favour.

Stipa gigantea, Tostat, early May 2020

Thalictrum were one of my first seed-growing successes, but now, more than seven years later, I probably need to have another bash at this one especially, as the powder puff flowers are lovely against early morning sun. Thalictrum flavum glaucum is much more of a beast and a brilliant self-seeder, but Aquilegifolium needs a bit of a boost.

Thalictrum aquilegifolium, Tostat, early May 2020
The pond settling in, Tostat, early May 2020

The pond is settling in really well, with all the plants at least visible on a photograph now. We just love sitting on the rustic bench and watching what’s going on and a new lodger has appeared-this rather chubby dragonfly with the china-blue tummy. It loves living dangerously, perching on the very sharp tip of the Agave…ouch…

Male black tailed skimmer dragonfly settling in, Tostat, early May 2020

A small miracle…

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Aristea ecklonii, Tostat, May 2017

This little spray of irridescent blue flowers only measures about 15cms from the ground and has only these four buds/flowers on it, but it delights me.  I grew from seed about 7 years ago, three varieties of Aristea- Aristea ecklonii, Aristea major and Aristea inaequalis. The first has stumbled on in a pot, coming under cover for the winter and to stay dryish, the second has grown immense with huge straps of leaves like a Phormium (more later about this one) and the last I nearly killed the winter before last and so have only one slightly mournful specimen at the moment.

So ecklonii has come good, as it did last year.  The flowers only appear in the sunlight and shut themselves when the sky clouds over- and the whole scale of it is ‘freesia-size’, and of course, the slightest puff of wind and it bobs about- hence the slight wobble.  But the colour is quite fabulous- a true, sky-blue and it really shines out.

So, the big sister, Aristea major has done exceptionally well in the leaf department- but nothing else, till now.  In fact, it had a hard winter. I had it fleeced up, but some wind shook the fleecing a little free, and our hard frost nights (-10C) ravaged the leaves.  So, last month, I re-potted it into a massive pot, as it is a big plant- cut off all the black, frosted foliage, which gave it a severe haircut, and hoped for the best.  Only a couple of new leaves have begun growing, but wowee, no fewer than five flowerspikes!  I am truly thrilled.  They came well-disguised, wrapped inside emerging leaves with only a small maternity bump that I didn’t notice for a while.  So, I am waiting, like an expectant parent outside the labour ward. So far, they look like grey wheathusks.

Other things romping away and causing great delight…

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Anchusa italica ‘Dropmore’, Tostat, May 2017

I grew this Anchusa italica ‘Dropmore’ from seed 2 years ago, and as ever, with most perennials, you are paying forward for the flowers, but here it is.  Tall, despite the drought, at nearly eye-level with me, and the same sort of irridescent blue that the Aristea offers, but in a big, slightly floppy, way.  I think it will go from strength to strength.

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That little flash of red, the tiny but mighty Dianthus deltoides ‘Flashing Light’, Tostat, May 2017

Good old standards here,  the Stachys byzantina at its best, Hakonechloa macra ‘Aureola’ and Centranthus ruber, but that little flash of red that really does sparkle is my new Dianthus deltoides ‘Flashing Light’.  I adore it.

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Rosa ‘Alissar Princess of Phoenicia’, Tostat, May 2017

The very first rose this year on this rose, Rosa ‘Alissar, Princess of Phoenicia’.  It has not had an easy time.  First, I cut it back to smuggle it back in hand luggage from Chelsea 2013, then I planted it for 2 years in a very dry spot which it really couldn’t cope with, then I potted it up in intensive care last summer and lastly, this Spring, it finally got the home it deserves.  A re-developed section with plenty of sun, but also, a little shade and moister soil, and it looks in great shape.  Phew.  It is a gorgeous thing.

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Rosa ‘Hot Chocolate’ with good backing, Tostat, May 2017

But maybe my favourite rose is this one, Rosa ‘Hot Chocolate’ for its robustness, and above all, the colour, a mahogany red unlike any other, almost burnished at the tips of the petals.  I planted it without thinking sort of in front of this Berberis thunbergii f. atropurpurea ‘Helmond Pillar’– which I love.  And they love each other, I think.

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Zantedeschia aethiopia, Tostat, May 2017

This Zantedeschia aethiopia pops up naturally in any shady spot with me.  I really love the horn shape of the flowers and the glossy leaves.  The only problem is that the flowers become waste-bins for any garden bits flying around in the air- still, you couldn’t have a nicer bin really.

Some plants do, some plants don’t…especially if you forget about them.

At least four years ago, I grew from seed three of one plant that I just adored for the clear blue flowers on slender stems that I had seen in photographs, Aristea capitata.  It is a South African native, and so, for me, it had to be a pot plant, though it is reputed to reach 2m in the wild.  It is doing very well with me, or was, until this winter, when instead of taking it into the house, I improvised a cold frame with some big old windows that we had in the barn, and put it in there with lots of other things.  Well, I think it would have been fine if I had started watering it earlier. Suffice to say, that I sort of forgot and when I checked it out, it wasn’t dead, but it wasn’t in a forgiving mood.  And it has remained thus.  Aristea capitata or Aristea major as she names it, was another Annie’s Annuals inspiration, my favourite Californian nursery, her photograph of it shows why I bothered in the first place…

Aristea major or capitata, Annie's Annuals photo credit: www.anniesannuals.com
Aristea major or capitata, Annie’s Annuals
photo credit: http://www.anniesannuals.com

Stonking great iris-like spikey leaves and then a towering flowerspike in gentian blue- what’s not to like?  Mine has almost the height, being about 1m tall without flowering (!), but I have got 3 in a pot, so, aside from asking forgiveness, I think I will repot them into their very own pots at the end of summer, and bring them into the house this time.

It’s cousin, Aristea ecklonii, which was treated to the same fate by me, good idea but too long without water, has actually recovered brilliantly, and today, flowered for the first time ever.  I was so thrilled I nearly dropped the pot.  This is not the best photograph, as there was a breeze and this is the best of about 12 efforts, but the flowers barely last a day and are very fragile, so I persisted. Though, I could have gently brought the pot into the house, I guess.  Aristea ecklonii is a smaller, more delicate plant than major, but the blue is the same brilliant gentian shade.  I am sure you get the idea!  PS. I have now inserted a much better photograph with no wind effects from the next day.

Aristea ecklonii, Tostat, June 2015
Aristea ecklonii, Tostat, June 2015

And, because I was on an Aristea roll, I also grew another smaller Aristea from seed, and by my winter’s antics, I have managed to reduce the population from 3 to 2, and a serious sulk is in place. But, I hope that Aristea inaequalis will also forgive me. Annie describes it as indestructible. Mmm..it wasn’t supposed to be a destructibility test!