The merry month of June…

Aristea major, Oloron Sainte Marie, June 2021

June started with the only flowerspike of Aristea major opening up to give us the shot of blue that always surprises, and giving the hoverflies a good morning snack. It can’t speak to me, but I know that the Aristea found the move unpleasant, and the wet January was not to it’s taste either. So, weekly liquid seaweed feeds seem to be cheering it up and normal growth of new leaves is resuming. It was a five year wait from sowing seed to the first flower, so I am really invested in it’s recovery.

I split this lovely yellowy-green Hakonechloa macra Naomi into five plants, which had orginally been two plants in a pot. This is a very obliging and beautiful Japanese grass, which is altogether more tolerant of sun and dryness than many sites would suggest. I think that what it needs to be super tough is to really develop the root mass to support the leaf growth, so if you have either planted it or split it, expect to keep it watered regularly for the first few months, but it will probably need very little extra water thereafter. I grew the golden variety in full sun with dry soil very successfully and one plant gradually spread to easily cover a metre over 10 years. So, of the original two plants, I now have four growing in the Barn Garden and the last piece in this lovely cracked pot.

Hakonechloa macra ‘Naomi’, Oloron Sainte Marie, June 2021
Isoplexis canariensis, Oloron Sainte Marie, May 2021

I have seriously sinned against this plant, Isoplexis canariensis, and despite my letting it freeze outside in the pot, it has valiantly clung on this Spring, and in the walled protection of the Barn Garden, I am risking it and have planted it out into the ground. I do, however, adore the colouring- the burnt orange of the flowers, and when happy, the slightly glossy dark green foliage is quite lovely. But I saw the near cousin, Isoplexis isabelliana ‘Bella’, offered this Spring and so have one in a pot in the courtyard. So far, so good, it came as a teeny plant and is now bushing up nicely and starting to flower with the same burnt orange colouring as the shrub. ‘Bella’ looks as though she will be shorter, just over a metre, and bushier than the Canariensis, which can get leggy, and it will need some help to get through a damp winter. But for orange lovers like me, it is otherwise not at all demanding.

Andy Sturgeon used Canariensis to really good effect in his Chelsea garden of 2016- his website has some great photos of the garden.

Isoplexis isabelliana ‘Bella’, Oloron Sainte Marie, June 2021

This is a really lovely Penstemon that I grew for the first time last summer, Penstemon ‘Russian River’. It starts off as a misty dark grape colour almost frosted with a light patina, then romps into full-on juicy dark blue/purple as the flowers open out. Unlike some, this Penstemon stands tall and erect from the off, even before flowering. Cuttings virtually take themselves, so buy one and then propagate to have sturdy young plants for next year.

Penstemon ‘Russian River’, Oloron Sainte Marie, June 2021

And in theory, I should love Digiplexis. But, I have come to the conclusion that they are probably more trouble than they are worth. They don’t reliably over-winter and can be quite moody till quite late in the year, so despite the fact that the colours are really good, and the plant is bushy rather than being a very tall single spike, I won’t be rushing to find any more. Graham Rice is pretty cutting about the name alone, never mind the actual plant.

Digiplexis ‘Berry Canary’, Oloron Sainte Marie, June 2021
Digiplexis ‘Illumination Raspberry’, Oloron Sainte Marie, June 2021

I am very proud of my seed-grown Paulownia tomentosa though. For a start, a good friend now no longer with us, gave me the seed, and then 2 years later, here we are with thriving young plants. I am going to do the coppicing-thing, as no way can I handle a full-size tree, but 2m tall and dinner plate sized leaves sounds good to me. Next to it, is one of the divided ‘Naomi’ plants, which is looking a little uncertain in it’s new position, but it will come through this phase. I am confident.

Paulonia tomentosa, Oloron Sainte Marie, June 2021

Another remarkable survivor is Rosa ‘Lawrence Johnston’. Saved last year from a very poor choice of planting spot, this tough rose is making a great come-back, although I do wonder about the naming, as my rose looks very different from others photographed on sites. It is also pale apricot rather than yellow really, and more double than semi, but, sigh, I love it anyway.

Rosa ‘Lawrence Johnston’, Oloron Sainte Marie, June 2021
Nierembergia scoparia, Oloron Sainte Marie, June 2021

Nierembergia scoparia is a strange, loose, wiry plant which I grow in a pot in amongst other plants, so that the flowers emerge as if by magic through the undergrowth- well, that’s the theory. But the flowers are really pretty and it is far tougher than it looks, so it may go in the ground next year in a sunny, sheltered spot.

So this will be the ‘pond’- a rather grand old bassin for watering cattle will get a new life. It may need a liner as there is a slight fissure seeping water high on the side, but we are experimenting to see if this is really required. This time, a submerged pump will gently agitate the water, no Versailles effects for us, and I am thinking papyrus, and other tall stuff at one end, with a small lily, Nymphaea ‘Paul Hariot’ providing coverage and flowers.

Soon to be a small pond, Oloron Sainte Marie, June 2021

And here’s a surprise- to me at least, a small scale Alchemilla epipsila, which will hopefully be as pretty and long lived as the bigger Mollis, but less invasive in a small garden. It is the most adorable thing when droplets of dew or rain sparkle on the serrated edges of the leaves.

Alchemilla epipsila, Oloron Sainte Marie, June 2021

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


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Aristea major, Tostat, May 2017

I am, almost, as excited as Meg Ryan in that famous scene….My Aristea major has flowered for the very first time, after 8 years of patience and minor cursing.  It is a very proud moment, slightly spoiled by Andy’s response of ‘Oh yes’, which didn’t pass muster as a response in my book.  The clear gentian-blue has to be seen to be believed, and on a cooler, cloudier morning, the flower spike has taken several hours to slowly open up, one flower at a time.  In fact, probably tomorrow, I will be able to see every single flower on the spike in action, which will be quite something.  The spike itself is quite a thing, easily over 1m long and tall, and stands up like a soldier on parade. No flopping going on at all.

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The other profile, at the risk of boring you, Aristea major, Tostat, May 2017

And frankly, from whichever side you look at it, it is a glorious thing, I may be circling it for quite some time!  I first came across this as I follow ‘Annie’s Annuals’ a fantastic nursery in Richmond, California, which I actually visited when we were there in 2010- terrible business visiting a fabulous nursery and being forced to come away empty-handed.  But I did buy seed and gave it a go- and here we are, eight years later.

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Detail, Aristea major, Tostat, May 2017

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Aruncus dioicus, Tostat, May 2017

And another plant that is really enjoying life is Aruncus dioicus which is jammed into the woodland type border next to the ruisseau.  Actually, you can’t see it very well, something that ought to be remedied, as this photograph was taken through the undergrowth.  Back in Scotland, I grew Aruncus dioicus ‘Kneiffii’ which is the small cousin of the bigger plant that I have. They are greatly underrated really.  Trouble-free, just give them moist, semi-shady conditions and don’t poke them, and they will slowly become a wafting, cream- coloured, ribbony-flowered plant making a really good statement in the garden.  In fact, they are so trouble-free that I had forgotten that I had it, until I saw the flowers through the rest of the planting.  This Aruncus gets to about 1.5m high and wide, the smaller ‘Kneiffii’ to only about a metre or so- and slowly.

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Gaillardia x grandiflora ‘Mesa Yellow’, Tostat, May 2017

Essentially though, we are in deep drought in the garden still, with no rain forecast for the next 10 days or so at the moment.  But two years ago, I grew this lovely little Gaillardia x grandiflora ‘Mesa Yellow’ from seed- with a poorish success rate, only 3 plants made it through.  But those 3 are utterly unfazed by the heat and the drought.  It makes a small, neat plant, with multiple branching flower stems from the central rosette of flattish leaves, and it is a very jolly, cheerful yellow that works really well with the baby Stipas around it.  And now in its second year, it is really digging in and growing well.  Gaillardia are especially suited to dry, hot conditions, and this has been well tested this year.  Good job.

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:
Aristea major or capitata, Annie’s Annuals
photo credit:

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. wasn’t supposed to be a destructibility test!