Westering home…

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Lonicera fragrantissima, Tostat, end January 2019

I have struggled to have a ‘song in my heart’ this week, and I will continue to struggle for another whole week.  The westerlies have arrived, big, brassy, dark-skied storms fresh from the Bay of Biscay, which bring swirling dollops of rain, hail, snow if you are higher up than us, and filthy, grey skies from dawn till dusk.  The garden is sodden.  This is good for the general water table for sure.  We have had hardly any rain from the end of April last year till now, and the river Adour has been struggling to get past its own rocks.   But it is hard on the psyche.  We lived in Scotland before moving here, and we have obviously gone soft as a week of rain, or more, just brings the grumbles on.

However, plants that venture out this early are toughies, and carry on regardless.  Though as the hellebores start to flower, I do notice a real difference between my home-grown Helleborus orientalis– based plants, and those more fancy creatures that I have paid money for.  The former have broader, more jungly-looking hands of leaves and the flowers are generally tall and held securely above the foliage with fat stems.  The leaves are fantastic and last all year with us even in the hottest spot.  They really work hard for their living.  They produce masses of baby plants within a few weeks, it seems, of flowering being over, and many have to be yanked out or they would be the only plant left in the  garden.  The flowers can become a muddy pink with cross-polinating, but actually I don’t mind- though some do.  These plants are only in bud now, whereas the more exotic ones are in flower already.

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Un-named variety, double dark crimson red Hellebore, Tostat, January 2019

The more exotic-flowered hellebores that I have bought are rather different.  Their growth rate is much slower.  They are much shorter,  with smaller, brighter green hands of leaves, and the flowers remain tightly attached to the leaves almost, so they have to be lifted by hand to see the flowers.  I love doing this, but with the added rain factor, their natural droopiness has become very pronounced.  I am guessing that selection for flower power doesn’t necessarily mean that the strong, good leaves of the old ‘orientalis’ make the cut.  No matter.

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This un-named single variety hangs the flowers like plums, Tostat, January 2019
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The last of my deep crimson Hellebores, a double with frilled petals, Tostat, January 2019

I love the contrast with the creamy white varieties, especially those that are freckled.  This is only a small patch of plants under the protection of the big pine tree, and although they are not fast growers- they are slowly colonising a 2m patch.  And they really are to be looked forward to- very cheering.

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Double plus flower, with extra heavy petals on the outside and pink freckles, Tostat, January 2019
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Different again, a single flower but with a frilly, double centre tinged with yellow, and pink freckles, Tostat, January 2019

Otherwise, in the garden, flowering is in short supply.   Lonicera fragrantissima is worth its leggy, twiggy, tumbling growth for the strength of perfume from the tiny flowers that absolutely cover the branches. Winter brings out the best in this plant- and today, the damp and wind obscured the fragrance, but on a still day, you can smell it from 5 m away.

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Tiny flowers of Lonicera fragrantissima, Tostat, end January 2019

A more sightly, but also tangled and twisted, scented shrub which is only just opening up right now is Daphne odora Aureomarginata.  This year must be its 12th, I think, and buds are sprouting everywhere on it- no scent yet, but it will be gorgeous for the next 2-3 months.  This may be a slow grower but it is really worth it.  We have it close to the back door, and on a sunny March morning, it is sublime.

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Cerise-pink buds on Daphne odora Aureomarginata, Tostat, January 2019

It’s smaller cousin is also worth growing, though again, not a fast grower.  Daphne x transatlantica ‘Eternal Fragrance’ flowers all year round for me- with a few pauses in the winter, but it pretty much keeps going.  Small bunches of flowers, white or pink,  smell fabulous and it likes sun, and once it has roots down, it is pretty drought-tolerant.  I think it will make a neat 1m mound, whereas the bigger cousin is more of a jumbled bush at 1.5m and not at all neat.  The buds are pink in this photograph but the flowers do come out white in the end.

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Daphne x transatlantica ‘Eternal Fragrance’, Tostat, January 2019

Nipped out for 20 minutes to take these photographs and now back inside, and guess what, it’s belting down with rain.






Summer vengeance, rain, and surprises…

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Lilium Flore Pleno, Tostat, July 2018

Whilst we were away in England for a family wedding, summer arrived with no notice and a sense of vengeance- it was out to get us for our wet, cold spring and early summer (which wasn’t).  At least the vengeance could be felt when we got back- toasted and burnt roses, in fact, toasted and burnt was about the top and bottom of it.  We arrived back in a spectacular storm, with heavy hail hammering on the roof of our plane as it came into land.  So we were met by a garden that was toasted and burnt, also utterly decked by the rain, hail and wind.   Oh joy.

But recovery set in.  Some plants have really suffered, so this may mean that they don’t get a second life if they can’t handle the increasingly temperamental weather we seem to experience.  Roses have been a total dud this year, and one new planting has had to be rescued and potted up in the recovery ward.  The earlier lilies, Lilium regale, really hated what was on offer and turned to a mushy brown fairly swiftly.

These extravagantly coloured and shaped Lilium Flore Pleno, have arrived later than usual this year and seem to be coping just fine.  The leopard-spottiness of them is quite adorable to me, though I can see why they might not appeal across the board.  The small seeds, sitting like brown buttons, in the leaf nodes are a real bonus.  Many will germinate in the pots alongside the parent plants, and I just leave them there for a couple of years to bulk up and then plant them on.

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Romneya coulteri, Tostat, end of June 2018
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Romneya coulteri, sky-ward, Tostat, July 2018

In June, it was possible to take a photograph of Romneya coulteri straight in the eye- that astonishing fried-egg look of pure white and sunny yellow looking almost blue in the early morning light.  But three weeks later, and the whole plant has galloped away, far away from me even on a ladder.  This plant is, of course, a thug, but such a lovely one.  I am hoping that a big bush of Lonicera fragrantissima will manage it on my behalf.

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Salvia buchananii, Tostat, July 2018

This small Salvia buchananii is a delight.  Planted in the wrong place by me, and stupendously ignored for a year or two as well, it hung on.  I now realise that it is not a Salvia as per our normal understanding of Salvias.  It likes damp shade really, though it might cope in a Scottish summer just fine.  I now have it in a medium pot, and so it gets lots of water and attention- but it is really worth it, velvety sharp pink flowers, with delicate hairs making the plant look very lustrous.  Lustrous is a good word too for the deep green, shiny leaves.  A really good plant.

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Phlomis Samia and Lychnis coronaria ‘Gardener’s World’, Tostat, July 2018

Here is a very happy situation.  I love ‘Phlomis Samia’ with its big, heart-shaped leaves and tall, dusky pink flowerspikes- and there, something brilliant has happened, probably thanks to the rain.  I bought 3 small plants of Lychnis coronaria ‘Gardener’s World’ about 4 years ago.  They didn’t make it through our summer, and I really regretted that as I liked the idea of the double carmine flowers, without the species’ painfully massive self-seeding that gets out of control with me.  But here it is.  Maybe it was growing slowly all the time, hidden by the Phlomis and the rain has brought it out this year.  What a miracle.

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Eucomis ‘Sparkling Burgundy’, Tostat, June 2018
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Eucomis ‘Sparkling Burgundy’, Tostat, July 2018

What a difference a month makes.  This expensive, but really worth it, bulb, ‘Eucomis Sparkling Burgundy’ is one of my favourite summer events.  First, from about mid April, the big purple-red leaves make a dramatic appearance, getting larger and taller, finally reaching at least 60-75 cms long.  Deep down in the bulb, the pineapple-shaped flowers start to form in June, and by July, the flowers are towering over the leaves, nearly, and the leaves have turned a gorgeous olive-green, leaving the stage to the purple-red flowerspikes.   These then take several weeks to slowly open, small flower by small flower, so all in all you are looking at 4 months at least of great pleasure watching this terrific performance.  They are easily over-wintered in a sheltered place, and kept fairly dry, to be brought out in the Spring with a good shower of water, and possibly, re-potting.  So easy, so fabulous.

The sun will return…

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Rescued wild daffodils, Tostat, February 2018

I had admired these beautiful double daffodils growing wild in the verges of the field behind us for years.  A few years ago, when it was clear that they were about to be exterminated by some overzealous field tidying by the farmer, I frankly admit that Andy and I organised a raiding party to rescue them.  Of course, that scuppered them completely for that year, and they have taken their time to settle in.  They are not the tallest, a bit on the stumpy side, but with big fat buds opening into disorganised, but fulsome, somehow almost homemade, bright yellow frilly doubles.  Some years, they come and go very fast, seeming to bloom and fade in a couple of days, but maybe this year, we might see them for a bit longer as the overall temperatures are on the cold side for the next couple of weeks.  I took this photograph on the Ipad in a rush two years ago.

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Wild Tostat daffoldils, February 2016

Lonicera fragrantissima is a twiggy, scrabbly thing, and it takes quite a few years to look any better.  But, now about nine years old, it happily sits in a hot, dry spot.  It’s main period of interest is winter and early spring, the rest of the time it simply makes a rounded, twiggy bush with soft green leaves, making a gentle accent in our stony soil.  In the winter and spring though, the very small flowers can fill the air with perfume on a sunny day.  Sunny days have not been plentiful this winter, but actually, from the photography point of view, a dull day is the best for pale and white-flowered plants.  So, no perfume, but a better photograph.

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Lonicera fragrantissima, Tostat, February 2018

The dampness has been wonderful for the moss on our old walls in the garden. It is so green it is almost golden.

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The moss is doing well, Tostat, February 2018

But, in the house by the back door, Abutilon ‘Red Trumpet’ has flowered, and oddly, even has a small greenfly family in residence.  I shan’t bother about the greenfly as the plant is in good condition, just waiting for frost-free nights before I put it out.  It will make a graceful, arching shrub to 1.5m all round within this year, but I will keep it in a pot so that I can overwinter easily.  The red is a black, rich, juicy red, absolutely stunning.  It reminds me not to be too demoralised by the weather.  The sun will return.

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Abutilon ‘Red Trumpet’, Tostat, February 2018

Winter smells

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Lonicera fragrantissima, Tostat, January 2016

With our warm and, until last week, almost bone-dry winter, shrubs and bulbs are shooting up and out.  Lonicera fragrantissima is not a star in the good looks stakes at any time of the year to be honest.  It is a brittle, twiggy shrub that sprawls against a wall in one of the driest parts of the garden.  But, for a few weeks in early Spring, the lemony fragrance of these tiny, fragile flowers carries on any breeze- and makes it all worthwhile, although they suffer in the rain.

It was collected in China by the redoubtable Robert Fortune, the great Scottish botanist on his plant-collecting expeditions to China during the early 1840s and 50s.  There are many plants whose botanical name end in ‘fortunei’ though Lonicera fragrantissima isn’t one of them.  Robert Fortune came of humble stock and ended his life having restored the state of the Chelsea Physic Garden, and contributed hugely to the expansion of European interest in oriental botany.  Later, as a spy for the East India Company, Fortune also spirited away 20,000 tea plants, seeds and 8 tea experts from the Chinese which enabled the growth of the  Himalayan and Ceylon tea economies.  As the Dunse History Society said of him, he was one of the ‘lads o’ pairts’ for whom Scotland was famous. Canny, resourceful and clever.

Back in Tostat, it has been so warm that this year the Lonicera still has leaves on it, well, from the knees downwards.   If you have less space, but want a winter smell that really does refresh, then Daphne odora Aureomarginata is a better all-year round performer.  With waxy, dark green leaves edged with creamy yellow, and a rounded, evergreen form, it makes a very pretty, contained shrub of about 1.5m x 1.5m at full stretch.

I have had mine from when it was six inches tall, and now it is a fully fledged beauty.  It is growing in a semi-shaded not-too-dry spot under the wisteria pergola, gets the early morning sun but has afternoon protection in the summer, and is in bogstandard soil, so it really isn’t picky.  It is, though, a slow grower, so if you have the cash, it would be an investment to start off with a bigger plant and not have to wait so long.

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Daphne odora Aureomarginata, Tostat, January 2016
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Daphne at full stretch

Right now, the bush is covered with flowers and the fragrance is really powerful,  a substantial full-bodied scent which even I can smell.  So, all I have to do is to stick my head out of the back door and grab a whiff.  Fabulous.  And a great hint of Spring to come.