Gold, green and blue…

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Sophora Sun King, Tostat, February 2019

Radio silence has lasted for more than 10 days- as we have had the most scarey, but also without a doubt enjoyable, beautiful clear, sunny days with cool nights- days that have got up to 24C by lunchtime.  And so, I have been gardening, with Andy and Jim as heavy-duty diggers and clearers, making a new border where the labyrinth was, and enlarging two established borders, as well as making a new path which completes the circuit of the house without getting muddy feet.  It has been glorious.  What luck, a friend arrives keen to help out with projects and the weather plays the part of good friend for a change.

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The extravagant beauty and construction of one of my rescued wild daffodils, Tostat, February 2019

But the self-same weather is also responsible for the reluctant decision on my part to abandon my hand-grown labyrinth in the back garden.  I trained as a meditative labyrinth facilitator as the last phase of my working and professional life before packing it all in to be retired- and I built my own 5 circuit labyrinth in the back garden, creating the definition of the path with home-grown Carex buchananii ‘Red Rooster’– nearly 400 of them.  So this was about 6 years ago.  Since then, the Carex has really toiled- it really is a case of summers that have lost their traditional pattern dramatically.

Fifteen years ago summers reliably worked like this- 5-6 days of warm, even hot sun- followed by 2 days of stormy rains.  In essence, we have now had 4 or maybe 5 summers of super-hot weather with no storms and very little rain.  The entire family began lobbying for the dismantling of the labyrinth two years ago- and I dug in, adding supplementary water occasionally and replacing plants.  But last year was the end of all that.  I realised that this was like a labour of Hercules- who I do not resemble in any way!

So, I am making a memory of my labyrinth into a tear-shaped border about 3m wide and 5m long, with echoes of the labyrinth path emerging from the sharp end of the tear in 3 wispy arcs of the tougher, remaining Carex.  I am trying out what I hope will be a shrub/plant mix that will take all that our summers can throw at it, without supplementary water after the first year in.  There are some Australians in the mix.  First off, Lomandra longifolia ‘Tanika’.  This is the brightest emerald-green you can imagine, an upright 50cm grass look-alike forming bouncy tufts.  It is frost-hardy to -10C, happy in drought and evergreen.

Also from Australia is Dianella caerulea ‘Cassa Blue’– which is a strappy 40cm plant with blue-green leaves and blue/yellow flowers in the summer, and another Dianella, Dianella tasmanica ‘Wyeena’.

Looking a bit like a galloping Phormium, I am hoping ‘Wyeena’ will make a nice, strappy presence around a small, deciduous tree that I have always wanted to grow,  Koelreuteria paniculata ‘Coral Sun’.  It has the most stunning coral-pink foliage in spring, settles to a beautiful gold colour for the summer and then flames up for the autumn- the photographs below are from a specimen that we planted outside the church in Tostat two summers ago.

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Early foliage, Koelreuteria paniculata ‘Coral Sun’, Tostat, early April 2018
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Going for gold, Koelreuteria paniculata ‘Coral Sun’, Tostat, May 2018

And then back in the new tear-shaped border, I am trying out Philadelphus ‘Starbright’, a new Canadian introduction with purple early foliage and good heat and drought tolerance.  And new to me is Cornus sericea ‘Kelsey’s Gold’ which is a dwarf form of Cornus, which I am hoping will give us a touch of gold in winter stems.

Lastly, because I can’t resist a good perennial, I am trying out two new plants, Parthenium integrifolium ‘Welldone’ and Thermopsis chinensis.  Parthenium promises to be a white umbel flowered clump to about 1.2m, which should handle heat and drought well being a native of of the US Midwest.  Thermopsis chinensis is a medium height spring pea-bush with yellow lupin style flowers, and again, should be on the tough side.  As these plants will be in battle formation to ward off the tufty old grass that made the labyrinth paths, I am thinking of laying cardboard down as a humidity protector and weed deterrent.  Just for the first year, you understand.  It won’t prevent everything from breaching the ramparts but it will give the new plantings a fighting chance.  I would use a mulch but I have other areas in greater need with more dense plantings to deal with.  This is, at least, a new area and so cardboard it will be.

Meantime, wild blue violets are everywhere that I allow them to be, and one solitary wild white violet has re-appeared as a solo plant this year.

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Wild blue violets, Tostat, February 2019
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Wild white violet, Tostat, February 2019

Photographs of the labyrinth memorial will follow even featuring cardboard.

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