A Flower For All Seasons
by Barney Bardsley
All gardeners have done it. I certainly have. Gazed at some improbable hot house specimen, all glamour and charm, in the stacks of the local garden centre, and thought – “That’s a beauty. I’ll have one of those.” It always ends in tears. The plant usually finishes up on the compost heap.
Flowers – more than most things – are creatures of place. Take them out of their natural habitat and they will wilt. But the one thing that gardeners struggle with most, is an over optimistic nature. No matter if your garden is wet, heavy, acid clay, like mine, there is some part of the brain that longs for the tropical allure of a pale blue Agapanthus, or a red-orange Bird of Paradise. Stop right there. The loveliest things in life are not necessarily the most rare – or out of reach. In matters of the earth, do not despise the delights that are already wafting right under your nose…
To that end, here is a compilation of my Top Ten Plants to end the old year with, and to herald the new. The following line up – some of them structural and evergreen, some seasonal and flowering – may not have the most brilliant blooms, or unusual shapes and scents, but they are reliable and richly rewarding in their own right. Make way for some unsung heroes of the gardening world.
“Its fragrance is utterly exquisite”
1. WITCH HAZEL
This is a curious-looking individual, but strangely compelling. The Chinese witch hazel (hamamelis mollis), a woody shrub which produces small, spidery yellow flowers directly from its shoots and branches, is miraculous for two reasons: one, it flowers from December to February, when everything else is fast asleep; two – its fragrance, which is utterly exquisite. The witch hazel’s scent, will waken your senses, and make you dream of summer.
This little beauty is as pretty and demure as the witch hazel is weird. The drifts of tiny white flowers which pop up every February in my back garden are as dear to me as blue skies on a rare, bright winter’s morning. You have to make room for a little patch of them somewhere. The Common Snowdrop (galanthus nivalis) is the hardiest. There is nothing this little ballerina likes better than cold, damp, heavy soil. But beware – buy plants “in the green”, because the flowers take years to establish from the naked bulbs.
This would be my one disc to take to a desert island… Bamboo is an evergreen beauty, its tiny, pointed leaves shimmering from long, flexible, sandy-coloured canes: its whole structure built for movement and grace. Watch how the breeze takes it and sets the whole plant alive with ripples, shivers and a gentle, seismic trembling. Miraculous. I have learned the hard way not to put this into open ground – they are very invasive plants. In a large pot they will be perfectly happy – but keep well watered. They are always thirsty. Choose a clump forming variety – such as the fargesia – rather than the runners, which will take over the farm in next to no time.
This is the most exotic flower on my list. What a beauty. The shrub is evergreen, with waxy, dark green oval leaves, but the flowers, when they burst forth from fat pupa-like buds, are intense, curvaceous blooms, ranging from white to soft pink to the deepest erotic red. They need an ericaceous (acid) soil: mine grow in special compost in pots. In the eighteenth century, a secret language of flowers evolved, as a way for illicit lovers to communicate. Choose a pink camellia for “Longing for you.” The red one: “You’re a flame in my heart.” Protect your camellia – and your heart – from heavy frost. They are tender creatures.
What a bright shining star this one is. It comes in a range of colours, but scarlet has to be the best. Choose either the papery evanescence of the small field or corn poppy (papaver rhoeas), which you can grow from seed, or buy the silky opulence of the oriental poppy (papaver orientale) in plant form. With its huge, intense, red flowers, splashed with shiny black at the petals’ base, and that curving, swan’s neck of a stem, this flower evokes passion and longing, more than any other.
With its sword sharp leaves and strong, upright habit, the doughty New Zealand flax is a worthy foot soldier in the formation of the structural shape at the back of a border. Green or purple, and defiantly evergreen, this baby will get big – but just prune it back when you need to, it won’t mind a bit.
“Creamy white rambler”
(Lonicera Japonica) This is a memory of childhood – all wrapped up in one gorgeous, unforgettable smell, and an open hand of a flower, cream and yellow and soft. Dreamy. Honeysuckle will scramble happily over any hedge or frame, filling your garden with bumble bees and your nose with an intoxicating fragrance.
“By any other name…” How could this one not be on the list? With over a hundred species, it can be hard to choose. I am particularly fond of the rambling roses, with their single flush blooms, followed by a show of fat, shiny rosehips in the autumn. “Rambling Rector”, despite its silly name, is a very pretty creamy white rambler. But don’t be fooled by the demure blooms, keep an eye on its growth, it’s a rampant rector too!
All hail the redoubtable cornus sanguinea, a native plant from our ancient hedgerows, producing abundant foliage, which turns a rich, Rioja red in the autumn before falling, to reveal this plant’s secret weapon: a forest of shiny red stems which glow like flames, all through the dull winter months. I love it with a passion. Prune it back hard in February – and it will get better and better each year.
“Bedecked like brides”
10. AUTUMN FLOWERING CHERRY
(prunus subhirtella autumnalis rosea) We are all familiar with the wonder of spring cherry trees, bedecked like brides with profusions of white and pink flowers. Less showy but more valuable to the autumn and winter garden is the autumn flowering cherry. This petite tree drops its leaves in November and then immediately springs into life again, with tiny pink-white blooms dotted against its bare branches, which last all through winter, till spring – thankfully – comes around once more.