Tag Archives: bluebells

Bluebells in a New Zealand springtime

There is something wildly romantic about a proper bluebell wood. I have never forgotten being entranced by the haze of blue through woodlands near Castle Douglas in Scotland and that was more than two decades ago. Those particular bluebells and woodland trees are native to the area but this does not stop many of us trying to replicate the effect at home.

Bluebells are best suited to the meadow look, in our experience. They grow too vigorously to tuck tidily into garden borders but their charms become obvious in a less constricted, wilder setting. The whole woodland style is dependent on having deciduous trees fairly widely spaced because the bulbs need light to bloom. In this country, we tend to have a mix of deciduous and evergreen in our gardens and lean more to “bush” or even “forest” than open “woodland”. On top of that, the time at which the bluebells are in growth, coincides with the spring flush of grass so mowing becomes problematic. As with most bulbs, it is best to let them die down naturally because that leafy stage is replenishing the strength of the bulb for next season’s flowering.

We solved this problem by planting bluebells in our wilder areas that we do not mow and on the margins of plantings in the park where we used to mow the wider area regularly. That way, we had defined swathes of blue in bloom and then swathes of long foliage until they went dormant. Now that we have stopped the regular mowing, it will be interesting to see if they spread naturally to give us expansive carpets rather than swathes. They set seed so freely that we try and remove at least some of the spent flower spikes.

It took UK writer Ken Thompson to demystify bluebell differences for me. The English Hyacinthoides  non-scripta has sweetly scented, deep blue flowers on a droopy spike which means most hang to one side. Individual flowers are narrow tubes with reflexed tips. The Spanish H. hispanica is much stronger growing with an upright spike and flowers radiating all round. There is a greater range of colour from pale to dark blues and lilacs along with the pinks and whites. Individual flowers are bell-shaped and while the tips of the blooms flare out, they don’t reflex. They have little scent.

But to add to the mix, there are the natural hybrids. The English and Spanish forms cross freely and the hybrids fall somewhat in the middle with characteristics from both parents.  I had previously tried to unravel the species and headed out looking for the cream anthers that define the English one as compared to the blue anthers of the Spanish form, ending up totally confused. Of course I did. I wasn’t factoring in hybrids. If Ken Thompson is right in his interesting book ‘The Sceptical Gardener’ – and I am willing to accept that he is correct given that he is an academic plant ecologist – and the majority of bluebells growing in UK gardens now are either the Spanish version or hybrids, then it seems likely that almost all of what we see in this country will be the same.

I stopped down the road to examine some bluebell patches on the site of one of the first settler houses built in Tikorangi. If we had any proper English bluebells around here, Mark hypothesized, that seemed a likely site. No, they were either Spanish or hybrids. Ditto with the bluebells here which date back to his great grandmother’s days and have now mixed with all the others we have.  I can’t see any point in nursing ideals of species purity when it comes to bluebells in New Zealand.

A word about white or pink bluebells. While the English bluebell can occasionally throw a white mutant, given the rarity of H. non-scripta in this country, it seems likely that all colour variants we have are either Spanish or hybrids. The whites and pinks are charming mixed with the predominant blues, making a pretty scene. Isolate them out by colour on their own, and they become a novelty plant. Bluebells, by definition, should be mostly blue. A display of only pink bells would look awfully contrived for this simple flower while a mass of white bells might as well be onion weed, really. That is my opinion.

First published in the September issue of New Zealand Gardener and reprinted here with their permission. 

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Tikorangi Notes: Sunday October 9, 2016

 I vowed I would complete The Mission of the 78 Azaleas in July.  I am almost there, which is to say I am down to the last two plants needing a home. The trouble with being down to the last two, is that they suddenly take on psychological significance. There are no more sitting in the nursery to draw on so I must make sure that these last two are in The Right Place. I don’t want to suddenly find a spot which I missed that is calling out for a bright spot of colour. It may take a little longer.

img_2427In the meantime, it is The Challenge of the Lytocaryum Weddellianum. This is a very pretty little, feathery palm from Brazil, a close relative of the coconut palm but small. It is sometimes referred to as the wedding palm (presumably because it is favoured in pots as green decoration at wedding receptions?). There are a reasonable number of them sitting out in the nursery that Mark bought as baby plants years ago. It is doing particularly well in the subtropical gardens beneath the rimu trees.

Lytocaryum weddellianum is a bit of an in-house (or in-garden) gag here. Others often give the advice to repeat a plant in a garden to give unity. I have always doubted this because too often it is done with common plants like renga renga lilies (arthropodium) or the tractor seat ligularia (L. reniformis).  I once saw it done with Dahlia Bonne Esperance and I came to the conclusion that all that repetition does is to ensure that your garden all looks the same. Nevertheless, I am threading the lytocaryum through one area on the grounds that if you are going to repeat a plant to gain unity, you might as well do it with class and botanical depth.

img_2406We have a relatively large forest of a giant bamboo – in this case Phyllostachys edulis. The neighbour wishes it was not on the boundary and we are trying to be vigilant this spring and doing a weekly round of jumping the fence to grub out the new shoots that insist on popping up in the farm next door. It is a handsome bamboo and of some use as cut lengths in the garden. It is also edible. Sadly, panda bears have not arrived to take advantage of the food source (further proof that the cargo cult does not work) but I am having another go at cooking the fresh shoots this year. To be honest, the bamboo shoots that you buy in tins taste more of the brine than anything else. And even fresh, they are more textural and a carrier of other flavours (as tofu is) than a taste treat in their own right. But they add variety to our diet and I can see a use for them in stirfries. “Please bring me some bamboo shoots for dinner,” I asked the other night. And he did. The big one is past cooking stage. The trick seems to be to harvest them just as they come through the ground and to prepare the white sections that are below the surface.  I shall slice some, blanch them quickly in boiling water and then freeze them to see if we use them later in the year. The first batch I poached gently in stock before adding to the dinner that night and they were pleasant, if not life-changing.

img_2420The deciduous magnolia season is over, bar Magnolia Serene which is always the last to bloom and is still a picture. So I can now admit that 2016 was not a memorable year. The rain, rain and yet more incessant rain combined with mild temperatures turned many to slush – botrytis, Mark says, on a scale we have not seen before. I really struggled to get good photos. There is always next year when the weather gods may be kinder.

img_2392Now it is bluebell time. It appears that ours are all Spanish bluebells or hybrids. The pink and white variants are a bit of a giveaway. Ken Thompson in The Sceptical Gardener gave me a handy guide to tell the difference between the blue ones – which are English, Spanish or hybrids. I stopped by the site of one of the original houses in Tikorangi where bluebells continue to flower. Mark thought that they are probably the oldest bluebells in Tikorangi so may date back to the early settlers and therefore more likely to be the English bluebell. Nope. Indubitably of Spanish origin too.

But Spanish or English or a mix of the two, a carpet of bluebells is a pretty sight and leads in to a poem written by a friend who stayed with us last week.

img_2377Bluebell Woods

Red Riding Hood haunts the Bluebell Woods

plucking her squelchy bouquet.

Nasturtiums Humpty down the bank

trumpeting and capering on their way.

Celandine tells of golden cups

quaffed by golden kings

 

But the scarlet poppies alone in the field

have only songs of war to sing.

J F Panting

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Magic carpet

Snowdrops on a hillside

Snowdrops on a hillside

July may be the bleakest month of winter for us but it is also snowdrop time and these little charmers brighten the greyest of days. You can never have too many snowdrops in my opinion, and the varieties that do well with us are building up to a satisfying level. By definition, that is when we have enough to move them out of optimal garden or nursery conditions and start establishing them in carpets.

It is our interest in what we call “romantic gardening” – others refer to it as “naturalistic gardening” – that we derive as much, if not more pleasure from plants naturalised in meadow conditions as we do from cultivated, tightly maintained garden beds. It is a blurring of the edges in gardening, exploring how far we can replicate the simple charm of wildflowers but in a managed situation.

Lachenalia aloides and grape hyacinths (muscari) at the base of Pinus muricata

Lachenalia aloides and grape hyacinths (muscari) at the base of Pinus muricata

It is not as easy as it sounds. Many of the charming bulbs in their natural environment have conditions which are much harsher than here. Winters that are very cold and often dry mean that most growth stops, as do summers that are hot and dry. But in our dairy-farming heartland, soft conditions keep grass growing all year round and that growth will simply swamp most bulbs. It has taken us some years to learn to manage this. Selecting bulbs that will cope in our conditions has been trial and error.

Bluebells and hooped petticoats (Narcissus bulbocodium) planted at the base of a eucalypt

Bluebells and hooped petticoats (Narcissus bulbocodium) planted at the base of a eucalypt

It also takes eleventy thousand more bulbs than you think it will. Even bulk buying a couple of hundred bulbs is not going to create much of a carpet in the short term. To get a quick result using large bulbs like daffodils or bluebells, planting at one every 10 square centimetres means 100 per square metre. I worked this out because I was planting a little mixed area. Using dainties like erythroniums, dwarf daffodils, snowdrops, crocus and rhodohypoxis, it took about 4 of these small bulbs per 10 square centimetres – or 400 per square metre. That is a large number and may explain why we don’t see many bulb meadows in this country, beyond well established fields of daffodils dating back many decades. Obviously, if you plant at greater spacings, you can cover a larger area but you will wait longer for the carpet effect.

Colchicum autumnale flowering at the base of a metasequoia

Colchicum autumnale flowering at the base of a metasequoia

While planting around tree trunks is not the same thing as naturalising bulbs in a meadow situation, it proved to be a good place to start for us. We have many trees in fairly open situations where it is possible to establish easy bulbs beneath. Most bulbs need sun so these need to be trees with a higher canopy to allow light below. Planting amongst the exposed roots of established trees ensures the bulbs don’t get mown off or trampled as they surface and generally they get established with little competition. It is also an effective way of controlling some of the invasive bulbs like ipheions and ornamental oxalis.

Scattering seed is hit and miss and slower to give any results but much easier. We were delighted this year to see Cyclamen hederafolium showing its colours where Mark had scattered fresh seed several years ago. He had given up hope that it would work but lo, there are rewards for patient gardeners and the older we get, the more patience we seem to be developing.

 Bluebells planted on the margins, drifting through our park area

Bluebells planted on the margins, drifting through our park area

Bluebells are easy and we have used them in swathes around shrubs in the area we call our park. Because they are flowering at the same time as the full flush of spring grass growth, we have to keep them to the side of areas we need to mow. Bluebell, and indeed snowdrop, woods that we have admired in Britain are carpets beneath deciduous trees. Our woodland areas are heavily dominated by evergreens so we don’t get enough light to replicate those carpets here. That is why we have to opt for the margins instead.

The triumph of experience has been getting grassy banks with dwarf narcissi and snowdrops naturalised. To do this, Mark spent some years establishing the native grass, microlina. It is finer and less vigorous so doesn’t swamp the bulbs and can be controlled with minimal cutting – just a pass over with the weedeater from time to time. It is not quite the same as a bulb meadow, but we have learned to work with what we have here.

Carrying a tray of Nerine pudica, in case you are wondering (which I admit I planted in the rockery, not in meadows)

Carrying a tray of Nerine pudica, in case you are wondering (which I admit I planted in the rockery, not in meadows)

First published in the July issue of New Zealand Gardener and reprinted here with their permission.

Peak bluebell!

Flynn the dog did not show a great deal of respect for the Te Popo bluebells, alas

Flynn the dog did not show a great deal of respect for the Te Popo bluebells, alas

The first time I visited Scotland was at exactly the right time to see the bluebells bloom. This was in woodland near Gatehouse of Fleet in the south west. Like many others, I was enchanted by this natural phenomenon.

It is Peak Bluebell here this week. We headed down to see the blue glory at Te Popo Gardens in central Taranaki. While we grow bluebells in relatively large numbers ourselves, we have yet to attain the magnificent expanse they manage in their conditions.

At Te Popo, there are many deciduous trees which creates a woodland cycle. When the leaves fall, they are left to lie. The bare trees let in winter light. It is at the turning of the season when the fresh growth is just starting on the trees that the bluebells flower, creating great swathes of blue carpet beneath. As the trees take on their full summer leafy garb, light conditions will decrease below which suppresses competing weed and grass growth.

Bluebells beneath deciduous trees at Te Popo

Bluebells beneath deciduous trees at Te Popo

In our garden at Tikorangi, our tree cover is such a mix of evergreen and deciduous that our woodland areas tend to be a little dark for most bulbs. When it gets too dark, the bulbs don’t set flower buds and gradually die out. We have to go for the margins and find the balance between necessary light levels and the grass growth that comes as a result. We are less blue carpet and more drifting carpet runner, if you see what I mean.

Bluebells are strong growing bulbs, also given to seeding down, so are better suited to a more natural style of gardening rather than intensively maintained borders. Lorri Ellis at Te Popo uses them extensively with hellebores to good effect. We have both found that spreading them in areas which can then be more or less left to their own devices is most effective. It is the massed, natural look that works.

Bottom left, clockwise: Spanish bluebells in blue, white and pink, allegedly English bluebells, blue lachenalias and grape hyacinths – muscari – which some people mistakenly refer to as bluebells.

Bottom left, clockwise: Spanish bluebells in blue, white and pink, allegedly English bluebells, blue lachenalias and grape hyacinths – muscari – which some people mistakenly refer to as bluebells

There is ongoing angst in Britain over the incursions of the stronger growing Spanish bluebell, Hyacinthoides hispanica, dominating and hybridising with their native bluebell H. non scripta. We spent some time discussing the difference. Lorri has a large patch that she understands is the true English bluebell and she has kept it isolated from the rest which are probably mostly Spanish, or Spanglish as I call the hybrids between the two – technically H. x massartiana.

Bluebells and very fragrant jonquil species are both originally from Spain.

Bluebells and very fragrant jonquil species are both originally from Spain.

One way you can tell what you have, apparently, is by pollen colour. The English ones always have creamy pollen whereas the Spanish ones often have blue pollen. I had noticed the latter. After some random sampling and Mark’s memories of what he refers to as “Grandma’s bluebells” (technically his great grandmother, I think), we came to the conclusion that it is likely that most of what we have here are hybrids. We are none the wiser as to whether Grandma started with English or Spanish ones, but we think that the lilac pink and white ones that were brought in to add variety are all of Spanish origin.
Mostly Te Popo 014 - Copy
Te Popo Gardens are located near Stratford and will be open during the Powerco Taranaki Garden Spectacular from October 31 to November 9

First published in the Waikato Times and reprinted here with their permission.

Flowering this week – bluebells and blue lachenalias

Bluebells (more correctly hyacinthoides, used to be scillas and even endymion)

Bluebells (more correctly hyacinthoides, used to be scillas and even endymion)

Wordsworth waxed lyrical over his sea of golden daffodils (long finished here and hardly a sea) but it is the haze of bluebells that is pleasing us this week. The desirable bluebell is the English one, Hyacinthoides non-scripta, which is scented and less inclined to be as over enthusiastic as the larger growing Spanish one (H. hispanica). But they are reportedly struggling to keep H. non-scripta pure in the UK and odds on what we have here are various Spanglish forms of natural hybrids. Bluebells also come in pink and white although they do not then become Pinkbells or Snowbells. The other colours have some novelty value, but for large scale drifts you can’t beat the beautiful blue. In the UK where their woodland is far more open than our forest, it is hard to surpass the romantic sight of a copse of white barked birches with a blue carpet below. Here we have to naturalise on the margins where there is sufficient light but the bulbs are not competing with full on grass cover which overwhelms everything.

If you really want to sort out the origin of your bluebells, the English ones have cream anthers whereas the Spanish ones always have blue anthers. Apparently. Presumably if you have both blue anthers and cream anthers in your patch, you have Spanglish bluebells. And in case you are too embarrassed to ask what an anther it, it is the pollen bit on the end of the stamen in the centre of the flower.

Probably lachenalia orchioides var. glaucina

Probably lachenalia orchioides var. glaucina

Bluebells are easy to naturalise and have a simple charm. Blue lachenalias take considerably more effort to build up and are much fussier about position, but have a great deal more status value. We find mutabilis is the easiest of the blue lachenalias, bur orchioides var. glaucina is showier. Over the years we have collected as many different blue and lilac lachenalias as we can find but they tend to be a little promiscuous and it is likely that we now have the species mixed. We certainly have the labels mixed. The blues flower later, are more frost tender and somewhat fussier than some of easier red, orange and yellow forms (aloides, reflexa, bulbifera and the like).