Tag Archives: bluebells

The delight is in the detail

We like a detailed garden, we do. It is not just the big views that catch our eye. Often it is the little delights – tiny, even – that focus our eyes on the close-up. It is possible to have a highly detailed garden without it descending into fussy clutter.

Here we are in midwinter and the small bulbs are bursting into flower. No, this is not early; nor is it a sign of climate change. It is on cue for an area where our winters tend to be mild and lacking in extremes. Goodness knows, we complain as much as anybody about cold weather, dreary days, rain and wind but the plants tell us that it is not as bad as we think.

In the days when I used to write for the Waikato Times, we had a sheltie dog who quietly photo-bombed many a picture. Now we have Ralph channelling the spirit of the late Zephyr, except he is a boisterous photo bomber.

The swathes of snowdrops and dwarf narcissi that we have in areas of the park are only just showing first colour because it is colder on the south facing slopes but there are plenty out in the cultivated areas of garden that are noticeably warmer.

I started with the snowflakes and an obscure scilla that flowers earlier than the more common bluebells. The snowflakes – leucojums – are often taken for granted as robust survivors that are inferior to the more desirable snowdrops (galanthus). This is unfair to them because they are very different as a garden plant and under-rated, especially when we consider their extended flowering season.

I am fine with under-rating this particular scilla. Its only redeeming graces are that it is pretty to pick and it is the very first to flower. It isn’t worth garden space – far too much foliage for the number of flowers – so it has been banished to the wilder margins. We used to have a collection of species scillas – there are a lot of different species – with names like greilhuberi, hohenackeri and litardierei but I think they came to us under incorrect names even before we lost the names. I have no idea which one this is.

I added in the early flowering lachenalias to the flower lay. We still have an extensive lachenalia collection which flowers for us from now through to early November. Some are much easier to keep going in the garden than others but these early ones are toughies which will withstand competition and meadow conditions. The more collectable blue and lilac forms flower later. From left to right we have the most common, robust, cheerful but vulgar Lachenalia aloides (still sometimes to be found mislabelled as Lachenalia pearsonii),  the somewhat more refined Lachenalia aloides quadricolour (quad = four colours, in this case orange, yellow, green and burgundy), the red Lachenalia bulbifera and finally the yellow of Mark’s L.reflexa hybrid.

Sometimes I think I would have enjoyed being an illustrator or a graphic designer specialising in pretty florals but nothing can compare with the ephemeral charm of living flowers.

In a world where the news just seems to get more complicated and worse by the day, where things feel as though are spinning out of control, I find dainty flowers can be a welcome diversion. They don’t come any prettier than snowdrops, cyclamen and little narcissi. The snowdrops are a mix of Galanthus ‘S Arnott’ and G. nivalus which are our two mainstay varieties that perform in our area where we don’t get much winter chill, let alone snow. The cyclamen is C. coum which, according to Wikipedia, has the common name of ‘eastern sowbread’. I am not even going to ask who calls it that and why. While they might have wild sows in its native habitat around the Black Sea, the corms are so small and its rate of increase slow so it is unlikely that would ever make much of a food staple for browsing animals.

The narcissi are a mix of species and hybrids. My preference is for the cyclamineus types with their swept-back, reflex petals but the earliest jonquils in both yellow and white are deliciously fragrant and the bulbocodiums or hooped petticoats are also very charming.

Zach has been lifting surplus bluebells to make way for more desirable snowdrops and baby daffs in the area we refer to as the hellebore border. I suggested he could rehome some of the bluebells – thugs that they are – into the area by our gate where the giant eucalypt came down in February’s Cyclone Dovi. Over the years, I had planted a fair swag of surplus bulbs around the base of the old gum.

When he had finished, I couldn’t work out what the white patch was until I got up close. Buried bluebells, obviously from an earlier planting. Deep beneath the soil that had become displaced by the falling tree, some had leaves 30cm long and still not breaking the ground into the light.  I knew they were tough but that shows a high level of survival skills.

I have spent some time in the past working out the differences between the highly desirable, scented English bluebell and the dominant Spanish species and came to the conclusion that what we have are predominantly Spanish (Hyacinthoides hispanica), maybe with some Spanglish hybrids. They will not flower until mid spring.

We still have the worst of winter to get through but the earliest spring bulbs are a daily reminder that we are on the right side of the solstice already.

Finally, welcome to new subscribers who came this week after reading this recommendation from Julia Atkinson-Dunne. May you enjoy what you read and see.

When the detail brings delight, not the devil

Tulipa saxatilis and simple cream freesias in the rockery this week

Bulbs play a major role in our garden. We use a huge range of bulbs, many no longer available commercially. Some never were readily available. Very few of those we grow are the larger, modern hybrids which are generally what are on offer these days. We prefer the simpler style of the species or at least closer to the species.

Added to that, seventy years of intensive gardening across two generations has built up the numbers most satisfyingly. Most of our cultivated gardens have bulbs incorporated in the plantings. Or at least bulbs, corms, tubers or rhizomes to cover the range.

Erythroniums

We have a fair few that are fleeting seasonal wonders in our climate but we just adjust our expectations. The cute erythroniums – dog’s tooth violets – are maybe a 10 day delight and can be taken out by untimely storms but that is just the way things are.

Meet Beryl. Narcissis ‘Beryl’ with cyclamen, nerines and even a Satyrium coriifolium in the bottom left corner

I don’t grow any in containers now although the same can not be said of Mark. His bulb collection is currently sitting in limbo for us all to see the scale as his inner sanctum – his Nova house – is currently being relocated. He hasn’t taken good care of them in recent times but he is determined to keep some of the rarer, touchier varieties alive. It is possible to maintain a more comprehensive bulb collection if you are willing to faff around with growing them in containers in controlled conditions. I am not so dedicated. My interest wanes if we can not grow them in garden conditions.

Gladiolus tristis popping up unexpectedly in our parking area

It is the random bulbs beyond the gardens that are currently bringing me pleasure. Some of these have been planted. Some have popped up from our nursery days. When trays of bulbs were being repotted, Mark had a strict rule that fresh potting mix was to be used (granulated bark was our chosen medium). Hygiene, he would explain. The old potting mix was spread around the place and at times it had seed or tiny bulbs within it. I am guessing this is how the Gladiolus tristis, a species gladiolus, came to be at the base of a cherry tree. I certainly don’t remember planting it there and I can’t recall it flowering before.

Ipheions at the base of an orange tree

When we plant bulbs beyond the cultivated garden areas, we try and select spots where they can establish in fairly undisturbed conditions. At the base of trees is good, as long as there is plenty of light. Around old tree stumps, on margins that don’t get mown often, or in little spots where we can walk past and be surprised to see them in bloom.

Trillium red with bluebells down in the park meadow
And trillium white with Lachenalia aloides tricolor and snowdrops to the right on the margins by a stump

We have rather too many bluebells now, to the point where I often dig out clumps to reduce overcrowding. The Spanish bluebells or the ones that are crosses between the vigorous Spanish and the more refined English species are definitely rampant, bordering on weeds. That sea of blue is very charming in their flowering season but sometimes it is the one seedling escape flowering bravely on its own that makes me smile as I pass.

The simplicity of a self-sown bluebell
Common old Lachenalia aloides where a tree stump used to be

It is both the transient nature and the detail that makes bulbs so interesting in a garden context. Far from simplifying our own garden as we age, the more we garden, the more we like to add fine detail. That is what keeps it interesting for us.

Bluebells and narcissi at the base of gum tree
Narcissus bulbocodium with bluebells

Tikorangi notes: Iceland poppies are not from Iceland, naturalising trilliums, bluebells and escaping root stock

I have never been a fan of Iceland poppies. They were the one flower I remember my mother buying  when I was a child – a bunch of stems still in bud. She would burn the stems and then put them in a vase where they would open to what seemed garish and unappealing flowers to me. Tastes change and in recent years, I have found my eyes drawn to mass displays of these simple blooms. This patch is on a traffic island which holds the very modest clock tower in my modest local town of Waitara and it makes me smile when I pass.

The Waitara clock tower in a traffic island 

Ironically, on the opposite corner was this stand of fake flowers outside a Gold Coin shop.

Iceland poppies do not come from Iceland. I finally checked and in fact they come from the chilly areas of Europe, Asia and North America – sub polar territory, so presumably alpine meadows.  In the wild, Papaver nudicaule  (nude because of its bare stem which makes it a good cut flower) are pretty much all white or pale yellow. The other colours are recessive genes which have been brought out by plant breeding – presumably line breeding which is selecting down the generations of individual plants to pick out the stronger colours until those coloured genes have come to the fore.

Puketarata Garden near Hawera

This is not a plant I have ever felt the need to grow myself but there is a simple appeal to a mass display. I remember being quite charmed by their use in the clipped buxus formation at Jen Horner’s garden, Puketarata, one spring. It is hard to beat the simplicity of a single poppy, or indeed a daisy flower.

This poor little white one survived being taken off at the base with the strimmer last spring

These trilliums represent a minor triumph in Mark’s experiments with plants he can establish in meadow situations. We have plenty of trilliums in our woodland gardens but establishing them in a cultivated garden is different to getting them to naturalise on his bulb hillside. When I say “naturalise”, I mean that they are now sufficiently well established to return each year, able to compete with the grass and uncultivated soil. They are not actually increasing yet but they are at least established.

Mark has raised more seed and has about 70 pots of them in flower in the old nursery area. He is disappointed that most of them have come up white and said that he wants the red ones for planting in the meadow and he asked that the pale yellow ones be kept together as a group in one area. For him, this is all part of blurring boundaries in gardening again. He really likes the idea of trilliums thriving in managed garden conditions and then, as the garden becomes looser and more informal further out, the same plants popping up as wild flowers. Especially when it is something as choice as trilliums. Maybe I could surprise him with the surplus Paris polyphylla making an appearance on the bulb hillside, too.

I photographed this small flowering growth on Prunus Pearly Shadows as an example of unwanted root stock shooting away, even on a very well-established tree. Many plants are budded or grafted onto other rootstock so that the desired cultivar can utilise the strength of strong growing root stock. Which is well and good when the rootstock is compatible and doesn’t escape. If you don’t cut off the root stock, it can overwhelm the grafted selection so it is best to see to it as soon as you spot it. How do I know it is rootstock? It is a single white; Pearly Shadow is a fluffy pink double and is not yet in flower.

Prunus Pearly Shadows

This particular tree is a splendid example of what is described as a ‘vase-shaped form’. It has not been shaped. It grows naturally in that upward Y shape. It is in our car park area and has so far attracted three reversing cars. I am not quite sure how people fail to see it in their rear vision mirrors.

It is peak bluebell time in the park and even if these can be weedy, the drifts of colour are very pretty. Bluebells should, in our opinion, be predominantly blue. But the addition of a few white or pink ones amongst the blue gives a contrasting accent of colour that can lift the blue. The pink is also a strong grower, the white less so. We don’t want bluebells everywhere so I am removing them from some areas of the garden they are attempting to infiltrate but we are happy to let them spread in our meadows.

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. 

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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