Purple Wellies

One woman's musings of plant lust for intoxicating blooms

Inchoate buds

As I write I look outside to see a collection of snowdrops gently nodding their heads in the breeze. These will soon be joined by the Winter Aconites, Scilla, the first daffodils and flowers from Cornus mas and Abeliophyllum distichum, signifying for many that winter is merging into spring in the ever revolving door of the seasons. But look a little deeper at those patches of barren wilderness that loom back at us through the window, as there could be more goings on than perhaps meets the eye.

As gardeners we ponder for hours about plant combinations selecting the ones to give us structure, architectural accents, amorphous blobs, the pretties, the ephemerals, spikes, spires, foliage contrast, airiness, creepers, climbers, infills, spillers and that one over there, oh ah, yes, well I got that one for no other reason than I like it!

With plots becoming smaller, plants have to outperform their neighbour, behaving well through the growing season, peaking and then dying with an extravagance and gracefully holding its own through the winter months. Wind back the clock and think back to when those plants first emerged. Do we ever consider those initial days as part of the attraction in choosing a plant? Tips nuzzling through the dusky duvet of earth, you can almost hear the pandiculation (stretching and yawning), before they unfurl, metamorphosing into something more recognisable.

Syneilesis aconitifolia starts to push up in early spring bearing more resemblance to a furry mushroom than a plant. Leaves develop slowly, losing their fluffy appearance and morphing into what can only be described as an umbrella that’s been through a hurricane. There is nothing quite like it and it is sure to catch attention. You won’t be growing this one for the flowers as they are nothing to write home about, and I’ll stop you now from looking through your gardening books as it is unlikely you will find it, being relatively new to cultivation. If you can get hold of a plant then I thoroughly recommend growing it.

Perhaps one more familiar to you will be the architectural subject, Acanthus mollis. A plant that once you have, you will never be without, thanks to its deep tap root.  That aside, the new fresh growth coming through has a particularly crinkled appearance, highlighted further if the old tattered leaves have been cleared away. These open out to the glossy lobed leaves that can act as a foil for other robust plants. A. m. ‘Hollard’s Gold’ has a golden foliage, which if grown in the shade, persists through summer. There have been a few variegated varieties introduced recently too, namely ‘Tasmanian Angel’ with cream mottling and distinct edging and ‘Whitewater’ with white markings and edges.

Most paeonies have attractive foliage and Paeonia mairei is no exception starting off with red-pink new growth in February and March which complements small early bulbs luxuriously, extending the appeal before developing into attractive deeply veined foliage. The flowers open up in late March, into rich pink goblets which have a strong aroma of nutmeg, sitting just above the foliage. Although a bittersweet short flowering time, these then go on to produce bright red seed capsules with blue seeds. This needs an area protected from hot sun to flourish.

Up until now we have looked at herbaceous and let’s not talk about blossom as this has been covered so much, but Decaisnea fargesii is the most perculiar of subjects which no doubt is why it holds such appeal with me. A large deciduous shrub with glaucus tinged stems. Leaves are also tinged blue on emergence, but by autumn have turned yellow when fully developed. Flowers with yellowish green sepals appear in panicles in June. These are evening scented. Metallic blue, broad bean like, fruits up to 10cm in length then develop in clusters of threes.

This plants common name is 'dead mans fingers' a name also give to other botanical subjects, coral, fungi and seaweed. The pulp of the fruit of Decaisnea is edible (not the bullet hard seeds), whereas other 'dead mans fingers' are highly poisonous, so should not be confused. A case in point for why we use botanical names. If you are brave enough to try the taste of the gelatinous pulp, then peel off the skin-like coating and look inside, it is supposedly sweet with a hint of melon or cucumber. Maybe we will see this listed on the supermarket shelves in the future as we strive for the ever exotic, what do you think – Decaisnea and Acca fruit smoothie? It is perfectly hardy in this country but best give some shelter so the flowers and young leaves are protected from late frosts.

Next up is another edible candidate, and in-light of the current vegetable shortages could be a new alternative to try. Fern fiddleheads – the new croziers, those tightly coiled springs just waiting to unfurl. Polystichum, Matteuccia and Athyrium are all good candidates. Even bracken, Pteridium aquilinum, is edible, but only if fully cooked or else it is toxic, so perhaps not the best one to try. Emerging Polystichum have silvery scales that combine wonderfully with Rhododendrons covered in a downy indumentum. Dryopteris have bronze and black hues which look good backlit. D. wallichiana, D. lepidopoda and D. erythrosora all go on to retain colouring in their mature fronds.
Perhaps the most colourful of ferns should be awarded to the Athyrium niponicum var. ‘Pictum’, along with some of the other Athyrium niponicum recent introductions, which last right through to when they die down in autumn. These would blend nicely with Hostas or Hellebore, both of which offer their own appeal on breaking through the surface. Any of the Helleborus x hybridus dark flowered forms such as single black, double black or single slate work wonderfully well.

Caulophyllum thalictroides start off early; mine are currently little blue noses poking out of the soil. In time these push up to tall glaucous stems with delicate heads of lacy blue-tinged foliage sitting atop, not that dissimilar to a flower when small, before opening out fully into a large lobed leaf. The greeny-brown, nutmeg scented flowers aren’t much to remark upon, but these follow on into deep blue, marble sized berries in autumn. It really does look quite remarkable.

So many of these plants enjoy the same conditions, and start off early enough to have a moment all to themselves before the regulars kick in, filling the empty void between winter and spring. So take the time to appreciate these beauties now before they are swept into and enveloped by the unfolding scene around them.

Posted: 06/02/2017 12:42:48 by Pamela Barden