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Friday, March 30, 2012

Magnolia stellata, Magnoliaceae

If we had enough space in our back garden I would plant one of the large flowered, tree-sized Magnolia species or hybrids - probably M. x soulangeana - but we only have room for the Star Magnolia, M. stellata which comes from Japan and produces many fine flowers on a relatively compact plant. It's the earliest-flowering magnolia and the weather here over the last week, which has been unremittingly warm and sunny, has been kind to the 15 year-old specimen in garden. In a couple more days it will be at its best, but  four days from now temperatures are forecast to plummet, with maybe even some snow, so the current pristine display of flowers will probably suffer from some frost damage by the middle of next week and those pure white tepals will be scarred with brown patches. 

Part of the pleasure from growing this plant comes from watching the attractive furry flower buds swell, bringing a growing sense of expectation. When the bud scales part and the pink tepals begin to force their way out, you know that spring is gathering pace.......... but anticipation is tempered by the knowledge that spring can be fickle. It looks like this year's display of starry flowers will be short-lived...... but spectacular while it lasts.

Sunday, March 25, 2012

Garden Seats

Long ago I promised myself that the next garden I have will be designed around the seating. Before I do anything else I'll identify the places that provide the best morning, afternoon and evening viewpoints and choose some comfortable seats where I'll be able to rest my weary limbs and admire my handiwork over a glass (or two) of wine. But generally speaking garden seating tends to be designed for looking at rather than sitting on and is often excruciatingly uncomfortable, unless you carry a pile of cushions around with you. Here are four attractive seats that are fine for a Digital Botanic Garden, but not much good for sitting on for any length of time. 

Edwardian cast iron fern seat - lovely to look at but cold and very uncomfortable...

... lichen covered bench - obviously the gardener here was always far too busy to sit down.....but the seat really adds character and maturity to a garden.... 

 .... follow the sun - wheel this one around your extensive acres in search of the best place to linger ... but not for too long on its hard wooden surfaces...

.... and a painfully intricate creation in cast iron, in a sun-trap surrounded by Caenothus and Wistaria....

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Azara microphylla, Box-leaved azara, Salicaceae

For most of the year Azara microphylla isn't a very impressive plant - just a rather straggly shrub with masses of small, glossy leaves - but for a couple of weeks in spring it reveals a rather delicious attribute: a powerful aroma of chocolate. It produces clusters of small golden stamens from the beginning of March onwards and when I opened our back door this morning (which is the day of the vernal equinox - the first day of spring) I was greeted by the chocolate scent that the Azara that's trained against the wall was releasing in the early morning sun.

The precise perception of scent is a personal attribute and I know some people who find that, to them, it smells of chocolate. Scents are often closely interwoven with memory and to me the aroma is reminiscent of the smell of a brand of chocolate called Caramac that I was very partial to in my youth.

If you are a chocoholic gardener you can find information on cultivating Azara, which can become a small tree, here and you can find more photographs here. Sadly the web is useless for conveying scents but if you can locate a bar of Caramac you'll see what I mean about the aroma .....

It is a native of Chile.

Friday, March 16, 2012

Rhododendron dauricum, Ericaceae

I'm not a great fan of some of the overblown garden hybrid Rhododendrons but Rhododendron dauricum is always a welcome sight. It's an early bloomer - not surprising when you look at its natural geographical distribution, across northern Russia, China and Japan - and it has been flowering in my garden since the beginning of March.

The fact that it flowers on almost bare twigs enhances its beauty and no doubt ...

.... makes it more conspicuous to the first queen bees that emerge in spring from hibernation to collect nectar from the flowers. This Rhododendron species and many others in the genus have a particularly unusual way of dispensing pollen to visiting insects.

In many plants the anthers at the tip of the stamens simply burst open and expose all their pollen at once, but R.dauricum anthers dehisce through a small pore at the tip - which you can see clearly in the lower-most anther in this picture. The buzz of bees visiting the flowers makes the stamen filaments vibrate with a similarly high frequency, shaking pollen out of the pore a little at a time - which is an economical way of distributing the available pollen to as many bumblebee visitors as possible during the long flowering period in spring.

Saturday, March 10, 2012

Congo Cockatoo, Impatiens niamniamensis,Balsaminaceae

Flowers don't come much gaudier than this - primary colours straight out of a child's paintbox. It reminds me of some of the more lurid boiled sweets I used to buy in the sweetshop on my way home from school.

Impatiens niamniamensis comes from tropical Africa, from montane regions of Cameroon, extending through central and East Africa where it's used medicinally to treat migraines and painful joints. It makes a spectacular house plant, with one significant drawback - it seems to be extremely susceptible to pests like whitefly and red spider. The only way I've been able to cultivate it for any length of time without it resembling the contents of Pandora's box is to frequently root new plants from clean cuttings.

The flower has a very long, curled nectar spur and I've found a few sources that suggest that it's pollinated by birds - bright red flowers are often associated with bird pollination.

A big specimen in full flower makes a fine spectacle, resembling a tree full of parrots. There was a time, when I set out in gardening, when I was primarily interested in species with subtle, muted colours but these days I'm increasingly drawn to flowers whose colours are so hot you could warm your hands on them; maybe it's a symptom of advancing years..........

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Woad, Isatis tinctoria, Brassicaceae

About twenty years ago I fancied trying my hand at dyeing ..... and where better to start than with indigo extracted from woad? The woad seeds germinated well, the plants (which are biennial) flourished but somewhere along the line I lost enthusiasm for the enterprise - perhaps when I realised how much woad I'd need to grow to produce a worthwhile amount of dye and what a messy business it would be. You can find a description of the whole process here.

 So the plants ran to seed, after producing a spectacular display of small flowers that were very popular with hoverflies. Even today, two decades later, occasional seedlings from those original plants appear in the garden so my redundant woad crop must have left a persistent seed bank.

Woad has been used as a source of blue dye since ancient times (for a detailed account click here) but was superseded by true indigo Indigofera tinctoria which in turn was replaced by modern synthetic indigo dyes.