When I was a student we were always being asked to study and describe plant combinations – sometimes based around particular plants, sometimes around a particular colour or a seasonal theme. However, I don’t remember being asked to write about white on white – and I think if had I might have started a protest!
Because of my interest in native plants, I often tend to think in terms of plant associations rather than horticulturalists’ ‘combinations’ – and, of course, many of the best planting designers take their inspiration from natural associations. But every now and again I see something which you would never see in the wild, but looks completely natural, and stunning.
And so it was yesterday, walking around a gloriously empty Cambridge University Botanic Garden, white-gold sunlight streaming through the trees onto the snow-covered ground beneath. There was plenty to enjoy in this untouched snowscape – golden willow trees and orange larch framing a completely smooth and frozen white lake, mercifully free of ugly barriers and signs proclaiming that water is dangerous! Glossy evergreens – Ilex aquifolium and Mahonia aquifolium (labelled as Mahonia piperania, which I think is a very old name for ‘Piper’s barberry’) with their bright berries and flowers.
The winter garden was a riot of colour – all the usual suspects beautifully grouped to show off their vivid winter stems – the reds of Cornus alba ‘Sibirica’, C. sanguinea ‘Midwinter Fire’, the burnt oranges of Salix alba var vitellina ‘Britzensis’ and the golden- olive of C. sericea ‘Flaviramea’ dramatic against evergreen Bergonias and the crisp snow.
But for me the star was at the end of the garden, past the vivid reds and greens, where a graceful and beautifully proportioned specimen of the Chinese birch, Betula albosinensis var septentrionalis grew, blushing pale copper, rose and gold against its own white stem and the surrounding snow.
As I walked around to face the tree I noticed what had been almost invisible before, a veil of tall slender verticals in front of the tree, smokey-purple grey stems covered in a ghostly bloom. The effect was magical – neither of course was truly white, but the contrast of the mysterious white-bloomed stems and the warm bark of the birch was truly memorable, a winter surprise of subtlety and beauty amidst the more obvious winter colour.