Just potted: Glooming in the gloaming

I get obsessive about white flowers in Spring. Last year I posted on Wild Whites, revelling in the rush of white flowers that seem to gallop across our country side between March and May. This year I’ve been walking a lot in our local woodlands (using Shotover Hill as the nearest thing to the Pyrenees that Oxford can offer, training for my June walk along the Camino de Santiago). There is something special about the way that small white flowers shine out in the dappled dark of a wooded valley – I found myself wondering about the collective nouns we could use:

A Gleam of Sorrel

Wood sorrel (Oxalis acetosella)

Wood sorrel (Oxalis acetosella)







A Gloaming of Wood Anenome

Wood anenome, Anenome sylvatica






A Ghost of Stars

Greater stitchwort, Stellaria holostea

Greater stitchwort, Stellaria holostea







Maybe together they are a Wood of Whites ….





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Just potted: Marsh samphire in autumn

Just how complicated can a simple* be?

Walking last weekend with my daughter in the salt marshes of the Cuckmere valley we saw brilliant patches of red amongst the grasses and reeds bordering the rivers and pools.        We were intrigued to know what it was – I managed to get close enough to pick a small sprig, and saw that it was some sort of samphire-like plant, but instead of the usual grassy-green it was coloured dark red/purple.

IMG_2425 IMG_2428

I was puzzled – mostly by the colour, and partly by the ease of access: my only real knowledge of the habitat of Samphire coming from Shakespeare:

“How fearful And dizzy ’tis to cast one’s eyes so low!
The crows and choughs that wing the midway air
Show scarce so gross as beetles: half-way down
Hangs one that gathers Samphire: dreadful trade!
Methinks he seems no bigger than his head.”


It didn’t take a lot of research to find that my confusion is not uncommon: the true Samphire is a single species genus, Crithmum maritimum of the Umbillifer family (the same family as Parsley and Carrot): the plant we saw was a Glasswort, Salicornia, a somewhat confusing and jumbled genus of the Goosefoot and Orach family, which includes other edibles such as  Purslane and Fat Hen. Which Glasswort it was is unsure – my Collins Flower Guide lists them as

‘extremely variable and difficult to identify as the distinction between the species is not clear’. 

A somewhat older source, Herbal Simples Approved for Modern Uses of Cure, by William Thomas Fernie, 1897, gives the following guidance

“Samphire, of the true sort, is a herb difficult to be gathered, because it grows only out of the crevices of lofty perpendicular rocks which cannot be easily scaled. This genuine Samphire (Crithmum maritimum) is a small plant, bearing yellow flowers in circular umbels on the tops of the stalks, which flowers are followed by seeds like those of the Fennel, but larger…A spurious Samphire, the Inula crithmoides, or Golden Samphire, is often supplied in lieu of the real plant, though it has a different flavor, and few of the proper virtues. This grows more abundantly on low rocks, and on ground washed by salt water. Also a Salicornia, or jointed Glasswort, or Saltwort, or Crabgrass, is sold as Samphire for a pickle, in the Italian oil shops.”

My conclusion – what we saw was probably Purple Glasswort (Salicornia ramosissima), but may have been Common Glasswort, also known as Marsh Samphire, (Salicornia eueopea) in it’s reddened autumn state.

salicorniaramosissima GuernseyNorfolk_Samphire

Whether or not what we saw is one of the edible and delicious samphires (as opposed to those rich in saponins, which can be toxic) is another matter altogether. As William Thomas Fernie says in the introduction to his Herbal Simples: 

“The Primitive Simplers presented here show the way of life in other generations, it is not suggested or recommended trying them yourself”.

I’ll admire the plants in the salt marsh and buy my edible samphire from the fish monger.

* simple, being the old word for a medicinal herb, as in ‘Simple Simon to the Pie Man’ – not a stupid Simon, but a boy selling herbs.

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Just potted: Pink and Yellow, Colours for an Indian Summer

It was the Dahlias that did it. Hilary Squires, Ethical Florist at East Oxford’s Farmers’ Market (EOFM) has been selling the most stunning lemon yellow, yolk yellow, and clear pink dahlias for the last few weeks – on a cold spring morning they would make your eyes water, but in the balmy days of an Indian summer they were perfect.

Dahlias from EOFM

Anyway, it got me thinking. When we did planting design colour portfolios at college I don’t remember being asked to do pink and yellow! Or pink and orange. Not very ‘designerish’ and so many clients just don’t want yellow in their garden at all. But I started looking and realised just how often pink and yellow are found together- in nature, and in cultivated flowers.  Just think of the fruit of the Spindle (Euonymus europea) – perhaps more orange than yellow, or at least the rich orange-yellow of an egg yolk, combined with the richest pink you could hope to see.

Euonymus europea

Euonymus europea

And the colour combinations of a summer meadow, with the yellows of vetches and hawk bits, and the pinks of clovers and grasses. In garden settings these combinations can work well – think of the new Merton Borders at The Oxford Botanic Gardens with their glorious mix of Echinacea pallida and Echinacea purpurea. Or just look at this suburban front garden planted every year with pink Cosmos and yellow Rudbeckias by mother’s  neighbour, well over 80 now.

Merton Borders

Merton Borders, Oxford Botanic Garden

Front garden

Front garden, Shepperton

Having been musing along these lines I then took my mother to Waterperry gardens to see the Autumn borders – I’m not sure I would recommend all the colour combinations there, but the pinks and yellows certainly sang. There were combinations of Rudbeckia fuldiga with Asters such as Aster n.a. Andenken an Alma Potschke where the yellow of the Rudbeckia picked out the yellow stamens of the aster. The colours together would have made a Bollywood poster look dull!

Aster n.a. Andenken an Alma Potschke

Aster n.a. Andenken an Alma Potschke

Rudbeckia fulgida var deamii

Rudbeckia fulgida var deamii

So next year, when I’m planning my largely green garden, there’ll be a corner, somewhere, for an Indian summer planting to remind me just how bold nature can be, even here in England.

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Wild Whites

Some our most beautiful native species are the white-blossomed trees, shrubs and perennials of Spring. In many years, including this year, Spring is slow succession of flowering whites – the Blackthorns followed by Whitebeams and Hawthorns, the Sweet cecily by the Cow-parsley, the Wood anenomes by the Sweet woodruff.  (Last year, 2013,  Spring was cold and wet until mid-May, then it all happened at once,  the roadsides, fields, gardens and parks becoming a riot of white froth and flower).

The true glory of these spring-flowering natives  is in the open countryside, but they can also make a stunning contribution to the garden, town or country, wild or formal. Imagine the beautiful, delicate Sweet woodruff (Galium odorata) planted at the shady base of a formal low box hedge,  the stately Sweet cecily (Myrrhis odorata) making an early contribution to a potager, or the Whitebeam (Sorbus aria) as the focal point of a lawn, perhaps bridging the more formal part of the garden with  a more naturalistic woodland or meadow area.  And even in the smallest garden a clump of Sweet cecily will give value for many months, the finely divided soft foliage being beautiful and the aromatic black seedheads architectural, whilst the Guelder rose (Viburnum opulus), can be pruned to keep it as a medium-shrub providing spring flower and autumn berries for the small garden.

So, here are five of my favourite ‘Wild Whites’, all of which deserve a place in our gardens.  Starting with the smallest and working upwards:

Sweet woodruff (Galium odorata)

Sweet woodruff (Galium odorata)

Sweet woodruff (Galium odorata)

A tiny, delicate wonder of a plant with starry white flowers, and slightly shiny whorls of rich green leaves, the overall impression being of a gently exploding  carpet of green and white firework. It prefers shade, and well drained but moist ground, and form excellent ground cover where  it is happy.  Flowers above the leaves begin to appear March, flowers April through May.


Star of bethlehem (Ornithogalum umbellatum)

Star of Bethlehem,  Ornithogalum umbellatum

Star of Bethlehem,
Ornithogalum umbellatum

This native bulb has an array of charming (and not so charming) folk names – Betty-go-to-bed-at noon, Shamefaced maiden, Dog’s onions – the first two of which refer to the flowers’ habit of closing at midday on cloudy or overcast days. But for me the beauty of this bulb is as much in the clear grass green markings on the the underside of the petals as in the shiny, almost pearlescent side that face thelight. It likes the moist, and naturalises well in grass.

Luzula nivea, this is a cultivar of the native woodrush

Luzula nivea, this is a cultivar of the native woodrush

I grow mine in a deep wooden tub, by the side of my pond,  with a cultivar of the native Sweet woodrush, (Luzula nivea), where, this year, it looks stunning from April  through early June.




Sweet cecily (Myrrhus odorata)

Myrrhis odorata Photo © Carl Farmer 11 May 2002 Inverness

Myrrhis odorata
Photo © Carl Farmer
11 May 2002 Inverness


Such a lovely name! Elspeth Briscoe, a founder of My Garden School called her daughter  Cecily, and what a good choice it is. It is sweet and lovely plant. The foliage is fresh like new ferns unfurled, but soft to the touch,  the flowers a haze of creamy white, and even the seed-heads have beauty as they age through the summer. I grow mine close to the kitchen, and in spring snip its leaves to cook with Rhubarb, the anis sweetness of the leaf replacing half the sugar I would usually use.

This is a tall perennial, up to 1.2m in good conditions. The wonderfully fresh foliage begins as the ground and the air warm in early Spring, and the flowers come before the Cow-parsley, in my garden at least! Use it in the border, the herb garden, or the potager. Or as a fringe to a meadow or grass area – where it is happy it will naturalise and give great value.

Hawthorn (Crataegus monogyna)

Hawthorn (Crataegus monogyna), garden of brother-in-law

Hawthorn (Crataegus monogyna), garden of brother-in-law

No point in preaching to the converted about this wonderful native tree/shrub: it will give you trees and hedges, blossom and berries, and nurture the birds, invertebrates and insects of your garden. Not showy in the individual flower or berry, there is nevertheless something quintessentially natural about the hawthorn en masse: pushing forward its blossom into the welcoming arms of late spring, showing its crimson berries against the blue skies of autumn.  Not a choice for the courtyard garden – but in larger urban settings a hedge of hawthorn (or ‘Mixed natives’) or shrub given room to grow will bring the country to your urban corner.

Guelder rose (Viburnum opulus)

Viburnum opulus, the Guelder-rose, in May.

Viburnum opulus, the Guelder-rose, in May.

The Guelder rose or Wayfaring tree has  two seasons of real beauty. The first is in late Spring and early Summer, when it is covered with fragrant, white, lace-cap type flower heads, each composed of an inner ring of creamy-white, tubular, fertile flowers surrounded by larger, porcelain-white sterile florets. The second is  in Autumn, with vibrant reds and oranges, a magnet for the eye and the birds.

For smaller gardens there is an excellent berry-bearing cultivar Viburnum opulus ‘Compactum’ . There is also the very attractive V. opulus ‘Roseum’, Snowball plant, but avoid this if you are creating a wildlife area, as it is completely sterile and has no nectar or fruit.


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Just potted – Orchids in the Toulousaine


Pyramidal orchids in the Toulousain


In England we love our wild flower meadows – foxtail, vernal, quaking grass, and oat grasses, buttercups and cornflowers, ox-eye daisies and poppies, knapweed and scabious, many beautiful and often localised combinations of flowers and grass according to soil and season. In April if lucky we can have the wonderful sight of the Snakeshead fritillary (Fritillaria melagris) creating a jewel like carpet across low wet meadows. Often in the UK these habitats are a rarity, a diminishing source of joy and diversity to be protected and conserved.


Pyramidal orchid - Anacamptis pyramidalis

Pyramidal orchid – Anacamptis pyramidalis

Sainfoin - Onobrychis viciifolia

Sainfoin – Onobrychis viciifolia

France seems so much bigger, emptier, and perhaps more casual about its floral treasures. My french-living friends tell me that herbicides are used enthusiastically in the huge agricultural fields around Toulouse, and yet there seems to be space enough for beautiful and seemingly unprotected wildflower meadows. It was pure joy whilst out walking last weekend to come across these beautiful grasslands, copiously dotted with Pyramidal orchid,  Sanfoin, Common Bird’s-footoot Trefoil, Bedstraw, and more rarely the spectacular and mysteriously bedecked Lizard’s tail orchid – almost hidden green and purple striped flowers from which emerge a long, slightly scruffy, curled tongue or tail, the labellum which gives the plant its name.

Lizard orchid - Himantoglossum hircinium

Lizard orchid – Himantoglossum hircinium

Lizard orchid - close-up

Lizard orchid – close-up

Lizard orchid - flowers

Lizard orchid – flowers



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Bare-branch beauty – top picks for February

There is always something magical about flowers blooming without foliage – think of the mysterious beauty of the native Autumn crocus (Colchicum autumnale), hovering in a lilac haze above the earth on its pearly stems.  In winter we can enjoy the exuberance of delicate petals and flowers bursting from bare wood on garden shrubs and trees: an elegant combination of flower and wood which brings to mind Japanese or Chinese painting, a foretaste of Spring.

Here are six of my favourite bare-branch tree and shrubs – they all have exquisite flowers, and many have much to offer outside the flowering season.

Paper bush, Edgeworthia chrysantha

Exotic, slightly tender Edgeworthia chrysantha

Exotic, slightly tender Edgeworthia chrysantha

The most exotic of the bunch, and very under-used in gardens.  Clusters of fragrant tubular yellow flowers spring from the papery bark in January/February.  It’s borderline hardy, but will survive most winters against a sheltered wall or well-sheltered in a shrub border. 1.5m x 1.5m



Japanese quince, Chaenomeles x superba

Elegant japanese quince, Chaenomeles x superba

Elegant japanese quince, Chaenomeles x superba

A long-time garden favourite, available in a range of colours from white through corals to deep scarlets. Prominent rose-like yellow stamens add to the interest. Flowers over a long period from December sometimes through to April. In the Autumn golden, quince like fruit will form. Usually grown against a wall or fence.  1.5m x 2m NB: Branches have spiny thorns, care needed.

Witch hazel, Hamamelis x intermedia


A species cross between Hamamelis japonica and Hamamelis mollis, with an interesting and increasing number of cultivars (e.g. Pallida, Arnold Promise, Jelena) producing flowers from pale sulphur  through egg-yolk yellow to deep burnt orange. A faint but bewitching spicy smell, not at all like the astringency of the witch hazel tonics you buy.

The shrub or small tree has an elegant vase-like shape, with large hanging hazel-like leaves, which on some cultivars turn a beautiful butter-yellow to orange-gold in Autumn. Needs a sunny open position to get the best value from the scent, flowers and form.

Persian ironwood, Parrotia persica

Spidery red flowers of the Persian Ironwood, Parrotia persica

Spidery red flowers of the Persian Ironwood, Parrotia persica

Another member of the witch hazel family, this medium-sized, short-trunked tree is usually grown for its stunning Autumn foliage, each leaf a dusky mixture of bronzes, oranges, reds and greens. In winter it has the most enchanting petal-less flowers, consisting of spidery bright red stamens, such a delicate surprise from this imposing and solid tree.

Autumn cherry, Prunus x subhirtella ‘Autumnalis’

Lasting treasure, the Autumn cherry, Prunus x subhirtella 'Autumnalis'

Lasting treasure, the Autumn cherry, Prunus x subhirtella ‘Autumnalis’

One of the best winter-flowering trees for gardens, streets, woodlands and parks, this cherry will flower intermittently from late Autumn through to early Spring, offering a delicate scattering of palest shell pink flowers on dark brown bark in mild spells. Pale bronze young foliage in Spring, and butter yellow autumn colour. Guaranteed to lift the spirits on a grey day.

Shell-like beauty of the Prunus incise, the Fuji cherry

Shell-like beauty of the Prunus incise, the Fuji cherry

Fuji cherry, Prunus incisa

Smaller and shrubbier than the Autumn cherry, Prunus incisa is one of the first cherries to flower in late Winter and early Spring, with beautiful white or pale pink single flowers, with the added bonus of bronze-flushed new leaves in Spring after flowering and  rich orange-red autumn foliage.

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Borders, and a shed for the Autumn

I’ve just come back from Yorkshire – the South Pennines, Brontë country – a wonderful landscape of moors and hills studded with stone-built towns and villages and mills- some abandoned, some still in use adapted to modern industry, converted to galleries and shops, housing and offices.

Whilst there I took a trip to Harlow Carr, the RHS garden in the North, tucked into the much prettier and more obviously picturesque landscape of North Yorkshire, just outside Harrogate.

View of the main border


It’s a beautiful garden in a very fine setting, with some lovely planting. The autumn borders are splendid, well-maintained, a magnificent example of their kind. There’s a lot to be learned from studying perennial planting done this well – contrasts of colour and form, lasting seed heads and brilliant foliage ensuring interest and structure well into the late autumn.  The borders were replanted in 2005, with sustainability and ability to resist drought in mind – given the weather we’ve all had, especially Yorkshire, this summer, they’ve done remarkably well. One might expect the prairie-type perennials to be looking a sodden and woebegone, but they’re standing proud,  showing off their colour and their form.

Standing proud: Echinops and Stipa gigantica seen form under the Mayten tree

Standing proud: Verbena hastata ‘Rosea’


I think that a lot of this can be attributed to the great attention paid to soil preparation and protection of soil structure in the planning and maintenance of these beds.  I was very interested to hear that Harlow Carr are  experimenting with Strulch (a University of Leeds developed  soil improver made from composted wheat straw): I’m trying it for the first time this Autumn,  I’ve heard great things about it, and am looking forward to seeing similar results in my gardens and allotment.

If you’re sensing any sort of a  ‘but’ there is one – the planting and the borders are all just a tad too much like the borders at Wisley, no distinct personality.  The same could be said for the extensive streamside planting; think Beth Chatto, think Kiftsgate, there’s nothing here that shouts  Harlow Carr, Yorkshire, moorlands! But maybe RHS Harlow Carr will introduce a distinct personality with the new landscaping they are planning around the Queen Mother’s Lake, or the new show gardens that they will introduce later this decade.

Which sort of brings us to the shed! One distinctive, although not regional, feature of Harlow Carr is its ‘Gardens Through Time’ exhibition – apparently developed for a television programme in 2005. It’s not meant to be permanent, and will be replaced in a few years, but whilst it’s there, it’s well worth a visit. It starts with a regency garden, and works through major periods – Victorian, Edwardian, 1950’s Modernism, 1970’s ‘Room Outside’ and a ‘Contemporary’ 2004 Garden designed by Diarmuid Gavin.

Gaudy Victorians


It was the Victorian and Edwardian gardens that really caught my imagination – in the Victorian garden there was a gaudy Autumn planting of Dahlias, and the most beautiful potting shed: a pale washed blue inside setting off the clay pots and terracotta stands; tools hanging neatly from the walls, and beautiful copperplate handwritten plant labels propped up ready to use.

Potting shed blues

Potting shed copperplate




I don’t know how many Victorian potting sheds were kept in such glorious order, but this one would give any gardener a bad case of shed-envy!

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