It’s been a week of frosty, foggy mornings, and today I crept out of the house before seven to walk the fields and forests around my home. Despite the ice underfoot the bluebell shoots are pushing up while the primrose rosettes are beginning to green again. Though I know it is far from over, it hasn’t been a bad winter, and more often than not there has been great beauty between the greys.
When shopping for sweet peas, or any flowering plants really, I find it very difficult to know just what I’m getting. The quality of plant photography, printing, and computer monitor displays vary so widely that varieties depicted in catalogs or online often bear no resemblance to reality. As I’ve fallen further down the sweet pea wormhole, I find that the only real way to know exactly what a bloom will look like is to grow it myself. This makes color planning a bit hit-and-miss, but the thrill of discovering a variety even more spectacular than its Web presence is worth the inevitable disappointment when some fail to deliver.
I do a lot of research before I order my seeds, and look at as many photos as possible in order to average them out in my mind to what I think I might get. I’ve often wished for more accurate descriptions of varieties and their colors, with photographs that were created to be as true to reality as possible. Having not yet found such a resource, I have decided to start one myself. What follows are images as closely aligned with what I perceive to be how the flowers actually look. As always, your computer monitor may vary, but this may still be helpful in some way. If nothing else this is a record for me of what I have grown, and what I’d grow again.
In 2018 I grew:
‘Piggy Sue’: a pale ivory with peach tones
‘Kingfisher’: supposedly a pale blue but this came up a bright red, pointing to a mistake from the seed supplier
‘Nimbus’: an almost-grey flake with deep purple-red streaks
‘Maloy’: coral orange'
‘Noel Sutton’: solid mid-blue
‘Betty Maiden’: white with purple blue flake'
‘Oban Bay’: very pale blue, almost white
‘Dorothy Ekford’: white
‘Earl Grey’: purple and maroon flake
‘Blackberry’: deep red
‘Hero’: very dark blue
I had a few seeds left over from those I’d randomly collected off student plots my first year studying in Edinburgh. One of them turned out to be a very pretty lavender, which though it was a color I don’t think I would have bought, I ended up loving. Too bad I’ll never know its name!
I was excited to grow a coral orange sweet pea called ‘Maloy,’ which came heavily recommended by Floret. However, the second image perfectly illustrates why I consider ‘Maloy’ to be a failure. It’s just too hard to work into bouquets, especially as my tastes tend toward the cooler sweet pea colors. I was also disappointed with the white, ‘Dorothy Ekford.’ It’s an old-fashioned sweet pea, and thus smaller-flowered than the modern varieties, but it didn’t do much for me.
‘Piggy Sue’ was pretty and blended well into arrangements. The mid-blue ‘Noel Sutton’ was okay—it had nice big flowers but didn’t really get my pulse going. There may be more interesting blues out there. ‘Blackberry’ and ‘Hero’ served their purpose to provide some deeper tones in arrangements, but two sweet peas I grew at work, ‘Windsor,’ and ‘King-Sized Navy Blue’ were better options for those colors.
‘Earl Grey’ and ‘Nimbus’ were similar in that ‘Nimbus’ took on almost sinister tones. I know it is very popular among cut flower growers, but something about it didn’t thrill me. I imagine it could be very beautiful combined with flowers other than sweet peas, and silver foliage such as Senecio cineraria , so I won’t discount it. I liked ‘Earl Grey’ and found it a beefed-up version of ‘Senator,’ my favorite of the sweet peas I grew in Edinburgh, though ‘Earl Grey’ was less deliciously scented.
My favorite of the bunch was ‘Oban Bay,’ which was an ethereal pale blue that bordered on white. I also liked ‘Betty Maiden,’ a variety I first met in the demonstration garden at the Botanics in Edinburgh. It is white with a blue stripe, or “flake.”
In Edinburgh I grew:
'Charlie's Angel’: mid- to pale-blue
'North Shore’: dark and mid-blue bicolor
'Jilly’: lovely ivory
‘Senator’: maroon and purple flake
‘Champagne Bubbles’: ivory and peach
‘Almost Black’: very dark purple
I actually liked all of these and would grow them again, though ‘Champagne Bubbles’ wasn’t as robust as ‘Piggy Sue’ and had similar coloration.
I now have my seeds for this year’s sowing, so stay tuned to find out what I will grow and how these new varieties stack up against the ones pictured in this post.
The longer days are quickly returning, and my thoughts now turn to what I will grow in 2019. I’ve started placing seed orders, and with each envelope that appears through the mail slot I get more excited by the possibilities ahead.
An especially important package arrived last week with my sweet pea (Lathyrus odoratus) seeds from Roger Parsons. Since moving to Britain I have become a bit obsessed by sweet peas, most likely because they were impossible to grow well in my native Virginia climate. It just got too hot, too fast for them in the spring.
When I was living in Edinburgh I grew my first sweet peas supported by jute netting attached to the front of my house. They didn’t have much root run in their raised planter, but I got decent-enough blooms that I was hooked. They were so intricate and sensual with their ruffled flowers and evocative scent. They seemed the antithesis of zinnias, cosmos, and all the other bold, scentless hot-climate flowers I’d grown in Virginia. I slept with sweet pea posies on my nightstand that summer, and knew I’d grow sweet peas as long as I lived in Britain.
Last year—my first in Kent—I sowed my sweet pea seeds on Feb. 27 into root trainers. I didn’t knick, soak, or otherwise adulterate the seeds before sowing, though I do know one expert who germinates all his seed on damp paper towels before sowing to avoid any root trainer cells coming up blind. As is best practice, I labeled my cells with date and variety before sowing. My seeds germinated in the airing cupboard by March and then they went right outside into the cold frame. When each seedling had four true leaves I pinched off the top to encourage lateral branching.
When it was finally dry enough to work the soil I created a new bed in a section of my lawn that over winter stood pretty boggy and wet. Once the new bed, which was 16 feet long, was cut in I dumped a few bags of compost and manure into it along with handfuls of fish, blood, and bone. I heaped the soil up to create a somewhat drier planting bed and then cut some eight-foot poles in the forest, pounded them in, and strung jute netting between them.
The seedlings dragged along during our long, cold spring (as we all did) until I finally planted them out on April 22. I covered them with fleece for a week or so to discourage the pigeons. Each day I’d check them and patiently encourage the tiny tendrils to grasp the lowest strings of the netting. It always takes a while for them to get their roots going, during which time they don’t look like they are going to do much. But as the temperatures warm and they get established they soon shoot up. From then there is no holding them back as they stretch to the sky.
I watered them regularly, gave them a weekly feed of Tomorite and had my first blooms by mid-June when the stems were a bit more than half-way up their supports.
In another month, they had reached the top of their supports and were flowering so profusely that each dead-heading and harvesting session, which I did religiously to keep them blooming, took up to an hour. I drowned in blooms, harvesting fistfuls at a time and running out of vases in the house to hold them all. I felt so rich.
We had an atypically hot and dry summer last year, and I think the moisture-holding qualities of their location actually worked in the sweet peas’ favor. They kept blooming pretty well into August, when the constant baking and the lack of any more room to grow started to brown them out. They revived a bit in cooler temperatures, leading to me believe that without such extreme weather they would have happily grown all summer, but by then I was so tired of tending them that I thanked them for their service and cleared the bed.
In all, the 2018 sweet peas were a great success, and there isn’t much I’d change about their cultivation other than to grow fewer plants of each variety so that I have more flexibility with my arrangements. I do dream about having even more space to grow them, though that may be a mixed blessing given how time-intensive it is to keep them deadheaded so they don’t run to seed at the expense of flowers. I’ve ordered my 2019 line-up, which I will introduce soon, and in the next post I’ll share the varieties I’ve grown and my thoughts on each.
I am not good at letting myself rest. I never learned the value of stopping, letting down, cutting loose, recovery. Allowing myself to not fill my hours with projects, chores, and self-improvement is something I have been trying to teach myself over the last decade, but it is hard to change ingrained learning and temperament.
I have been fortunate to have partners who recognize the value of rest, and who have encouraged me—usually on the point of burnout—to slow down and just. do. nothing. It is still hard for me, but I try to learn from them.
I am grateful to have had 11 blessed days off work during these darkest weeks of winter, and for these 11 days I’ve not been doing much other than giving myself permission to truly, deeply rest, to recuperate from the challenges of the past year and gather my strength for the next. My husband and I had a quiet holiday—just the two of us—where we ate delicious food and exchanged beautiful gifts. There has been a lot of cuddling, and just being close and loving, filling up the reservoir. The furthest we’ve ventured is to walk the fields around our house, mud-slipping through cornfields and scaring up pheasants. These dark days of winter have an underwater feel. Everything is damp and never fully bright. We creep through the mists, holding hands, recovering.
It’s Christmas day, and the end of our advent journey. I leave you with Helleborus x hybridus, photographed last February in my garden at work. Hellebores are known as the Christmas or Lenten Rose, with the origins of that name based in a story that the plant grew from the tears of a child who had no gift to give baby Jesus at his birth.
I have no idea of the cultivar name of this particular plant, and hellebore breeding can get so confused that cultivars are hard to track. Hellebores also hybridize so much in the garden that there is no telling who their parents were, and many are propagated by seed which introduces natural variation in the offspring. Nameless as it is, this hellebore is a very pretty color with a large bloom.
One of the last jobs I did at work before heading home for Christmas vacation was to cut back the old leaves on the winter-flowering hellebores. Budding shoots are already pushing through the soil, and removing the leaves puts the spotlight on the soon-to-come blooms. It also reduces disease by getting rid of host material. Mice are notorious for nibbling hellebore buds just as they break through the soil, and removing the plants’ leaves exposes their snacking and discourages their feast. Hellebores are one of the greatest joys of the winter garden, and getting them ready for their big show in January and February is one of my favorite jobs.
I hope you have enjoyed getting to know some of the plants that caught my eye this year. It has been nice to write about things that wouldn’t necessarily fit into longer blog posts and share some of my more flower-specific photos. I wish you all Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year.
I feel I have to sneak one more rose on this list. Rosa x odorata ‘Mutabilis’ is one I discovered in my garden at work, and it is one of my favorite roses. It’s an old China rose from 1860. True to its name, it is a mutable creature in several ways. It starts the season with a few flowers floating above loose, red-stemmed foliage.
Then around the end of May it explodes in a rather lurid mass of hot-pink blooms—not my favorite look if I’m honest. Too over the top for me, but it does pack a punch.
Then after that big flush it settles back down and continues to put out regular blooms until…well, it was still blooming last week when I gave it a winter prune, and it would probably have continued all winter. This is my favorite state, when the blooms are sparser, floating about the plant like butterflies, but the foliage has matured and darkened.
The flowers of ‘Mutabilis’ also change as they progress. Each bud starts out orangey-pink, and then the flowers open to a copper yellow that changes to bright pink and finally “copper crimson,” according to David Austin (who passed away last week). It’s like three roses in one.
Rosa x odorata ‘Mutabilis’ can also be grown as a climber. Here it is in Charlotte Molesworth’s lovely nearby Benenden garden, Balmoral Cottage, in June, scrambling up a bit of topiary.
Some of my favorite flowers this year weren’t even flowers. They were made of wood and displayed on the walls of the Carved Room at Petworth House in West Sussex, where I visited in September. The finest and most detailed carvings were done by famous Dutch sculptor Grinling Gibbons in the early 1690s. Gibbons is widely considered the finest woodcarver in England.
The carvings at Petworth House were done from Tilia (lime) wood, which when they were new would have been white. They would have stood in stark and stunning contrast to their dark oak paneled background. Today centuries of soot, smoke and dirt have made the carvings brown, but it is still possible to appreciate their incredible detail. Horace Walpole said in 1763, "There is no instance of man before Gibbons who gave to wood the loose and airy lightness of flowers".
The National Trust, which currently manages Petworth House, has their hands full with the daunting task of conserving these carvings in the face of centuries of woodworm and fungi. Go see the Gibbons carvings while they’re still so accessible. Like any once-living thing, they won’t be around forever.
More intriguing floral carvings are found in Winchester Cathedral in Hampshire. The entirety of the exquisite building is full of representations of foliage and flowers in stone and wood.
Some of my favorite carvings are found in the choir stalls. I really like these representations of people with plants growing from their mouths and can’t help but wonder at their meaning. I suspect their roots lie in Paganism, like much Christian iconography particularly relating to plants. Little is known about their maker other than they are attributed to William of Lyngwode, a carpenter from Norfolk. There is record of him working on these carvings in 1308. His work is finely detailed and so representative that it’s possible to botanize the carvings and identify plants from their detailed leaves.
Oh, auriculas. They’re a floral wormhole I’ve resisted entering for so long. And it’s not because I don’t love them: I do. So much so that I know once I buy one I will want to start collecting more and with my current lifestyle, and lack of a glasshouse, that doesn’t seem like a good idea.
So nevermind. I will just enjoy them when I see them, such as at the Harrogate Flower Show in April where several auricula nursery stands stood out like sweet shops. Primula auriculas had a moment in the British horticultural spotlight in the late 17 to early 1800s when they were grown by specialist horticulturists known as “florists” who competed against one another to grow the best plants.
Auriculas flowers and leaves are coated in farina, a white coating that may provide protection from the sun or predation. This farina degrades in rain, so as the fashion for auriculas grew so did the way of displaying them to best effect. Enter the auricula theatre, a purpose-built structure to both protect and show off these delicate blooms. Calke Abbey claims the only original (18th century) auricula theatre in the country:
The modern-day auricula theatre lives on at flower shows in the elaborate nursery displays.
Each plant fascinates me, and I would have a hard time choosing a favorite. ‘Fairy Queen,’ above, stood out to me for her unusual coloring, but there are others, such as Primula auricula ‘Grey Cloud’ that I found equally compelling:
Some day I very much look forward to starting my own auricula collection. In the meantime, I will just admire them when I can, ogling from afar.
It is the day of the darkest night, and my most important holiday of the year. Flowers, with all their vibrancy and vigor, just don’t seem appropriate for a day dedicated to drawing in and embracing the shadow side of winter as we anticipate the return of the sun.
I took this photo out the window of my car as I was stopped at one of the innumerable roadworks I encounter in my daily commute. It was just past four in the afternoon, and today the day length will be one second shorter than yesterday at seven hours and 54 minutes. But tomorrow, we gain four seconds of new light and begin to climb out of the dark. Happy Solstice, wherever you are.
Saponaria x lembergii ‘Max Frei’ was new to me this year when it flowered in my garden at work. I was really taken with its delicate pink that collaborates well with other colors. It went on to further impress me by its long bloom period—much of the summer into autumn—and foliage that stayed neat and attractive.
Here it is in full flower at work in July.
It’s not a plant that screams for attention, but it just quietly goes about its business looking good for months on end. I am impressed by it and glad we got to meet.
I love trees, but they don’t usually lend themselves to casual iPhone capture like smaller plants and flowers. Thought it’s not a flower, I’ll make an exception for tonight’s advent post: Fagus sylvatica var. hetrerophylla ‘Aspleniifolia,’ or the fern-leaved beech. This particular specimen grows at Bath Botanical Gardens, and was photographed on a visit there this August.
I was wandering the gardens when I saw the small tree, above, and was instantly intrigued by its beautiful foliage and distinctive glow. I thought it was a perfect small tree until I walked a few steps further and saw:
What I had mistaken for a sapling was actually just a layered branch of this much-larger, majestic beech.
My husband reminded me tonight that our encounter in Bath wasn’t my first exposure to this tree. There is actually one growing at the Edinburgh Botanics, and on one of our school walk-arounds our beloved professor Phil Lusby stood under it and remarked that it was beautiful. “It’s as if it produces its own light,” he said. My iPhone photos may not be the best at conveying this characteristic, but what he said is true. It is a remarkable tree.
How’s this for a dose of serious summer color? Growing at Great Dixter this June, Antirrhinum majus ‘Chantilly Bronze’ really impressed me with its stature, vigor, and full-on vibrancy. I love the way the blooms of this snapdragon form a mouthwatering color gradient that conjures tangerines, melon and papaya. The phrase tutti-fruitti comes to mind.
‘Chantilly Bronze’ might not be the easiest flower to work into a border design in most gardens but it fit perfectly at anything-goes Dixter. I’d like to try growing it in a cut flower garden some day. It’s pretty lurid, but I love it.
Chinese native Ceratostigma willmonttianum, below with the blue flowers, was new to me when I started working in my current garden last year. I was already a fan of its smaller relative, C. plumbaginoides, so when I discovered the same great autumn foliage color and glowing blue blooms in a larger plant with a more substantial, shrubbier form, I was smitten.
Ceratostigma willmonttianum leafs out in spring and patiently sits, looking rather nondescript, until autumn. Just as everything else starts to poetically senesce, its leaves turn a vibrant red in bits and blue flowers appear that glow in the increasingly earlier twilights. It hangs on in this wonderful combination of red, blue, and green for weeks, extending the floral interest into the very gateway of winter.
I especially like it combined with the sedum, vitus, phlomis, and melianthus in my garden at work, above. The blues and pinky purples are an unusual take on an autumn color palette and a nice change from the usual yellows and oranges.
While we’re on the subject if indefinable flower colors, I must include Pelargonium quinquelobatum. This member of the Geraniaceae family actually stopped me in my tracks while walking through Derry Watkins’ Special Plants nursery near Bath this August.
Its flower is another of these colors that’s hard to capture in a photograph. Perhaps the best description comes from Wooten’s, which calls it “an iridescent moonbeam color. Truly beautiful.”
I’d call the color quixotic. I’ve never seen anything like it in a flower. It simply doesn’t seem possible and yet I held it in my hand.
I bought some seeds of Pelargonium quinquelobatum from Special Plants and sowed a batch this summer on the off chance they might take. No germination. Good thing I held back the second packet and I will try again this spring. Derry said it’s a bear to propagate from cuttings but easy from seed. I hope the season will be on my side when I try again because this is definitely a pelargonium I want to add to my growing collection.
I gave up on growing bearded iris at my house in Virginia after multiple cultivars succumbed to iris leaf spot, a fungal disease that causes round brown lesions on the leaves and eventually weakens the entire plant. It’s too bad, as I love bearded irises, and I fell even more in love when I saw Iris ‘Langport Storm’ at Sissinghurst in mid-May.
Many descriptions of ‘Langport Storm’ say it must be seen in person to be fully appreciated, and I agree. It’s a mix of pink, purple, blue and brown that’s hard to pin down in a description or a photograph. I love flower colors that defy characterization, and Iris ‘Langport Storm’ does that in spades. It’s definitely one to tempt me back to growing bearded irises again.
Rosa ‘Penelope’ is my favorite rose of the year. Here it is growing in the garden I manage at work. ‘Penelope is a repeat-flowering hybrid musk rose that puts on a gorgeous display for most of the summer. It is exactly what I think the platonic ideal of a rose should be. I love the shape of its flowers, their color, and the way their tone changes from bud to bloom, and I especially like how healthy and vibrant its foliage remained with no chemical sprays or extra attention. ‘Penelope’ also has nice rose hips in the autumn if you can resist deadheading.
‘Penelope’ was bred in the U.K by a British horticulturist and reverend, Joseph Pemberton, who lived from 1852-1926. He lived long enough to see his creation win a National Rose Society Gold Medal in 1925, but not long enough to see it awarded an RHS Award of Garden Merit in 1993. ‘Penelope’ clearly has staying power, and once you grow her it’s easy to see why.
In October I visited Monticello, Thomas Jefferson’s home in Charlottesville, Virgina, which is also my hometown. I toured the gardens, which were disappointing and a real shock after being spoiled by the high-level horticulture I am exposed to living in Britain. However, one plant that stood out to me was Vigna caracalla, or snail vine. Jefferson wrote of the plant:
"The most beautiful bean in the world is the caracalla bean which, though in England a green-house plant, will grow in the open air in Virginia and Carolina." (Source: www.monticello.org)
Vigna caracalla is in the Fabaceae, or pea family, and one can see a faint resemblance to sweet peas (Lanthyrus odoratus) in its blooms. It is apparently sweetly scented as well. This South American native was introduced to European cultivation in the 1830s. Now that I am living in England I should get some seeds and have a go at growing this “green-house plant.”
2018 was the year I fell in love with tulips. I’d never really liked them, but looking back I realize that’s because I thought tulips were all like the technicolor mixed municipal displays that just seemed so shouty and coarse. This year I was exposed to some more exotic and refined cultivars that really caught my eye, and I also got into historical tulips that can be more subtly beautiful than their modern counterparts.
One of my top tulips this year was ‘Absalon.’ It’s a very rare Rembrandt tulip from 1780. I just adore its mixed swirls of mahogany and gold, with each bloom having different markings from the next. This color pattern of yellow or white streaks on a purple, red, or brown background is characterized as a “Bizarden” (bizarre) tulip, the rarest of them all.
Rembrandt tulips became popular in 17th century Holland during ‘Tulip Mania,’ the national craze for these “broken,” bicolored tulips. Unbeknownst to the world at the time, the bicolor variations were caused by a tulip-specific mosaic virus that “broke” a petal color into something other than its original. These tulips were so prized they took pride of place in the Dutch floral still life paintings of the time, including in what is probably my favorite painting, Jan van Huysum’s, “Still Life with Flowers and Fruit” (1715). I used to regularly visit this painting when I worked just blocks away from the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., and I’d stand in front of it and marvel at the life captured in paint. Look closely and you’ll see a tulip that very much resembles ‘Absalon’
I am fortunate to have a couple bulbs of ‘Absalon’ growing in my garden, and at £5.00/bulb they are treasure to me. They bloomed beautifully this year, and I am hoping they return for 2019 as tulip mania has definitely hit my household.
We’re back to Kew Gardens, this time in the tropical glasshouse in March, for tonight’s flower: Hibiscus schizopetalus. Like Sparmannia africana, Hibiscus schizopetalus is also in the Malvaceae, or mallow family. It has the common name of ‘Japanese Lantern,’ despite being native to Kenya, Mozambique, and Tanzania, where it grows in tropical conditions. I am more accustomed to the smaller Hibiscus rosa-sinensis, which I grew in outdoors in summer containers in the U.S. H. schizopetalus is a much larger shrub, growing to 3-4 metres, and it was really neat to see its captivating blooms from standing eye-level.
In Britain Hibiscus schizopetalus survives only in a glasshouse or conservatory, but there it makes a stunning display. Its specific epithet, schizopetalus, refers in Greek to its deeply divided petals (schizo=split+petalus-petals).
On the totally other end of the viola spectrum from yesterday’s post is this hybrid Viola x wittrockiana ‘Bunny Ears,’ which was developed in Japan and is relatively new to the U.K. market. While Viola spathulata is an understated and elegant species, ‘Bunny Ears’ is a highly bred cultivar that purists may find a bit over-engineered. I, however, love it. The elongated upper petals that give it its namesake are very unusual in violas, and the smaller-than-standard flower size is intriguing and invites close observation. I am always on the lookout for nice violas, finding them indispensable for winter container displays, and I believe I’ve found a new favorite in ‘Bunny Ears.’ It’s just that little bit more interesting than your usual bog-standard garden center viola.
I sowed ‘Bunny Ears’ from seed this summer and now have a few plants blooming in clay plots right outside my front door. Together with some pots of Erigeron karvinskianus they make a cheerful winter display of tiny, unique flowers that are helping to fight off the dark days of mid-December.