Flowers at Christmas

I know that it isn’t technically Christmas yet for we still have a week to go.  Despite the last few days being cold and frosty – and very beautiful with bright sunshine and blue skies, I have been surprised at just how many flowers are still blooming away when it is almost the end of the year.
A combination of unseasonably mild weather for most of the time and, of equal importance, very little rain to knock the blooms about has resulted in all sorts of odd floral combinations.  Of course, I realised as soon as I started to write this post that I hadn’t bothered to carry my camera around with me so most of the flower photos have been taken at some other time.
Cowslips and primroses:  It’s not especially to see the occasional primrose in flower in the garden but I don’t ever remember seeing cowslips flowering in December in the wild before.  It will be a good few months before we see carpets of them like these but seeing the odd two or three reminds me that spring is not so very far away.  In the newspapers there have been reports of daffodils in flower too.

Forsythia:  Another spring bloomer and again just the odd flower rather than branches being smothered in flower.  Perhaps not so surprising, as flower arrangers would know – the tight buds that cluster along the bare stems will burst into flower early when brought into the warmth of a house in a similar way to the ‘sticky buds’ of the horse chestnut bursting into leaf indoors.  Here, forsythia has been trained as a tightly clipped shrub to screen an ugly garage wall, the warmth and protection of which also makes the flowers open a week or two before normal.

Ferns:  Some of the shabbier looking ferns had been cut dowm to ground level as part of the autumn tidy.  I hadn’t expected them to burst back into growth …..

Violets:  There have been a lot of violets out, both in the garden and in the hedgebanks of the secret valley.  Is it just coincidence that these out-of-season blooms have all been mauve with not a white flowered one in sight?

Daisy:  There have even been odd wild daisies flowering in the lawn (we have mowed twice this month too).  The Erigeron daisy that you see growing in profusion amongst the ruins of ancient Rome has been flowering in our garden as if it was still midsummer; it is smothered in blooms.

Geraniums:  The hardy herbaceous sort.  Like the ferns, they had been given the chop some time ago but are coming back into leaf and flower.  Some of the hardy salvias are doing the same thing.

Mallows:  I have seen hollyhocks still in flower on my travels around the Cotswolds.  They are majestic when they are grown well but my favourite of all is the musk-mallow, Malva moschata, which is a wild flower that is often brought into gardensl.  I grow both the pink and the white versions and they self sow happily in the borders without ever becoming a nuisance.  It wouldn’t matter, you couldn’t have too many!

Roses:  There are nearly always roses out on Christmas Day and we always exclaim how extraordinary a sight it is.  They are poor, wet, bedraggled specimens carefully left in place by even the hardest pruners as a reminder of warm summer days.  For the most part that is the case this year too.  What we don’t expect to find are bushes smothered in beautiful blooms still wafting scent but this is the case in one rose garden I attend.  I am uncertain as to the variety but there are three of these amongst forty other bushes – all shrub roses.  They really are a joy to see.

I can’t believe that this state of affairs will last much longer.  Surely the frost and rain, or even snow, will get them soon.  I plan to wait until New Year’s Day and go walking armed with camera, pen and paper and list all that I see.  I have intended to do this every year for as long as I can remember but if I manage it this time, I will report back.  And, as this will almost certainly be the first of 2012’s resolutions to be broken, perhaps you would do the same and send me the list.

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Shh! Don’t Tell The Weather Man!

I hardly dare mention it but I think Spring is finally coming to the Cotswolds. After I wrote about it back in February, the man from the Met Office sent us cold again. Hard frosts put spring on hold. To be fair, as I also wrote, the Cotswolds may be one of the most beautiful places to live in the south of England but the hills are also one of the coldest. Our spring is always two or three weeks later than places even as close as Oxford or Gloucester.
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Early spring sunshine comes to the ancient Cotswold town of Burford
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The past few weeks have been unusually dry which has meant that tidying up the garden – or, in my case, gardens: my own as well as clients – has progressed rather well. A nice drop of warm rain now would work a treat and not interfere with time schedules. At last, in the secret valley, leaves are unfurling properly, daffodils are blooming and the lone primrose has been joined by many more as well as purple and white violets.
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Wherever I have lived, there has always been one hawthorn that opens its leaves days before the rest, even when planted as a hedgerow. I’ve often wondered if this is a genetic thing which means, I presume, that it could be cloned to have a whole group of early leafing ones. Or is it a combination of warmth and soil conditions in that particular spot? When I retire and have more time (a contradiction as the two never happen according to friends who are trying it) I will take cuttings and carry out a controlled experiment. It will give me the opportunity to blog about it if I am still able to sit in front of a computer!

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I wonder if I could get a whole hedge of early flowering hawthorn? It will be another six weeks or more before they will be in bloom in the secret valley.
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The snowdrops and aconites have now finished flowering. The little ruff of green leaves are all that is left of the latter. They look so similar to the taller herbaceous aconites or Monkhoods whose green ruffs are also poking through the ground now. They are all part of the buttercup family so are related but so unalike one another at their flowering time. I love the tall purple spires of the Monkshoods in mid to late summer: not as delicate as delphiniums, another favourite, but at least slugs don’t eat them and they don’t need staking, a real plus.

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Forsythia is in full bloom. These I enjoy in other gardens but never plant them in my own unless the garden is huge and they can be planted a long way off. They show up from quite a distance and when seen too close, are too strident for my taste. The non flowering shrub later in the summer is a coarse affair too, dull and not warranting the space unless livened up by a clematis or other climbing plant. In the photo below it is grown as a wall shrub and it works well in disguising this unattractive garage. Despite being cut hard back to the wall each year in early summer it is always smothered in bloom by March.

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The same applies to the common flowering currant. The standard pink is a wishy-washy thing and the deeper coloured, named varieties such as King Edward VIII, is as strong in colour as the forsythia – a plant to be enjoyed in other gardens. For those of you that thought the currants were always pink (although there are white flowered versions) and smelt of cat’s pee – and I include myself in this category for many years – there are three others that are well worth making space for.
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Ribes odoratum, has pale yellow flowers and is beautifully scented. It is a bit of an untidy shrub in my experience, suckering freely but not a nuisance. It grows in happy neglect in a hedgerow – an ideal spot for it to do its own thing – and is really only noticed by the spicy fragrance as you wander past.
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Ribes lauriflolium is a new plant to me. Unlike the others which all originate from the States, this currant is found in the wild in China. Looking at descriptions on the internet I wonder if they are correct or if there is a lot of variation in the stock, which is possible. I bought mine described as white, evergreen and not too hardy. It has survived -16C this winter, has been deciduous (perhaps it keeps its leaves in milder winters, I rather hope not) and is white flowered. Others are described as yellow and growing to only 1 ft – mine is already 3ft but that may be because it is tucked behind our dry stone wall. The one thing they all agree on and I can confirm is the exquisite scent of lilies of the valley. Do try to grow one if you can find it.

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I have since discovered that this isn’t a ribes at all! See my next post to reveal all!!
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My final choice of flowering currant is another favourite, Ribes speciosum. It is reminiscent in bloom of fuchsia and, like them, are pollinated in their native environment by humming birds. Hailing from California, in UK gardens it requires shelter and grows best against a warm wall where it can be trained on wires or left free growing. This photo was taken in the botanical gardens in Dublin on a glorious spring day.
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Warmth, blue sky and sunshine. The clocks go forward an hour this weekend giving us more evening daylight. I’m almost feeling optimistic about the days to come – something a gardener should never be!
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Snowdrops and Aconites

The winter may have been one of the snowiest and coldest for a long time but it hasn’t made the slightest difference to the displays of snowdrops and aconites which are now at their best.

There has been a great upsurge of interest in the different varieties of snowdrops in recent times. To those of you who just thought there were singles or doubles, it may come as a surprise to learn that there are more than 500 named cultivars derived from the 19 or so species found in the wild. All are variations on a theme, basically white petals with green (or occasionally yellow) markings. The Royal Horticultural Society Plant Finder lists 251 as being available in the UK and prices for the more unusual ones start from a few pounds per bulb to large sums of money for the very rare. Personally I am quite happy with the simple purity of the common single type and am also aware of the difference, namely the ‘frilly petticoat’, of the common double one.
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Now people get very excited by upturning the flowerhead so they can see a slightly larger speck of green on the bloom or scrabbling about on their knees in search of the single rarity that lurks amongst the ordinary – and good luck to them. Call me boring or unimaginative if you want but just give me bog standard Galanthus nivalis any day – preferably in their thousands. This really is a case where more is best as the carpets of snowdrops that flower in the garden of the house that was built for me two hundred years ago proves. (Readers of this blog may remember the post describing this house, along with the possibility that I have been reborn and finally reunited with it – most of the time I say this tongue-in-cheek, occasionally I half believe it). According to tradition the nuns that took over the property upon ‘my’ death planted them and now they have spread to cover many acres. Is there any better way for ‘me’ to be remembered?


Well, yes, there could be. My death next time round should be marked with the Winter Aconite, Eranthis hyemalis. There is something very cheering and positive about their bright yellow, perhaps it is because we crave some strong colour after a long winter. It is the same shade as the yellow daffodils and also of forsythia. By the time these have finished, weeks later, we are fed up with it and find it all rather garish. But in January we start to notice the little ruffs of green leaves pushing through the ground and, quite suddenly, the flower is opening its blooms. I hadn’t noticed before just how similar the individual flowers are to a buttercup when fully open. Not surprising really, as they all belong to the same family, Ranunculaceae. The aconite, I assume, is so-named beacause of the similarity of the leaf with the tall herbaceous aconites, Aconitum.

Neither snowdrops or aconites are native to the British Isles although both naturalise well and, given time, will occupy large areas. Conditions in this country must favour the snowdrop for snowdrop woods, whilst not common, are found with relative ease and are nearly always associated with a large country house. A much greater rarity is the aconite wood and I know of only one and heard of only one other. To visit it is an extraordinary experience for it is difficult to walk through the tens of thousands of plants that carpet the ground. This wood is also attached to a country estate but rarely visited and away from public paths. Perhaps that is why it has survived.

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Sold as ‘in the green’, both snowdrops and aconites establish in the garden best when transplanted now, that is with their leaves and flowers still lush. A grower recently told me that snowdrops naturalise more quickly when aconites are grown amongst them, perhaps because the yellow flowers attract more pollinators. However, snowdrops in grass benefit from an annual feed whilst aconites detest it. A case of ‘you pays your money and you takes your choice’, perhaps?

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