3rd March. Looking at plants with ‘plant school eyes’

This was a new term I heard this week. You can look at a plant and notice it but I gather if you look with ‘plant school eyes’ there is so much more to learn – and enjoy! so here goes with my ‘plant school eyes’ open wide.

Lonicera elisae

Lonicera elisae

A great beauty has come into flower this week. Lonicera elisae is just opening to show delicate pale pinkish flowers. They are early, always a useful quality, and grow from the tips of the stems, accompanied by a ruffle of small unfurling pinkish leaves. The hairs on these leaves catch the dampness in the air and on a cold Friday foggy morning the whole sight was stunning and something to lift the spirits on a day which otherwise had nothing else to recommend it. It was too cold for any scent but many of these species are not scented and I will need to return to this plant when the air is warmer to check this out.The plant I saw was surrounded by a sprinkling of snowdrops, their flower heads bobbing in the wind in contrast with the sturdy honeysuckle flowers above – such an elegant combination.

Narcissus cyclamineus was just coming into flower in the Valley Gardens at Windsor this week. The outer ‘petals’ swing back hard so that they lie against the flower stem. They are still streaked with green now and although attractive at any stage this moment must be the best.

Narcissus cyclamineus

Narcissus cyclamineus

I was struck by the absence of Narcissus pseudonarcissus flowers in this garden. Perhaps it was just too early and I was full of too many expectations. There were plenty of other signs that spring is finally stiring but none of these beauties were in flower. At Myddelton House yesterday there were drifts of this species as you drive through the gates. I was told with authority that these plants have been flowering since before Christmas so something different must be happening in this famous E. A Bowles garden. But what?

When you are stuck in a traffic jam it is fun to look at the tree line and speculate on the outlines of trees planted many years ago. If the road is elevated so much the better. Waiting for traffic to move on Friday my attention was caught by a particularly statuesque tree almost hidden behind other less memorable species. I found myself eventually in the gardens of Capel Manor on the trail of this giant. Perhaps I had strayed into parts that I should not have been near but I eventually found the tree I had seen from the road earlier, a majestic Zelcova carpinifolia of enormous proportions and truly beautiful. I am sure all students from the college will know this wonderful tree and for others it is a must- see sight.

23rd February

We are back in winter at the end of this week. A biting wind has swept through the South of England and those plants that had pushed for growth in the relatively warm temperatures a few days ago are now looking as if they are regretting it.
Soil temperatures had been on the up. It is always worth looking out for Crocus tommasinianus to help with judging if there is warmth and root activity beginning. This is one of the first spring plants to make an appearance and there it was at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, on Wednesday, a sure sign that below ground, roots were beginning to stir into growth. In the more recent freezing weather the flowers now look like small cold spikes, refusing to open and show their colour.

Crocus tommasinianus opening earlier in the week with the sunny days Crocus tommasinianus

Parrotiopsis jacquemontiana

Parrotiopsis jacquemontiana

The Advanced Tree Course is now in its second year with the first and extremely cold day on Thursday. Valiant students braved the biting wind for a walk round the diverse collection of trees at the National Arboretum, Westonbirt. With few leaves and flowers to help, it is an excellent time to work on your tree identification. Parrotia persica the Persian Ironwood, with its small scarlet rounded flowers in late winter is well-known but how about Parrotiopsis jacquemontiana as a golden alternative? It flowers slightly later with far larger and more impressive flowers yet even now the developing buds are a subtle addition to any garden.

Bark of Prunus serrula

Bark of Prunus serrula

A small and elegant cherry, Prunus serrula, is also a ‘must’ for most gardens. While the transient beauty of many flowers can be ruined by sudden low temperatures, the shiny maroon bark of this tree remains an eye-catcher in any temperature and throughout the winter. It reminds me of the polished top of a dining room table. Around my shiny beauty I would select the strong deep colour in other plants like the reddish cultivars of some Helleborus. One called H. ‘Moonshine’ would fit the bill.


And last but not least….noticed by an observant student on the way to a Plant School course this week

15th February

You know the spring has finally arrived when you are standing in the sun and at last feel warmth in the air and you are surrounded by the blooms of the best snowdrop collection in England. The month is February and Colesbourne Gardens were, yesterday, the place to be for all keen plantsmen interested in snowdrops. The sun warmed the flowers and so the snowdrops opened and their scent started to pervade the air. The whole experience was so English and charming and very memorable. There were banks of snowdrops and this was a good chance to compare the different shapes, forms and colours of these beautiful harbingers of spring. Galanthus ‘George Elwes’ was one of the first cultivars to be appreciated.

Galanthus 'George Elwes' with a distinctive long green marking on the inner segment

Galanthus ‘George Elwes’ with a distinctive long green marking on the inner segment

It is a hybrid between G. elwesii and G. plicatus with a neat compact habit and rounded flowers that open to reveal a long green marking on the inner segments. Further on, and as the day warmed up, drifts of G. ‘S. Arnott’ were opening, the honey scent seeping into the surrounding air. It was time to choose a favourite and I returned home with G. plicatus ‘Colossus’. Funny how, with all the choices at your finger tips, you go for the same type of plant from year to year although this particular cultivar is new to my collection, is also well scented and I love it.

With the rise in temperatures that we have seen at the end of this week, so in turn the plants have responded and the sap has begun to rise with overwintering buds now extending. One of my favourite trees must be Cercidiphyllum japonicum. Maroon pointed buds are now lengthening and contrast well with the deep brown twigs they are growing on. Persisting seed pods can add a twist of interest.

Cercidiphyllum japonicum with old seed pods

Cercidiphyllum japonicum with old seed pods

This plant is known and appreciated by enthusiasts in autumn when the falling desiccated leaves give off an elusive scent of caramel. On a spring visit to Kew several years ago I was startled to walk past one of these plants (behind the Palm House) and to pick up the well-known smell of caramel. Right plant, right place but definitely not the expected time of year. Watch out for this scent which can also be detected in spring if early young growth becomes frosted.

The semi-evergreen nature of Daphne bholua ‘Jacqueline Postil’ always interest me. In an open exposed situation and under cold winter skies it will drop most of its leaves in its need to cope with the cold. However if your plant is in a more protected site it will hold onto its green mantle and this is definitely a preferred sight. The attractive finger-like leaves surround the stem tips and the purple scented flowers crowding the ends of the branches produce perhaps the best scent in the garden.

Daphne bholua 'Jacqueline Postil'

Daphne bholua ‘Jacqueline Postil’

I do have the best students! My first year Plant Course group coped with everything that was thrown at them this week. The day started with a delay – HRH The Duchess of Cornwall was opening the new exhibition at the Garden Museum – one to go and see incidentally. As the day progressed there were two fire alarms and then a delay for lunch, all of which the Garden Museum sorted out with great aplomb. Throughout all this the students were expected to listen and understand the intricate way a flower is put together and how it hopes to proliferate. They ended the day happy and cheerful and a wonderful example of how a love of plants sees through most things. The Plant School is incredibly lucky to have such students. R.C-P