Tim’s Blog

Misunderstood Bamboos.

Thursday, June 30th, 2011

One of the frequently asked questions at Gardeners forums and Garden-expert panel question-times goes something along the lines of:

“How can I control/remove/eradicate a bamboo that’s taken over the entire garden/neighbourhood/northern hemisphere…”

Well, maybe I exaggerate, but only slightly. Certainly bamboos seem always to provoke strong reactions in gardeners – loved and loathed in equal measure – but, as is so often the case with gardening, it’s all about having the right plant in the right place and too often these often magnificent plants are unfairly castigated due simply to poor planting choices. After all, most gardeners wouldn’t think of planting an Oak tree in a small back garden, and then be surprised when it turns into a forest giant, and some bamboos are in much the same position: victims of poor research and lack of forethought on the part of their original planters and forever destined to be progressively dug out and continually cursed.

Fargesia rufa.

But, as I often seem to find myself writing in these blogs, it doesn’t have to be that way. A lot of the bad press that bamboos have suffered is due to a basic misunderstanding of the nature of the plants. Many gardeners seem to thing of them as shrubs, and, like a shrub, they expect that once they get too large they simply prune back their top growth and keep the to a given space. But bamboos are, of course, grasses, rather than shrubs, and, like all grasses they consist of an underground rhizome and an above-ground network of shoots and stems – the “canes”, technically known as culms. Another key thing to remember is that there are an astonishing number of bamboo species – at least 5000, at the latest count – and these vary from tiny, slender grass-like pygmies to vast, towering, tree-like giants from which entire houses are built. So when a gardener asks about how to solve problems with “bamboo” it’s pretty important to know which bamboo they’re referring to.

Thamnocalamus crassinodus.

From a horticultural perspective you can very broadly divide the species into two simple groups – the clumpers and the runners. Clumpers are defined by having a very tight, non-spreading rhizome system from which the culms arch outwards, like a fountain. These species are, by definition, entirely non invasive, but this also makes them rather difficult (or at least slow) to propagate, since the very congested rhizomes are hard to work with and difficult to divide. The runners, by contrast, have entirely erect culms that emerge in a line from their spreading rhizomes. When growing vigorously, and without major competition these rhizomes will spread out in all directions from their central start-point, and produce curtains (bamboo curtains?) of culms along their routes.

Himalayacalamus falconeri.

So here’s where gardeners have to bite the bullet. Realistically, no running species of bamboo is remotely suitable for planting in a regular sized garden without being containerised beneath the ground to reduce the spread of the rhizomes. Yet it is exactly these running species that are most frequently offered for sale, in part because of the great beauty of some of them, but mainly because of their ease and speed of propagation – in other words nurseries can make more plants, and so more money, more quickly from these species.

In a parkland or large country garden where they can reach their full potential these running species are truly magnificent. Best known amongst them are the Phyllostachys species – large (often very large) bamboos some of which have gloriously coloured culms of yellow, green, purple and black. Phyllostachys nigra – the black-caned bamboo – is viewed as a near-essential element in many fashionable garden designs, and is particularly popular in urban settings. It’s the least vigorous, and also one of the smallest of the Phyllostachys, but will still form an extremely substantial plant of tree-like proportions in just a few years when planted in open ground, as well as running in all directions when left unchecked.

Fargesia fungosa.

I am partial to Phyllostachys myself, and have a collection of them in the garden, but here they have 5-or-so acres in which to make a home, and even then they need much annual work to keep them in place. So instead of attempting to tame these wild beasts of the garden, I would always recommend selecting and planting only the clump-forming species of bamboo. Many of these are native to higher elevations in China and the Himalayas, and the best of them can easily rival or indeed surpass the appeal of the best of the Phyllostachys species.

Fargesia nitida Jiuzhaigou No. 1.

One of these clumpers is, in fact, very widely available and gardeners should have little trouble finding a specimen even in non specialist garden centres: Fargesia nitida was one of the first bamboos to be introduced into Western cultivation, with seed arriving in Europe towards the end of the 19th Century. It is a small to medium sized species, reaching around 4 metres, although often no more than half this height. The culms are slender and often arch over, affording the entire plant a airy, elegant appearance. Best of all, though, the culms vary from deep black-ish purple though to rich red, particularly when the plants are grown in full sun, making F. nidita an eminently suitable replacement for it’s  towering black-stemmed cousin Phyllostachys nigra.

Fargesia utilis.

Fargesia is home to an array of other very beautiful bamboos, many of which have only recently been introduced into cultivation. F. perlonga, F. rufa, F. fungosa and F. yulongshanensis are all very fine, smaller species, well worth seeking out for their intricate charms. On an entirely different scale is Fargesia utlis. This ultimately becomes a very large plant, but is still confined to a tightly clumped centre from which the culms arch outwards like an exotic green fountain. The species is too big for use in the border, but makes for a magnificent lawn specimen.

Drepanostachyum hookerianus.

Drepanostachyum and Himalayacalamus are two closely related Himalayan genera, all of whose species are very beautiful, if somewhat less hardy than the Fargesias. D. falcatum has narrow culms that age to bands of crimson, yellow and green, H. falconeri has culms heavily striped with cream, whilst those of D. hookerianus emerge with a waxy blue sheen and age to deep red in the sun.

Thamnocalamus crassinodus 'Gosainkund'.

My favourite genus of bamboo, and the one that I would never want to be without in this or any other garden, is undoubtedly Thamnocalamus. These are hardy, high-altitude, clump-forming bamboos, primarily native to the temperate forests of the Himalayas. T. spathiflorus has culms that age to burgundy, whilst in T. aristatus they become clear yellow.

Thamnocalamus crassinodes 'Kew Beauty'.

Finest of all, however, is the highly variable T. crassinodus, in which the culms typically emerge powder-blue, strongly contrasting with their protective, papery, fawn, sheaths.  Some forms of the species maintain their white-blue powder covering to maturity, whilst in others, such as ‘Kew Beauty’, the culms turn to a deep red when grown in good light. All have the most beautiful, narrow leaves, that help to create a particularly beautiful impression both up-close and at a distance.

Thamnocalaus crassinodus, once again.

There are many other worthy and hardy clump-forming bamboos too, but my overall plea would be to take the time to investigate the possibilities that these plants have to offer, and then seek out the best to suit your space as well as your tastes. It may take more time and potentially more money at the outset, but the long-term results will repay the initial outlay and effort many times over.

Herb Spirals.

Thursday, June 23rd, 2011

Growing your own produce has become de rigueur for almost all gardeners, and while fruit and veg are the backbone of any kitchen garden herbs occupy a special place in our hearts. There’s no doubt about it – herbs are hip! They straddle the boundary between the utilitarian, productive garden and the ornamental garden, and of course help bring the kitchen into the garden and vice versa.

Herbs are also very easy to grow and fun to collect, experiment with and above all to savour. It can’t be any coincidence that the rise in the passion for cooking, and Mediterranean food in particular, has also brought a boom in the number and varieties of herbs that are readily available to the gardener. At the same time there’s been a resurgence of interest in some of our native plants and the nearly-lost kitchen uses to which they’ve traditionally been put .

Herbs can be tucked in amongst other kitchen plants and can readily be grown in containers of all shapes and sizes, but for those with a real passion for these aromatic and sensual plants, there’s nothing better than a dedicated herbal bed, and the big-daddy of all such beds is the herb spiral. Herb spirals pack an array of handy benefits into one simple idea.

Herb spiral made from a variety of materials showing the compass points.

Designed on permaculture principles, the spiral is intended to provide optimum growing conditions for the plants whilst at the same time saving on ground space. By figuring out the compass direction that each side of the spiral faces you can then readily provide a variety of different environmental conditions, and so grow together herbs that wouldn’t ordinarily thrive when simply planted side by side in open ground. Most of the Mediterranean species, for example, require as much sunlight, heat and sharp drainage as you can give them, and can best be grown on the top (where the drainage is very significantly enhanced) and on the south-facing side of the spiral, facing into the sun. Others, such as mints, lemon balm, chives and wild garlic all relish the shade of the north facing side of the spiral and the damper, less harshly drained foothills at the base.

The resulting community of herbs can accommodate even quite large plants and yet the whole structure can also be grown on a terrace or even a roof garden. The extra elevation that the plants gain helps greatly with drainage in general, but also allows the soil to heat up far more quickly and effectively than a comparable area of flat ground, as well as attracting bees and hoverflies. Once the herbs have established and filled the growing spaces nicely then the maintenance of the spiral is virtually nil, save for the odd bit of pest control when molluscs decide to explore the ramparts.

This new spiral is made from lengths of recycled fencing.

To create a spiral you first need to find a suitable site. It should ideally be around 2 metres in diameter, (although can, of course, be either larger or smaller to suit your needs) and should preferably be within a short dash of the kitchen for maximum usefulness, although the key requirement is to find a site which has the highest exposure to sun, to suit the thymes, sage & rosemary; if that means a longer trip from kitchen to spiral, then so be it.

Mark out the footprint of the spiral by placing a bamboo cane or similar in the centre of your chosen site, attaching a 1 metre long piece of string to it,  and scoring the ground or soil in a circular arc around the centrepoint. Next place a thick layer of old newspaper, cardboard or mulch around the outer part of the circle to prevent intrusion by weeds and then you’re ready to start construction. The structure of the spiral is most usually made from rocks, but wood, bricks or even old wine bottles can also be used. The open end of the spiral must face north, so make sure you know your bearings before you begin to build up!

A brick spiral, mid-construction.

Start by laying out the basic shape of the spiral on the ground as a foundation and firmly infill behind with compost and/or soil to help to strenthen and hold the structure as you go. Once the outer circle is complete then, starting at the northern edge once again, you simply build the spiral upwards and inwards, using the largest, heaviest stones at the base. The optimum height at the centre is around 1 metre, and as you build upwards, start to add coarse gravel into the soil/compost mixture to optimise the drainage. Leave some depth room for extra topsoil and planting compost, as well as for the plants themselves of course, this will also ensure that the compost doesn’t overflow and get washed overboard by heavy rain.

A flat stone spiral, ready for planting up.

Once it’s fully built then water the whole structure thoroughly and allow it to settle. there will be lots of air pockets and the soil level may drop considerably in some cases, so be sure to top up before planting. Aside from full-blown trees such as Bay then pretty much any and all herbs that take your fancy can be fitted into the spiral, just remember to research their respective growing requirements and site them accordingly, from hot and dry at the top and south sides, to damp and cool on the north and base of the spiral.

A lovely stone-built spiral with it's herbs maturing nicely.

A well built spiral made of appealing materials makes for a very attractive addition to any garden, and the boost in growth rates for the plants will ensure a goodly crop of herbs for the kitchen too.

Planting for Wildlife: The Wild Roses.

Thursday, June 16th, 2011

There can be few gardens across the land that don’t contain at least 1 or more roses. Whether they were planted by their current gardener or inherited along with the house and the rest of the original planting, our love affair with the rose has seen them proliferate across our gardens like few other varieties of plant. In many ways, though, they have become a victim of their own success – too ubiquitous and therefore too common to be in any way fashionable. The “modern rose” is also often a very man-made affair – all pumped-up in a powder-puff multitude of petals and a bewildering array of colour combinations – not the kind of thing that sits well with the trends for naturalistic planting and wild-looking plants.

Rosa rugosa, together with a feeding bumblebee.

The hybrid T also comes with some serious baggage – associations with disease (Blackspot in particular), aphids, annual pruning regimens and gaunt, bare, ugly looking bushes through winter. It’s fair to say that many Modern Roses cannot, in fact, be successfully cultivated without resorting to an armoury of defensive sprays and potions to fend off the worst of their many enemies. You could even say that they represent the worst excesses of old-style gardening as a kind of attack on nature, something to be tamed rather than celebrated in it’s wildness. But to tar all roses with that same brush would be a serious mistake.

Rosa canina - the small hips are both attractive and loaded with vitamins.

Rosa is a pretty large genus with over 100 species. Most of these are native to Asia, but, quite remarkably perhaps, some 20 different rose species grow wild in Britain. The majority of that number are made up of non-natives that have escaped from early attempts at cultivation and have naturalised themselves, and still others are varieties that differ only slightly from their species. We do, however, have 4 identifiably seperate native species of rose, all of which are quite charming and none of which suffer from any of the drawbacks associated with their over-blown modern hybrid relatives.

Rosa canina in flower.

Rosa canina (the Dog Rose) is probably everyone’s archetypal idea of a wild-rose. The best known of our native species, it’s a familiar sight in many hedgerows and banks where the slender stems scramble through the stronger supports of other shrubs. Like all of the wild roses the fragrant flowers are simple and single, and open flat to reveal a central boss of golden stamens surrounded by petals that vary in colour from pure white through to deep pink, but are most commonly seen in pale, apple-blossom pink. These flowers are followed by striking flask-shaped, bright vermillion-red fruits.

Rosa arvensis - smothered with summer flowers.

Rosa arvensis (the Field Rose) is a more vigorous climbing species that readily forms dense mounds of stems and foliage and is ideal for growing through a tree. In the wild the species is most usually found at woodland margins, as well as in older hedges, but it’s long been cultivated too and forms one of the essential elements of the traditional English Cottage Garden, which is never complete without it’s climbing rose around the front door. The flowers are invariably white and somewhat smaller than the Dog Rose. The fragrance is also less notable than in that species, but what they lack in individual prowess they make up for in abundance, with the plants becoming smothered in flowers throughout summer and equally numerous small, rounded, sealing-wax red fruit in autumn.

A Blue Tit samples the hips of Rosa arvenis deep in a snowbound winter.

Rosa rubiginosa (Sweet Briar) is a free-standing shrub, rather than a climber, and has thick stems clothed with a formidable armoury of thorns – hence the common name. The foliage is deliciously scented of apples and the beautifully formed flowers are clear-pink fading to a white centre and are also wonderfully, and famously fragrant. Once again, the flowering display is followed by an even brighter one as the teardrop-shaped red hips swell through the autumn. Sweet Briar makes an excellent and very dense hedge in it’s own right, and is readily grown, even in quite poor soils.

The distinctive fruit of Rosa rubiginosa.

The last of our native species, Rosa pimpinellifolia (Scotch Rose), is perhaps the least well-known, at least in it’s true, wild form, but is certainly my favourite of the four. It forms a small bush, commonly found growing wild amongst coastal sand dunes, and limestone pavements, but completely adaptable to virtually all garden conditions. The entire plant is more delicate than the preceding species; the foliage is very heavily divided giving an almost fern-like quality to the plant. The stems are extraordinarily bristly and the young foliage is bright red fading to deeper red with maturity, whilst the white flowers are small, but are borne in profusion throughout May and June when they perfume the air. The globular hips appear from mid-summer are deep purple eventually maturing to shining ebony-black.

Rosa pimpinellifolia.

Added to these four species I have to also single out one of the escapees, now very well established in the British countryside, namely Rosa rugosa, (Ramanas Rose). This is a medium-sized, free standing shrub, strong-growing and rather coarse in appearance, but invaluable in the garden in so many ways. The large flowers are typically dark pink, but the best form, ‘Alba’, has flowers of pure white with a contrasting golden centre. These are very powerfully and intoxicatingly fragrant, filling the air with a spicy warmth – truly outstanding. The plants flower continually for many months running from mid-spring right through to late autumn. As a result they never create a huge floral display but the enormously long flowering season is ready compensation. The hips mature to bright tomato-red and, indeed, are also shaped exactly like cherry tomatoes – highly decorative. Rosa rugosa makes a fantastic hedging plant either in it’s own right or mixed in with other native species.

The large, plump hips of Rosa rugosa alba.

All of these 5 roses are beloved by wildlife and make a near-essential edition to any wild or wildlife friendly garden. Those beautiful and fragrant flowers are visited by a large array of insects, butterflies, bees, moths, hoverflies, beetles and wasps. Bumble-bees in particular seem continually drawn to wild-rose flowers and readily gorge themselves on the plentiful pollen and nectar within. Rose hips are equally important sources of food, particularly since they are extremely long-lasting and often persist well into winter when many species of fruit eating birds, along with deer, rabbits, mice, squirrels and other winter foragers rely upon them for sustenance. Finally the bushy, vigorous, multi-branched and thorny nature of roses makes them perfect for nesting birds and small mammals who can readily create a secure and well-defended home in amongst the branches.

Rosa pimpinellifolia fruit, slowly ripening from deep red to black.

Planting for Wildlife: Daisy, Daisy.

Thursday, June 9th, 2011

It’s no exaggeration to say that there is a crisis looming, or already in full swing, for many of our native insects. Something in the region of 70% of our native butterfly species are in steep decline and many of our bee species are now regarded as threatened, with the short-haired bumblebee having gone extinct in the last few years. Even one third of our native wasp species are now on the endangered list. All of these insect groups are vital for the ongoing health and well-being of the entire ecosystem of our countryside, and the reasons for their declines are not hard to pinpoint.

A Honeybee feeding upon an Ox-Eye Daisy.

Climate change is certainly a factor, as the seasons that species have evolved to exploit change their nature or become more unpredictable, but of far greater significance is the rise of intensive agriculture and the fragmentation or loss of wild habitats that has resulted. To put that in perspective, 97% of Britain’s wild-flower meadows have disappeared in the space of the last 70 years. When viewed from that stand-point it’s surprising that more of our native insects haven’t succumbed altogether, but part of the reason for their continued survival, and that of much of the rest of our native wildlife, is that many species have managed to transplant themselves into our gardens and the margins of habitats that might otherwise be thought of as wasteland.

One of my favourites - the Spotted Longhorn Beetle, a guaranteed visitor to a flowering patch of Ox-Eyes.

The enormous economic importance of pollinating insects is only just being appreciated. Without them virtually all of our arable agriculture would, overnight, simply cease to exist. The very nature of our landscape is also inexorably linked to the fate of it’s pollinating bees, butterflies, hoverflies, moths, beetles and wasps, and their continued survival is very much in our own hands.

The Buff-tailed Bumblebee is our most widespread species.

Alerted, as never before, to the alarming declines of insect species and their populations conservationists are becoming evangelical in their calls for us to plant more wildflowers. Food sources and living spaces are the two key areas that we, as gardeners, can readily provide for our our invertebrate neighbours, and both are served by planting wildflowers. Attempting to reverse that fragmentation of habitats, that I mentioned,  is particularly important, as insect populations can all too easily become trapped in an ever dwindling micro-niche that is both genetically unstable and highly vulnerable to climate or other physical changes.

A Heath Fritillary feeding on nectar.

The goal is to provide a network of linked wildlife corridors through which species can move and slowly expand their numbers and their range, and these corridors are created and defined by the planting of native wildflowers. Road verges, car-parks and railway tracks can all be pressed into valuable use, but the largest green area outside of farmland, and the one over which we collectively have the most control, of course, is that contained within our gardens. Each of our gardens can be thought of as a cell of the environment, and by keeping the habitat of our own “cell” happy and healthy then the whole organism will thrive, along with all of it’s wildlife diversity.

The Ox-Eye is unpretentious and naturally charming.

A good emblem for this wildflower resurgence must be the Ox-Eye Daisy - Leucanthemum vulgare. The specific name “vulgare” means common, and there’s something pleasingly unsophisticated and fundamentally natural about the look of this native wildflower that sums up the whole ethos pretty well, I think. The Ox-Eye thrives on roadside verges, poor soils and neglect. It’s the antithesis of formality, with it’s cheerful, but raggedy appearance, as the stems tumble over one another and present their flowers to the sun. Traditionally the species was a stalwart of natural wildflower meadows, and, where allowed, it is an early coloniser of meadow grassland and newly disturbed ground. The plants do equally well in a traditional English border, and can easily be incorporated into a wide variety of schemes and designs.

One of the many species of hoverfly that frequent the flowers.

Flowering more or less continuously from May through to early September the Ox-Eye is one of the quintessential British summer wildflowers. You can grow them in turf, and indeed it’s possibly to buy-in turf which already contains growing plants, and these will happily survive being mown along with the grasses, but to properly benefit your wildlife, they must be allowed to grow to their full size (around 60cm) and to flower, which they do prodigiously. You can readily raise your own Ox-Eyes from seed, which will generally flower the same year it’s sown, and is entirely undemanding in it’s requirements. The plants are perennial, but often rather short-lived, thriving best in sunny situations, which is also where they will be of most benefit to your insect population.

Common Malachite beetle, feeding on and smothered in pollen.

Ox-Eyes are adored and relied upon by a wide array of insects. Flower Beetles of many species, such as the jewel-like Malachite Beetle, will be attracted and nourished by the pollen the flowers produce, whilst the nectar is a guaranteed draw for a constellation of butterfly, day-flying moth, bee and hoverfly species. Where space and your garden conditions allow the plants will very readily self-seed, but if you need to limit their ambitions it’s easy enough to remove the spent flower heads and prevent them from multiplying.

A Green-Veined White Butterfly pays a visit.

So this is one area where we really can all make a difference, and we really can all do our bit –  sow some wildflower seed or plant some plugs, and bring swathes of meadow flowers back to life in our own back yard. In so doing we’ll be helping to maintain the health of our own garden, and that of it’s wildlife inhabitants, as well as contributing to the whole network of wildflower habitats throughout the land.

The magnificent Emerald Flower Scarab seated on his pollen meal.

Planting for Wildlife: The Guelder Rose.

Thursday, June 2nd, 2011

Wandering through the garden recently on a hot, sunny morning I was drawn to one shrub because of the sound emanating from it…once I arrived I found the entire plant was covered with bees – wild honeybees, masonry bees, leaf-cutter bees and other solitary species – together with hoverflies of half-a-dozen different species. Even some pollen-eating horned-beetles had flown in to join the scrum, and there must have been getting on for a thousand individual insects all feeding together on one plant.

The shrub in question was a Viburnum dentatum, and the big draw for all the many insects were the flowers, many hundreds of which were covering the plant, each one laden with pollen. Our garden teems with wildlife at most times, but I was particularly pleased to think that just one individual plant was providing to much sustenance to so many wonderful insects and their various hungry broods back in their respective nests.

Viburnum dentatum is a North American species, and not necessarily one of the most ornamental of this strikingly handsome genus. Over in our hedgerows, though, both of the native species of Viburnum – V. lantana – aka the Wayfaring Tree – and V. opulus, the Guelder Rose – are doing their thing. The plants of Viburnum opulus that grow wild around the margins of the garden are all interwoven into the hedgerows and so get cut back pretty hard every couple of years, which certainly doesn’t do much for their flowering display, but where they do flower these too are smothered with feeding insects feasting on the bounty of pollen.

Viburnum opulus in full flower - a major insect magnet.

Viburnum opulus is one of our most attractive and versatile native shrubs. Not fussy as to soil type, the plants tolerate dry, infertile soils but particularly thrive in wet or boggy soils where, aside from huge trees, relatively few other native woody plants will succeed. Our largest pond is bordered by soil that was, at least in part, formed by the spoil from its excavation – rich but very heavy clay. The area also periodically floods from the river and is subject to continual leaching of water from the body of the pond.

We originally planted this mini-zone with a variety of selections of Acer palmatum, with their traditional association with water, but the continually wet soil has proven too much for these Maples, all of which failed to thrive and were moved to another part of the garden this last winter.  This pond-margin has now been replanted with a group of different cultivars of Viburnum opulus which have already produced great growth and seem to be positively relishing their semi-boggy new homes. The future display of flowers, all interweaving from the different varieties, should prove to be an even bigger insect magnet than their American cousin Viburnum detatum over on the other side of the garden.

Viburnum opulus - the wild form.

Viburnum are closely related to Hydrangea, and the flowers of V. opulus are amongst the finest in the whole genus, closely resembling those of a Lacecap Hydrangea. The common name ‘Guelder Rose’ is one of those widespread, but not very useful or accurate labels that sometimes get attached to plants, this time stemming from the introduction of one very well known form of the species – V. opulus ‘Roseum’, widely known as the Snowball Tree. This very popular cultivar was believed to have been found in the Dutch region of Guelderland, hence the name, but, from a wildlife perspective, the Snowball tree should be avoided entirely. Those large balls of flowers are completely sterile – so no pollen is produced at all, not much good for hungry bees and hoverflies.

The flowers of Viburnum opulus 'Roseum' are big and blowsy, but not much good for hungry wildlife.

Being sterile ‘Roseum’ also fails to set fruit, which brings me to another great attribute of the species. Once the flowers have fallen away the plants produce heavy clusters of cranberry-like, glistening bright-red fruits. These are absolutely beautiful to behold, particularly on the varieties with contrasting leaf colour (more of which in a moment…) but, as might be imagined, they are also highly valuable to birds busily feeding-up for the coming winter. The Thrush family are particularly fond of these fruits, and blackbirds, mistle thrushes, fieldfares and redwings will all go out of their way to visit and feed upon a fruiting bush. Woodmice and field mice are also fans of the fruit and have been known to scale the shrubs in search of a meal.

Big clusters of fruit bring in the birds (and the mice).

From an ornamental perspective – pretty important for any large shrub if it’s is going to deserve a space in most gardens, after all – the flower and the fruit are followed by another top feature, namely autumn colour. The foliage of most varieties turns to a range of colours from deep purple-burgundy to bright crimson and orange, depending on the temperatures, and is especially vivid when the plants are grown in full sun. A plant of Viburnum opulus in full autumn colour, and at the same time laden with it’s bright fruits, is pretty hard to top when it comes to seasonal finery, and all this from a common and easily grown British native.

Viburnum opulus, in autumn foliage.

Besides the aforementioned ‘Roseum’ there are surprisingly few named forms of the species, but those that do exist are generally all well worth growing. ‘Aureum’ is an old, golden-leafed cultivar that tends to burn when grown in full sun. It’s now been superseded by the much more weather-proof ‘Park Harvest’ which, come early autumn, combines it’s intensely yellow leaves with vivid red fruit – quite a spectacle.

Viburnum opulus 'Park Harvest' - the new golden foliage lined with red.

‘Xanthocarpum’ and the newly selected ‘Apricot’ have yellow and pink-ish gold fruit respectively, whilst ‘Notcutt’s Variety’ has larger flowers and fruits. Perhaps most useful of all is ‘Compactum’, a very free-flowering and strong fruiting cultivar that forms a dense and compact shrub, ultimately much smaller than the wild form, and so more readily accommodated in smaller gardens.

Viburnum opulus 'Xanthocarpum'.

Planting for Wildlife: Honeysuckle.

Thursday, May 26th, 2011

As late Spring merges into Summer many of the hedges that border our garden here in North Devon are festooned with the most beautifully scented pink & yellow Honeysuckle. This is not something that we have planted, but instead forms a natural part of the woven fabric of the ancient hedges – our native species of this glamorous clan, Lonicera periclymenum, a plant without equal in terms of floral perfume, and also an essential element in the composition of any wildlife-friendly garden.

Lonicera 'Sweet Sue'.

L. periclymenum is a vigorous, scrambling climber, native to woodland margins and hedgerows throughout the land. The species bears large, open clusters of flowers, each comprised of greatly elongated tubes, typically red or pink on their exterior and creamy yellow within. These flower tubes flare open and re-curve back onto themselves, lending the flowers their highly exotic and intricately beautiful appearance. In truth, though, the Honeysuckle is another of those near bomb-proof native plants that will thrive in a range of garden situations without a great deal of attention or fuss. They can readily be trained over a fence or through a tree or companion shrub, and of course can easily be planted and left to develop in their natural habitat of the hedgerow.

Lonicera 'Munster'.

The species will grow in shade, although it certainly flowers better with at least a few hours of sun, but it is also highly tolerant of dry, and nutrient poor soils. The plant climbs not with arial roots or tendrils, but merely by the actions of the growing stems that have a powerfully twining, circular, clockwise momentum. This habit produced the old common English name for the plant: Woodbine – a reference to the “binding” effect that the twining stems can have on their tree hosts. A stroll through Honeysuckle woodlands will quickly reveal an array of curiously twisted and contorted tree branches, all of which will have been moulded and sculpted over time by their Honeysuckle neighbours.

The twining stems of a Honeysuckle, clambering above and below the now twisted branch of it's host tree.

Those wonderfully scented flowers first appear in late May but the season continues throughout summer, with the perfume intensifying greatly in the evening, a clue to the intended audience for the flowers. Honeysuckle blossoms are visited by bees and hoverflies, but their greatly elongated flowers are difficult for these insects to access and the nectar tubes have instead evolved to benefit an entirely different group of pollinators – the moths.  Many species of moth will visit a flowering Honeysuckle over the course of a night, feeding upon the copious nectar, and pollinating the flowers as they go. The spectacular Hawk-moths, in particular, with their greatly elongated tongues, have just the right feeding apparatus to get to the base of the flowers. All of the moth action in turn attracts bats, and an entire nocturnal mini food-chain in born.

An Elephant Hawk Moth pays a night visit to a Honeysuckle flower.

Honeysuckle flowers are only one of the many assets that the plants provide to wildlife.  The leaves are the larval foodplant for an array of Lepidoptera, most famously the majestic and all-too rare White Admiral Butterfly, but also many smaller moth species too.  In early autumn the flowers give way to bright scarlet, waxy berries, and these are a favourite of bullfinches, thrushes and a variety of  species of warbler. Honeysuckle bark is also targeted, both by birds, including Sparrows, blackbirds and pied flycatchers, as well as by dormice, all of whom use the soft, flaking, peeling bark strips to line their respective nests.

Lonicera berries.

On top of that the plant itself, once mature, creates a very dense tangle of often impenetrable, inter-woven stems which make the perfect, fully protected nesting site for an array of small birds. Sparrows, robins, blackbirds and all manner of tits will invariably make use of a Honeysuckle plant in the garden, and even outside of the breeding season the dense cover the plants provide will make a ideal sheltered roost for many of the same species. Periodic hard pruning will encourage the plants to become extra bushy and maximise the protection that they can offer to garden birds.

Those delicate, flaring, nectar-bearing flower tubes, in close-up.

Not surprisingly for such a widely cultivated and much loved native plant, a variety of forms have been selected and named over the years. The habit, foliage and vigour is pretty consistent throughout the cultivars that are available for the gardener, but the flower colours and sizes do offer a subtle range of options. The best known, and certainly the longest established are ‘Belgica’, an old Dutch selection that has been grown since the 17th Century that has red-purple flowers that fade to yellow-cream, produced early in the season, and ‘Serotina’, a much more recent selection that extends the flowering season into October.

Lonicera periclymenum 'Serotina'.

L. periclymenum ‘Graham Thomas’ is another very widely grown cultivar, this time originating in Warwickshire where the original plant was found growing wild in the 1960′s. It produces flowers that are nearly pure white in bud, opening to butter yellow. ‘Munster’ goes in the other direction, with rose pink buds that open to white with pink streaks on the tube and the reverse of the flower lobes.

Lonicera 'Graham Thomas'.

Two of the very best forms are also amongst the most recently introduced. ‘Sweet Sue’, was found and named by the famous plantsman Roy Lancaster to honour his wife; the plant has exceptionally fragrant and very large flowers of creamy white, ageing to soft yellow, whilst ‘Heaven Scent’ has equally large and equally fragrant flowers of deep cream that open to pale gold.

Lonicera 'Heaven Scent'.

Planting for Wildlife: Foxgloves.

Thursday, May 19th, 2011

All planted gardens, no matter how modest in scale, and no matter their style are beneficial to wildlife. With the increase of industrial scale farming through the last part of the 20th Century, many species of bird, mammal and invertebrate have come to rely upon our gardens and use them as a refuge or even as their permanent home. The combination of habitat, food-source and breeding location makes the garden an obvious and invaluable sanctuary for wildlife, but, of course, some gardens are more useful than thers when it comes to providing for the needs of wildlife.

The common, wild form of our native Foxglove.

Lots of recent research has underlined the importance of native plants in attracting and then maintaining populations of wildlife in the garden. This is hardly a great surprise, as virtually all our our native flora and fauna have evolved together and a host of different inter-dependent relationships have emerged as a result. Taking this to it’s ultimate conclusion you could argue, as many do, that the ultimate wildlife garden would contain only native plant species, and in so doing would replicate a little patch of habitat that has been lost from the open countryside.

That’s all well and good in theory, but in practice only the most dedicated, or those with the most garden space to spare, are likely to head down the all-native route when planting out their plot. But what almost every gardener certainly can do is to integrate some native plants into their garden schemes. The British flora is well known for having been greatly impoverished by the last ice age, and it’s true that we can’t get close to the variety or numbers of species found at similar latitudes in Asia or North America; still, a little investigation will turn up a really quite remarkable array of highly appealing species that will sit comfortably in any ornamental garden whilst giving the local wildlife the opportunity to benefit at the same time.

The soft pink of Digitalis purpurea 'Suttons Apricot'.

A good case in point is our native Foxglove – Digitalis purpurea. Foxgloves are so familiar, so commonplace both in the landscape and in our flower-memories, that it’s easy to take them for granted and ignore their great appeal. In this case, though, commonplace certainly doesn’t mean dull or unworthy of garden space. If you stop and take the time to really look at a foxglove in full flowering glory you could easily imagine that you’re looking at some exotic, tropical hot-house plant, rather than a vigorous and ultra-tough wildflower.

Digitalis purpurea Excelsior Group.

Digitalis is a small, but highly ornamental genus of herbaceous plants, pretty much all of which are endemic to Europe. D. purpurea is the only truly British native species, (although a few others have escaped from gardens are form localised populations in the wild) but rather handily, it is also the largest-flowered, and most easily grown of the group. The species is very easily grown from seed, which germinates rapidly (a week to 10 days is the norm) with no special treatment. The plants are generally biennial, meaning that the first year is spent bulking up and the second flowering, after which they die, leaving copious seed behind. If you grow them in a semi-natural area or bed, then they will invariably self-seed and quickly provide an ongoing succession of generations to grow and flower. Alternatively it’s easy to collect some seed and sow in a pot or seedtray the following Spring. In the wild they often colonise disturbed ground and woodland edges, but in the garden they will do just as well in full sun or semi shade in a regular herbaceous bed.

A wild stand of Digitalis purpurea.

Foxgloves have an exceptional reputation for attracting certain kinds of wildlife. They don’t bring in birds or butterflies, but they are absolutely unrivalled attractors of one of our most important and most threatened groups of insects, namely bumblebees. You only have to look at a Bumblebee feeding at a Foxglove to see how obviously and closely the two have co-evolved, each benefiting the other. The foxglove flower fits the bumblebee like a glove, and indeed, so specific is the match that few other insects are able to access it’s resources at all. For the flower the bumblebee brings a reliable and dedicated pollinator, whilst for the bee the Foxglove provides a feast of both nectar and pollen, which they feed to their larvae.

A White-tailed Bumblebee coming into land on a Foxglove flower.

Each individual flower is spotted and lined to our eyes, and much more vividly so to a Bumblebee, whose vision, like that of all insects, operates primarily in the ultra-violet spectrum. These patterns have evolved to precisely guide the bees onto the landing strips of the flowers, and then up into the bells to where the nectar and pollen lie.  The flowers even have an array of hairs on their lower surface to help the heavy insects get a secure grip as they do their work.

A Foxglove flower in close-up, with the guide spots and hairs for the benefit of the bees.

Wild populations of Digitalis purpurea are almost invariably rosy red/purple in flower, and show relatively little variance. However their very long history in cultivation has, over time, lead to the selection of  a number of other colour forms. D. purpurea f. albiflora is an exceedingly beautiful and very well-known form with pure white flowers.

The elegant, cool white of Digitalis purpurea f. albiflora

Digitalis purpurea 'Sutton's Primrose'.

‘Sutton’s Apricot’ is a soft, flesh-pink whilst ‘Sutton’s Giant Primrose’  extends into deep nearly-yellow-cream. Many other forms, such as the Excelsior Group, have also been selected for increased spotting or heavy blotching on the flowers, which reaches an extreme in ‘Pam’s Choice’ and the Giant Spotted Group. All of these are seed grown and so the flowers of each individual plant do vary somewhat, within the general limits of the group, but all are highly worthwhile and can provide essential drama for you and a lifeline for your equally fascinating and beautiful garden residents, the Bumblebees.

Digitalis purpurea 'Pam's Choice'.

Planting for Wildlife: Respect your Elders.

Thursday, May 12th, 2011

The month of May has to one of the busiest times for wildlife in the garden. Fledglings are demanding food, dragonflies, bees, hoverflies and countless other invertebrates are taking to the wing, whilst the young of all our native mammals are out-and-about learning the ways of their world. All of these different species have food at the top of their priority list, and it can be a precarious time for adults and young alike.

Hedgerows, woodlands and garden margins provide a nursery for many of our native wildlife species and the planting choices that we make in these areas can make a real difference to the success of our local wildlife. Early May is dominated by the Hawthorn (May Tree) whose flowers and new foliage provide a wealth of food, both for insects and the birds and other predators that rely upon them. By the middle of the month the May flowers are falling, but one batch of fluffy white blossoms are almost immediately replaced by those of another ancient native tree, these belonging to the Elder - Sambucus nigra.

Sambucus nigra - the Elderflower.

Native to most of Europe, and with near-identical subspecies covering North America and northern Asia, the Elder has an enormously rich and varied history in human culture, and is still widely used for creating cordial and teas (from the flowers) together with jams, chutneys, sauces and wines (all from the fruit). Our native wildlife makes even better use of the plant than we do. Although Sambucus foliage is mildly toxic to us humans many species of insects have no problem dealing with it and the species forms the principle foodplant of an array of moth larvae, in particular, most glamorous and impressive of which is undoubtedly the Emperor – the only British native species of Silkmoth.

The amazing Emperor Moth - this one's a male.

Those huge creamy white masses of flowers are also incredibly important sources of pollen and nectar for a vast array of insects. The sheer number of individual flowers produced on a single mature Elder accounts for the key role it plays in the lives of Bees, Hoverflies, Butterflies and innumerable solitary wasp and beetle species alike. Introducing a plant or two into your garden could make a real difference in the ability of your local population of these useful insects to thrive and reproduce successfully.

A whole Elder bush laden with blossom.

Later in the season Elders provide a whole other food bonanza in the form of their fruit. The deep red-violet berries can, in good years, weigh down the branches of a vigorous young tree and many birds (a recent global study found no less than 120 bird species feeding on Elderberries) will make a bee-line for this harvest. Resident species such as Blackbirds, Robins, Warblers, Tits and Collared Doves can be joined by migratory Whitethroats, Fieldfares, Waxwings and Redwings at the feast. Again, the presence of a fruiting tree in the garden will certainly encourage species that may not otherwise visit, and so increase the overall diversity of wildlife in the garden.

Elderberries - absolutely loaded with vitamin C and vital for many birds.

Elder plants grow extremely rapidly and can grow and even colonise the most unpromising locations. They are extremely tolerant of both wet and dry sites as well as of acidic and alkaline soils. This can occasionally lead to the species become invasive, although they don’t generally tend to seed themselves around nearly as much as many other native colonising species and their shallow roots are easily removed where they are not wanted. This speed of establishment does make them absolutely ideal for use in new gardens and where maximum growth and green impact is required in the minimum time.

Sambucus nigra 'Aurea'.

Although they can and do form small trees the Elders more usually takes the form of a dense, multi-stemmed bush, and this mass of foliage provides the next vital use for wildlife, this time not for food but as a habitat. Mammals, large and small, use Elders as temporary shelter, and both the Woodmouse and the Dormouse seek it out as a nesting tree. Many species of birds also find the multi-stemmed shrubby habit useful to support their nests, and Blackbirds, Thrushes, Bullfinches and Chaffinches will all be encouraged to take up residence where Elders are planted.

Sambucus nigra 'Black Beauty'.

Along with the regular, white flowered Common Elder there are a selection of highly ornamental cultivars of Sambucus nigra, most of which are readily available. Foliage wise you can choose golden leafed forms such as ‘Aurea’, cut-leafed forms including f. laciniata, variegated-leaf forms like ‘Albovariegata’ & ‘Madonna’ and, most popular of all, various deep back-red forms.

The foliage of Sambucus nigra 'Madonna'.

These last group provide flowers in shades of pink with contrasting foliage of deep purple, and can produce extremely beautiful and dramatic effects in the garden. ‘Thundercloud’ and ‘Black Beauty’ both have fragrant pink flowers over blackish-purple foliage, but best of all, perhaps (if you can excuse the name!), is ‘Black Lace’  - now more properly and attractively named Sambucus nigra ‘Eva’.  This is a somewhat less vigorous selection, generally reaching around 3 metres in height and width, and combines large clusters of pale pink flowers with deeply cut and dissected foliage.

Sambucus nigra 'Eva' AKA 'Black Lace'.

All of these forms and selections give similar benefits to wildlife, and allow the gardener to widen and increase the use of Elders in the garden, which can only be a good thing.

Summer Flowering Magnolias.

Thursday, May 5th, 2011

Magnolias hold a very special place in my heart. It was the fluttering Lotus-like petals of my parents Magnolia stellata that were partly responsible for my fascination with plants in the first place. Their shape, size and clean simplicity seemed somehow more extraordinary than most other garden plants. This introduction to the genus – at the tender age of maybe 6-ish – was the jumping off point for a lifelong relationship with these most magnificent of temperate flowering trees.

Magnolia sieboldii - pink stamen form.

I have blogged before about some of the newer hybrids and colour forms of Magnolia, but this is a huge and diverse genus and there is another, very different sub-section of Magnolias that opens the plants up to more gardens and gardeners than might traditionally be imagined. Magnolias, as a whole, are quite rightly thought of as large, and generally tree-like in size. Even the smallest of the well known species (such as good old M. stellata) eventually become quite enormous in girth, if not in height. Magnolias are also known for preferring acid soil. This is not entirely accurate, and almost all will do perfectly well on a neutral soil, particularly one that is nutrient rich, as is the case with most clay-based soils, for instance, but alkaline soils are generally seen as a no-go area for the plants.

The group that I want to highlight don’t conform to either of those stereotypes, however. They are most definitely shrubby and rarely if ever grow on a single trunk, which in turn makes them much easier to accommodate in smaller gardens. What’s more they are known to be highly tolerant of even quite alkaline, chalky soils, and are amongst the best of all shrubs for use in such gardens where other luxuriant Himalayan/Chinese shrubs can often be all but impossible to grow.

Magnolia wilsonii.

Another handy thing about these plants is that they flower well after the “normal” Magnolia season. Strictly speaking there is no one Magnolia season, and, in fact the genus contains species, that together, can be in flower pretty much 365 days of the year. Still, it’s fair to say that most gardeners associate Magnolias with Spring…and with Spring come frosts, and with frosts come mushy flowers and disappointed gardeners. These summer flowering species completely bypass all of that potential heartbreak and their flowers are never affected by frosts in any way.

The horizontal flowers of Magnolia sieboldii.

The most primitive of all Magnolias – and indeed the most ancient of all flowering plants alive today – are summer bloomers too. Species including Magnolia obovata, M. fraseri, M. officinalis, M. macrophylla and M. tripetala are all spectacular and wonderfully Jurassic in appearance when their gigantic flowers open, but these are huge trees, and completely unsuitable for all but the most park-like of gardens.

Super-primitive, the giant blooms of Magnolia obovata.

Flowering along side them, from early May through to mid summer, are a small gaggle of 4 species, all of which are closely related to one another. Magnolia sieboldii is the best known, and perhaps the template for these shrubby, summer-flowering species.  A native of Japan, Korea and China it slowly grows to form a large bush that flowers from a very young age and small size….and what flowers they are too! Cup-shaped, horizontal or gently nodding, around 15cm (6 inches) in size, and pure white with a central boss of stamens in a contrasting colour – typically pinkish red, but deep burgundy in the best forms. Lacking the blowsy-showiness of the more familiar Spring flowering Magnolias these are a different proposition, and, together with their gentle fragrance their blooms are, with good reason, regarded amongst the most perfectly formed of all flowers.

Magnolia sieboldii

The Chinese native Magnolia sinensis is the closest relative to M. sieboldii, indeed some botanists lump the two together into the same species, but it is distinct in habit at least, and stands as the largest growing of the four. The flowers are also fully pendulous – wonderful viewed from below and perfect for planting on a steep slope. M. sinensis regularly sets seed in this country too, and this adds a whole further ornamental aspect to the plants, since the seed is held in dangling, bright scarlet seedpods that look extra vivid contrasted against the deep green foliage.

Those burgundy stamens in close-up.

Magnolia wilsonii seedpod.

Magnolia wilsonii is another Chinese species. In my experience it’s the best of the group for the production of seed pods, and each year the plants are fully laden with the fat, cone-like red pods. M. wilsonii also regularly re-flowers throughout summer and even into autumn, and tops all of this off with a decent display of autumn leaf colour when the foliage turns to butter yellow – one of the few Magnolias to do so.

The last of the small group is also the rarest both in cultivation and in the wild. Magnolia globosa is native to Yunnan, in South-West China, and also to Nepal. This Nepalese population has produced the best, and hardiest plants for the garden, and grows without any problems in our rather exposed and frost-prone garden. The flowers of this species don’t open fully, which lends the plant it’s specific name “globosa” as well as it’s Nepalese common name of “Hen Magnolia”, after the very egg-like buds that adorn the branches from May through June to July.

A brand new, as yet un-named hybrid of M. sieboldii and the pink-flowered M. insignis.

Although they are not pollen-compatible with most of the other Magnolias these four species have been used in hybridisation programmes with a few of the larger Asian species, and the gorgeous naturally occurring hybrid Magnolia x wieseneri is by far the best known, and most readily available of the their offspring. This has flowers that resemble it’s parent M. sieboldii, but they are larger, more widely opening, and much more intensely fragrant. This fragrance caused a complete sensation when the plant was first exhibited at the Paris Exposition of 1889, and continues to cause devotees to froth at the mouth at the mere mention of it’s name to this day.

Magnolia x wieseneri, with it's large, upwards facing and intensely perfumed flowers.

The Bluebells Tale.

Thursday, April 28th, 2011

There can be few sights more evocative of the English countryside than a Bluebell wood in full flower. Late April and early May see large numbers of worshippers flock to key sites when entire acreages turn to azure, the colour all the more striking for the contrast that it makes with the apple-green of the newly emerging woodland foliage above.

Sunlight filtered through the woodland canopy onto a carpet of Blue.

The Bluebell is a perennial herbaceous plant whose new shoots, in common with many denizens of the woodland floor, emerge from their over-wintering bulbs at the tail end of winter, before the overhead canopy robs the floor of light. The species sets profuse seed and also multiplies rapidly at the bulb, with nemerous new bulbils being produced in a good year.  The combined efforts of these two reproductive strategies can see the species dominate over extensive areas that provide the right conditions.

The nodding, bell-shaped flowers, unfurl from mid April to early June, depending on the seasonal temperatures and the location. Not surprisingly, given the widespread affection in which the plant is held, a variety of other common and local names abound besides the familiar one. These include Auld Man’s Bell, Calverkeys, Jacinth, Granfer Giggles, Wild Hyacinth and Wood Bells – all of which refer to the flowers. Although Bluebells are, of course, prominently blue in colour white flowered plants are quite frequent, and can form small stands in amongst the blue. Much rarer are the pink flowered forms, although these too do occasionally occur amongst wild populations.

White flowered bluebells are not uncommon.

Botanically speaking, the species has previously been given it’s own genus, as Endymion non-scriptum as well as being  included within the closely related Scillas (Squills) as Scilla non-scripta. These days most botanists accept the scientific name Hyacinthoides non-scripta, which identifies the species as a close relative of the Hyacinths – Hyacinthoides literally meaning ‘Hyacinth-like’. As for the specific name, ‘non-scripta’ this translates as ‘unlettered’, which might appear rather odd as a plant name, but relates to the ancestor of cultivated hyacinths Hyacinthus orientalis. In Greek mythology the Hyacinth was believed to have ererged from the blood of the prince Hyacinthus as he lay dying. In response to this tragedy Apollo wrote ‘AI AI’, meaning ‘alas’, on the petals of the Hyacinth flower in order to express his grief. These wild Hyacinths, thus being the ‘lettered’ flowers, as opposed to the unlettered Bluebell flowers.

In close-up - the nodding, reflexed flower bells.

Aside from their visual appeal, Bluebells have been widely turned to various utilitarian purposes too. The sap is extremely rich in starch and was widely used as a glue for bookbinding – the toxins in the sap handily also discouraging nibbles from silverfish –  as well as for attaching feathers to arrows. That same starch also provided the stiffening properties in Victorian ruffs and collars.

The Bluebell is also rich in folklore and associations, both good and ill. The plants undoubted toxicity may also be the origin of the belief that anyone who wanders into a ring of bluebells will soon fall under fairy enchantment and be lost or even die. The fairy connection is repeated in other myths too, all of which stem from a time when the countryside was considerably more densely forested, and potentially hazardous. In particular the bells of the Bluebell flowers were believed to ring to summon fairies to their gatherings, and any unfortunate human who heard the ringing would soon die.  A counter belief was that when wearing a Bluebell wreath the wearer would be compelled to speak only the truth, whilst if anyone succeeded in turning one of the individual flowers inside out without tearing it, they would win the one whom they loved.

Bumblebees are key pollinators.

Bluebells are denizens of deciduous woodlands, and have also adapted to their changing and reduced habitats by taking up residence in hedgerows, meadows, cliffs and shady gardens. Their ideal environment, perhaps, is actually man-made – the coppiced woodland, where reasonable light levels reach the floor and regular management keeps the environment optimum for growth. These are the sort of conditions that allow the species to dominate, and vigorously out-compete all other flora that attempts to grow and blooms in the same season.

Although they do have a reputation for being hugely invasive in shady gardens (due largely to the lack of natural competition) Bluebells actually need a fairly specific environment to really thrive and are intolerant of trampling, heavy grazing, water logging & permanent deep shade. They are able to grow happily in sunlight, but can’t compete with carpet-forming grasses, so are rarely present in open sites. Where remnant Bluebell populations are found in hedgerows and pastures it’s a good indicator that that the land was once wooded.

Bluebells in a relatively open location, beneath an orchard.

Bluebells are native only to Europe, and whilst the species is still common in Britain and Ireland, it is rare or endangeres throughout the rest of the continent with about one third of the worlds wild population endemic to the UK. The species has greatly declined over the past 50 years and is considered to be globally threatened as a result of habitat loss and over-collection for use in gardens. Legislation introduced in an attempt to halt this decline means that it is now illegal to collect seed or bulbs from any wild populations.

The typical heavily arched flowering stem of the Common Bluebell.

A further and on-going threat to the Bluebell comes in the form of it’s close relative, the non-native Spanish Bluebell, Hyacinthiodes hispanica. This larger, more vigorous species has for many years been widely grown in British gardens, from where it has escaped to both out-compete and hybridize with our native species.

The Spanish Bluebell - with the bells evenly distributed around the stem, which is held upright.

The English Bluebell has fragrant flowers held only on one side of the stem and always in a distinctive, nodding arrangement. The Spanish Bluebell, by contrast, has unscented flowers produced on on all sides of the stem and in a fully upright pose, much more like a wild Hyacinth, in fact. Hybrids between the two species are now widespread in the countryside due to pollination by bees and the discarding of the over-vigorous, unwanted bulbs in hedges and road verges. Both methods of introduction represent a serious threat to the long-term survival of our native species, and the very real possibility of the eradication of the one of our most cherished wild-flowers. What a tragedy that would be.