Garden notes 17, home and away, a further intermission

… because my mind began to wander, and it’s hard to get back to the garden. This is really what I meant to do in the last Garden Notes, i.e. show some more plants which I’ve seen in the wild which we also have in our gardens.

Here is Astrantia major in Switzerland. Seeing lush astrantias in woodland in the Alps for the first time was a revelation after the miserable specimens I’d tried to grow in London, which is generally much too dry for them; they do much better in the west and the north of Britain.  The Alps can be very wet in summer.  But of course selling cute plants which generally die is good for business, the customer will often blame themselves and come back for more.

Iris unguicularis in the Peloponnese. This winter flowering iris is just coming to the end of its season, in April in the Peloponnese. It’s native to rocky places in the hills in Greece and Algeria, which explains why it’s content with poor, dry soil in London. Anybody who’s grown it will recognise the annoying, choking mat of dead leaves which nevertheless doesn’t affect the health of the plant, and maybe protects its new shoots. John Clare and many gardeners love to ‘rake the rubbish all away’ but those leaves are very tough, even when dead. At St John’s, Waterloo it’s never full of flowers but bears some periodically from about november till april. As a cut flower they’re better carefully plucked, rather than cut.

These very small narcissi were almost the only thing in flower in March 2012 on limestone mountains near Ronda, in Andalucia. There had been scarcely a drop of rain all winter. Spain is the centre of the world’s narcissi, with about forty species, some of which hybridise to make identification even more difficult. But this rich genetic store has allowed the development of hundreds of garden varieties which do well in very different conditions from the sierras of Spain.


Some of the Spanish narcissi are endemic to very small areas, but Narcissus poeticus, seen here in the Vercors in France, spreads all the way to Greece and Turkey from western Europe and is quite easy to grow in our gardens.  A simple way to get striking photos of flowers is to get down on your knees and look for the light shining through the petals.

Aquilegias in Slovenia, France, Switzerland and North London:

I think these are all subtle variations on Aquilegia vulgaris. Lovely to see it so healthy in the wild when aquilegias of every kind in this country have been devastated by a new form of downy mildew, first identified in 2015. “This is an extremely virulent disease and plant pathologists currently have no idea how it arose but it’s spread seems unstoppable.” That’s what they say….   90% of the National Collection of Aquilegias in the Gower, the life’s work of  Carrie Thomas, were lost. I now read that the garden is closed, she has moved house, the collection no longer exists. And she had added 800 new plants, all aquilegias, in the two years before the mildew took hold! They disappeared completely from my garden, but they are now making a come back at G, where I took the above picture just the other day.

Garden diseases are bad enough – and devastating if you have devoted yourself to a single genus – but I was shocked to see what the box moth caterpillar – see Garden notes number twelve; sex, pests, culture wars, paradise and narrow observation – had done on Mount Olympus. There it is a widespread shrub in what the French call moyenne montagne, middle mountain, in places covering miles of rocky hillside. I came across one steep wooded valley where every single box was dead.

Geranium sanguineum – which is named for the autumn colour of the leaves; I used to think, who thought that the petals were blood red? – just outside Grenoble.   My book says ‘scattered throughout most of N and W Britain… most of Europe except extreme north… limestone rocks, coastal cliffs, open woodland, scree, grassland, also fixed calcareous sand dunes’. It was very striking, a long time ago,  on the dunes at Southport. The wide distribution and variety of habitat are a good indication of a plant’s easy going nature; it grows well in our gardens. With it here is a saponaria:

Another plant with a wide distribution in Europe is Thalictrum aquilegifolium, in our gardens it’s easy to grow, happy in sun or shade, and self-seeding. Here it is in the Swiss Alps and in forest in the foothills of Mount Olympus:

This next one was a surprise. It’s creeping Jenny, which with us does what the name suggests,  is happy in shade and flowers modestly.  Here on a Greek mountain it’s in full sun, compact, and bold:

Some plants which make do with lean rations in the wild thrive in captivity. This is a lithodora in the cork oak woods of Andalucia:

And this is one in North London. I think the difference in colour is photographic rather than botanic, and to my mind the second one is more true:

Some plants go wild in gardens, out of control, but are restrained and beautiful in their natural habitat. Having struggled at home with rampant vinca I was delighted to see how it grows in rocky places in the Greek hills, here with a helianthemum:

And some plants are not at all happy at home, they need to emigrate. The most famous example of this is the Monterey cypress, which travelled gradually northwards up through California after the last ice age, seeking cooler places, but got stuck at the northern tip of a peninsula near Monterey, where their stunted descendants survive. But they thrive where introduced to other places, including the western shores of Britain.

Next is Hypericum olympicum, which is actually common on mountains all over Greece, although the second photo was in fact taken on Olympus. The first is in the Peloponnese. It can be too  ‘coarse’ in gardens – there’s a snobby term for you – too leafy, a bit clumsy. We can be so keen to ‘improve’ the soil and feed our babies that we  forget that some plants enjoy soil which is low in nutrients.

The picture above shows the steep bank created by a recent road widening. This is landscaping at its undesigned, creative best. You just send the bulldozers in and then see what happens.

Cistus salvifolius on the other hand is brilliant at home or in exile. This is its best time, just after the flowers have opened in the morning. By late afternoon they will all have withered and fallen.

Here it is in the Peloponnese:

and in North London:

It’s a low. spreading shrub, much shorter than most cistuses, and surprisingly shade tolerant.

To end on a different theme: a bit like seeing familiar garden plants in the wild is seeing our native plants somewhere else. (A very local version of this surprise is found in John Clare’s almost shocked recognition of shepherd’s purse, an intimate from his own home, growing like an exile in a nearby village.) I smelt this hawthorn before I saw it,  at Vaidenitsa monastery in the Peloponnese and the scent took me back to Britain for a moment; it was astonishing that it seemed so at home there:

in the Peloponnese 3, Vaidenitsa  see also this post.  And there I’m surprised to see this very photo again, though I shouldn’t be…..

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