Garden notes no 22. Cistuses, George Herbert’s ‘shriveled heart’, eryngiums (again).


           Who would have thought my shriveled heart

           Could have recovered greenness? It was gone

           Quite underground, as flowers depart

           To see their mother-root, when they have blown,

                   Where they together

                   All the hard weather,

          Dead to the world, keep house unknown.

from The Flower, by George Herbert

These lines belong to the temperate world, where the cycle of the seasons enfolds flowering, dying – not dying but hibernation – and spring’s apparent resurrection. After flowering, a bulb is replenished by feeding on the leaves of the plant before they fade away. (Do people still tie daffodil leaves in knots? It’s a while since I’ve seen that.) So much of our emotional and imaginative life is, like the plants’, ‘dead to the world’.

Cistus flowers have a daily cycle of flowering and dying.

Yesterday’s petals from Cistus x cyprius. They’ve fallen on a corner of a little rock garden: on the left a flower head of Allium unifolium, a very easy bulb; above that Erinus alpinus, so easy and vigorous it’s often regarded as an alpine weed; and on the right a rosette of a silver saxifrage.

And now a cistus just waking up in the morning:

This is Cistus salvifolius, which you might have already seen, home and away, in no. 17. It looks as if it’s a parent of Cistus x corbariensis (when you see a cross in the middle of a name it means it’s a hybrid) which grows bigger and more upright. S. salvifolius grows low but vigorously. Here it’s growing in the part shade of a big cedar tree, in very dry soil. And the next one is C. ladanifer, I think, an extravagant beauty.  It normally has a purple blotch at the base of the petal. like C. x cyprius, but this is the pure white form.

No wonder that such fragile, delicate petals only last a day. But cistuses have fat clusters of buds which ensure that a succession of blooms open for weeks.

Verbascum olympicum is racing ahead – this picture was taken five days (I think) after the one in the previous post, no 21. (By the way, I thought I’d ‘published’ that post when I wrote it, but I’ve just seen that it was saved as a draft, which is why there are two together now….)

Every seedling of this verbascum that I have found in my garden has been growing in a pot with something else, and I’ve managed to prise them out without too much damage. Not a single seedling in the open ground. This one is one of the offspring of the splendid plants from two years ago, and though none flowered last year, more little plants have appeared this year. If I can open my garden again later this year, I should have a few available.  Also perverse are the eryngiums – or rather it’s my soil that’s perverse, clay based and heavy even after years and years of adding compost. Here’s a perfect eryngium that has popped up in paving, and the miserable specimens of the same age, refusing to bloom, in the little rocky bed which I had thought would suit them. Note the impoverishment shown in the yellow edges to the leaves.

What these photos don’t show is that the plant in the first photo is about 50 centimetres high and the bottom one is about 15.

This eryngium is the famous biennial Eryngium x giganteum, named for the size of the individual flower heads. It’s known as Miss Willmott’s ghost, because she used to carry the seeds around with her and quietly scatter them in her friends’ gardens, and it would appear long after she had gone. When I first grew them I thought they had died during the winter, because they disappear entirely, (‘dead to the world’), not leaving even a scrap of withered stalk or battered leaf, then they grow strongly in the next season, like so many biennials, and as they approach flowering the soft texture of the leaves turns stiff and spiny. Then the following winter, though dead, they hold their seeds for months – ah! something was nagging me. I now see that I’ve already said most of this in Garden notes no 9. Still, if I hardly remember, maybe you don’t either.

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