Spring. A season of magnolia and crabapple blossoms, heavenly scented daphnes and flowering viburnams, and the bright colours of tulips, fritillarias, flowering quinces (chaenomeles) and forsythias. It is a time when Vita's 'carpeters' take stage: wild or native violets, roaming 'forget-me-nots' (myosotis) and the fair bellis perennis (which John Skelton called 'daisies delectable'). A time when the first clematises, aquilegias ('grannies bonnets' or 'columbines') and the lovely arching geums (avens) appear. One of the latter, a 'Mrs John Bradshaw', is pictured above together with another spring beauty, an early flowering madeira daisy (argyranthemum 'Anemone').
For us traditional gardeners spring is much more than these ample pleasures of the moment. It is also a time of watchful and excited anticipation. A time when the first, and lushously green, shoots of our herbaceous perennials burst through our meticulously mulched, manured and tilled garden beds. A time, as Jane Brown nicely puts it in Vita's Other World (p.129), when our gardens are models of 'expectant neatness at that happy moment just before staking is necessary'. A time, in short, when we begin to visualise the colour and riot of a summer garden in full flight. Bring it on.
I wandered lonely as a cloud
This first stanza of William Wordsworth's famous poem, inspired by a walk he took with his sister Dorothy around Glencoyne Bay in England's Lakes District, captures perfectly the exquisite pleasure we feel on sighting a swath of golden daffodils in late Winter or early Spring. The daffodil (or narcissus), genus incorporates no less than thirteen categories - such as trumpet, large and small-cupped, triandrus and jonquil daffodils - and consists of an almost infinite variety of flower types, shapes and colour arrangements. Quite amazing especially since the hybridisation of daffodils only really began in ernest from around the mid-1800s. An enormously popular as well as an evocative flower, the daffodil is said to be a symbol of unrequited love, was used by the druids to symbolise purity, is the national flower of Wales and is used by Cancer Societies around the World to support their fundraising campaigns.
Like elsewhere in the Southern Highlands, daffodils feature prominently in the garden at Lamberhurst Cottage and not just because of our love for them. Lorraine has a family connection to one of the English pioneers of daffodil hybridisation, Peter Barr, described in the popular press of his time as 'the daffodil king'. Born in Glasgow in 1826, Barr worked as a seedsman and horticulturalist and founded the Nurseries of Barr & Sugden and Bar & Sons which operated out of London's Covent Garden. During the 1860s he acquired parts of the daffodil holdings of a number of amateur collectors including Edward Leeds and William Backhouse. These were used to produce a range of new hybrids some of which were sold for as much as £50 per bulb. Later in his long life Barr spent much of his time traveling overseas initially in search of wild daffodils to supplement his hybrid pool and later to spread the word about his beloved flowers.
Barr visited Australia and New Zealand in 1900 where he gave talks on the history of the growth of daffodil varieties in England to audiences at the ABC Cafe in Sydney, Melbourne's Royal Horticultural Show and the Dunedin Horticultural Society. According to the Otago Witness (3 May 1900), those at the third venue were informed that 'New Zealand was the only other country in the world where they had taken up the daffodil generally as they had done at Home. Daffodils throve better here', he added, and 'from what he had heard, the flowers were larger.' Barr had obviously not visited the Southern Highlands.
May is the month when the salvias come into their own. They are around all summer of course, but tend to be overshadowed by all the 'show-offs'. As winter approaches the hardy salvias provide much of the residual garden colour as well as a source of food for its busy bees and honey-eaters. Not everyone is enamoured with salvias. Christopher Lloyd warned us that though the genus of the sages (the common name for salvias) is vast, it includes a 'high proportion of rubbish from the gardener's point of view'. So don't be impressed, he continued, 'when you meet a professional enthusiast for the lot'. As you came to expect from Lloyd, he then proceeded to enthuse over a number of salvia species including salvia uliginosa ('bog sage') which he claimed was a 'great favourite' among Britons (including, I read the other day, Beth Chatto).
Judyth McLeod tells us in her book, In a Unicorn's Garden: Recreating the mystery and magic of medieval gardens, that the name salvia derives from the Latin word salvere meaning to be in good health. Since early times, she continued, sage (especially s. officinalis) was 'widely consumed in cheeses, salads, stuffings, teas and ales to prolong life, to cut the greasiness of foods such as poultry, to cleanse the blood and to treat female sterility' (p.93). She adds that a number of other herbal sages were also used. These included the common clary (s. scarea), also known as 'clear eye' and 'see bright', and a very broad-leaf variety called 'Berggarten'. We have this last salvia growing at Lamberhurst Cottage. It has a flower but its primary feature is its rhubarb-shaped (and sized) leaves which, unfortunately, are much feasted on by the local snails.
As Bob Lilly describes in Perennials: The Gardener's Reference (Timber Press, 2007), most herbaceous salvias prefer well-drained, fertile but not too rich soil (if the soil is over-fertilized the plants will 'grow like crazy' and snap and flop about in either rain or wind). This can be a problem here and we pack the offenders off to our Canberra garden where they thrive. Lilly also suggests that since most salvias perform best in youth, they should be treated as short-lived perennials. Although a nuisance, this is not too great a problem as they can easily be struck from cuttings or by dividing new ground shoots. Another excellent source of salvias is Lambley nursery located at Ascot near Bendigo in Victoria. As they specialise in dry climate plants, Lambley has available a large number of salvias including plenty of the s. nemorosa cultivars (such as 'Blauhugel Blue Hills' and 'Ostfriesland').
My favourites? It is hard to go past the 'Mexican bush sage' (s. leucantha) which grows to around 60cm, has narrow leaves and dense spires of purple or purple and white flowers which hit their straps in autumn. Another sage from Mexico, the hardy s. microphylla ('bush sage' or 'Graham sage') bears its rose-coloured flowers for most of the year and is a magnet for our small honey-eaters (there are heaps of microphylla cultivars that include apricot, lemon-yellow, peach pink and white flowering forms). Of them all, though, I have a special affection for the salvia 'Waverly' (thought by some but not all to be a cultivar of s. leucantha). This lovely plant grows as a spreading shrub some 1-1.5 metres high, has white to lilac flowers held in dark-tinged calyces, and darkish green and veined leaves. Like the 'Graham sage' it flowers all year and attracts plenty of bees and birds into the garden.
Canberrans and southern Highlanders alike associate April with the fiery autumn colours of such trees as liquidambars, crepe myrtles and maples of all kinds and hues. We also begin burning our wood fires around Anzac Day and hasten to put in the last of our treasured spring- and winter-flowering bulbs and plants. The latter include aquilegia, delphiniums, larkspur, lobelia and, my favourite, pansies.
The pansy, or pancy as it was first known, is thought to derive from the French word pensee meaning 'a thought'. Part of the extensive Violaceae family, the first cultivated pansies in Britain were developed in the early 1800s by hybridising such native violas as viola tricolor and viola lutea. The new forms were an immediate hit with both collectors and amateur gardeners and in 1841 the first of many local pansy societies was formed. Nor has the flower been ignored by England's artists and poets. Shakespeare called them 'Love-in-Idleness' a name (and flower) much-loved, apparently, by Queen Elizabeth I, and Alfred Tennyson's Gardener's Daughter had '... eyes Darker than darkest Pansies, and hair more black than Ash-buds in the Month of May'. The American author Margaret Mitchell originally chose Pansy as the name of her heroine in Gone with the Wind but changed it to Scarlett just prior to the book being released.
The pansy also has a number of interesting and evocative common names. These include, in addition to 'Love-in-Idleness', the lovely 'heartease', by which the kitten-faced viola tricolour was known in medieval times, 'Johnny-Jump-Up', 'Three-faces-in-a-hood', 'Our Lady's Delight' and 'Pink-of-my John'. The names of some of the modern pansy cultivars are also quite exotic: 'Buxton blue', 'dancing Geisha', 'Maggie Mott', 'Irish Molly', 'Jackanapes', 'Padparadja' and 'White Czar' for example (as you might expect, my favourite cultivar name is 'Vita').
The painting of the pansies shown above comes from a fascinating book called The Frampton Flora written by Richard Mabey and published in London in 1985 by Century Publishing Company (I found it among Glebebooks' secondhand offerings). The book contains a collection of British wild and other flowers painted by the Clifford sisters of Frampton Court in Gloucestershire and two of their aunts over the period 1825 to 1851. The pansy cultivars were painted by one of the latter, Rosamond Clifford, in 1842. Mabey tells us that the flower shown at bottom left 'is an example of the kind of pansy bred for show, where the aim was to produce as nearly circular flower as possible' (p. 175).
I have been keen on windflowers ever since I saw masses of them growing among blue and white hydrangeas at Albert's nursery in Canberra. Albert's is long gone but I am willing to bet the windflowers are still there. They can be like that.
Part of the Ranunculaceae family, Anemones derive their name from the Greek anemos meaning 'wind'. Vita Sackville-West wrote that 'there must be some curious philological or Grimm's Law which makes English-speaking people call anemones anenomes, transferring the m into the place of the n'. As such it is probably better, she continued, 'to adopt the pretty though unscientific name of windflower'.
The windflower genus is a large and diverse one whose flowers come in a range of colours and shades from the pure white of Anemone hybrida through the starry blues of A blanda ('Greek windflower') and A apennina ('Apennine or Italian windflower') to the scarlets and purples of A fulgens ('Scarlet windflower'), A nemorosa ('Wood anemone') and A stellata ('Star windflower').
England and Europe in spring are ablaze with windflowers of all descriptions including a hybrid of the A coronaria ('Poppy anemone') known as 'St Bavo'. This was a great favourite of Vita Sackville-West because it was easy both to acquire and grow, and it exhibited a colour akin to 'old Tudor bricks that had been pounded into a paste, varnished the pasted, and then shredded into pointed petals'.
Like most Australian gardeners, I grow mainly Japanese windflowers (A japonica) whose blooms appear in early Autumn just as our last perennials are starting to fade. The colours of Japanese windflowers are less striking than those of their European cousins - mainly whites and shades of pink - but this is more than compensated by the plant's stucture: tall, elegant and graceful yet sufficiently triffid-like to give us cause to look again (perhaps for good reason - apparently the entire plant is poisonous). Like John Wyndham's triffids they can also be invasive so take care where you plant them. I think, too, that stylised windflowers would be perfectly at home in the 19th century Arts and Crafts movement, or in the sumptuous drawings of the English illustrator Aubrey Beardsley.
The great English plantsman, William Robinson, after whom a variety of Anenome nemorosa ('Wood anemone') was named, was also an admirer of Japanese windflowers. His 'secret of success' for their growth remains apposite today: 'to prepare at first a deep bed of rich soil, and to leave the plants alone. They abhor frequent disturbance.'