Amateur gardeners often struggle with the Latin names that define their plants. There are frequent pleas for common rather than Latin names. The common names provide rich material for native and useful plants and these often attract a wealth of picturesque names. These differ in various parts of the country. How picturesque is ‘piss-a-bed’ and ‘Irish daisy’ or ‘clock flower’ (alternate names for the common dandelion). Other names may reflect their herbal properties, though they never seem to define the acute evacuation that’s almost de rigueur as a component of the cure.
The application of the common name starts to fall down with foreign introductions, especially plants that come from countries that have been colonized. The colonists often mapped the new world in terms of the old, naming plants after vaguely similar English plants. Thus you get ‘Bluebells’ that refer to different annual and perennial plants rather than the bulb of English woodlands. Other plants come ‘unlabelled’ as it were and just occasionally bear the names given by the native inhabitants of those territories, and these often appear uneasy in print.
In order to provide the sought after common names, translations of Latin names are often made that reflect the quality of the plant that botanists consider important. Sometimes they are helpful in featuring recognisable features, locations in which they grow, plants that they resemble, etc. At other times one struggles to interpret terms such as ‘mucilaginous sap’ or ‘lacking bracteoles’ into something readily meaningful.
Overall, it is better to simply get to grips with universal and generally uncontroversial Latin names and to stop expecting everything to be handed to you on a digested plate.
I must admit, at this point that I often forget the names of plants in my own garden and mentally refer to them as ‘the one with the curious flowers that needs to be by a path to be noticed’ and ‘the one that gets leggy if you don’t keep pruning it’. There are also many occasions when, returning from a garden visit, I find I have carefully transcribed Crocus ‘Snow Bunting’ into my notebook instead of the name of the tree it appeared under several months ago.
Crocus ‘Snow bunting’ (misapplied)
Piss-a-bed and friend
Susan A. Tindall
A gilded autumn day when light is full-bodied and oak trees are bronze, on the edge of leaf fall. Their massy limbs are still partially shielded. There’s the sense of space and the movement of light as we tilt towards winter. The moments with the oak tree are an infinity; suspended in space. The mass of the tree is held in autumn light and one can sense the lift of its branches, its substance against the sky.
For much of the time trees are mere components of the scene. They are a cardboard cut-out shape. A block of plain or glinting colour that is a backdrop to foreground incidents. They are functional providers of shade. Today is lifted up. The oak is hero, at stage centre, and as the observer I am very little.
Postscript. My brother tells me that this year the oak trees in the New Forest have had a huge crop of acorns. This is the “pannage” season when pigs are turned out to gorge themselves on acorns. Unfortunately, ponies like them too, and can even die from over-indulgence. This year the pigs can’t cope with the excess and 47 New Forest ponies have died. The “pannage” season has been extended to the 15th December to try and clear the acorns. Sometimes Nature is just too bountiful.
Susan A. Tindall
I have been reading about snowdrops in their infinite variety. There they are in white and green, (rarely a touch of gold) and all on a plant where a giant might reach 20cm. They are out there in their thousands.
The botanists have them spatchcocked:
Scape semi-erect 17cm. Outer segments 22mm. Inner segments clasping, apex not flared; sinus equilateral
Snowdrops are cult plants. There are a number of other cult plants but we tend to view them on our terms. Primula auricula forms can sit within an ‘auricula theatre’ conveniently sited at eye level. There are halls filled with Gladiolia and the heads of dahlias. If you wish to see snowdrops you really need the great outside. Sited pretty much at ground level and flowering when the ground is either frozen or sodden and unsuited to ‘lying down on’ they are a marketing miracle. Look what has to be overcome:
- They are small, of limited colours, have major design constraints, are absent for three quarters of the year.
Will we be tempted to meddle? In future could we peer up into a giant snowdrop? Will there be ‘colour breaks’ not the blue rose but the black snowdrop? Should we give them names that reflect our environment: Macadam black / Misted Neon / Polished Concrete / Hot Lips?
Or will we remain content to let snowdrops take us into their world? The world of dead leaves, bare branches, faded grass, lichen-rich gravestones and a biting wind. With, at best, the pale blue of a winter’s sky and lucid sunlight.
Next year there will be snowdrop pilgrimages to country churchyards or manor houses. You can see the glint of parked cars that line the lanes from a distance, with people wrapped up and trekking to see them. And what you see are endless clumps of white flowers with their heads bent. Perfect in the smooth whiteness of their skin; the exquisite lines of their petals. If you remove your gloves, fumbling as the cold bites, stoop, and, with gross fingers tilt the bowed head you see the mystery within.
There is such sweetness in the world.
Susan A. Tindall
I walk in the garden after rain to relish the sense of ease in the release from drought. The plants have all had enough to drink and the whole garden feels relaxed. The foliage of Hakonachloa had its sides curved upwards and looked narrow and strained; now, the leaves have flattened and the plant has regained its customary luxuriant appearance. Plants that had limp, dangling leaves look comfortable and turgid. Getting the feel of plants that are sated with water makes it easier to observe and detect those that are in dire need of a drink after a prolonged dry period. It helps to limit the amount that one needs to water them.
Admire the detail of water drops that remain on the foliage, the classic example being the tear-like pearls on Alchemilla mollis leaves. The potted Alstroemeria looks pretty as well since its flowers are unharmed by rain. The fronds of my new fern are delicately spangled with water whilst roses can just appear sodden. Are plants in party mode when they have drunk to excess? Do oak trees indulge in the occasional Cuban cigar? Are chocolates passed round the herbaceous borders? Do the mints indulge in peppermints?
That amazing book ‘What a Plant Knows’ by Daniel Chamovitz (eat a green salad before you read it, you may never want to touch vegetables again) indicates that plants don’t like being touched. A prelude to being eaten I suppose. When one wanders within the romance of fragrance, and squeezes leaves to release the aromatic scents the plants are probably screaming ‘Go Away! Carnivore!’.
Susan A. Tindall
I often spend time in a friend’s garden and watch the movement of light. This garden is designed for light. It slopes gently upwards and there are large ash trees to the rear and on the left-hand side. Even on a sunny day the plants in the garden move continually between shade and light as the sun passes across the sky. The view is a stage set and is centred on a superb specimen of Stipa gigantea with support from other grasses. The passage of light lifts the plants into sparkling relief. The sun moves, and the plants are flattened and diminished. The effect of light is almost hypnotic, the colours so intense, the whole, so ephemeral. It appears slightly different each time the light plays.
I have watched sunsets in Utah where there is big drama in the movement of light on mountains. Even on the scale of a small domestic garden the movement of light is a significant event.
Everyone goes for scent but the choice of plants for their effect when seen against sunlight is a bigger hit than fragrance for me. Stipa gigantea has seed-heads that spangle and shift endlessly. However still the air, when caught by light they burn golden and shimmer in continual movement. In this garden the leaves of the ash trees provide fascinating patterns as they dance in the air.
In my garden I look for the glow of bare–stemmed dogwoods during winter. In the morning my giant Cotinus has leaves that glow in the morning light, but the colour becomes flat and cowpat-toned in the full sunshine of summer.
In order to achieve the best light effects, the plants must be separated from the complexity of foliage. The light has to work on plants that are observed as simple silhouettes. Careful planning is clearly needed, especially in my busy garden.
Susan A. Tindall
Passing St Francis Hospice (at Havering Green in Essex) I caught a glimpse of their front door. It looked so beautiful and inviting that I went to investigate. The handsome door is flanked by tubs with plants in clear bright colours, full of life and vigour. Their fresh, well ordered appearance speaks of the vigilant care and attention that they receive.
A week later I still recall these images and feel refreshed by them. Plants that are well tended nurture the spirit and, quite simply, make one feel better. The plants at the hospice reflect the care that the patients will receive, as well as the gift of beauty. In case all this sounds too heavy I am reminded of a very old joke that my father used to tell:
A priest is walking down a lane when he sees, through a gate, a beautiful garden that’s being tended by a gardener. ‘You and God have created a beautiful garden’ the priest says. ‘Aah!’ the gardener returns, ‘you should have seen it when God had it on His own.’
A gratifying joke that’s not just cynical but an affirmation that gardens need care. The human interventions – planting, pruning, deadheading, weeding and feeding, all those adjustments to the natural world – give a positive charge to nature, a managed beauty. You do have to know when to stop though!
Susan A. Tindall
This is a groundcover mainstay in my garden. This has whorls of slender glossy green leaves, rough to the touch, but fresh and appealing groundcover that enjoys shady spots where it will spread substantially. The leaves appear tired and somewhat coarse by late winter so I pull them off and reveal a close knit carpet of tight-looking, fresh, green young foliage. This grows swiftly and is plentifully starred with white flowers in late April and May. It takes the stage with large-leaved spring favourites – Brunnera and Pulmonaria – when the whole ground seems covered with new growth.
Woodruff in April
The flowers of sweet woodruff are enchanting, sweet and clean. In my garden it has, over the years, established itself in many places and will even settle happily into the crowns of ferns where it peers out through the fronds and makes them look scruffy. It also reaches up through low growing plants and will happily cover them over before you’ve noticed. These plants seem happy to be overcome and doze beneath a woodruff duvet, not doing much until I pull the woodruff away from them in handfuls. In one corner of the garden it is engaged with a green periwinkle (Vinca minor). This gang of two happily rampage across dry shade, and make a dense green, somewhat bouffant carpet.
Woodruff in May
The trick with woodruff is to remove enough to give other plants a chance in summer, but to leave plenty so it will re-colonize the area to provide for maximum spring cover and interest.
Woodruff in August
Sweet woodruff was once used as a strewing herb as, when dried, it gives off the scent of hay, a fragrance that is retained for months. Perhaps bunches of this could be hung to dry in summerhouses or conservatories. Checking in an old herbal one learns that it found favour with the first Queen Elizabeth and was once used to fragrance churches. It can be mixed with apple juice or wine to make an appealing drink. It is said to deter moths if placed in drawers and wardrobes. A modern herbal reveals a number of medicinal uses as well. Perhaps it should be grown as a cash crop rather than consigned to the compost bin.
Susan A. Tindall
Paeonia ‘White wings’
Their season is so brief. My paeonias now carry clusters of plump seedpods – which I belatedly remove. After the flowers they leave elegant, quite large, clumps of shiny, dark green divided foliage that are a lush foil for other plants. I have had my original three paeonias for twenty years or so. They were a present from an aunt, chosen from Kelway’s catalogue. Last year these were supplemented by a fourth, ‘Kansas’, that was discovered languishing and desiccated on the 50% off the end-of-season plant sale stall. She was given a position in some shade and this year she has developed into a somewhat leggy lady and delivered several double red flowers.
Although their season is so short, they are some of the most cherished plants in the garden. The ladies of the garden, one visits to pay one’s respects and stand in awe of their splendid and extravagant flowers. Of my original three, ‘White Wings’ is the most spectacular and produces large flowers of quite exceptional beauty. This would be one of my eight ‘desert island’ plants, even though she only has flowers for a fortnight. Paeonias are investments that will last for many years but they do take space and their position is best planned for. It is said that paeonias hate disturbance and, once established, cannot be moved. However…
Last year I moved a fern that was growing in the vicinity of one of my original paeonias. This spring, when removing the fern’s old foliage I discovered a couple of young paeonia leaves poking out from its base. I prepared a planting position, digging in composted manure, filling the hole with water and allowing this to drain before extracting the tuberous root of the paeonia from the fern’s roots. The tuber lay in my hand like a plump brown mouse. There was a distinct sense of it’s being a living, almost breathing creature. This was quickly installed in its new home. It is rather a dry position and it hasn’t made much growth, but looks happy and self composed. Flowers are hoped for in a year or two.
Susan A. Tindall
Watering plants manually during dry spells is time-consuming as they should be “deep-watered” so the water penetrates to the roots, but is essential to keep them alive and well. Wafting water over the foliage of a plant may make you feel virtuous, but does nothing for the plants!
Plants that have been in the garden for a year or more have generally developed a good root system. Apart from plants with rigid leaves – such as hollies – it is generally easy to restrict watering until the plant is noticeably stressed. The leaves will be flaccid and drooping, and plants have a “stretched” appearance. Shrubs around a metre high should be given a full-sized watering can of water (8 litres), sometimes two. Young trees may need several full cans. Give half a can to each needy herbaceous plant. Be aware that water can “run-off” without noticeably penetrating the soil. If you review the plants you’ve watered after an hour they should have noticeably revived. This can help to give you a feel for their appearance when they are in need of water again.
Recently planted specimens have not had time to reach out beyond the former confines of the pot. Get the water right into their base. They only need a small amount, but may need watering every couple of days.
To freshen your garden with new purchases consider drought resistant plants such as Salvias, Sedums, Cistus and Helichrysum. Try the Russian sage (Perovskia atriplicifolia), or even the South African ‘Delosperma’ forms with flowers that blaze like neon.
Cistus ‘Silver Pink’
Perovskia atriplicifolia ‘Blue Spire’
Over twenty years ago Aunt Monica gave me three paeonias that I chose from the Kelway’s catalogue. “Plants should have provenance” she stated. They are still with me, a part of the garden’s personal archive. There are plants that are associated with places or gardens that have been visited and that feebly echo the work of great gardeners. Other plants that grow differently because they are not in Cornwall or dry Essex, and which therefore, never quite replicate the memory.
It is the plants that have been gifted, that indeed have ‘provenance’ and therefore provide the most satisfaction. In particular, the annual flush of pleasure one receives as they enter their season of especial beauty. Ownership is never quite transferred and the plant remains as ‘Marilyn’s salvia’, ‘Father’s violets’ or ‘June’s acer’. Tending these is a particular pleasure.
There are other gifts however. Those that turn up their roots, shed their leaves and whither in an embarrassingly short space of time. Some even come with greenfly. Others develop with unexpected vigour and their sturdy roots crack the decorous pot in which they were presented. Such plants do not want to be an incident but a major feature, even, a problem to be dealt with. Friendship can be complex. The identity of the giver becomes fused with the plant. Be careful of the plants that you give to others or you may be remembered as a rampant, mildewed monster or as something with disappointing flowers.
I have, for many years, owned a cycad, given by THAT friend. This dominates our tiny conservatory. It is raised over four feet from the ground so you can, more or less, get underneath it. The fronds brush the cobwebs and the cycad believes itself to be a noble tree fern, rather than a primitive relic of ancient times. Identities can indeed become blurred.
Susan A. Tindall