A FAREWELL TOMATO SANDWICH WITH HELEN DILLON

AND A SHORTLIST OF THINGS I WISH I COULD HAVE STOLEN FROM HER DUBLIN GARDEN
img_6521                              Stone sculpture of a woman against ivy, Helen Dillon’s garden.

I am perched at Helen Dillon’s kitchen table in Ranelagh, a spreading residential area of Dublin. It is a grey August lunchtime and I am being plied with a high-energy volley of slightly startling pronouncements on the state of garden writing – as well as a welcome glass of sweet elderflower and a cheese and tomato sandwich – by the legendary gardener, trying not to get too distracted by how very beautiful a woman can be in her late 70’s.

Much to the surprise of the gardening world – and no doubt to the delight of the Dublin real estate market – this elegant Georgian house has been sold. The much visited and photographed garden, described by Robin Lane Fox in the Financial TImes as ‘the best walled town garden one can hope to see’, will finally close to the public at the end of September 2016. A steady stream of star-struck visitors – mostly civilised looking women of a certain age – arrive tentatively at the front door (you visit the garden via the elegant Georgian hallway and antique filled drawing room and hand over your five Euro note discreetly as you arrive). In the last few weeks there have been at least 200 admirers a day.

img_6188Helen Dillon’s house, 45 Sandford Terrace, Dublin.

45 Sandford Terrace is a place of legend. Mick Jagger once rented the house for a month whilst he was recording in Dublin and when Helen Dillon suddenly replaced the carefully manicured lawn with a contemporary reflecting pool after a visit to the Alhambra, her husband Val famously retorted that he was fine with the change as ‘grass is an ass’. The twinkly eyed chatelaine has always enjoyed delivering a little light shock to her visitors – her desire for intense colour and a certain restlessness was finally satisfied when she developed a pragmatic version of successional planting which involved plonking plastic containers of dahlias, lilies and brugmansia directly into the bed (i.e. not planting them) wherever there was a lull in the eye-popping herbaceous borders. If a bit of black plastic can be seen, so be it, feast your eyes on something else.

img_6170Yolk yellow brugmansia with Verbena bonariensis, Helen Dillon’s garden.

img_6171Purple salvia and electric red crocosmia, Helen Dillon’s garden.

img_6176One of the long borders at Helen Dillon’s garden, Lythrum salicaria (probably)Feuerkerze’ and Agapanthus ‘Purple Cloud’.

The reason for her success is a tireless, passionate, no-nonsense approach to plants and to gardening – she has endlessly tried out new things, has been speedy to get rid of things which are not working, is a famous champion of other fine gardeners and has always been determined to seek out the best forms of the plants she is using. I did not have time to check the name of the bright pink loosestrife pictured above, but I am pretty sure it is ‘Feuerkerze’ which is a brilliant pink and a world apart from the cooler mauve-pink of other loosetrifes.

A couple of weeks after my visit Helen wrote a wonderfully frank piece for the Guardian Weekend magazine in which she bared all about the plants she will be taking with her to her new, almost definitely smaller, town garden and the plants she is pleased to leave behind.  She is brutal about the presence of honey fungus, vine weevil and other problems which have inevitably affected her old town garden, scathing about ‘the handsome but incontinent  (i.e. impossible to get rid of) self-seeding onion Nectaroscordum siculum’ and brilliantly honest about the Cestrum parqui she has grown for its famously romantic midnight perfume – confessing that it does indeed have a horrid daytime smell and that she has ‘only once been up late enough to smell it’.

But the real gold dust is her list of plants she will not fail to grow in her next garden.  Although it is an avid self seeder she ‘cannot get enough of the lovely white willow herb Chamerion angustifolium ‘Album’ ‘, and her list includes  Erigeron karvinskianus, the ‘charming coloniser of cracks and paving’ – which I too love for the way it softens the brick paths in my own town garden –  Pulmonaria ‘Blue Ensign’ (with flowers of a particularly rich purple-blue, and the ‘lovely pale blue’ agapanthus ‘Eggesford Sky ‘.  She writes: ‘ I find after collecting agapanthus for 30 years or so that the pale blue cultivars show up better from a distance than some of (the very desirable) dark colours’.  I am excited that Helen Dillon is so keen on pale blue agapanthus. I have three huge pots of Agapanthus ‘Blue Ice’ which is towering and only faintly blue – I love the way that a clear, pale blue can read almost as a gentle white in a palette of soft colours.

img_6128

An elegant umbrella of  Hagenia abyssinica, with brugmansia and Tibouchina urvilleana,, Helen Dillon’s garden.

Another plant that features in the precious Guardian list is Hagenia abyssinica ‘from the forests of Ethiopia, a superb tree for growing in a large pot (kept under glass for winter)’. This is a plant I would have been delighted to cart off in the back of my rented Skoda. I have a slight fear that we may need to head off to Ethiopia ourselves to track down a hagenia for our own gardens but they are definitely covetable. In the Dillon garden there are four pots of these elegant umbrella-like trees on the terrace next to the pool, their bright green leaves are a wonderful foil to the gorgeous salmon brugmansia trumpets (which will incidentally become heavily fragrant at a more sociable time of the evening than the Cestrum parqui) and to the velvety purple of Tibouchina urvilleana, the glory bush.

img_6129 Pale salmon brugmansia.

img_6131Hagenia abyssinica elegantly exotic against the more demure Georgian brickwork of the house.

Helen Dillon would also take with her the ‘superb large fern’ Woodwardia unigemmata. This is a wonderful new discovery for me – with new fronds a gorgeous brick red – and goes firmly on my list of ideas to steal.

img_6159                               Woodwardia unigemmata – the new fronds are a gorgeous brick red.

The woodwardia was nestling comfortably in the shady woodland corner of the garden populated by another desirable and exotic tree, Aralia echinocaulis, grown from seed brought back by Jimi Blake, whose inspiring Hunting Brook Gardens is only about 30 miles south of Dublin. NB, Jimi and his sister June Blake – whose equally seductive garden is next door – sometimes have seedlings of these for sale.

img_6153A skinny woodland of Aralia echinocaulis, Helen Dillon’s garden.

img_6155Aralia echinocaulis foliage. Helen Dillon’s garden.

I love this celebration of filtered light and the power of different greens in this part of the garden. This beautiful sculpture of a young girl has the perfect, timeless backdrop of light-catching ivy – even with the nearby chatter of respectful visitors the combination has an aura of stories and secrets not yet told:

img_6521

Stone sculpture against ivy, Helen Dillon’s garden.

More magical still is this wonderful fuchsia, Fuchsia magellanica var. molinae, which has formed a delicate bower over the pretty iron seat laden with dart-like palest pink flowers.

img_6119

          Iron seat in a bower of Fuchsia magellanica var. molinae.

In the conservatory a loose-limbed palm-leaved begonia, Begonia luxuriant, looks rakish but charming against the painted brick. So keen am I to acquire a Begonia luxuriant of my own that I have tracked it down to the nursery at Great Dixter where I discover that they bed it out for the summer. Somehow the note on the nursery catalogue that it is ‘too fragile to dispatch’ makes the journey to East Sussex event more tempting.

img_6522

Begonia luxurians in the Conservatory, Helen Dillon’s garden.

Elsewhere in the garden I am a little less certain about the metal framed tunnel with views through to the reflecting pool and to an urn at the other end – but the framing works pretty well, maybe I am just hitting a quieter moment in the year, maybe if it was my own garden and I was about to leave it I too would be entitled to a patch or two where the garden was in a lower gear?  I like the lower view best with the fennel filling and softening the frame, and the stretch of water settling and adding weight to the image.

img_6152

Metal arch with view to urn…

img_6151

 …and through to the reflecting pool.

There are of course still plenty of high octane pockets of plants apart from the colourful parade of the Long Borders. Raised beds for fruit and vegetables are jumbled up with phlox and dahlias in the happiest of ways.

img_6169Colourful vegetable beds, Helen Dillon’s garden.

A rather dull wall is completely ignored by a stand of radiant carmine Lobelia tupa

img_6137Lobelia tupa, Helen Dillon’s garden.

There are several very beautiful arching indigofera shrubs – I think this is Indigofera amblyantha which is a brilliant plant for lighting up the garden in late summer with very pretty slender racemes of pink pea like flowers.

img_6138

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Indigofera amblyantha, Helen Dillon’s garden.

And there is a brilliant clump of racy greenish white flower heads of Veratrum album which has even more covetable leaves – like huge pleated hosta leaves – at its base:

verartrumVeratrum album

A really excellent combination of plants to create a lush, overspilling feel either side of a pathway is this group of Romneya coulteri (the California Tree Poppy), the evergreen shrub Bupleurum fruticosum (which has glowing clusters of lime green flowers) and a deep pink Japanese anemone. The bupleurum is one of those plants that you meet again and again, admire and never do anything about which is stupid as it is such an easy and handsome thing. I  have long wanted Romneya coulteri, however, and planted one this spring in my Camberwell garden. I can’t quite work out yet if it likes me or not, it is notoriously picky and then if it does like you it is well known for being a bit unstoppable, but who could resist its abundance of huge papery flowers with yellow centres?

img_6143img_6141

Romneya coulteri, Bupleurum fruticosum and deep pink Japanese anemone flank a path in Helen Dillon’s garden.

In this group of plants the fading rusty flower heads of Rodgersia pinnata ‘Perthshire Bronze’ are given a new energy by the coral red tapers of Persicaria amplexicaulis (possibly ‘Firetail’) and the rich pinks of the voluptuous lily.

img_6172

 

Rodegersia pinnata ‘Perthshire Bronze’, Persicaria amplexicaulis and a voluptuous pink lily, Helen Dillon’s garden.

As I leave the fascinatingly neat flower heads, the shifting mauves and pinks and waxy green leaves of Hydrangea ‘Ayesha’ catch my eye. The hydrangea is in a pot and almost too good to be true. Naturally it goes immediately onto The List.

img_6523Hydrangea ‘Ayesha’, Helen Dillon’s garden.

The front garden has been reorganised and replanted much more recently with a sandstone terrace and gently screening slim silver birch.

img_6188

Helen Dillon’s house viewed from the street.

I am usually slightly allergic to silver birch as a solution tree for a contemporary look but I think it is a great choice here – not least as Helen Dillon has made sure to add texture and surprises in her effortlessly elegant way.  I love the choice of the evergreen Itea ilicifolia over a side building: the shrub has glossy holly-like leaves and in late summer glamorous racemes of whitish-green, honey-scented flowers. The combination with a statuesque stand of Acanthus mollis and some crisp white Japanese anemone ‘Honorine Jobert’ is a handsome one.

img_6184Itea ilicifolia, Acanthus mollis and Anemone x hybrida ‘Honorine Jobert’ in the front garden.

There is a lovely tumbling lightness to this group of Euphorbia characias, sea holly and some choice spiky leaves against the pale trunks of the birch (top photo) and below a huge stand of pink phlox is the plant that delightfully breaks the restrained palette of greens and white (below).
img_6183img_6185

When I was eating my sandwich with Helen Dillon she was almost cross that there was such an intense outpouring of interest in her garden the moment she was leaving it. But I hope she has been enjoying the interest too and I for one am thrilled that it galvanised me to paying the garden a long-delayed visit.

 I think Helen Dillon has made a very astute move, leaving now rather than slaving away, keeping a famous garden as perfect as it has always been in the magazines and lecture theatres. She says she is indeed very excited about the chance to start again. I thank her for wonderful enthusiasm, and for her brilliantly blunt, always entertaining writing that has taught so many of us so much. I have no doubt she will make another wonderful garden.

The one thing I could not have fitted into that miniature Skoda if I had tried is the fantastic oak bench that nestles against the silver birch trees in the front garden. I am smitten by the simplicity and stillness of the bench and the heavy, splayed triangle blocks that support it:
img_6519

Simple, elegant (covetable) bench, Helen Dillon’s front garden.

PARHAM: A SERIES OF EXQUISITE SHOCKS FOR MY PLANT PALETTE

AN INSPIRING RETURN VISIT TO A FINE SUSSEX GARDEN

IMG_5573Electric blue delphiniums emerge from the box parterre in The Vegetable Garden, Parham

IMG_2959Quietly psychadelic succulents fill a stone trough in The Herb Garden

I must have visited the gardens of Parham House for the first time about ten years ago in the era of talented Head Gardeners Ray Gibbs and Joe Reardon-Smith. I remember the uplifting, overspilling opulence of the planting and trying to hold onto exactly what was making each group of plants sing. The dashes of white which turned out to be the palest blue Veronica gentianoides and the subtle interweaving of burnt – or not so burnt –  orange and terracotta to jolt a border soft blues into something richer and more velvety.

IMG_5518Parham House, West Sussex

The 16th Century house at Parham has been owned and lived in by a member of the Pearson family since the early 1920’s. The Pearsons, together with architect Victor Heal and American garden designer Lanning Roper, did much to create the shape and atmosphere of the current garden and there was another big push in the 1980’s when, with the help of garden designer Peter Coats, the 18th century walled enclosure was moved one step further away from its original life as a productive garden for a large household and turned into a garden of mixed borders and lawns. The current Head Gardener is Tom Brown. A Sarah Raven article in the Telegraph about his recent allium trial – ‘How to Grow the most show-stopping alliums for your garden’ – triggered seductive memories of my earlier visit. The last day of June was one of brooding skies, but no rain, and I found myself heading towards the South Coast, hoping quietly to find some midsummer inspiration.

IMG_5521St Peter’s Church, Parham

IMG_5519Parkland and views to rolling Sussex countryside, Parham
IMG_2923A stand of mature oak trees, Parham

I am delighted by pretty much everything. The parkland around the house, stretching out to the rolling Sussex countryside,  is exquisite, with views framed by the dipping branches of mature cedar and oak trees. The grass is still mostly green with just the beginnings of faded coral where bands of grass have allowed to grow tall.

I walk through the Clock Tower courtyard under glowering skies and enter the garden via a walkway of lovely multi-stemmed box and holly trees.

IMG_2918 The Clock Tower, entrance courtyard, Parham

IMG_2926Multi-stemmed box trees lead the way into the garden.

The  Entrance Borders are just beginning to come into their own but I am thrilled to see the radiantly highlighted, bruised colouring I have been trying to recall. The borders are wide enough to accommodate a series of tree-like pineapple-scented philadelphus, and the famous tapestry-style planting uses claret coloured berberis and cotinus together with the bright greens of Alchemilla mollis and golden hops to frame the borders which are laced with fiery red marigolds, the cooler almost mint green of Sedum ‘Autumn Joy’ (in its June guise) and an almost apricot yellow daylily:

IMG_2928The dusky Entrance Borders, Parham, illuminated with spreading white Philadelphus

IMG_5628Golden hops, bronze fennel, apricot-yellow day lilies, and yet-to-ripen head of Allium sphaerocephalon, The Entrance Borders, Parham

IMG_5627

IMG_5525IMG_5524

Philadelphus, Sedum ‘Autum Joy’ ( June stage!), Alchemilla mollis, aliums, marigolds, bronze fennel – Entrance Borders, Parham

As with all good planting the proportions of plants and the way they are combined is constantly and skilfully varied. There are more sombre areas – here a leggy mauve geranium is screened by a haze of bronze fennel with just a small quantity of red marigold at the base of the planting:

IMG_2931A sombre moment of geranium, bronze fennel and a flash of red marigold

Elsewhere, a stretch of quiet green and white is lit up by a dazzling pocket of Berberis thunbergii “Aurea’:
IMG_5527                          The border is lit up by a pocket of the shrub Berberis thunbergii ‘Aurea’

Berberis seems to me such an old-fashioned plant, but I am smitten by the way it works in this border and am tempted to try it myself. Here it is again as a fine contrast to a clear mauve geranium (possibly ‘Mrs Kendall Clarke’ ) which in turn sings out against the shady burgundy seed heads of honesty, Lunaria annua:

IMG_5530Berberis thunbergii ‘Aurea’ , mauve geranium and seed heads of Lunaria annua

A little further up the same geranium is more intensely luminous against the rounded, deep red leaves of the smoke bush, Cotinus coggygria (probably ‘Royal Purple’):

IMG_5529

Geranium ‘Mrs Kendall Clarke’ against Cotinus coggygria ‘Royal Purple

And a little further on still, the Cotinus becomes more intense – almost black –  when it is a foil to the bright green leaves and  vivid pink-red tapers of persicaria amplexicaulis ‘Firetail’:

IMG_2949Persicaria amplexicaulis ‘Firetail’ against Cotinus coggygria ‘Royal Purple’

The smaller leaves of the equally dark red berberis, a form of Berberis thunbergii f. atropurpurea, catch the light more easily themselves and form a more balanced picture with the marigold, sedum and daylily in this group:

IMG_2948A balanced, light-catching group of Berberis thunbergii f. atropurpurea, red marigold, orange yellow day lily and Sedum ‘Autumn Joy’

Looking up, I love the dirty gold-green of golden hops, Humulus lupus ‘Aureus’, and the way it is encouraged to loop and festoon its way over the handsome smudgy green trellis, casting a greenish light on the already not-completely-white Philadelphus.

IMG_2943Golden hops festoons the trellis, with sweet-scented Philadelphus in the foreground

And I cannot help but be enchanted by the mushroom of brilliant green wisteria foliage that forms a fairy tale entrance into the nursery:

IMG_2934

 

Wisteria foliage makes a fairy tale entrance into the nursery

Further along, another softly clothed opening in the border – alchemilla, pink geranium, red marigold: why not? – leads you through a brick opening into the Herb Garden:IMG_5528 (1)                                                      Softly clothed entrance into The Herb Garden

The Herb Garden at Parham is pretty perfect. There are four completely charming, immaculately proportioned, wooden benches, one in each corner of this voluptuous space enclosed in high hedges of clipped yew. Each bench is settled lightly and invitingly into its corner.  I love the bench below with its patchwork apron of worn flagstones and Alchemilla mollis, its simple backdrop of upright ferns and its anchoring neighbour, a rectangular stone trough which is gently fizzing with slightly psychedelic pink and grey succulents.

IMG_2956 IMG_2957 IMG_2958

IMG_2959One of four perfect benches in The Herb Garden – this one settled into its space with a stone trough planted with slightly psychedelic pink and grey succulents

Another bench is at the end of a small, winding green path brightened with tantalising spires of the slender cream foxglove, Digitalis lutea:

IMG_2965Winding gravel path to a second bench with slender spires of the creamy Digitalis lutea

A third bench is satisfyingly deeply set in the shade of an old apple tree:

IMG_2963 (1)A third bench deep in the shade of an old apple tree

The centre of the Herb Garden is exuberantly planted with culinary herbs and herbaceous perennials. The almost decadently fading flowers of the towering Angelica archangelica take centre stage, with the tall daisy-like flowers of inula providing a fresher yellow, and the tiny button like lemon-yellow flowers of the green leaved santolina, Santolina pinnata subsp. neapolitana, making a handsome curved edging for the central pond.
IMG_2966

IMG_2944 (1)

IMG_2967

The centre of The Herb Garden with towering Angelica archangelica, Alchemilla mollis everywhere and the tiny lemon yellow flowers of Santollina pinnata subsp. neapolitana edging the pond.

The way out of the Herb Garden looks as richly enticing as the way in – you know you are in the hands of masterful gardeners:

IMG_5539View as you leave The Herb Garden

A central pair of borders, The Blue and Gold Borders, cross the entire walled garden, with cooler blue colours to the West and warmer gold colours to the East:

IMG_5550FIrst view of the Blue Border

The borders are flanked at intervals by muscly espalier apple trees and elsewhere by simple wooden fencing which is cleverly broken up by basic wooden arches in a staggered art deco shape. These work brilliantly, especially as they age and become covered in lichen and, as here, host the purple leaved vine Vitis vinifera ‘Purpurea’:

IMG_5549Espalier apple trees edge the border
IMG_2980

IMG_5571Art deco style arches act as pause points in the fence – the older lichen-covered arch above is clothed in Vitis vinifera ‘Purpurea’

The planting at the ‘blue’ end is particularly inspiring. In this photograph, the white rosebay willow herb, Chamerion angustifolium ‘Album’, is planted with the palest lilac-flowered Valeriana pyrenaica. Tall stands of red orach,  Atriplex hortensis  var. rubra, pick up the maroon staining of the Valerian’s stems and allow the white and dusky lilac to be read. It is a gorgeous group of plants.

IMG_5551Chamerion angustifolium ‘Album’, Valeriana pyrenaica and red orach

A little further on, the all-yellow, fluffy headed thalictrum, Thalictrum flavum subsp. glaucum (which I have never used, but faithful readers will know that I am becoming an unstoppable fan of the colour yellow in the garden) provides a soft foil for the vibrant Persicaria amplexicaulis ‘Firetail’:

IMG_5553Thalictrum flavum subsp. glaucum and Persicaria ‘Firetail’

And elsewhere, the bicolour taller thalictrum, Thalilctrum ‘Elin’, is an intriguing combination of soft yellow and purple:

IMG_5540Thalictrum ‘Elin’

At this point in the border, the mix of low-key yellow, faded pink and white have a seductive 70’s polaroid quality:
IMG_5544        Thalictrum flavum subsp. glaucum, Valeriana pyrenaica, Chamerion angustifolium ‘Album’

The classic, mound-forming, silver foliage plant, Artemisia ludoviciana ‘Valerie Finnis’ is one that has definitely moved higher up my list of plants to try to bring a border together with a gentle sparkle. It is used throughout the garden and is a wonderful foil for both bright and more subtle colours.

IMG_2992

The silver foliage of Artemisa ludoviciana ‘Valerie Finnis’ with the just emerging Chamerion angustifolium ‘Album’

Elsewhere there are the rich purple uprights of Salvia nemerosa ‘Caradonna’ together with the dreamier mauve-pink catmint (probably) Nepeta grandiflora ‘Dawn to Dusk’ – the opposing qualities of each plant work surprisingly well when put next door to each other.

IMG_2993

Salvia nemerosa  ‘Caradonna’ with Nepeta grandiflora ‘Dawn to Dusk’

The salvia, together with classic blue catmint and a rich blue geranium, anchor the border and                      keep it just about in the blue/purple spectrum!
IMG_2998                              Mounds of salvia, catmint and blue geranium anchor the border

There is an immediate colour shift as you approach the Gold Border. Stipa gigantea erupts with its usual brilliancy into a series of fine bronze fireworks and, here, the sword-like foliage and pale yellow flowers of Sisyrinchium striatum anchors the planting:
IMG_5558 IMG_5559

IMG_5563The bronze fireworks of Stipa gigantea are anchored by the swordlike foliage and pale yellow flowers of Sisyrinchium striatum in the Gold Border

The subtle colouring continues with the coppery mauve foliage of Rosa glauca acting as a foil for pale lilac Valeriana pyrenaica – with the dirty gold of Humulus lupulus ‘Aureus’ above and golden marjoram below lighting up the scene.
IMG_5566

 

Rosa glauca with Valeriana pyrenaica, Humulus lupulus ‘Aureus’ and Origanum vulgare ‘Aureum’

The dusky mauve Sedum ‘Matrona’ – my favourite sedum – is introduced as a deft rhythmic base plant and then little shocks are introduced: more golden hops threaded though at low level, a burnt orange knifophia singing out from a haze of bronze fennel, and then a flotilla of flat red brown heads amongst the mauves: Achillea millefolium ‘Terracotta’:

IMG_3008

                                                                          Sedum ‘Matrona’IMG_3016                                                  Sedum ‘Matrona’ with golden hops

IMG_5561An orange Kniphofia amongst sedum and bronze fennel
IMG_3018The flat heads of Achillea millefolium ‘Terracotta’ with Sedum ‘Matrona’

Next to the Blue and Gold borders is The Vegetable Garden – a huge box parterre for growing cut flowers so there are sudden bursts of electric blue delphinium, cloudy white heads of Amni magus, or pokey heads of the last-to-flower giant allium from the June allium trials.
IMG_5573

IMG_3024 (1)

IMG_3023

IMG_5575Clipped box, electric blue delphinium, Amni majus, and giant allium in bud
IMG_5574The Vegetable Garden Parterre

The spring meadow grass around a pair of charismatically ageing medlar trees has been raked into stook-like piles at the base of the trees. I am suddenly transported to the South of France and summer holidays:

IMG_3030

IMG_5578

Medlar trees with raked meadow grass

There is the charming wendy house built in 1928 by Clive Pearson for his three daughters – a perfectly detailed two storey cottage built into the garden wall  – and there is the rather less impressive photographic record of me hopelessly trying help you work out the scale of the perfectly formed wendy house for yourself…. I love the idea that the family still have an annual tradition of spending one summer night here, lighting the fire, cooking sausages and telling ghost stories.

IMG_5582                                                                 The 1928 Wendy House

IMG_5586 (1)                                        A not very helpful selfie to show the scale of Wendy House …

Next to the wendy house, another perfectly lichened bench surrounded by ferns and mounds of silver Artemisia ludoviciana ‘Valerie Finnis’:

IMG_5584

And then a lovely stretch of old brick and flint wall, gates painted with red estate paint and confident shady planting of Digitalis lutea, hosta, Alchemilla mollis, and the rather brilliant addition of sea holly – Eryngium giganteum ‘Silver Ghost’? – which at this point of the year is a pale silvery green (it will turn to silver blue as it matures) and a fantastic counterpoint to the acid green of the alchemilla:IMG_5585                                                                                Digitalis lutea

IMG_5588

IMG_3044

IMG_3042A fine stretch of shady planting – the bottom photo shows the acid green of Alchemilla mollis and the pale silvery green of the young Eryngium giganteum ‘Silver Ghost’

Moving round the garden, the orchard has also been mown and neatly raked, and is ready for summer. There is a feisty wildlife-friendly strip of ferns and stinging nettles against the orchard wall: proof that wild life friendliness and a sense of order can be happy bedfellows.

IMG_3049

IMG_3050                         The orchard with a strip of wild-life friendly nettles at its edge

I pass the elegant lake with its latticed wall and views out to the Sussex hills:

IMG_5599The lake at Parham

And as I leave the main part of the garden I notice this excellent combination of plants for shade – Begonia evansiana ssp. evansiana whose heart shaped leaves will be joined by simple shell pink flowers in late summer – and Tiarella ‘Spring Symphony’ with its starry pale pink flowers and purple blotched leaves which will carpet the ground all summer.

IMG_3046 (1)

Begonia grandis sbsp. evansiana and Tiarella ‘Spring Symphony’

One final leg to my tour. I pass through a shadowy room with lead paned windows where jewel coloured pelargonium flowers are collected in simple glass vases:

IMG_5631 IMG_5632                                            Pelargoniums in simple glass vases against lead paned windows

through the elongated kaleidoscope of the greenhouses:

IMG_3061Route through the greenhouses

to the loveliest, completely simple composition of flint wall, catmint in quantity, stone pineapple, glossy banana plant and pair of orange fox tail lilies:

IMG_3062

IMG_5638

IMG_5637 IMG_5643
IMG_3066
IMG_5640

Emerging from the green houses to a sea of catmint, a stone pineapple, a banana plant and some brilliant orange foxtail lilies

I sneak inside the house before I leave, I am running out of time. Worth visiting alone for the 160ft Elizabethan Long Gallery ceiling painted with a twisting design of leaves and flowers in green and gold against white by stage and set designer Oliver Messel in the 20th century:
messel 1 messel 2
IMG_5653

Barrel vaulted ceiling of the Long Gallery, Parham,  restored in the 20’s and 30’s and painted with a design by Oliver Messel which was completed in the 1960’s

Even the windows of the house have subtle colour shifts that offer dreamy pallor and sweet intensity in the most enticing combinations:

IMG_5647

View of the park at Parham from one of the house windows.

Post Script:  I will not be posting again for a couple of months as I am travelling all over the UK on writing and also garden design commissions .  Wishing you a very good summer, Non.

 

 

 

 

THE GRASS IS SINGING – WILD FLOWER HUNTING IN THE APENNINES

THE JEWELLED MEADOWS OF MONTI SIBILLINI, GRAN SASSO AND ABRUZZO 

lots tulipsTulipa sylvestris ssp. australis and Muscari neglectum, Monti Sibillini National Park, 1500m

I am sitting on a grassy bank in the Apennines,  the limestone mountainous spine of Italy, about two and a half hours from Rome. It is windy and anorak-cool, but the sky is a brilliant blue, and stretching before me is an entire hillside of narrow-budded wild tulip, Tulipa sylvestris ssp. australis, with thousands of navy blue Muscari neglectum. It is an exhilarating sight and I am smiling from ear to ear. This is what I have come for. I have escaped plant orders for gardens we are about to plant, making arrangements for magazine assignments, plus the entire Chelsea Flower Show – to be in the mountains, after the snow and when things have begun to warm up, hoping to experience the sort of flowering intensity that I have only dreamt of.

It has been a challenging spring, explains Bob Gibbons, our deeply knowledgeable guide whose wonderful books – Wildflower Wonders of the World, Flowers at My Feet and Wild France just to begin the list – have inspired me to join him on this trip. Bob is tireless, a demanding teacher (my favourite kind), and charming – even when he laughs disconcertingly when I describe myself as an entry level botanist. There have been high April temperatures – up to 28ºC – followed by heavy snow right into May. The most obvious impact has been on the leaves of the beech trees, the dominant woodland species in the area. It feels odd to be in the middle of jewel-like spring colours surrounded by crispy brown foliage:
IMG_2588

IMG_2587Frost- crisped beech leaves, Monti Sibillini

But there is never a minute on this trip when you are not distracted by the next gorgeous plant. As we drive along the pass into Piano Grande the flat, bowl-like basin high up in the Monti Sibillini National park, there are pools of the tiny flowered rock soapwort Saponaria ochymoides and clumps of the luminous golden drop Onosma echioides at the roadside.

IMG_2156Saponaria oxymoides

IMG_2154Onosma echioides

We are a mini convoy of three cars. As soon as we stop, everyone spills out and is immediately on their knees examining the turf, macro lenses at the ready, before moving on at what is lovingly described as a ‘botanical pace’  After the initial shock of such uniform dedication, we are down on our knees too and a new world is opening up.

The navy blue, pale-topped thimbles of the grape hyacinth, Muscari neglectum extend impossibly in every direction:

MUSCARI. DAY 1JPG                                                Muscari neglectum extending in every direction

As we inch across the slope, the sea of blue on green becomes spattered with yellows, reds, paler blues, pinks and whites. The plant list has suddenly exploded – three kinds of buttercup, two kinds of saxifrage, a low growing, endemic, hairy forget-me-not, Myosotis ambigens, and of course, the thrilling sight of Tulipa sylvestris subs. australis in bud.

tulip context

tulip portrait

medium tulip

tulip against skyTulipa sylvestris ssp. australis with Muscari neglectum and other wild flowers, Monti Sibillini National Park

As you look again, the ribena coloured Elder-flowered orchid Dachtylorhiza sambucina adds itself to the mix, as does the dusky endemic fritillary Fritillaria orsinianana, and here and there the elegant, white Saxifraga granulata enjoys its moment in the sun:
tulip wih orchid

IMG_2040The Elder-flowered orchid, Dachtylorhiza sambucina

FRITIALLRYFritillaria orsinianasax tulip bankSaxifraga granulata

As the morning wears on, one or two tulips open out into yolk-yellow star bursts.  Any day now this hillside is going to dazzle with 5000 open yellow tulips, but I am glad we are here for this moment, with the elongated Iznik-tile buds, waving in the breeze, full of promise.

open tulipTulipa sylvestris ssp. australis, fully open

We drive higher up (1700m and upwards) to pastures around La Baita. Here the Elder-flowered orchids come in staggering sheets of deep red and pale lemon:

iphoto orchids mountainsSheets of pale lemon and dark red Elder-flowered orchid

These are joined by the startling blue of Spring Gentians, Gentiana verna, and the rich yellow of the small ground-hugging rock rose Helianthemum nummularium. I love the pattern the gentians and rock rose make with the bright white of the limestone rocks.

orchid and gentianElder-flowered orchids with spring gentian
orchid gentian close upSpring gentian, Elder-flowered orchid and rock rose

IMG_2081Spring gentian, rock rose and limestone

At the top of the slope is a cluster of almost unreal, richer blue trumpet gentians, Gentiana dinarica.  

IMG_2084IMG_2086Gentiana dinarica

I prefer the quieter, more lightly scattered style of the spring gentian but our group is understandably very happy indeed.

We drive down to the Piano Grande itself – getting a feel for the patchwork of fields which are cultivated wherever they can be in the basin. These fields near the town of Castellucio (notable for the peas and lentils grown nearby) are famous for their display of corn weeds such as poppies and cornflowers that light up the entire plain at the end of June.
IMG_iphoto piano grande car 25207                             Patchwork of cultivated fields, Piano Grande, Casteluccio

castelluccio     Postcard image of the fields in June, thanks to Ristorante Hotel ‘Sibilla’, Castelluccio di Norcia

And now we are in the almost surreal Piano Grande, with its man-manicured beech woods, snow-capped mountains, brilliant evening sun and endless loop of chorusing field crickets. The ground is noticeably marshy. There is acre upon acre of the yellow buttercup, Ranunculus bulbosus, softened by the bright, lime green of densely growing Cross-wort, Cruciata laevipes and, amongst these, heart-stopping quantities of fine-leaved narcissus Pheasant’s Eye Narcissus poeticus:

IMG_1975

IMG_2131iphoto crosswort

IMG_2144The Piano Grande, Monti Sibillini: buttercups, Cross-wort and beech woods

iphoto narcissus IMG_2137                                               Pheasant’s Eye narcissus, Piano Grande, Monte Sibillini National Park

Tearing ourselves away from the scented Narcissi, we spot a colony of wild peony, Paeonia officinalis, tantalisingly only in bud …

IMG_2141IMG_2142

 

Paeonia officinalis in bud

There are the strong, pleated leaves of the yellow gentian, Gentiana lutea which will produce towering yellow flowers in the summer. I am told that that it is the base of the French aperitif Suze – a drink which I have never tried but which is immediately familiar when I look it up.

IMG_2124

Strong pleated leaves of Gentiana lutea

suze suze-aperitif-a-la-gentiane

The French aperitif, Suze

On a completely different scale, is this quietly lovely limestone boulder, home to a diminutive saxifrage, Saxifraga tridactylitis and wonderful ringed patterns of soft sea-green lichen:

IMG_2149 IMG_2147

IMG_2148

Boulder with Saxifragra tridactylitis and lichen

Our lunch stop the next day is my favourite picnic spot of the week. We are in high flowery pastures, soft with the long-headed pink and white clover Trifolium incarnatum ssp molinerii and a larger form of yellow rattle Rhinanthus alectorolophus, than we have in the UK.
clover establish

clover 2The long-headed clover, Trifolium incarnatum ssp. molinerii

clover rattleA large, hairier yellow rattle, Rhinanthus alectorolophus

There are buttercups, the handsome pink Sainfoin Onobrychis viciifolia, the rich blue Cynoglottis barrelieri, a fantastically fragrant thyme Thymus glabrescens, and throughout, the slender white Star of Bethlehem Ornithogalum divergens.

clover 3

clover 4

Onobrychis vicifolia with buttercups

clover 1Cynoglottis barrelieri, Thymus glabrescens and Ornithogalum divergens

We  climb up the grassy path – I love the natural distribution of the paler yellow of the yellow rattle and the yellow gloss of the buttercup.

IMG_2223

The comfortable distribution of glossy buttercup and paler yellow rattle

There is fresh excitement as we realise that the unmown lawn of a private house is smothered in horse shoe vetch, Hipppocrepis comosa, green winged and toothed orchids and the elegant blue pompoms of Globularia visnigarica. There are small spider orchids, early spider orchids, sombre bee orchids and a handsome Man orchid, Orchis anthropophora – so named because of the tiny pale pink stickmen formed by the different parts of the plant.

IMG_2261Garden of private house – the orchid lawn is on a bank to the left of the house

IMG_2268 IMG_2263

IMG_2264Horse shoe vetch Hippocrepis comosa with green winged and toothed orchids (above) and globularia (below)

I will whizz past the treasures of day 3 – apart from perhaps my only satisfactory orchid photograph, a proud lady orchid, Orchis purpurea, found at 1400m near the abbey where we had lunch and where I admire the handsome stone fountain troughs.

orchis purpurea lady orchidOrchis purpurea, the lady orchid

IMG_2345IMG_2343IMG_2342Handsome stone fountain troughs

In the evening we find wild peony Paeonia officinalis in flower in a sheltered valley. Peonies are curious as wild flowers – they are so lush and perfect they look as if they have been plonked there to entertain us by a local florist. In a garden situation they can be enjoyed as much for their foliage as for their much shorter lasting voluptuous flower and arguably benefit from being planted more closely with other plants.

 It is a lovely evening though. The cuckoo sounds insistently, there are digging scrapes of wild boar and I can hear the collected English – and American –  laughter at the bottom of the slope. For a moment I think I am at a May drinks party in the shivery, shadowy sunlight.

peony estpeony closerpeony closeypPaeonia officinalis looking a little overdressed

In the morning we head up to Campo Imperatore the largest plateau of the Apennine ridge, known as Italy’s “Little Tibet’.  It is suddenly wet and cold, down to 3ºC as we climb higher in search of crocus still in flower.  We are in a different mood as we set out to explore the area around one of Italy’s oldest ski resorts, most famous for imprisoning Mussolini in its principal hotel in the summer of 1943 until he was freed by German commandos later that year.

The group botanise under heavy skies. I am charmed by the cool silvery bark and simple white flowers of Prunus malaheb, the St Lucie Cherry, and by the delicate meadow saxifrage which suddenly becomes a huge sweep in the more sheltered spots.

IMG_2387Botanising continues under glowering skies

IMG_2405 IMG_2404 Prunus malaheb – the St Lucie cherry

IMG_2413Meadow saxifrage, Saxifraga granulata

At 1500m we stop to photograph extraordinary sheets of the endemic yellow pansy Viola eugeniae at the base of snow covered mountains:

viola snow cap

IMG_2378Viola eugeniae on the Campo Imperatore

As we drive on we realise that the ground in every direction is dense with the grape hyacinth, Muscari neglectium – shivering, inky dark, spreading on and on over the low growing turf.

IMG_2427Huge expanses of Muscari neglectum, Campo Imperatore

We climb higher. The light is cool, cloud-pressed, and we step over pools of almost frozen blue-grey water amidst fresh snow. We find just a few Crocus versus sap albiflorus and some beautiful, papery Pasque flower, Pulsatilla alpina ssp. millefoliatus. We are huddled over against the cold up here, but feeling excited and moved by the calm energy of the plants.

IMG_2456
IMG_2439                       Hunting for crocus in the snow

IMG_5288                                                        Crocus vernus ssp albiflorus

iphnoe pulsatille

Pulsatilla alpinus ssp millefoliatus

Day five is completely different. A glorious still morning, sunshine again, calm, it feels like the first day of summer. As we drive toward Abruzzo National Park we stop at a sunny roadside bank beside a brilliant yellow Spanish Broom and mounds of papery pink Convulvulus allthaeoides.

IMG_2500Spanish broom, Sparticum junceum

IMG_2502Convolvulus althaeoides

The bank itself is crispy dry and dreamy with the streaming blond grass Stipa pennata and the delicate flax Linum tenuifolium.IMG_2507                                               Stipa pennata and Linum tenuifoliium

The stars of the show are the handsome thistle-like heads of Jurinea mollis. The knee-high shrubs of the sharply wiry of Christ’s Thorn Paliurus spin-christi are clearly perfect for creating a cruel crown.

IMG_2509IMG_2511Jurinea mollis and Stipa pennata

IMG_2505IMG_2504Christ’s Thorn, Paliurus spina-christi

But lunchtime is even better. We have almost reached the Abruzzo National Park and we are in a rolling moonscape of gorgeous spring Alpine plants. I am quite lost in the abundance of it, the natural garden, the overwhelming lightness and skill of distribution. I drink in the colours, the combinations – the subtle swings from hot yellows and pinks to cool blues and whites, the repetition, the way some plants nestle against a rock or grow right out of it, the way a tree sits on a bank with a cloak of yellow or pink or white at its feet, like a sunny Madonna.

There is a grey Stachys-like plant, Sideritis italica, which sprouts up every where, and abundant Helianthemum appeninum, the white rock rose with a yellow centre. There is is Polygala major in pink, mauve, blue and endless delicate supplies of wild thyme and snow-in-summer Cerastium tomentosum. There is the yellow wall flower or treacle mustard Erysimum pseudo rheticum sprouting confidently out of stone and there are the lovely magenta Silena conica with their immaculate striped calyces. There is a shorter form of the blue pompom flowered globularia looking cool and fresh with the tiny white mountain daisy, Arenaria montana and there is a wind buffeted oak with a pool of rich yellow kidney vetch at its feet.

IMG_2572IMG_2525IMG_2534IMG_2559IMG_5316IMG_2539

snow in summer coronilla and star silene conicaglob and saxIMG_2571IMG_2550Idyllic spring meadows near the Abruzzo National Park

There are orchids of course too but, although I have admired each one that we have encountered, I am feeling that for the moment I can hardly catch my breath and that the important thing is to keep the essence of this kind of natural planting in my mind.

I return to London with a few new rules in my head. Firstly I am a born-again fan of the colour yellow which has been everywhere on this trip, secondly I must try to use snow-in-summer Cerastium tomentosum which has been gently everywhere and looks great even here at the visitor centre, piling down under a fence:

IMG_5332A simple planting of Cerastium tomentosum

Mostly I am thrilled that I know what it is (entry level, obviously) to look more closely at the world and move about, at least some of the time, at botanical pace.

Huge thanks to Bob Gibbons and Libby Ingalls – and also to Peter Marren and Jamie Sievert.

IMG_2751Bob Gibbons and Libby Ingalls

IMG_2790The richest blue Cynoglottis barrelieri seen on our speedy last walk up the mountain before getting in the car and driving back to Rome.

One  small diversion: on my early morning walks into the town nearest to our last hotel I was struck by these simple, inventive iron fences in clear colours (and I love the colour of the garage door).

iphotofenceIMG_5326IMG_5324Painted fences and garage door, Pescarolo, Abruzzo

 

 

 

CHERRY BLOSSOM TIME

WILD CHERRIES, CHERRIES THAT LIGHT UP THE CITY,  SALT-PICKLED CHERRY BLOSSOMS

IMG_4991Fallen cherry blossom, Richmond Park

Cherry blossom in spring never fails to tug at our heartstrings. We are moved by the fragile mosaic of fallen petals on the grass and exhilarated by the sight of pale blooms against a brilliant spring sky:

yoshino close upYoshino Cherry against sky, Batsford Arboretum , Gloucestershire

Sitting stuck in traffic at a noisy junction at Vauxhall Cross I am distracted by two elegant white-flowered cherry trees which spread out their branches at the base of the movie-set-weary MI6 building and exert a self-contained, civilising influence over this grimy corner of the city. A little further south, the looming steak and curry-night posters outside the pub on Denmark Hill are masked for a few weeks by the intense blooming of a pair of cherry trees, one pink and one white.

I look up ‘cherry tree’ on Amazon – the titles are infused with nostalgia: the fresh delight of spring, the poignant passing of time. I smile at the cover of Josephine Elder’s 1954 ‘Cherry Tree Perch’. It is an impossible cover for a 2016 teenager, but there is a timeless element too – the beginning of the summer term, escaping from revision, dreaming about the time when school is over for the summer.

1954 cherr

And Enid Blyton does not miss a trick when she locates a set of young heroes in the idyllic and comforting world of  ‘Cherry Tree Farm’:

d26c4a7caa62e595a0f2f3dbc316adfc

 

I confess we followed the same path when we asked our friend the portrait painter, Paco Garcia, to paint our three young sons. We were powerfully drawn to the idea of placing the boys under the ‘Great White’ cherry tree – Prunus ‘Tai-Haku’ – at my husband’s family farm in Suffolk.
DF 1

Prunus ‘Tai-Haku’ in the middle of the lawn, Suffolk

portraitPortrait of our three sons by Paco Garcia, spring 2003

The tree was planted forty years ago in the middle of the lawn nearest to the terrace. As well as its dazzling spring display, this tree has been a key player in family life for decades. It has provided shade at teatime when it is hot, it has been the place to put your new baby in his pram to gaze up at the gentle semaphore of the waving branches against the clouds, it was where the grandsons, when they were bigger, tumbled about on the petal-strewn grass with their grandfather’s new puppies. It was even – rather magnificently – incorporated in full flower into the 21st birthday marquee of my sister in law.

But this year, the cherry blossom in the UK has kept us waiting. Gardens with notable collections of cherry trees such as Batsford Arboretum and Kew Gardens invite visitors to telephone for updates. Each time I call, the recommended start date for a satisfactory blossom viewing is nudged a little later. The British approach is rather more gentle than the high-powered Cherry Blossom Watch in Washington DC – a city famed for its spectacular cherry blossom for over a century. In Washington, peak cherry blossom bloom is when the trees are exactly 70% out. Accurate forecasts and guidance are available for visitors and if you are still hopeful of catching some blossom, I’m afraid I have bad news. “Are DC’s Cherry Blossoms blooming?”, I want to know on April 27th, “No, they’re done for the year” declares the website. “The cherry blossoms reached peak bloom on March 25 2016”.

IMG_4769

Back in London there is a moment at the end of March when entire London streets revel in their pale pink canopies of the particularly early flowering cherry plum, Prunus cerasifera ‘Pissardii’:IMG_4768IMG_4767cherry over front doorIMG_4793                                Prunus cerasifera ‘Pissardii’ – Holland Park, London

But there is a downside to this exuberant beginning – when the blossom floats away, the trees’  brownish-purple leaves give them a heavy, rather sulky look.

Down the hill in Ladbroke Grove, Chesterton Road is lined entirely with cherry trees, but even in the second week of April they are tightly in bud. I have to confess I am slightly hoping that the trees will be pink to match so many of the houses:

pink house then 2
chester then 2Cherry trees in Chesterton Road, tightly in bud

When I return on the gloomiest of spring days a couple of weeks’ later, the cherry trees are happily all in flower. They are not pink at all: instead they are lovely, clean, white-flowered Prunus avium ‘Plena’ – the more formal, double version of our native wild cherry. The street is softened by this haze of blossom as far as the eye can see.

pink house now chester now JPG chester now bestPrunus avium ‘Plena’ in flower, Chesterton Road, London

In a neighbouring street I catch sight of a little and large version of Prunus avium ‘Plena’ outside a pair of handsome Victorian houses. I love the balance of green and white against terracotta and green and white against white stucco, and it must be lovely to walk under a bower of pendulous blossom on your way to your front door. But there is a serious size issue to be considered when planting a dainty young cherry tree in your front garden. Too many trees – I am now rather obsessively observing them from my car and from the bus – were always destined to become too big for their site: they have become too heavy and have been chopped about in an attempt to squeeze them into the available space.

IMG_4963 prunus avium plena close up prunus avium plena elginPrunus avium ‘Plena’ – against terracotta and white painted stucco

On a more gorgeous day in a less lovely street in South London, indeed on the pavement alongside a railway, a row of fastigiate street cherries – I think they are the popular Prunus ‘Amanogawa’ – makes every passer by smile.

camberwell 1camber 3Railway-side cherry trees, Peckham

I love the added bonus of the trees’ elongated shadows on the tarmac:camber shadow                                              Cherry tree with elongated shadow

And looking up, the combination of palest pink flowers against a rich blue sky is exhilarating:camberwell 2camber 5camber 4Cherry blossom against blue sky, South London

As I wait for the right moment to head out of town I think about Japan, a country synonymous with cherry blossom.

The world of Japanese ‘hanami’ (flower viewing) is I am sure very beautiful, in parts. If you research it even for a moment you will be bombarded with extraordinary images of ‘sakura’ (cherry blossom) with Mount Fuji beyond, or of ‘night sakura’ or ‘yozakura’ when the cherry trees are hung with paper lanterns:

mount-fuji_03

 

 

 

 

 

 

japanese-lanterns-in-park-full-of-sakura-trees_16Cherry blossom with Mount Fuji and ‘night sakura’ from the excellent blogpost ‘Insider Journeys’ by Rachel McCombie

Picnicking under the cherry blossom has unsurprisingly become big business, however, and websites such as Japan Monthly Web Magazine are happy to explain ‘How to Hanami’. The ‘must have’ shopping list includes ‘a typical plastic picnic sheet’, ‘more garbage bags than you think you will need’ and two types of ‘disposable body warmers’ – one is hand held and the other has adhesive so you can ‘tape it to your underwear to keep your back warm’.

Of course even McDonald’s has a special hanami menu – a teriyaki glazed pork patty with cherry blossom flavoured mayo in a pale pink bun and an outrageous looking Sakura Cherry Float to wash it down:

tumblr_inline_n2wyg83fO51qb3qcf

McDonald’s Hanami burger – image courtesy of the cheery blog EATAKUtumblr_inline_n2wyp1ubX91qb3qcf

McDonald’s Sakura Cherry Float – image courtesy of http://www.mcdonalds.co.jp

I know of course there are deeply beautiful, gentler ways to visit Japan at this time of year and I would head there like a shot. This seductive post from Gardenista, which shows how forager Louesa Roebuck pickles cherry blossom, brings the tempo back down to a subtle, delicate celebration of this fleeting moment in spring.

Gardenista-pickled-cherry-blossomsHow to pickle cherry blossoms – photograph from a series by Chloe Aftel on Gardenista

It is the third week of April and I can wait no longer for an expedition to see cherry trees growing in the countryside. My plan is to drive to Batsford Arboretum in Gloucestershire (which holds a national collection of cherries) via the Chilterns where I will look first for the wild cherry, Prunus avium.

I am inspired by Richard Mabey’s description of wild cherries in his ‘Flora Britannica Book of Spring Flowers’. He writes that ‘the wild cherry is arguably the most seasonally ornamental of our native woodland trees. The drifts of delicate white blossom are often out in early April, just before the leaves, while in Autumn its leaves turn a fiery mix of yellow and crimson. Even the bark – peeling to reveal dark, shiny-red patches – is extravagantly colourful for a British tree.’ In the Chilterns, when the trees ‘are at the edges of woods, as they often are (cherry needs light to regenerate), they can make the entire wood seem to be ringed with white at blossom-time.  A couple of weeks later, when the flowers have fallen, the woods are ringed again, on the ground. After the great storms of October 1987 there was another cherry delight the following spring: windblown trees blooming horizontally in the woods, like flowering hedges.’

mabey

Trying to research the best Chilterns woodland to aim for I am distracted by a wave of images of the American funk rock band, Wild Cherry. I fail hopelessly to get the band’s 1976 hit ‘Play that Funky Music’ out of my head as I make my way West on the M40.

wild-cherry-play-that-funky-music-epic-2

But it is has been so cold that the only tree that is lighting up Ibstone Common when I arrive is still the delicate blackthorn or sloe, Prunus spinosa:

IMG_4849 prunus spinosa prunus spinosa instaPrunus spinosa, Ibstone Common

I find a single, skinny wild cherry, just in flower, under a canopy of taller trees at the edge of the path:
dat wild cherry 2 dat wild cherry                                      First wild cherry sighting, Ibstone Common

As I drive on I catch sight of further trees loosely radiant with flower. They have always found their way to the sunniest spots – not least the edges of motorways. At this rate the wild cherry will be with us well into May.

IMG_5008wild cherry view        Wild cherry – Prunus avium – in full flower, in the sunshine, at the edge of woodland

By the time I reach Batsford Arboretum the sun is warm enough to have lunch outside and it finally feels like spring. I set off hopefully around the 55 acre grounds. One of the first cherries I admire is this Prunus ‘Pink Shell – I like its rather startling top-heavy stance and its delicate bell-like flowers. Matthew Hall, Batsford’s Head Gardener, tells me that ‘Pink Shell’ is “not well enough known” and “never planted enough”. If you have the space to let it spread out in this exuberant way, you could source one from the nursery there.pink shellIMG_1763                                           Prunus ‘Pink Shell’, Batsford Arboretum

Also recommended by Matthew – and indeed on nearly every expert’s list of recommended cherry trees – is Prunus x yedoensis, the Yoshino Cherry. This is another cherry that grows in a lovely open way with profuse, palest pink, almond-scented blossom. In a large, meandering garden such as this, the Yoshino Cherry has the sort of fresh intensity that catches your eye from a distance and draws you towards it.

yoshino cherryyoshino cherry skywardsyoshino close upYoshino Cherry, Batsford Arboretum

A little further on I come across an elegant group of three young Prunus incisa ‘Fujima’. ‘Fujima’ is a wonderful cherry for smaller gardens – described by nurseries as a large shrub or small tree – with prolific palest pink blossom and handsome red and orange autumn colour once established. Prunus incisa ‘Kojo-No-Mai’ would be a great alternative for a small space. If you have a slightly larger space you could of course follow this example and plant three together.

fuji threesomefuji 2A group of three Prunus incisa ‘Fujima’, Batsford Arboretum

An even smaller tree is Prunus ‘The Bride’ with very pretty tight pink buds that open to white. The trees I see planted out and in the nursery at Batsford are very young indeed. I wonder if they will always look a little congested or if they will relax as they grow into a softer shape? I am undecided but the flowers are so charming it could be well worth a try.the bride close up

the bride closestBuds and flowers of Prunus ‘The Bride’

I make my way past a disconcertingly handsome mature Prunus cerasifera ‘Pissardii’. My general view of this purple leaved plum, of course, is that it can only disappoint once the flowers are over, but growing a tree well and giving a tree enough space can make all the difference, I tell myself.

IMG_4885                          Handsome, spreading Prunus cerasifera ‘Pissardii’, Batsford Arboretum

And then I come across a cherry tree which makes my heart sing. In fact there are a pair of  them – Prunus ‘Hillier’ – planted together. Each has been given room to grow old in a wonderful, slightly bent, gorgeously layered way. The towering cherries add a pale, fluttering lightness to the mature trees which surround them.

hillier

hillieri establishPrunus ‘Hillieri’, Batsford Arboretum

They perfectly frame the view beyond and I love the way the hanging branches act as the loveliest of veils.

IMG_4877A pair of Prunus ‘Hillier’ framing the view beyond

IMG_4878

hilleri tangle close

hillier veil Hanging branches of Prunus ‘Hillieri’, Batsford Arboretum

Frustratingly I cannot find a current supplier for Prunus ‘Hillieri’. Matthew Hall at Batsford kindly suggests Prunus ‘Jaqueline’ as his first choice for a possible alternative.  ‘Jaqueline’ is a relatively new introduction with deeper pink single flowers. A probable hybrid of Prunus sargentii, it has the bonus of dramatic pink-red autumn colour.

I look again at the two fine ‘Hillieri’ cherries trying to work out what else it is about the planting that is so satisfying. My eye is drawn to the handsome,  katsura tree – Cercidiphylum japonicum – standing next to themThis has long been one of my favourite trees with its fine rows of suspended, light-catching leaves which smell deliciously of of burnt caramel in the autumn. It is clearly the absolutely perfect pairing with a shell pink flowered cherry and one I will aim to repeat.  IMG_1752                               The elegant dirty gold leaves of Cercidiphyllum japonicum

cercidiphyllum and hillier IMG_4868IMG_4871                                      Cercidiphyllum japonicum and Prunus ‘Hillieri’

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

CAMBRIDGE GARDENS – COOL, GREY, ON THE VERGE OF SPRING

CHAMPION WISTERIAS, CARNIVEROUS PLANTS,  A SECRET CHURCH GARDEN

IMG_4606Bronze green and 23.5 carat gold railings, Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge

It has been a hard, grey start to the year. Just as spring is on its way I have been struck down with every kind of cold and reduced to spending many hours doing very little on the sofa.

I am cheered up by a splendid parcel of single snowdrops in the green from the charismatic Cambo Estate near St Andrews – see my October 2015 post on Cambo.

The snowdrop bulbs are wrapped in perfectly moist moss and then wrapped again in sheets of Cambo’s own newspaper. The cheery assertion that the Cambo Courier is ‘Scotland’s Leading Snowdrop Newspaper’ makes me smile and is clearly the tonic I had been missing.

cambo

Whilst sofa bound I wander dreamily over Scottish mountainsides and remote moorland courtesy of Robert Macfarlane’s passionate book about the powerful relationship between language and place, Landmarks.

landmarks

In Landmarks Macfarlane describes the work of the writers whose “books have taught me to write, but also …to see”. I am already a fan of his beloved Roger Deakin, but I am riveted by Jaquetta Hawkes, a bisexual, icy, daring, Primrose Hill academic who “knew she had had written an unclassifiable work” with her 1951 bestseller A Land – a combination of geology/anthropology/history/literature “flamboyant enough”, writes Macfarlane, “that I can imagine it re-performed as a rock opera”. Another passionate introduction is to Nan Shepherd (1893-1981) who spent hundreds of days and thousand of miles exploring the Cairngorns on foot. Macfarlane’s enthusiasm for Shepherd’s book, The Living Mountain, is intoxicating. “The Living Mountain is thick with the kinds of acute perception that come only from staying up (in a certain place) ‘for a while’. ‘Birch needs rain to release its odour’ Shepherd notes. ‘It is a scent with body to it, fruity like old brandy, and on a wet warm day one can be as good as drunk with it'”. “I had never noticed the ‘odour of the birches’ ” comments Macfarlane “but now cannnot be in a stand of birch trees on a rainy summer’s day without smelling its Courvoisier whiff”.

Threaded throughout Landmarks are collections of words – some regional, some technical, some poetic – which precisely describe an aspect of landscape in a way which stimulates and enriches. A tiny sample of my favourites:

clock-ice: ice cracked and crazed by fissures, usually brought about by the pressure of walkers or skaters, Northamptonshire.

smirr: extremely fine, misty rain, close to smoke in appearance when seen from a distance, Scots.

endolphins: swimmers’ slang for the natural opiates (endorphins) relaeased by the body on contact with cold water (Roger Deakin, poetic).

Shockingly, just as Macfarlane comes across the Peat Glossary (a treasure trove of collected terms for elements of moorland on the Isle of Lewis) he is made aware of extraordinary deletions from the new edition of the Oxford Junior Dictionary. Words “no longer felt to be relevant to a modern-day childhood” included “acorn, adder, ash, beech, bluebell, buttercup, catkin, conker, cowslip, cygnet, dandelion, fern, hazel, heather, heron, ivy, kingfisher, mistletoe, nectar, newt, otter, willow”. Replacement words included “attachment, blog, broadband, bullet-point, celebrity, chatroom, cut-and-paste”. Clearly room must be made for new terms which form part of contemporary life, but it is chilling to think that a dictionary effectively endorses the idea that a modern day child does not need to also describe an acorn, a young swan, a catkin.

emmaFirst Court, Emmanuel College, Cambridge

And so I find myself in the middle of March in the middle of Cambridge – I am an Open Day escort for a child who no longer uses a junior dictionary. I feel that the first place I should head once I have dropped him off is Emmanuel College for, when not roaming rainy hillsides, Dr Robert Macfarlane enjoys this immaculate and elegant environment in his role as Director of Studies for English. He happily acknowledges the irony: “Cambridge is, unmistakably, a curious place for someone who loves mountains to have ended up. I live in a country so flat (as the old joke goes) you could fax it”.

Flat it is and quite a jolt after the world of Landmarks. It is nonetheless an ordered, uplifting space and must be a brilliant place to think and work. I admire the expanses of cobbled path, the elegant yellow stone architecture and perfectly striped lawn. I am particularly taken by these stone curlicued lawn corners:

IMG_1599

Decorative stone lawn corners

A serene colonnade divides First Court from the extensive gardens beyond but – despite the luxury of green space/benches/ponds – I am disappointed by a slightly heavy, municipal gardening style after the crispness of the first courtyard.

IMG_1603Emmanuel College, colonnade

There is a moment of sugary prettiness – low-slung pink cherry, pink bergenia, and darker pink hellebore (plus white van):

cherry bergenia and hellebore white van Pink cherry, bergenia and hellebore

And across the pond, bright white silver birch trunks and the ornamental plum blossom – Prunus cerasifera – make a handsome pair – but the rest could be a park pretty much anywhere.

cherry silver birch

I am happier in the First Court of Christ’s College – a masterclass in training plants perfectly to cloth buildings. None of the plants are unusual, but they are all grown very well and work hard to add another layer of texture and life to their privileged framework.christs                                         First Court, Christ’s College, Cambridge

Here a ballgown of a Magnolia grandiflora bulges glossily in the corner adding light and evergreen richness to the scene. To the right of the doorway a gnarled, sculptural wisteria frames a set of eight windows and will look spectacular in a few weeks’ time. christs                       Magnolia grandiflora and wisteria, Christ’s College, Cambridge

wisteriaTrained wisteria, First Court, Christ’s College Cambridge

On a shadier wall a Hydrangea petiolaris is a chunky three dimensional presence framing a pair of windows. The feisty, surprisingly long, green buds are just beginning to smatter the russet mass of branches with dashes of bright green.

mystery plant christs

On the opposite wall a Jasminum nudiflorum looks great too – shaggy, green-stemmed and dancing with illuminating star-shaped yellow flowers:

jasminum nudiflorum nudiflorum close up

Jasminum nudiflorum, Frist Court, Christ’s College, Cambridge

And further along a hard pruned wall-trained Chaenomeles – flowering quince – is beginning to glow with scarlet flowers:

chaenomeles chaenomeles 2Wall trained Chaenomeles – flowering quince, First Court, Christ’s College, Cambridge

Perhaps my favourite of the wall trained plants is this delicate Abutilon ‘Kentish Belle’. The apricot flowers from red calyces really do add tiny points of light to their sober stone backdrop.  ‘Kentish Belle’ will only ever grow to about 3 metres, probably less, and is semi evergreen. It should flower from June to November but, in a sheltered position like this, will hold onto its leaves and flower perpetually. A not particularly fashionable plant – but one we should definitely use more often.

IMG_1590

abutilon

abutilon close up

Abutilon ‘Kentish Belle’, First Court, Christ’s College, Cambridge.

I nip into Pembroke College. Most of the garden is looking hard-pruned and shut down until spring, but I like the wave-like mounding shrubs that form a run against the Chapel wall and note the classic combination of Viburnum davidii and Sarcococca hookeriana var. digyna that nestle so comfortably around the sculpture of William Pitt.

willliam pitt pembroke william pitt pembroke

Pembroke College Chapel with close up of Vibrunum davidii and Sarcococca hookeriana at the base of the Pitt sculpture.

I walk over to Clare just to admire the brilliant bulb-spangled grass verges that I know will be there. I am not disappointed. As well as the neatest sheafs of Narcissus ‘February Gold’, there are crocus, powder blue Anemone nemerosa ‘Robinsoniana’ and the richer royal blue of the tiny star shaped, Chionodoxa lucilae. Of the latter, Christine Skelmersdale of specialist bulb suppliers Broadleigh Bulbs, writes “in the spring tapestry there has to be something to tie it altogether and these little bulbs do just that”.

IMG_1528

IMG_1537

IMG_1525

spangled

Path leading to Clare College, Cambridge with bulb rich grass verges on either side

I am smitten yet again by the elegant stone balustrade and cobbled shadows of Clare College Bridge in combination with the two razor-sharp yew domes of the Scholars’ Garden beyond.

IMG_1540 IMG_1543View across Clare College Bridge to the Scholars’ Garden

Peering into the Scholars Garden itself the yews continue to be a distinguished and brilliantly sculptural presence. I ache slightly to be here so early in the year. The borders are prepared and mulched and just waiting for the seasons to progress:IMG_1547 empty border                                         Scholars’ Garden, Clare College, Cambridge

My walk takes me past a tree that fills the shadowy space between the west end of King’s College Chapel and the wrought iron gates. The tree is Prunus ‘Taihaku’ – the great white cherry.   Sarah Raven wrote an excellent piece for The Telegraph about this tree in 2001. Her father was a don at King’s and she describes the way the tree “glows” with its ‘”huge, pure white, straight-edged flowers … as if lit from inside”.  For now the tree is a hardened winter network of fine branches which play lightly against the lacy architecture of King’s Chapel. It is exciting to think of the transformation of this space next month.

IMG_1548 IMG_4539Prunus ‘Taihaku’ against King’s College Chapel, Cambridge
2399222517_25aea94968Prunus ‘Taihaku’ flowers

From this point on, Cambridge is at its headiest with brilliantly different architectural styles coming at you from every direction. I walk past the intricate, sandy-stoned, 16th Century Gate of Honour belonging to my old college, Gonville and Caius:

IMG_1550Gate of Honour, Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge

In huge contrast is the neighbouring Senate House – formal, white, austere with a completely plain lawn and vast Roman Urn – a 19th Century bronze copy of the ‘Warwick Vase’ from Hadrian’s Villa Tivoli. I smile at the extremely neat, elongated shadow the urn casts on the enormous lawn:

IMG_4544

IMG_4546Senate House, Cambridge, with Bronze copy of the Warwick Vase

Immediately next to this, the looming shape of King’s College Chapel is perfectly echoed by the surging dome of a two hundred year old horse chestnut tree. A magnificent pair when the horse chestnut is in its skeletal winter guise, but how much lovelier when the chestnut is in leaf and laden with its candle-like flowers?kings 2 CROCUS UNDER HORSES                                 Kings College Chapel and Horse Chestnut tree

I head to the Fitzwilliam Museum – just to turn the screw a little on the memory lane experience – but before I go in I am thrown by the outrageously glamorous green and gold pineapple railings which guard the stone balustraded entrance. Had I really never noticed these before? I am relieved to discover that the railings were only repainted in their “original livery of bronze green with 23.5 carat gold leaf ornaments” in 2014 having been quietly painted black for decades. The railings, I tell you, are now some of the finest you will ever have the pleasure to see.

IMG_4606IMG_4607

IMG_4608Bronze green and 23.5 carat gold railings, Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge.

I have just enough time to step into ‘Crawling with Life: Flower Drawings from the Henry Rogers Broughton Bequest’. The exhibition is held in an enclosed cabinet-like exhibition space and contains just a small number of exquisite 17th and 18th Century drawings of flowers – with their accompanying insects.

There is a feeling of dark playfulness in the air – it is like entering a sedate drawing room where you discover that no one is quite as respectable as they initially seem to be. Jacob Marel’s ‘Venetian Glass Goblet with Flowers and Insects’ is radiant with spring colour but the jewel-like insects which lace themselves slightly secretively throughout the composition have an unsettling effect.

IMG_4570 IMG_4576

Marel open wicker basket Venetian Glass Goblet with Flowers and Insects, Jacob Marel, 1634, plus a detail from ‘An Open Wicker Basket of Flowers with a Frog and Insects, Jacob Marel, Henry Rogers Broughton Bequest, Fitzwilliam Museum

There is a more clinical, very handsome, series of drawings of carniverous plants by George Ehret including this unnervingly stolid drawing of a Stapelia – the carrion flower – a South African plant that generates the odour of rotten flesh to attract specialist pollinators.

IMG_4565Stapelia, George Dionysius Ehret, 1765, Henry Rogers Broughton Bequest, Fitzwilliam Museum

But from the moment I enter the exhibition my eyes are drawn to the pair of drawings by the Dietzsch sisters whose shared style of adding layers of opaque and semi opaque water-based pigments over a blackish ground results in powerfully quiet, almost ghostly paintings that tell knowingly of the fleetingness of life:

IMG_4581Primula auricula with a Clouded Yellow Butterfly, Barbara Regina Dietzsch (1706-1783), Henry Rogers Broughton Bequest, Fitzwilliam Museum

IMG_4584Common dandelion with a garden tiger moth, Margaretha Barbara Dietzsch (1726-1795), Henry Rogers Broughton Bequest, Fitzwilliam Museum

It is nearly time to retrieve Arthur. A quick misty-eyed glimpse at the bike-cluttered History of Art faculty which was pretty much my home for a couple of years.

IMG_4601History of Art Faculty, Cambridge

I am struck by the delightful difference in mood struck by the History of Art department’s fading nameplate against peeling stucco and the action-man (albeit of a certain era) stainless-steel-against-brick lettering of the Engineering faculty next door.

history of art

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

History of Art Faculty nameplate

IMG_4605Department of Engineering nameplate

I am less misty-eyed that the favourite café for art historians and architects has changed its name from Martins – to Hot Numbers.

IMG_4600

No time to sneak off to the Botanical Gardens with its glasshouses, dry garden, scented garden and systematic beds which will be soft with mulch and ready for the spring – but just time to tell you about my husband’s traumatic experience aged about 7 and at school in Cambridge.  An exciting outing was proposed to the MECHANICAL GARDENS –  how disappointed was he to find himself with a day of looking at trees and shrubs in the Cambridge BOTANICAL GARDENS.

IMG_1619Cambridge Botanic Garden Systematic Beds (grouped in plant families) – I only went in for a moment!

I meet up with Arthur by a railing smothered timelessly in University posters. He has emerged appropriately and unashamedly excited by the idea of tackling ‘ridiculously difficult’ German poetry and agrees cheerfully to visit one more garden on the walk back to the station.

IMG_4609Poster smothered railing, Cambridge.

On Trumpington Street, next to Peterhouse College, we scoot in to the almost always open gardens of Little St Mary’s Church. You know you are onto a good thing when a Church sets a playful tone on page one of its website “Why ‘Little?’ Because down the road is the well known University Church, Great St Mary’s. We are smaller, but higher”.

This tiny semi-wild churchyard is a magical place, a listed City WIldlife site and brilliant because it is specifically gardened to nurture the feeling of wildness and seclusion.

mary 1Path leading into Little St Mary’s Churchyard
mary 4 foxgloveGravestone with foxgloves

mary 4 graveMoss covered tomb seen through a screen of winter branches

mary 6 petasitesmary 7 petasites pathNarrow curving paths through lush heart-shaped leaves of Petasites fragrans

mary 9Soaring yew and magnolia against the Church

IMG_4610Roses, Philadelphus and yew share the space with ancient headstones

The transformation into this romantic and informal garden was masterminded by Robert Lachlan  – a former churchwarden, Fellow of Trinity and distinguished mathematician. In 1925 the churchyard had become derelict. Lachlan used fragmented or fallen headstones to create a series of gently winding interlocking paths which entice the visitor to explore. Species roses and other flowering shrubs were planted to live alongside wild strawberry and sweet violet and the tradition of a secret garden, where the more invasive plants are kept in sufficient check to allow other plants to flourish, was begun.

mary 10 grave path

mary 11 grave pathHeadstones used as steps and path

The air throughout the garden is heady with scent from a champion Sarcococca confusa and there is a feeling of thoughtful layers to the planting, careful placing of benches, cherishing of new plants. A quiet example of this is the fleet of gravestones running down the side of the church, each with a small cloak of snowdrops floating steadily in its wake.

mary final little fleet snow dropsA fleet of gravestones each with a small cloak of snowdrops floating steadily in its wake.

Applying to Cambridge these days is as hard a mountain to climb as any Northern peak tackled by Dr Macfarlane. But for everyone who succeeds, this would be an excellent secret place to disappear to once in a while.

IMG_1664 (3)Dancing seedheads against late afternoon light, Little St Mary’s Churchyard, Cambridge.

SMITTEN BY THE GARDEN OF THE PETIT PALAIS

SURPRISING GARDENS IN MUSEUM & GALLERIES IN PARIS AND LONDON

IMG_4060 (1)               Petit Palais garden with pool, palm trees and golden swags.

I was so surprised by the iridescent energy of the garden of the Petit Palais when I visited this month that I stayed out much too long taking in the different views, framed here by a pair of heavy leaved palm trees…

IMG_4056Petit Palais Garden  – pool and palm trees

…and here, guided by the upward-sweeping branches of the cherry trees with their copper-brown trunks and rosy haze of grasses behind and electric green eyes of just-opening Euphorbia characias in front.
IMG_4106Petit Palais garden – grasses, cherry tree, euphorbia

It is a freezing, clear-skied January morning in Paris. The vistas are open and enticing, huge expanses of pale grey and blue laced with gold:

IMG_4021              Pont Alexandre III, Paris.

A glimpse through a side-door into the empty cavern of a between-exhibitions Grand Palais gets my heart thumping – I am always happily seduced by the heady potential of a rough studio-like space:
IMG_4020
                                               Side entrance to the Grand Palais. 

Up the steps and through the imposing arch of the gilded Beaux- Arts doorway – The Petit Palais art museum was built in 1900 for the Exhibition Universelle and then completely renovated over four years from 2001-2005 –

IMG_4022Petit Palais entrance.

and then into the sweep of sunlit corridors of this entirely circular building, with towering glass doors and windows in every direction.

IMG_4127

A series of windows overlooking the Seine.

The floors are entirely of mosaic in subtle shades of rust, green, black and mustard against soft white:

IMG_4126Mosiac floor, entrance hall, Petit Palais.

The spacious exhibition halls glide seamlessly into a curved outdoor loggia, with a pair of deep blue and white Sèvres porcelain pots on plinths coaxing you on. The swirling mosaic of the floor is punctuated with lovely circular frosted aqua glass sky lights.

IMG_4035IMG_4043 (2)External loggia, Petit Palais, with a pair of Sèvres porcelain pots on plinths.

Even the curving ceiling of the loggia is decorated with a brown-on-gold trellis festooned with powder blue clematis and pink roses:

IMG_4098The Loggia ceiling, Petit Palais.

Looking back against the interior wall of the loggia, the delicate, punched metal chairs and deep green marble tables add just another layer to the subtle grandeur.

IMG_4050Perfectly judged café chairs and table, Petit Palais.

And then, between the soaring scale of the grey-brown Vosges granite columns, you get your first proper look at the garden.

IMG_4053The Petit Palais garden, framed by Vosges granite columns.

If you look up you see the pale gold swags silhouetted against the sky:IMG_4055

 

 

 

Decorative gold swags silhouetted against the sky

If you look across, out into the garden, you begin to get an idea of the intoxicating lushness of the place.

IMG_4048The lush planting of the Petit Palais garden

This interior courtyard was always intended to provide a breathing place for visitors to the gallery itself. It is a grand but inviting framework for a garden – a deftly designed space with curves and columns of the palest mustard, grey and pink stone, with the deeper tones of the roof tiles and the uplifting gleam of decorative gold.  IMG_4083                                  View along the central axis of the Petit Palais garden.

IMG_4105Curves and columns of the Petit Palais garden.

IMG_4103Close up swirly marble table top and skinny milk-green café chair against strong shapes in pale stone.

It has a fundamental dynamism which invites you in to explore and – enriched by simply brilliant  planting – every view is different.
IMG_4060Palm trees adding structure, gloss and glamour.

I love the mix of tropical plants with grasses and evergreen shrubs and perennials. Palm trees add structure, gloss, glamour and a constant sense of surprise. I have never seen the delicate scattered flowers of the winter flowering cherry Prunus x subhirtella ‘Autumnalis’ against the weighty arching branches of a banana tree, but here the combination works brilliantly, not least perhaps because of the glint of gold peeping through.

IMG_4059Prunus x subhirtella ‘Autumnalis’ against banana leaves.

Tough stalwarts of the shadier garden are employed with confidence and energy. Here the waxy dark green leaves and perky just opening flower buds of Fatsia japonica look fresh and handsome against the golden stone:
IMG_4111                                                        Fatsia japonica, Petit Palais garden.

IMG_4044 (1)

Euphorbia characias, Acanthus, Fatsia japonica and Bergenia provide an understory for the deciduous trees.

Elsewhere Euphorbia, Acanthus, Bergenia and Yucca plants combine to make a strong rich green understory for the deciduous trees. I have seen photographs of these cherry trees in spring when their vase-shaped branches are covered in deep pink. This is their moment to swan around outrageously like dancers from the Folies Bergères and I would love to catch the sight for myself.

The other surprising element of the garden is the extensive use of grasses. Here is the most elegant use of pampas grass I know, and the Miscanthus sinensis look graceful and distinguished with their pale fragile heads and rosy winter foliage.

IMG_4064

IMG_4084

IMG_4109Grasses, including Pampas grass Cortaderia selloana & Miscanthus sinensis, Petit Palais garden.

On either side of the main steps into the garden there are two magnificent fleets of strapping white-painted Versailles planters filled with handsome specimens of palm tree and Magnolia grandiflora:

IMG_4074IMG_4115 IMG_4080

Versailles planters with specimens of palm and Magnolia grandiflora, Petit Palais garden.

I go into the café to warm up and eat an elegant slice of lemon cake with my coffee. “Bon appétit, Madame” says a guard, who is also taking a break. “You must have become very cold out there”. I can barely feel my fingers, but I have had a brilliant half hour. The guard leaves,  bows slightly and wishes me a ‘bonne journée’. I am indeed having a very good day, I think, as I gaze for one more time at the banana leaves and the dancing Miscanthus heads catching the winter light:
IMG_4119Winter heads of Miscanthus sinensis and banana leaves catching the winter sunlight, Petit  Palais garden.

Back in London, I am at the Royal Academy on a glowering January day, a week or so before the opening of its ravishing Painting the Modern Garden exhibition. I am still musing about what it takes to make a successful garden within the walls of a gallery or museum.

IMG_4266Royal Academy, Painting the Modern Garden, 30 January – 20 April 2016.

Clearly one of the main challenges is to create a garden that will look good all year round, often within a very limited space. I head for the Keeper’s House, now a restaurant, café and bar, open to RA friends until 4pm and after that to everyone. Tom Stuart-Smith created a garden here in 2013 in what he describes as ‘one of those curious architectural left over spaces’ with almost no natural light. His aim was to make the garden feel as if it has been dug out of the space with an ‘almost archaeological’ quality.

First glimpses of the garden from the windows of the sophisticated mohair velvet sofas of the Belle Shenkman room are as vibrant and seductive today as they would be in midsummer.

IMG_4269

IMG_4271IMG_4270

Views from the Belle Shenkman Room at the Royal Academy onto Tom Stuart-Smith’s garden.

The green of the spreading arms of the 250 year old Australian tree ferns brought into the UK under license is dazzling, and Stuart-Smith is superbly vindicated in his use of his favourite  grass, Hakonechloa macra. In its winter form it is a fiery, eye catching streak which lights up the garden further.

You have to go down a flight of stairs to start climbing back into the garden which is elegantly tiered and tiled throughout in dark brick so that the ground and walls are of the same deep earthy tones. The exuberant tree ferns are accompanied only by the hakonecholoa, the low-growing evergreen shrub Pittosporum tobira ‘Nanum’, with just two climbers, Trachelospernum jasminoides and Virginia Creeper for the walls and railings. Here, restraining the planting palette is key.

IMG_4276IMG_4284

IMG_4294Ground level views of the Keeper’s House garden, Royal Academy.

When you look up, the energy of the tree ferns is celebratory and infectious.
IMG_4282

IMG_4285Looking upwards, Keeper’s House garden, Royal Academy.

I go back into the gallery and start climbing the stairs. What Tom Stuart-Smith has achieved so cleverly is a garden that delivers from any level in the building. I look down through huge panes of glass from the second floor onto David Nash’s blackened wood sculpture, ‘King and Queen’.  The tree ferns and egg-yolk yellow grass are a wonderful foil for these dark figures. This is a fine platform for art and the Academicians must enjoy selecting work for this space.

IMG_4304

IMG_4297IMG_4299IMG_4296View onto the Keeper’s House garden, Royal Academy, with ‘King and Queen’ by David Nash.

In 2010 my design partner, Helen Fraser, and I were asked to develop a planting scheme for a new garden at the South London Gallery on the busy Peckham Road.  IMG_4258IMG_4261Exterior of the South London Gallery with and without bus

The Fox Garden was a new space that emerged as part of the 6a architects‘ extension of this constantly innovative contemporary art gallery.

IMG_4241

The garden would link the ncafé, NO. 67, with a new building, The Clore Studio, and was flanked on one side by the enormous exterior wall of the main 1891 gallery, and on the other by a tall garden wall.  A much simpler proposition than the Petit Palais or Keeper’s House gardens, but nonetheless a rather unevenly lit garden with the need to look good all year round and to offer change throughout the seasons. The noise and grime of the road outside would increase the sense of surprise when the visitor came across the garden for the first time.slg before 1slg before 2Framework of The Fox Garden – the towering gallery wall with elegant new buildings by 6a architects at either end and a wonderful, sinuous brick path.

Our solution was use tough, hard-working plants which could create an impact for as long a season as possible. The star plant has perhaps been Nandina domestica – or heavenly bamboo – which has thrived here and provides an almost constant succession of white flower sprays followed by red berries:

IMG_4255IMG_4243IMG_4253IMG_4256IMG_4250IMG_1463Nandina domestica – or heavenly bamboo – creating a lush and welcoming atmosphere in The Fox Garden, South London Gallery on a January day.

We have used three flowering dogwoods – Cornus kousa var Chinensis – including a fabulous almost outsize specimen directly outside the café. These illuminate the garden in June, matching the glamour of Paul Morrison’s covetable gilded wall painting in the café atrium, and provide a period of rich autumn colour.

slg cornus

IMG_5568Cornus kousa var Chinensis – with a close up of the beautiful white bracts which surround the tiny flowerhead.

Non Summer 2010 005Non Summer 2010 005

Views through to the flowering dogwood from the No. 67 dining room with its exhilarating  Paul Morrison gold mural.

IMG_2229Claret red autumn colour of the Cornus kousa var Chinensis with Lawrence Weiner’s swooping ‘wall sculture’ on the gallery wall, part of his 2014 ‘All in Due Course’ exhibition.

Other repeated plants are Euphorbia characias with its long lasting lime green bracts…IMG_2179                                      Euphorbia characias with its lime green bracts.

…and Libertia grandiflora which we love for its white flowers in May, long lasting seedheads, and year round architectural presence:

IMG_5567IMG_5555Libertia grandiflora which makes everyone smile the garden in May.

The Libertia even makes Heidi smile – Heidi, gardener of The Fox Garden, is of course the secret ingredient:IMG_5543                                        Heidi – The Fox Garden’s secret ingredient.

Happily it seems that gardens within museums and cafés are providing so much enjoyment that there are new gardens in development wherever you look. Right here in the South London Gallery a new garden by artist Gabriel Orozco is slowly emerging to be unveiled in the autumn of 2016.

A couple of miles away at the Garden Museum, next to Lambeth Bridge, Dan Pearson is designing a completely new garden within a substantial extension by Dow Jones Architects.

v0_large

 Tradescant Knot Garden, Garden Museum – image thanks to www.culture24.org.uk.

The design has been a challenge, not least because a decision had to be made to lose the knot garden of the existing Tradescant Garden, but Garden Museum director Christopher Woodward tells me ‘Dan has designed a new garden which will try to startle the visitor with unusual shapes and beauties and surprise you with unfamiliar plants … I hope the space with have something of that atmosphere of the Zumpthor-Oudolf pavilion at the Serpentine a few years ago’.

ImageProposed garden café within the new Dow Jones Architects’ pavilions. Garden to be designed by Dan Pearson. Visualisation by Forbes Massie, image courtesy of The Garden Museum.

The Garden Museum is in the safest possible hands with the thoughtful and often magical input of Dan Pearson. The reference to my absolute favourite of the Serpentine Gallery‘s annual summer Pavilions – the 2011 Serpentine Gallery Pavilion designed by architect Peter Zumthor with planting by master plantsman Piet Oudolf  – makes the new garden a tantalising prospect.

I look through my photographs and find only a few hazy images of my visit to this blackened, open-roofed, box-like cloistered garden that landed for a few summer months next to the Serpentine Gallery in Kensington Gardens. I remember being surprised and deeply cheered by the almost physical pull this hidden garden had on passers-by on a completely beautiful day in an already completely beautiful green space. The contrast between the plain, rather severe building and the planting (which became taller and blousier and more relaxed as the summer wore on) was compelling, and the impact of sunlight and shadows on the space was exciting and dynamic.
IMG_4493IMG_4506IMG_4494

IMG_4521Images of the Piet Oudolf planting within the Peter Zumthor Serptentine Gallery Pavilion, September 2011.

I hope that when it is warm again I will have the chance to return to Paris to visit a museum garden that fell off my list on my recent trip.  The Musée de la Vie Romantique is housed in a green shuttered villa in Montmartre which belonged to the 19th Century artist, Ary Sheffer. It is said to have a lovely garden and outdoor café with poppies, foxgloves and fragrant roses. I read somewhere that it is the perfect place to sit amongst the roses sipping tea and pretend to be Georges Sand who famously lived nearby. Now this is a whole new angle on museum garden visiting.

A piece I have written for The Daily Telegraph on other gardens to visit in Paris will be published in the Spring.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

ANGEL TRAIL – THE GARDEN IN WINTER AT GRAVETYE MANOR AND RHS WISLEY

LOOKING AT THE GARDEN IN WINTER WITH AN ANGEL ON MY SHOULDER
pennisetum                Ethereal seedheads of Pennisetum alopecuroides ‘Hameln’, RHS Wisley

It has become something of a personal tradition at this time of year to set off with my backpack for a day of Christmas shopping and to find myself veering off into the cool marble halls of a favourite gallery or museum instead. Last week, on my way to buy some boxes of heavenly salted caramel chocolates from Fortnum & Mason (purchased with the time-honoured principle of three boxes to give as presents, one box to present to yourself … ) it became obvious that my time would be best spent in the Sainsbury Wing of the National Gallery. Here, amongst roomfuls of paintings which must collectively feature hundreds or even thousands of angels, the Gallery has cleverly chosen just ten particularly fine, 14th and 15th Century paintings to form a manageable and uplifting ‘Angel Trail’ for the Christmas visitor.

It is a powerful and cheering experience and I urge you to call in and see the paintings for yourself – at any time of year. The modest size of the ‘Angel Trail’ is key to its success because you have space in your head to look at the paintings properly. I remember hearing David Linley  on Desert Island Discs describing how his father, Anthony Armstrong-Jones, would regularly pop into the National Gallery with him, maybe on a Saturday afternoon on the way to something else, with the mission to look at just one painting intently. It was a brilliant gift from father to son.

The ‘Angel Trail’ paintings linger in my head as I return to my everyday world of plants and gardens. Ranks of golden willow leaves suddenly have the quality of angel wings and a fragile, papery seed head becomes a light ethereal presence. So here is my Christmas blogpost looking at the garden in winter, with an angel on my shoulder.

‘ANGEL TRAIL’ PAINTING NO. 1

Matteo di Giovanni, active 1452; died 1495 The Assumption of the Virgin probably 1474 Tempera and gold on wood, 331.5 x 174 cm, 150 kg Bought, 1884 NG1155 http://www.nationalgallery.org.uk/paintings/NG1155

The Assumption of the VIrgin, Matteo di Giovanni, tempera and gold on wood, probably 1474, National Gallery, London, Room 59

This monumental Assumption of the Virgin in its towering frame, offers a bulging Virgin Mary, radiant in pink, gold and white on a shimmering gold ground. The angels busy themselves in a fluttering network around her.

As I walk around the RHS garden at Wisley, the leaves of Hamamelis mollis ‘Boskoop’ hang fat, round and golden, happily echoing Matteo di Giovanni’s bold, fecund painting.

hamamelis closeHamamelis mollis ‘Boskoop’

Witch hazel is mostly grown for the fiery flowers that will open up from those velvety buds, but the power of the shrub to bring light into the late season garden with its autumn foliage colour should never be under estimated.

In a sunnier part Wisley’s Battleston Hill, the fine, shredded flowers of Hamamelis x intermedia ‘Orange Peel’ are already blazing away in this exceptionally mild December.

IMG_3503Hamamelis x intermedia ‘Orange Peel’

For the white and pink of the Virgin’s robe, and the throng of angels that encircle her, I offer this lovely rose – a tangle of white blooms and fading red hips against a pale blue winter sky:
white rose hips 2white rose hips 1

White roses and rose hips against a winter sky

‘ANGEL TRAIL’ PAINTING NO. 2

Lorenzo Monaco, active 1399; died 1423 or 1424 The Coronation of the Virgin: Central Main Tier Panel 1407-9 Egg tempera on wood, 220.5 x 115.2 cm Bought, 1902 NG1897 This painting is part of the group: 'San Benedetto Altarpiece' (L2; NG215-NG216; NG1897; NG2862; NG4062) http://www.nationalgallery.org.uk/paintings/NG1897

The Coronation of the Virgin, part of the San Benedetto Altarpiece, Lorenzo Monaco, tempera on wood, 1407-9, National Gallery London, Room 53

I am struck by the simple clarity of the pale pink, yellow and blue of the angels’ robes in this Lorenzo Monaco painting.

At Wisley I find the lovely evergreen ground cover Vinca difformis beginning to light up the woodland floor with its translucent powder blue flowers. This is a  vigorous but not invasive periwinkle which reliably flowers in late winter and early spring. I am happy to note how the pairs of bright green leaves form pairs of angel wings along the stem.

vinca close up

IMG_1290Vinca difformis, RHS Garden, Wisley – palest blue flowers and pairs of leaves like angels’ wings

I struggle to match the chalky yellow of the central angel’s drapery, but in Rosa ‘Mortimer Sackler’, (an almost thornless repeat flowering shrub rose with loosely double, very fragrant soft pink flowers), I find an excellent echo for the subdued whitish-pink of the angels on either side.

IMG_3653             Rosa ‘Mortimer Sackler’

Near the Alpine Houses, trailing rosemary (Rosmarinus officinalis ‘Prostratus Group’) is in full flower. The shape of its arching stems mirror the shape of angel wings:

IMG_1360Rosmarinus officinalis Prostratus Group

‘ANGEL TRAIL’ PAINTING NO. 3

English or French (?) Richard II presented to the Virgin and Child by his Patron Saint John the Baptist and Saints Edward and Edmund ('The Wilton Diptych') about 1395-9 Egg on oak, 53 x 37 cm Bought with a special grant and contributions from Samuel Courtauld, Viscount Rothermere, C.T. Stoop and The Art Fund, 1929. NG4451 http://www.nationalgallery.org.uk/paintings/NG4451

‘The Wilton Diptych’ – Richard II presented to the Virgin and Child by his Patron Saint John the Baptist and Saints Edward and Edmund, English or French (?), egg on oak, about  1395-9, National Gallery London, Room 53

‘The Wilton Diptych’ is one of my favourite paintings. Here the eye is immediately drawn to the unforgettable rhythmic quality of the angels’ wings on right hand panel, as well the rich cobalt blue of the angels’ and Virgin Mary’s gowns.

At Wisley I fall for a fantastic willow with its suspended ranks of golden-yellow autumn leaves. It is Salix udensis ‘Sekka’  – the Dragon or Fantail Willow. It is a handsome plant for a moist part of the garden with unusual flattened stems and silvery green catkins. It can be stooled to 30cm above ground in spring to keep it a manageable size and is available from the wonderful Bluebell Nursery.

salix

Salix udensis ‘Sekka’, RHS wisley

In my search for elegant, rhythmically arranged leaves I make a new discovery: a really good looking, low growing Mahonia. Here the Mahonia eurbracteata ‘Sweet Winter’ – which will only reach a metre in height – makes a valuable evergreen understory to a handsome, rounded specimen of variegated Chinese privet, Ligustrum lucidum ‘Excelsum Superbum’:

IMG_1325 IMG_1324

Mahonia eurobracteata ‘Sweet Winter’ growing under variegated Chinese Privet at RHS WIsley

A few days later I am walking around the garden of Gravetye Manor  in East Sussex, the former home of Victorian ‘wild gardener’ William Robinson and now a wonderful hotel. The garden is is being passionately and imaginatively restored under Head Gardener, Tom Coward, and I have a brilliant morning with him learning so much about every aspect of the garden.

The heavy-boughed Magnolia campbellii – whose graceful branches dip down over the terraces of the Little Garden and the Flower Garden – also reminds me of the elegant Wilton Diptych angels. The Magnolia is silvery in bud against the bursts of rich blue sky.

IMG_1421

Magnolia campbelii, Gravetye Manor

‘ANGEL TRAIL’ PAINTING NO. 4

Piero della Francesca, about 1415/20 - 1492 The Nativity 1470-5 Oil on poplar, 124.4 x 122.6 cm Bought, 1874 NG908 http://www.nationalgallery.org.uk/paintings/NG908The Nativity, Piero della Francesca, oil on poplar, 1470-75, National Gallery London, Room 66

IMG_3707

IMG_3708

IMG_3710Details from: The Nativity, Piero della Francesca, oil on poplar, 1470-75, National Gallery, London, Room 66

I have long loved the soft, sober, no frills – no wings – absorption of these music making angels in this scratchy, tough, almost monotone countryside Nativity. There is a timelessness and naturalness to the painting style – you can feel the arrival of winter in a warm, dry land.

In the garden at Gravetye, stands of artichokes are left to cast jagged silhouettes against the sky, the glaucous new foliage contrasting as sharply as baby Jesus’ blue blanket with the arid land around him.

chok1 1 choke 3 Winter seed heads of artichokes, Gravetye Manor

In one border, slender golden stems of Calamagrostis form a sand coloured sheet beneath the artichoke seed heads:chosek2WInter seed heads of Artichokes with Calamagrostis, Gravetye Manor

Back at Wisley, Phlomis russeliana forms neat stands of pompom seed heads on upright stems – a good match for the tightly shaped trees in the background of the Piero della Francesca painting.

phlomis russeliana

Phlomis russeliana seedheads, RHS Wisley

‘ANGEL TRAIL’ PAINTING NO 5

Fra Filippo Lippi, born about 1406; died 1469 The Annunciation about 1450-3 Egg tempera on wood, 68.6 x 152.7 cm Presented by Sir Charles Eastlake, 1861 NG666 This painting is part of the group: 'Medici (Overdoor?) Panels' (NG666-NG667) http://www.nationalgallery.org.uk/paintings/NG666

The Annunciation, Fra Filippo Lippi, egg tempera on wood, about 1450-53, National Gallery, London, Room 54

IMG_3689

IMG_3691

Details from The Annunciation, Fra Filippo Lippi

An extremely beautiful and intense painting with subdued, subtle colouring and a powerful sense of the Virgin Mary bathed in the light of the Angel.

In the garden at Wisley the arching stems of this berberis, the leaves just turning to gold, light up and give energy to a rather demure autumn shrubbery.

colouring berberis? colouring berberis 2Arching stems of berberis, RHS Wisley

It is hard to find a sweetly jewelled spring meadow in December, but this lone magenta Cyclamen coum has emerged from a low mat of rounded, silver-marked leaves and will soon be joined by more flowers.

cyclamenThe first flower in a mat of Cyclamen coum

In the garden at Gravetye I am smitten by the soft, low mounds of winter flowering heather – Erica carnea.  Tom Howard is pleased that I like them so much – winter flowering heathers have become so deeply unfashionable -but here they look wonderful, gently clothing the stone walls and providing an inviting, cushioning, tiny-flowered back drop to the steps and benches. He has been trying to champion them, but is not sure how well the conversion attempt is going!   They are fantastically easy to grow and, unlike most heathers, don’t need an acidic soil. These heathers at Gravetye have the idiosyncratic, spreading elegance that comes, of course, with plants of a certain age, so consider planting sooner rather than later.

IMG_3742

IMG_3743

Mounds of Erica carnea providing a soft backdrop for steps and benches at Gravetye Manor

‘ANGEL TRAIL’ PAINTING NO. 6

Master of the Saint Bartholomew Altarpiece, active about 1470 to about 1510 The Virgin and Child with Musical Angels about 1485-1500 Oil on oak, 52 x 38 cm Bought, 1985 NG6499 http://www.nationalgallery.org.uk/paintings/NG6499

Virgin and Child with Musical Angels, Master of the Saint Bartolomew Altarpiece, about 1485-1500, oil on oak, National Gallery, London, Room 64

IMG_3712

IMG_3713

Details of Virgin and Child with Musical Angels, Master of the Saint Bartolomew Altarpiece, National Gallery, London

This lovely, playful, much more mannered painting is full of movement and the colours are bright – clear pinks, whites and a luminous pale gold. The delicate columbine to the left of the Virgin allludes to the Holy Ghost and to the right there are cornflowers and carnations – the latter symbolic of Christ’s future sacrifice.

In the absence of these early summer flowers I suggest the beautiful, velvety buds of the winter flowering shrub Edgeworthia chrysantha. I love the baby-toed neatness of the buds against the elegant network of cinnamon coloured branches. Soon the buds will open to reveal fragrant yellow flowers, immaculate clusters of tiny yellow trumpets which look almost too perfect to be true.

IMG_1345 IMG_1347Edgeworthia chysantha, RHS Wisley

For pale pink and an even sweeter fragrance which carries tantalisingly in the air, upright shrubs of the wonderful Daphne bholua are already in flower all over the garden.

daphne b 1Daphne bholua, RHS WISLEY

‘ANGEL TRAIL’ PAINTING NO. 7

Geertgen tot Sint Jans, about 1455/65; died about 1485/95 The Nativity at Night possibly about 1490 Oil on oak, 34 x 25.3 cm Bought, 1925 NG4081 http://www.nationalgallery.org.uk/paintings/NG4081The Nativity at Night, Geertgen tot Sint Jans, oil on oak, possibly about 1490, National Gallery, London, Room 63

This ‘Nativity at Night’ was unknown to me before this visit to The National Gallery but it will now be amongst the first Nativity paintings I will think of at this time of year. It is a powerful painting with an extraordinary radiant glow emanating from the baby Jesus, a lustrous depth to the surrounding darkness and a haunting, tiny, crumpled angel hovering above.

The ethereal angel follows me closely as I observe the winter garden – here in a stand of delicate just-standing seed heads of the white globe thistle, Echinops bannaticus ‘Star Frost’:

echinops 4Echinops bannaticus ‘Star Frost’, RHS Wisley

Here in the fine, bleached fragility of end of season Pennisetum alopecuroides ‘Hameln’:
pennisetum                                               Pennisetum alopecuroides ‘Hameln’, RHS Wisley

and here in the tousled, light-catching, cotton-wool seed heads of white japanese anemones Anemone x hybrida ‘Honorine Jobert’:

jap close up

jap anemoneAnemone x hybrida ‘Honorine Jobert’, RHS Wisley

At Gravetye Manor in East Sussex the air is so clean that the naked branches of deciduous trees and shrubs are lacy with exquisite lichen which has something of the same suspended, ghostly quality.

lichen 1lichen 2                                            Lichen on naked branches, Gravetye Manor

‘ANGEL TRAIL’ PAINTING NO. 8

Bartolomé Bermejo, about 1440 - after 1495 Saint Michael triumphant over the Devil with the Donor Antonio Juan 1468 Oil and gold on wood, 179.7 x 81.9 cm Bought by Private Treaty Sale with a grant from the American Friends of the National Gallery, London, made possible by Mr J. Paul Getty Jnr’s Endowment Fund, 1995 NG6553 http://www.nationalgallery.org.uk/paintings/NG6553

Saint Michael triumphant over the Devil with the Donor Antonio Juan, Bartolomé Bermejo, oil and gold on wood, 1468, National Gallery, London, Room 63

This extraordinary painting of an elegant angel in fully armoured battle mode is infused with a dull golden glow and a pinky-red, the colour of the interior of a pomegranate.

I am struck by the fine, metallic, wing-like quality of the classic garden sea holly, Eryngium giganteum ‘Silver Ghost’ in its crisped December phase:

eryngimum leaf eryngiumum and perovskia

eryngium 2jpg                                           Eryngium giganteum ‘Silver Ghost’, RHS Wisley

And I love the way these backlit velvety buds of Magnolia campbellii at Gravetye frame the view of the soft red Liquidambar tree in the mist beyond – a fine match for the subtly burnished tones of the painting.

backlit mag buds and liquid

Liquidambar framed by backlit buds of Magnolia campbellii, Gravetye Manor

liquid mist

Liquidambar in the mist, Gravetye

There is a similar regal, wintry feel to this sombre view of a pine tree and heavily berried Viburnum opulus:

IMG_3770

Pine tree and heavily berried Viburnum opulus, Gravetye Manor

‘ANGEL TRAIL’ PAINTING NO.9

Simon Marmion, active 1449; died 1489 A Choir of Angels: From Left Hand Shutter about 1459 Oil on oak, 57.6 x 20.9 cm Bought, 1860 NG1303 This painting is part of the group: 'Fragments of Shutters from the St Bertin Altarpiece' (NG1302-NG1303) http://www.nationalgallery.org.uk/paintings/NG1303

A Choir of Angels, Simon Marmion, oil on oak, about 1459, National Gallery, London, Room 63

IMG_3697

Detail from A Choir of Angels, Simon Marmion, National Gallery, London

The clear, almost tropical colours and wonderful dynamic energy of these perfectly arranged angels in their gorgeous curving robes make for a painting more powerful and more memorable than you might expect from its modest size – just over 50 by 20cm.

This brilliant green and yellow oak leaf is a perfect echo:

IMG_1394Oak leaf, December, RHS Wisley

As are the neatly arranged leaves of one of my favourite shrubs for winter/early spring, Stachyrus praecox – here showing brilliant acid green end of season colour which contrasts perfectly with the luminous pink of the petioles. In early spring the tiny ruby buds will open into pendant strings of primrose yellow bell shaped flowers on bare branches.

stach again stach

IMG_1344

Leaves and buds (bottom photograph) of Stachyrus praecox, RHS Wisley

I come across this stand of Cornus sericea ‘Hedgerows Gold’ at a rather brilliant moment – the leaves going into winter with a wild dance as they turn from green to yellow to pink:

IMG_3586

mystery angel plnat 3 mystery angel plant 2 Cornus sericea ‘Hedgerows Gold’, RHS Wisley

‘ANGEL TRAIL’ PAINTING NO. 10

Hans Memling, active 1465; died 1494 The Virgin and Child with Saints and Donors (The Donne Triptych) about 1478 Oil on oak, 71 x 70.3 cm Acquired under the terms of the Finance Act from the Duke of Devonshire's Collection, 1957 NG6275.1 This painting is part of the group: 'The Donne Triptych' (NG6275.1-NG6275.3) http://www.nationalgallery.org.uk/paintings/NG6275.1

The Donne Triptych, Virgin and Child with Saints and Donors, Hans Memling, oil on oak, about 1478, National Gallery London, Room 63

IMG_3702Detail of The Donne Triptych, Hans Memling, about 1478, National Gallery, London, Room 63

I love the calm order and balanced structure of this Hans Memling painting, the flat mid-green of the landscape beyond, a gentle, anchoring contrast to the rich red of the Virgin’s robes and  the canopy above her throne. The focus is, of course, upon the fruit being offered to the baby Jesus. There are no enticing pears to be found on my travels around the December garden but there are other gorgeous fruit which are celebratory enough for a Christmas painting.

I have long wanted a strawberry tree – Arbutus unedo. Such a handsome evergreen tree which has the generous quality of offering its pretty shell-pink flowers at the same time as its scarlet pendant fruit. Arbutus unedo is pretty as a small shrub but worth planting as soon as you can, as a spreading, slightly gnarled mature tree is particularly handsome. The fruit are edible although famously ‘unedo’ is believed to be a contraction of the Latin ‘unum edo’ – meaning ‘I eat one’ i.e. they are not as appetising as you might hope.

arbutus flower 2arbutus flower 1
arbutus 2 more arbutusArbutus unedo ‘Roselily Minlily’, RHS Wisley

Elsewhere at Wisley this medlar tree is humming with its strange brown fruits suspended like tiny, happy space ships amongst flying yellow leaves:

medlar 2medlar 1

Medlar fruit and leaves, RHS Wisley

My favourite fruit – absolutely worth seeking out if you can – is the extraordinary fruit of the Handkerchief tree, Davidia involucrata. The garden at Gravetye boasts two wonderful mature Davidias – and maturity is what is required as a young tree typically takes 15-20 years to flower. The flowers are surrounded by spectacular, slightly drooping, white flower bracts – which give the tree its ‘handkerchief’ name:

davidia-involucrata-flower

Davidia involucrata in flower

The spherical nut-like fruits that follow hang from particularly graceful curving pink stalks – as dynamic and covetable as an Alexander Calder mobile:

IMG_1428 davidia fruits IMG_3763

 

 

davidia fruits silhouetterDavidia involucrata fruit, Gravetye Manor

My final festive offering is this perky alternative Christmas tree – a monkey puzzle or Araucaria araucana. I love its muscly form – the fine mid-green takes me back to the immaculate grass sward of The Donne Tryptich:

monkey puzzle monkey puzzle close upMonkey Puzzle tree in the December sunshine, RHS WIsley

IMG_3702

The Donne Tryptich, Hans Memling, National Gallery, London

So I have reached the end of another year of THE DAHLIA PAPERS.  It has been a brilliant year with so many unexpected and uplifting new friendships and new connections. Thank you so much for reading, following and commenting and I wish you all a very Happy New Year,

Non,

19.Xii.2015

PS You may enjoy listening to a podcast I recorded this week for the Guardian on the best gardening books of 2015 – with the Guardian Gardening Editor, Jane Perrone, Books Editor, Clare Armistead, Matthew Wilson (‘Landscape Man’) designer, writer and snowdrop expert, Naomi Slade and Director of the Garden Museum, Christopher Woodward

http://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/gardening-blog/audio/2015/dec/19/sow-grow-repeat-best-gardening-books-of-2015