Tag Archives: Pheasants Eye Narcissus



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_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_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 …



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.


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


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.


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_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.


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






APPLWE TREE AVENUWI have just returned from a works outing (well an end of project trip with my garden design partner, Helen ) to the Welsh Marches.   Top of our list of gardens to visit was a return to Bryan’s Ground near Presteigne in Herefordshire – three acres of intimate garden rooms and arboretum around a yellow painted 1912 Arts and Crafts House. The garden at Bryan’s Ground has been developed for the last twenty years by David Wheeler (publisher of the distinguished gardening quarterly, Hortus ) and artist and garden designer, Simon Dorrell.

The approach to Bryan’s Ground is elegant but initially subdued – a slightly after the party feeling.  The Amelanchier leading to the ‘Parking for Motors’ is in its most restrained phase – post blossom and bronze leaf and pre autumn fire:

Iamelanchier avenue

The Amelanchier lamarkii lined drive – in its quietest phase

The front of the house, cloaked in Hydrangia petiolaris, and protected by solemn heavyweight sentries of giant, shaggy Prunus lusitanica, is looking shadowy and ripe almost for a the opening of a darker fairy tale:


And the famous grid of 25 different apple tree which emerge from mown paths, each tree surrounded by a private sea of blue anemone, followed by Pheasant’s Eye narcissus, followed by  show-stoppingly dense planting of the slender, pale blue Iris sibirica ‘Perry’s Blue’  – is now quietly lush.


Drifts of Iris sibirica ‘Papillon’ – image from patient gardener.wordpress.com

apple tee grassBut it does not take long to warm us up. Looking more closely, the planting around the apple trees is now laced with pale pink field geraniums and softly fluttering tall grasses are now taking over as quieter, paler stars amongst the stiffer stems of the flowered iris.


There is a handsome new entrance archway to frame the arrival to the house via the orchard :IMG_4343

Entrance into the front garden at Bryan’s Ground

The archway has been built, beautifully, sturdily in the same handsome Dutch/Herefordshire vernacular as the ‘dovecote’ which lures you to enter the main part of the garden.

view sulking house

The Dovecote

The Dovecote has it all – which is when you remember why this is a garden of inspirational confidence and charm. It is a focal point from and axis into three sides of the garden  – each with its own flavour – and what is most covetable, perhaps, is that on the first floor there is a small dining room with idyllic views onto the Welsh Marches beyond.

The dovecote takes you through to a parade of formal topiary (albeit sweetly coexistng with leggy pink geraniums which lounge about freely throughout the garden) and acts as a handsome backdrop to the dense green of the yew and the softly planted steps – about to be set ablaze by Crocosmia

longer view side 2side two sulking houseThe steps here are about to be set ablaze by Crocosmia

And then you are finally let loose into the principal ‘Sunk Garden’


The Sunk Garden

For a moment I look back to see the dovecote nestling happily in stands of campanula and draped in roses.  No need to worry about missing the iris moment – which is brilliant and absolutely worth making a pilgrimage to see – the new midsummer fairy tale version of Bryan’s Ground is just unfolding.

side 3 sulking houseThe Dovecote with roses and Campanula

And I have two new loves in my life: the statuesque pointiness of fresh green teasel (Dipsacus fullonum):


Self seeded teasel and foxgloves against topiary hawthorn

– and the endlessly forgiving romantic haze of quantities of green fennel:

sulking house in sea fennel

The Dovecote nestling in a haze of topiary and fennel


fennel, teasel and lavender

stchys daisy and fennelGreen Fennel, Stachys byzantina and daisies

The wild self-seeding generosity of these two plants works so well, of course, because of the the dark solidity of the topiary it is dancing between:


Green fennel dancing between structural forms of hebe and yew

Every so often there are joyous rockets of super high foxgloves in the mix:

lightness of quicksilver

And throughout the garden the silvery, deliciously scented shrub Elaeagnus ‘Quicksilver’ is planted to add contrast and a shimmering brightness to the palette of greens:


Elaeagnus ‘Quicksilver’

In one corner of the Sunk Garden there is a wonderful rather medieval monster-head wall of yew with a wonky sliver of an entrance to tempt you furhter in:

fab monster head opening

Above all this is the generous loggia where you can sit and eat spiced apple cake and idly imagine for a moment that this is your own. The path back to the Dovecote is splendidly narrow with overspilling plants:longer view side 3

 Or you might choose to have your tea under a voluptuous swoop of pineapple broom (Cytisus battandieri) whose vivid yellow flowers are almost intoxicatingly pineapple scented:


Bench under gorgeous headily scented pineapple broom

And then the garden is calm again. Lime Alley on June 23rd 2014 is a shaded walk flanked by a quietly frothing carpet of Alchemilla mollis:

lime avenue

Lime Alley

In the spring, Lime Alley is singing with orange tulips, acid yellow Euphorbia polychrome and rich yellow azaleas but now it is calm and ordered, a perfectly judged break between the exhilarating Sunk Garden and the other midsummer rooms to come.

What really impresses me as I move around the garden is the simplicity of the planting – large quantities of astrantia and Geranium psilostemon:


Geranium psilostemon and astrantia

IMG_4271knautia macedonica and pink geranium

There are lovely walks through shades of pink with classic columns of yew for structure:long view psilostemon yew


–  And yet there is a constant supply of surprise and invention too.

There are sudden bursts of a new colour to keep you on your toes:SURPRISE BLUE AND CLARET

Aconitum and Cotinus amongst the pinks


Angelica gigas and Cotinus

A gently shabby archway of recycled materials adds a layer of quirky grandeur to the cottage garden planting:

home made arch

Archway of recycled materials

And then as you turn the corner, the palette changes completely.  FIrst to rich dusky blues and purples:


Acanthus and clematisIMG_4287

And round again to a corridor of pale yellows and silver
Phlomis russeliana a key plant in this corridor of yellow and silver

There is the cool quiet of the Canal:
dog canalThe Canal

and the wonderful formal garden with pool – first glimpsed tantalisingly, of course, through an opening in a hedge:


Pond glimpsed through hedge opening

Again we have missed the further swathes of Iris sibirica and what must have been a delicate knee-high forest of aquilegia in May. But the scene, here immaculately framed by a stilted hornbeam hedge and viewed from a perfectly place bench, is wonderfully restful.

POND THRU STILITSThe pond seen through the elegant limbs of a stilted hornbeam hedge

I love the license a plant has to self seed in this garden:


carpet of Aquilegia seedlings under stilted hornbeam hedge

As we move away from the garden and enter the Cricket Wood – a still growing collection of specimen trees and shrubs started in 2000 – we are aware again of the intensity of a particular moment in an area of planting. In early spring there are hundreds of bulbs in the woodland, later scented walks of viburnums and the fragrant yellow azalea, Rhododendron luteum and many of the trees are specially selected for the strength of their autumn colour. But for now the palette is subtle and beginning to fade and bleach into high summer.

The transition from garden to woodland is marked by a lovely tree-fringed area dominated by a stunningly beautiful Cornus tree – I think it is ‘Norman Hadden – with pink tinged white bracts. The Cornus is underplanted with swathes of palest pink astrantia and dashes of richer pink Martagon lily:CLOSE UP MARTAGON COTONEASTER CORNUS CLOSE UP

Cornus – probably  ‘Norman Hadden’ HELENGenerous swathes of palest pink astrantia in dappled shade


Within the wood itself there is a perfect tin-roofed house which looks increasingly fit for a fairytale the further you wander away from it and deeper into the woods:IMG_4414


The long softly planted avenues will take you to treasures such as a fine crumple-leaved medlar:


a gorgeous Cornus kousa var. chinensis:


and a cloud of light-catching bronze cotinus amongst its towering silvery neighbours:


Much grown since the last time we visited is The Mezquita  – a grid of bird cherry trees (Prunus avium) inspired by the onyx and marble columns of the the Mezquita in Cordoba. This had looked rather stiff and organised when we visited a few years ago but it is now a wonderful sturdy forest of slim-trunked trees which frame the view in every direction and offers a delightful place to sit:

IMG_4427The Bird Cherry ‘Mezquita’


 ripening fruit of the Bird Cherry

IMG_4440An enchanting place to sit

The planting around Strongacre Pool at the edge of the Cricket Wood is particularly lovely.  Papery pale and delicate with a boathouse to add to your dreams.


The Cabin at Strongacre LakeSOFT PALETTE BY PNDThe delicate palette of plants at the water’s edge

As you walk away from the boat house the little building seems to be floating in a sea of dusky pink grass.


The Cabin at Strongacre Lake

I should not have worried for a moment that missing the irises would mean missing the magic of Bryan’s Ground.IMG_4433