Saturday, 9 May 2015

Maytime rus in urbe

Come into the garden, folk, for the black bat Cam has soared and many of us need a bit of floral escapism, no doubt shared quite equably with plenty of his supporters. Yesterday, in true pathetic-fallacy style, was grey and a little bit rainy, but 10 days ago the weeks of pure spring sunshine came to an end with an afternoon of exceptional clarity, which happened to coincide with my meeting old university friend Jo at the Chelsea Physic Garden. By Saturday, when three of us took a bracing walk across Richmond Park to the Isabella Plantation and back, the murk was beginning to take over, but the grey skies offset the lime greens of leafing oaks, birches and beeches rather well.

Never have I seen the Physic Garden so riotous with high-spring bloom, though I know that other profusion will take over in the weeks to come. Chief wonder was my favourite blossom, that of the Judas Tree, which thrives above a meadow of bluebells with the mulberry just coming into leaf in front of it.

Not noticed this before, though: that the blossom grows immediately on the trunk's offshoots, a weird and rather wonderful effect.

As I'd hoped, the lovely Pia, our good friend and graphic designer at the CPG, walked past our lunch table in the sunshine; I was intending to go to the office and ask for her. She's just helped to produce the new guide, divided into colour-banded sections each led by an illustration from Gerard's Herbal of 1597. There were plenty of facts I hadn't absorbed before, such as the precise details of how the garden survived - first and foremost by Sir Hans Sloane's ingenious Deed of Covenant whereby he rented the garden, part of the Manor of Chelsea which he bought in 1722, to - and I cannot put it better than the guidebook, so I quote - 'the Apothecaries who had trained perpetuity for a peppercorn [how appropriate!] rent of £5 per year. The same rent is still paid to his descendants today'.

Sloane, by the way, came from Ireland as apprentice and later made his fortune by returning to London from Jamaica with the yields of two trees, Cinchona pubescens and Theobroma cacao - respectively quinine and drinking chocolate. A copy of his statue still stands in front of what you may just make out as the flowering handkerchief or ghost tree.

I also didn't realise how close the CPG came to closure in the 19th century, which also saw its biggest changes. I had no idea that the Pond Rockery, an island oddly surmounted by fly-eating pitcher plants, is a Grade II listed structure, probably the oldest of its kind in Europe, and incorporates black basalt used to ballast Joseph Banks's ship on his voyage to Iceland as well as clam shells which travelled from Tahiti on Captain Cook's Endeavour.

My main concern on previous visits before I finally renewed my membership was with the initially ugly new educational gardens constructed in the south east corner. Now that the plants growing up make them look less stark, I can sort of see the point, though I miss what was lost. Still, there's one curvy path left round the back of the Garden of Useful Plants which takes you under the Chinese Paulownia lilacina, in flower last week.

The other paths that used to lead you past tree and herbaceous peonies have gone, but the peony collection at the north end of the Dicotyledon order beds is fine and I was surprised to find so many specimens already in flower, providing pollen for the garden's bee population (I'm hoping there's enough honey from the hives this year - the vintage I tasted was supremely floral, second only to jars from the Asco valley in Corsica in my experience).

Adonis aestivalis, the red ranunculus, is a close relative to blue love-in-a-mist, but rather more startling: the colour really did stand out as in the photo.

Otherwise the most conspicuous colour in these order beds was the yellow of Ferula communis, which looks like a special type of fennel but isn't actually categorised as such. Interesting to read that Prometheus was supposed to have brought fire to man in its stalk, and the ancient name 'narthex' leads me to suppose that the stalk was also a wand for the Bacchae.

Time ran out as usual but I had time to pay a quick homage to the glasshouse of mostly scented pelargoniums, a staple of the Physic Garden for more than 300 years. This, I think, is 'Ardens'

while in Glasshouse 4 to the south Ageratum corymbosum from Mexico was in full spate.

I left with only the most exquisite of tiny sempervivums but the next day I cycled to Rassell's nursery and picked up, inter alia, a promising specimen of the peony 'Buckeye Belle'. And on Saturday we dropped in on the Petersham Nurseries on the way back from Richmond Park. Despite the threat of rain, which didn't materialise until the evening, we had a bracing walk through copses and meadows, with oak trees in various stage of leaf,

to the Isabella Plantation, which I think I can't have visited since I was a child. This secluded wonderland was established in the 1830s and enriched by 50 kurume azaleas introduced from Japan in the 1920s by plant collector Ernest Wilson, now part of the National Collection. Although our friend Tilly rages at how they've hacked it back, I still imagined myself in far eastern wilds and was amazed by the riot of azaleas and rhododendrons not far from the entrance

The three-tier effect is unique to this time of year, of having bright splashes of colour in the middle between unfurling fronds

and gunnera

and the lime-green trees above. There were still plenty of magic corners and glades, as in this one where a grand old beech is foil to a uniquely coloured rhodedendron,

here, where another handkerchief tree can be more clearly discerned

and here, where another huge rhodie is foreground to more tree-leafing,

while by the end of the central stream heathers are thriving.

Next stop: friend Deborah's garden 'rooms' in Lacock, which should be in their prime.


Willym said...

My colleague Pegatha was leaving today for England - she said she needed to see Spring. Sadly here in Ottawa we go from Winter to Summer almost immediately with three or four days given over to "Spring". Your post gave me a taste of spring that I so sorely needed. 1000 grazie.

David said...

Well, Will, I hope Pegatha can get to the Chelsea Physic Garden, London's no longer best kept secret and probably my favourite outdoor space (as the National Gallery, for what's in it, remains my favourite building).

We are lucky in the long processional, from snowdrops through daffodils and magnolias, and now on to cherry and fruit trees, bluebells, tulips, wisteria etc. Roses next.

Susan Scheid said...

Well, as you might imagine, I'm only too glad to revisit the Chelsea Physic Garden, if only virtually this time, to see spring unfurl. We had our first walk in Innisfree yesterday, and it's interesting, always, to see the differences between here and where you are. The daffs here are mostly finished, except the late ones, to give an idea. I love those unfurling fronds, and your pictures capture them so well. I was also taken with the Judas tree's blossoms growing straight out of the tree. I've seen something like that here, in Central Park, and wondered what the tree might be. Happy spring!

David said...

Caught more unfurling fronds back at the Physic this afternoon, having walked there via the equally fabulous Brompton Cemetery: Dicksonia antartica, with incipients the size and appearance of violin scrolls.

I long to see Innisfree: from your photos, I imagine it's the (former) wildness of the Isabella Plantation hugely multiplied.

Susan Scheid said...

David: You and the Diplo-Mate have a standing invitation to visit our bit of rus in rus at any time.

Catriona said...

When my sister stayed in Kingston, Kingston Gate was at the end of her (long) road, and we regularly visited Isabella. However, have you been to the similar woodland garden in Bushy Park?
Both were part of coming down to London for the Chelsea Flower Show, which was the parents' annual trip south, which also took in the Savile Garden for the rhododendrons.

David said...

Sue, thank you - and you must visit here in springtime, if school holidays allow.

No, Catriona, I didn't know about the woodland garden in Bushy Park, a place I haven't visited since childhood. I know Savile Garden well, though - it's one of the few places down here where the exquisite blue Himalayan poppy Meconopsis thrives. Its best home in the UK, at least of those I've seen, is fabulous Dawyck in the Tweed valley.

I hope something real made up for the Chelsea Flower Show, which I really hated on my only visit.

Catriona said...

Oh, Chelsea had its moments - not least the people-watching! I was always highly entertained by the well-groomed women going round the show on the Tuesday in twos or threes, who then, about 4pm, were accompanied by men in suits who had clearly arrived from the office with the cheque book to pay for all the plants, garden furniture &c which the women had chosen earlier in the day.
Besides, the marquee was always better than the show gardens, for most of which 'pretentious' as a description is quite inadequate. I remember one year that the real oohs and aahs were expressed about a green hillside with a burn tumbling over rocks between rhododendrons and azaleas. The crowd sighed and remarked on how restful it was, how refreshing and peaceful. The judges, TV presenters and gardening writers ignored it, preferring something made of steel and plastic.

David said...

Right, people-watching is always good at Chelsea if you can stand back from the crowd and not get crushed in it (I suspect that's got much worse recently, and the garden 'ornaments' made out of twisted metal must have increased tenfold). And I agree about the marquee, where I was seduced by a Scots nursery specialising in Alpines and Meconopsis (though I didn't mail-order anything from them in the end).

Anyway the diplo-mate told me all about the Chelsea Flower Show Fringe, an independent organisation the launch of which he attended yesterday evening. Some very good local projects, extending to Hammersmith etc, in the offing there.

Catriona said...

It wouldn't have been Ian Christie, from Kirriemuir, would it?
He specialises in meconopsis and alpines, and quite a few Perthshire gardens, as you will know, received early batches of meconopsis seed. I have never asked, but I have often wondered if there lie the origins of some of his varieties.
For a great meconopsis experience, there is little to beat Branklyn Garden, on the slopes of Kinnoull Hill, in Perth. In a good year, one is walking through meconopsis standing so tall the flowers are at eye-level.

David said...

No, it was Stella and David Rankin at Kevock Garden ( But you make me hungry to visit Branklyn Garden. Friends Caroline and Alan live not far away, and it's time we paid them a visit. Can you remember when should be peak time for Meconopsis?

Catriona said...


Susan Scheid said...

Ah, we have had MANY a springtime in England--it used to be that the Edu-Mate had 2 weeks off in late March, so we had time to travel abroad. One of many, many high points was the flowering hedgerows in Devon. At the other end of the spectrum was trying to cook on an Aga stove and learning about how much colder it seems to be than the actual temperature would indicate when the weather is damp. (PS: I suspect you've experienced this, but the blogger verification has reached new extremes. Just now I had to pick out which photographs are ice creams!

David Damant said...

I once stayed at Princeton ( the first time I saw bottles of wine in a shop - in London wine when ordered had to be sourced from a remote cellar). On the Friday evening my hostess turned off the central heating. On the Monday morning she turned on the air-conditioning. "That" she said "was the American Spring"

David said...

Catriona - very helpful. Hope the Meconopses will still be thriving at the end of the month when, now that we can't get any affordable flights to our friend Debbie's 50th birthday party in Berlin, Perthshire is looking like a distinct possibility.

Susan - the English damp. Ah, I remember well a Christmastime excursion to take up a now-deceased acquaintance's 'holiday cottage' between Tintagel and Boscastle. It was a shack with slugs crawling up the inside porch walls. We slept by a roaring fireside, enjoyed a day and a half of brilliant sunshine and then the rains set in for 10 days. We abandoned it early.

David, it seems that the Hudson Valley DOES get true spring. Though Ottawa and Sydney apparently don't.

Susan Scheid said...

David N: Oh, my, that's quite a memory!

David D: Yes, there are many here, too, who like to tell that tall tale (though every now and then it is true). Overall, David N is right, we do get true spring weather where we are, though in recent years it's become much more unpredictable. For example, this year, we'd turned the heat off, we thought for good, and were enjoying birdsong through the open windows, then the temperature spiked, and we reluctantly turned on the A/C a couple days. Now, this morning, its was 47 degrees F this AM, so I did put the heat back on (the Edu-Mate wouldn't have done this, she having been brought up without central heating), but I'll likely turn it back down soon!

What I miss most here that you have in England are the wonderful rights-of-way. We do have lovely places to walk, but nothing like your ability to stride across the countryside and see the glory of spring in all its forms. And walking down those lovely country lanes with the flowering hedgerows was and is a favorite memory of English spring.

David said...

We're getting erratic temperatures here too. But 'ne'er cast a clout 'til May is out' often applies.

Ah yes, our treasured network of rights of way, something I shouldn't be surprised if our present Tories decimate if the behaviour of their followers (ie Clarkson on the Isle of Man) is anything to go by. It was brought home forcibly to me that we have that and you have either National Parks or 'Don't Walk' in Wanderlust by Rebecca Solnit (an excellent writer, though as we found somewhat to our cost at the ICA a rather dreary and jargon-laden speaker).

On the code thing, Sue, I've been baffled by some of the 'tick all the boxes where this - a hamburger, a road sign - is shown' and failed several tests. Just got a very dim number, which was almost a relief.

Susan Scheid said...

David: I'm so relieved I'm not the only one to have trouble recognizing hamburgers on screen. Meanwhile, as spring comes on little by ever so little here, I come back from time to time to take in these wondrous blooms! Have you, by the by, seen the ROH Król Roger? I've had a small, tantalizing glimpse and hope soon to see the whole on the little screen, courtesy the new Opera Platform initiative.

Anonymous said...

Hello, David! I have been enjoying your photos for several days now, resolute in the calm knowledge that no words from me could possibly add to what you have shown. The ferns alone could appear in a post without caption, just to be admired! But I write to send a greeting, after not commenting for so long, but reading, and often thinking of you. Some days, I regret that you are holding out against Facebook, such as earlier this month, when I celebrated May over there by posting from "Merrie England," by German, which I learned of from you. Other days, I recognize that I might only be sending you a series of messages after weekly viewing of RuPaul, mostly Can you believe who got eliminated?! And, Oh no she betta don't! (This last, hoping that I'm using it appropriately, given my history of misusing slang.) So, just hello from me, and I love this perfect post, and I'm still reading and enjoying! -- Elizabeth

David said...

Sue - King Roger tomorrow night. I'm waiting to be convinced that it's a masterpiece - heard it in concert a couple of decades back and found the scoring intoxicating, the substance not quite. But be good to see it staged. Hope you get the Livescreening of Pirates of Penzance too (the same night). Extraordinary talk session with the great and ever so slightly scary Mike Leigh.

PS - the latest 'identify' has spot-the-pasta-or-noodles including a tomatosaucystewything which may or may not have pasta in it. But I ticked and am now not a robot.

newleafsite, I am so relieved and happy to see you back - not for myself, but because I always want to know how you are. If I 'did' Facebook I'd know - but I shan't, so too bad.

I've actually not heard Merrie England all the way through, if you remember a song from it was my pa's only musical love. Is this the new series of RuPaul's Drag Race to which you refer? Can't wait...the diplo-mate insisted on re-watching all five series to date and it was still insructive as well as good comfort telly.

Deborah said...

Lovely poppy at the end of previous post is Papaver commosum. I have one only in our garden, just coming out. I was hoping to have lots, from plants last year. You can buy the seeds of variety ‘Ladybird’ quite easily. We saw them growing wild everywhere in Turkey and they are quite variable. Some are just black and red; at Xanthos they had a wide white surround to the black spots. Very garish.

I approve your choice of ‘Buckeye Belle’ paeony. Sadly, something ate the buds of mine this year...or maybe they rotted. Anyway, they’ve gone. Gardening is a bit of a waiting game.

David said...

Correction about to be made, thanks to the real expert. I am a novice with a very partial knowledge; Deborah is a genius in garden creation as well as sculpture, as readers of this blog will know. And they will know more when I get round to a p(a)eonycentric blog entry next but one or so.