Monday 13 July 2020

In search of peonies, ending back at Kew Gardens

Near the end of my '50 days of London spring' post, an early peony, of the yellow tree variety, made an appearance. Finding peak peony season in my favourite haunts wasn't so easy. The patches I knew from previous years, in Kew Gardens and Chelsea Physic Garden, were inaccessible (and in any case I'd failed to renew my CPG membership in high dudgeon at the forced exile of the wonderful Tangerine Dream Cafe - now rehoused in the French Institute and along the Kings Road, but it's not the same).

Where to find these elusive and short-life beauties? I pedalled up to Regents Park again on 15 May: if it excellend in roses, it would surely yield peonies? Sadly not, though I still had a wonderful time. An elusive wren was skipping around between the rose bushes in Queen Mary's Garden, and there were already a few choice blooms, though the best was still to come,

and some very exotic irises were to be found in the planting of one of the eastern walks

as well as plenty of bee activity on alliums purple and white.

I cycled north and then walked along the southern perimeter of the zoo, Now that the elephants and bears have gone, there's less than ever to see, but if you head down to the fence midway you can watch a Colobus monkey whooping and swinging about.

Probably the farthest point I've reached in my bike rides since the Richmond Park excursion was the canal where it bifurcates the zoo - the Snowdon Aviary is such a fine piece of work.

But I digress. I first sighted peonies where I least expected, on 17 May, by the south gate of Old Brompton Cemetery. Some imaginative planting has been going on, yet to properly bed in, and these specimens were part of it. Probably I could checklist them for you from a lovely volume I was once given as a birthday present, Peonies: The Imperial Flower by Jane Fearnley-Whittingstall, but what's in a name?

Next stop, Holland Park on 19 May, though I had no idea where peonies might be found there. Exciting, then, to find a plant in the formal gardens with buds that suggested they might burst in less than a week.

In fact that one took longer, though there was always plenty of bee action on the Kniphofia or red-hot pokers behind,

and meanwhile I discovered more in a kind of meadow in front of the ruined house. Normally this whole area would be under canvas for the Opera Holland Park season, but it marks instead a strange no-man's land between the formal gardens and the big green that slopes down to the former Commonwealth Institute.

Though Holland Park was the place I visited most during this time - after classes, I could pedal up there for a quick peony-check before supper - Chiswick House Gardens hit the highest watermark of late spring/early summer evening lushness.No peonies that I could find on 20 May - I did less than a week later, as you will see - but the alliums in the avenue leading down from the camellia greenhouse were buzzing with bees

and the moorhen who had lost some of her first batch now still had one chick making its way

but also turned out to be sitting on six eggs - I hope she had better luck this time. On the last occasion when I was there, after heavy rain, the nest had been dispersed.

Quite a few peonies were, however, to be found on the way there and back in a patch on the corner of Chiswick Mall and the street where it later turned out our friend Cally had just bought a cottage.

Meanwhile, back in Holland Park on the 24th, the buds had started to open, but weren't as far advanced as I had thought

but in the neighbouring bed, spectacular things were happening. The pic up top is part of that, as are these.

Further south, in the beds around the pond where a heron had perched (see earlier post), irises of all colours were flourishing,

and one of the peacocks (ditto) decided to complete a pretty picture.

Back at Chiswick House Gardens on the 28th, I found peony patches further up the walk that leads to the glasshouses; I'd always turned off into the Italian gaden before I got this far.

The roses between the mossy urns were at their peak, and enhanced by foxgloves.

That was one heavenly evening, and a high Thames tide at one end of Chiswick Mall - subsequently my favourite spot of the entire river - completed the perfection.

On the 29th I cycled southwards, to explore more of the interior of Battersea Park. No peonies that I found, but bottlebrush was thriving in the wonderful Paultons Square,

another heron was wading in a secluded spot no the park lake

and I discovered for the first time the bee-friendly planting of the garden centre on the ring road (bicycles, joggers and pedestrians only).

In the back yard, poppies flourished singly (Papaver orientalis, not doing much this year)

and in pairs - here today, gone tomorrow, but storing up seeds thereafter for more random manifestations -

Finally, Kew Gardens reopened just in time to catch the very end of peony season. We were there on the second day of timed visits, Tuesday 2 June, arriving at 4pm and staying until closing time. I knew where to head for the peonies, but first was a first, the tulip trees (the lyrically named Tulipifera liriodendron) on the north side of the Palm House lake in flower

Waterlilies were in bloom in front of the Princess of Wales Conservatory (shut, of course, like the other glass houses), and plenty of orange poppies as well as big agaves

 though those were capped by the one in flower to the left of the Alpine House. Couldn't this be Arizona?

So missing orchid hunts in the country - Deborah van der Beek tells me there's been a big flourishing near them in Lacock - but pleased to see this cluster reintroduced at Kew.

Of the peony colony, the reds were almost all finished flowering, but the whites continued to flourish

I've never seen this zone of the gardens so lush. That, the unusual loudness of the birdsong and the very few people around made this seem like the most exotic of trips, as if we'd gone on a major holiday abroad. Lupins in the backyard didn't put on much of a show this year, but here's a bunch foregrounding the Temple of Aeolus rather nicely (better in reality than they've emerged here).

I can't name the tall creatures here

but bees love them.

The rocky beds leading to the Alpine House were still rich in late-spring specimens like this exquisite iris

We took a breather in the warm sunshine (the last for some days, as it turned out, and the end of the settled weather which made this, ironically under pandemic circumstances, the most beautiful spring in England I can remember) just inside the gate of the walled garden around the house. More bees, this time on the miracel-stemmed Eryngia which I've never succeeded in maintaining out back.

Here, too, were white/pink peonies aplenty in the lush bed on the other side of the lawn.

Left J to walk off down the Spanish chestnut avenue to the Kew Green gate and further excurted to Kew Palace, lush with lavender behind.

Then it was back along the splendid herbaceous walk, rich in alliums

and around the Palm House lake to see how the gunnera had come on

to collect my bike at the main entrance. We'd be back in less predictable weather for my birthday picnic - four of us socially distanced at a bench in a sylvan glade - in mid-June. The displays are past their prime now, and my daily routine less regular, but blissful summer weather is back.


Susan Scheid said...

Now, that is one gorgeous haul of peonies, not to mention all manner of other examples of nature's bounty!

David said...

Yes, we really felt that bounty this spring and early summer. All is falling into the sere now, but we've had our vision.

Bill Dew said...

London's hidden bounty – and that Holland Park ruin looks mighty interesting too!

David said...

Normally, as I think I mentioned, it's concealed by the Opera Holland Park marquee and stage, which uses the house facade, or what's left of it, as a backdrop.

Bill Dew said...

I wonder what it was in years gone by? Was there a Holland Park hospital for wayward types?

David said...

It was a grand private house. My friend Liam says his mother remembered grouse shoots there. I think the owner left it to the council, and they look after the formal gardens and indeed the woods behind really well. Latest planting featured gladioli and lots of eryngia - I passed through on my way home from lunch with a friend in Ladbroke Grove on Sunday.

David Damant said...

Yet a few years, and the shades and structures may follow their illustrious masters. The wonderful city which, ancient and gigantic as it is, still continues to grow as fast as a young town of logwood by a water-privilege in Michigan, may soon displace those turrets and gardens which are associated with so much that is interesting and noble, with the courtly magnificence of Rich with the loves of Ormond, with the counsels of Cromwell, with the death of Addison. The time is coming when, perhaps, a few old men, the last survivors of our generation, will in vain seek, amidst new streets, and squares, and railway stations, for the site of that dwelling which was in their youth the favourite resort of wits and beauties, of painters and poets, of scholars, philosophers, and statesmen. They will then remember, with strange tenderness, many objects once familiar to them, the avenue and the terrace, the busts and the paintings, the carving, the grotesque gilding, and the enigmatical mottoes. With peculiar fondness they will recall that venerable chamber, in which all the antique gravity of a college library was so singularly blended with all that female grace and wit could devise to embellish a drawing-room. They will recollect, not unmoved, those shelves loaded with the varied learning of many lands and many ages, and those portraits in which were preserved the features of the best and wisest Englishmen of two generations. They will recollect how many men who have guided the politics of Europe, who have moved great assemblies by reason and eloquence, who have put life into bronze and canvas, or who have left to posterity things so written as it shall not willingly let them die, were there mixed with all that was loveliest and gayest in the society of the most splendid of capitals. They will remember the peculiar character which belonged to that circle, in which every talent and accomplishment, every art and science, had its place. They will remember how the last debate was discussed in one corner, and the last comedy of Scribe in another; while Wilkie gazed with modest admiration on Sir Joshua’s Baretti; while Mackintosh turned over Thomas Aquinas to verify a quotation; while Talleyrand related his conversations with Barras at the Luxembourg, or his ride with Lannes over the field of Austerlitz. They will remember, above all, the grace, and the kindness, far more admirable than grace, with which the princely hospitality of that ancient mansion was dispensed. They will remember the venerable and benignant countenance and the cordial voice of him who bade them welcome. They will remember that temper which years of pain, of sickness, of lameness, of confinement, seemed only to make sweeter and sweeter, and that frank politeness, which at once relieved all the embarrassment of the youngest and most timid writer or artist, who found himself for the first time among Ambassadors and Earls. They will remember that constant flow of conversation, so natural, so animated, so various, so rich with observation and anecdote; that wit which never gave a wound; that exquisite mimicry which ennobled, instead of degrading; that goodness of heart which appeared in every look and accent, and gave additional value to every talent and acquirement. They will remember, too, that he whose name they hold in reverence was not less distinguished by the inflexible uprightness of his political conduct than by his loving disposition and his winning manners. They will remember that, in the last lines which he traced, he expressed his joy that he had done nothing unworthy of the friend of Fox and Grey; and they will have reason to feel similar joy, if, in looking back on many troubled years, they cannot accuse themselves of having done anything unworthy of men who were distinguished by the friendship of Lord Holland

Macaulay on Lord Holland at Holland House. Perhaps,of all Macaulay's essays. the most OTT but one can only be impressed.

David said...

I fear that Lord Holland no longer reverberates with most of us as do some of the other worthies cited..

David Damant said...

"the most splendid [ and rich ] of capitals." And here is demonstrated the values that England as the top nation displayed, which values can be judged admirable for such a role, whatever faults may have resulted from human nature.