‘Cheery Cherries, get the last of the Cheery Cherries’

Vancouver Cherry blossom festival 300x155 Cheery Cherries, get the last of the Cheery Cherries

Vancouver Cherry blossom festival

‘Cherry Blossom’ is a quintessential part of the Irish spring. But it is even more so in other parts of the world. Vancouver has an annual Cherry festival, complete with ‘Cherry scouts’ to guide you around. Brooklyn Botanic gardens has a great show, as well, the ‘Sakura Matsuri’. Amsterdam has a Cherry planting to complement it’s more famous tulip,

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Yoshino, Japan, the place to see the Cherry in flower

planted by the ‘Japanese Women’s Club’ in 2000. Seattle’s Cherry festival has being going for 39 years. Macon, Georgia has had a Cherry blossom festival since 1982 with Cherry blossom cupcakes and in Washington D.C. there are ‘blossom forecasters’ to predict when the 3,000 Cherry trees will flower alongside the Jefferson memorial. This last festival had it’s centenary in 2012.

However, it is Japan which is indelibly linked to the Cherry tree. After the long dark nights of winter, the tiny pink and white pom-pom blossom of the cherry tree is a welcome sign that spring is on its way. Japanese culture takes this flowery symbol a step further with the tradition of ‘hanami’, admiring the blooms

o CHERRY BLOSSOM JAPAN 900 150x150 Cheery Cherries, get the last of the Cheery Cherries

Boating under the blossoms, Tokyo

for their fleeting beauty, seen as a metaphor for life – here one moment, vivid and wonderful, and then gone the next. Whether you want to tap into your philosophical side under the trees or just enjoy this most cheerful sight of spring, here are some of the best places around the world to enjoy cherry blossom.

Yoshino, Japan, is one of the most popular places in Japan to see the cherry blossoms and hundreds of thousands of people visit each year. The main attraction is the mountain, which gently slopes up over four different altitudes – which means the trees

Pruus Kanzan flower closeup 150x150 Cheery Cherries, get the last of the Cheery Cherries

Prunus ‘Kanzan’

blossom at different times – starting at the bottom and gradually creeping up the mountain, leading to a jaw-dropping pink carpet effect.

In Ireland, we treat the Cherry with less reverence, possibly due to the all pervading ‘shocking pink’ dominance of Prunus ‘Kanzan’, which is present in streets, parks and gardens all over the country. This is a large tree, too large for many of it’s locations, and the term ‘overused’ springs (!) to mind.

yoshino 6 150x150 Cheery Cherries, get the last of the Cheery Cherries

‘Yoshino Cherry’

However, there are many different forms of Cherry, even for those flowering at ‘Cherry blossom time’, usually beginning in the last week of April in Ireland. The Cherry most famous in Japan is named after the region above; the ‘Yoshino Cherry’, Prunus x yedoensis. This flowers earlier in April and is a very beautiful but rare tree in Ireland.

There are several very good white Cherries flowering around the same time as ‘Kanzan’. ‘Tai Haku’ is single flowered and is often termed the ‘Great White Cherry’.

‘Shirotae’ has double white flowers and a slightly pendulous habit and ‘Miako’ is also a double white but more compact.

Somewhat later than ‘Kanzan’ is the paler pink ‘Shirofugen’, in which the flower blends nicely with the opening leaves.

‘Jo-nioi’ seems to be one of the latest, waiting until mid May to produce it’s single white flowers on a small tree with horizontal branches.

Prunus Shirofugen flower 21 04 2011 14 53 06 150x150 Cheery Cherries, get the last of the Cheery Cherries

From left: ‘Shirofugen’, ‘Miako’ and ‘Ukon’

Prunus Miyako flowers 14 05 2010 13 51 39 14 05 2010 13 51 39 150x150 Cheery Cherries, get the last of the Cheery Cherries prunusukonblossom 150x150 Cheery Cherries, get the last of the Cheery CherriesAnother unusual cultivar is ‘Ukon’ which flowers around the same time as ‘Kanzan’ but has cream flowers which open against the coppery foliage. This also makes a large tree unsuitable for most suburban gardens.

One attribute of many Cherries that people tend to overlook is

Cherry leaves in Autumn 150x150 Cheery Cherries, get the last of the Cheery Cherries

Cherry leaves in Autumn

the excellent orange red colour which the leaves take on in the Autumn. This adds an extra splash of colour after a long period of dullness during the Summer.

In conclusion, I would urge you to look beyond the usual Cherry cultivars with which we tend to associate the term ‘Cherry Blossom’ and seek out some less common forms. There are many forms out there, finding them may be more of a challenge but ultimately worth the trouble. And of course, make the best of them while they last.

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That White Thing: You’ve seen it, but what is it? It’s Amelanchier.

Amelanchier lamarkii 150x150 That White Thing: Youve seen it, but what is it? Its Amelanchier.

Amelanchier lamarckii in Spring

When the ‘Purple Plums’ fade and the other Cherries start to come into bloom, a very common but unsung hero of the spring flowering tree display comes into it’s own.

This is the ‘Snowy Mespilus’, ‘Service Tree’, ‘June Berry’ or ‘Shadbush’ (in the U.S.). Yes, it has a lot of different common names, but equally the latin naming of this plant is also confused and confusing. For the purposes of this post, however, I am treating all forms as Amelanchier lamarckii apart from the hybrid A. x grandiflora.

Amelanchier lamarkii flower and foliage. 150x150 That White Thing: Youve seen it, but what is it? Its Amelanchier.

Amelanchier lamarckii flower and foliage.

The ‘Snowy Mespilus’ does not have the flamboyant flowers of the Cherries in flower at this time of year, but it’s overall performance in the garden is far more significant. First, at time of year come the masses of white flowers displayed against it’s other Spring feature; it’s bronze young foliage. Although this display is relatively short lived at about 2 weeks, it bursts into display in a thousand suburban gardens. Here is the clue to it’s popularity: It is compact enough to fit all but the smallest garden.

Although it becomes ‘just another tree’ for the next few months, another (slightly inaccurate) common name: The ‘June Berry’ points the way to it’s next display as it will produce, in a warm

Amelanchier lamarckii in autumn revised 150x150 That White Thing: Youve seen it, but what is it? Its Amelanchier.

‘Snowy Mespilus’ Autumn display

 

Summer, masses of small red fruits in late Summer. This is a common feature in the U.S where Summers are hot but less common in our greyer climate.

Amelanchier produces it’s final ‘hurrah’ in Autumn when it produces a short lived but brilliant display of orange red leaves before they fall for another year. It is this combination of different attributes, allied to it’s compact size which make’s it a fantastic garden and landscape tree.

Amelanchier x gradiflora Robin Hill with flowers emerging 150x150 That White Thing: Youve seen it, but what is it? Its Amelanchier.

Amelanchier x grandiflora ‘Robin Hill’ 

Amelanchier Robin Hill showing pink flowers 150x150 That White Thing: Youve seen it, but what is it? Its Amelanchier.

Amelanchier ‘Robin Hill’ flowers

A much rarer plant is the hybrid, Amelanchier x grandiflora ‘Robin Hill’, with flowers which open pink and fade quickly to white. This is a hybrid between A. arborea and A. laevis which gives a wider plant which is still excellent for smaller gardens. The flowers are startling on opening and it still produces excellent Autumn colour. Several forms in the U.S. (e.g. ‘Autumn Brilliance’ ) are grown especially for this attribute.There are other pink flowered forms but ‘Robin Hill’ seems to be the only one grown here and is quite rare in gardens.

‘Snowy Mespilus’ is an excellent small tree with a long season of appeal and justifiably popular. It is easy to grow and takes almost anything that soil, climate and abuse can throw at it. If the overpowering display of the various Cherries leave you cold, then go for this tree. It has a quare name but it’s great stuff!

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Purple Plum: A Tale of 2 common Trees but one common name

Prunus cerasifera Pissardii 237x300 Purple Plum: A Tale of 2 common Trees but one common name

The ubiquitous ‘Purple Plum’

The common name ‘Purple Plum’ is widely used to describe forms of Prunus cerasifera which have purple foliage in Summer.  However, as with many other plants in commerce, confusion between cultivars, and even about the species itself, is widespread.

In the first place, Prunus cerasifera is the ‘Cherry Plum’ or ‘Myrobalan’, a medium sized deciduous tree with green foliage and white flowers in Spring. This used to be grown for it’s fruit (somewhere between a cherry and a plum) which is purple to yellow and produced after a warm Summer. Despite this, P. cerasifera is often described as having purple foliage which is an attribute of most of it’s ornamental garden forms, the ‘Purple Plums’.

The ‘Purple Plum’ is very common in gardens. Throughout the Summer it’s heavy purple foliage gives colour to many gardens where this colour is desired. It does not have the glossy class of the ‘Copper Beech’ but it is suited to the average garden where the ‘Copper Beech’ would soon be the only tree present due to it’s size. The colour is not to everyone’s taste but the tree is undeniably popular.

The first ‘Purple plum’ was introduced by a french gardener named Pissard around 1880 from Persia and was named after him. This was a cultivar of C. cerasifera but was variously treated as a species (Prunus pissardii), a variety (Prunus cerasifera, var. pissardii) or just as a generic purple leaved form of the purple plum (P. cerasifera atropurpurea) More recently, it has been ascribed to a cultivar name as Prunus cerasifera ‘Pissardii’.

Prunus cerasifera Pissardii1 150x150 Purple Plum: A Tale of 2 common Trees but one common name

Prunus cerasifera ‘Pissardii’

In the U.S. the most common form in cultivation is one produced by the almost legendary Luther Burbank. This in ‘Thundercloud’, a form with purple foliage and pink flowers, similar to the form grown here as ‘Nigra’.

In Ireland, the 2 common forms appear to be the above ‘Pissardii’, with pale pink flowers; and ‘Nigra’ with deeper pink flowers. Both of these are in full flower now in mid March and are quite distinctive.Typically, they begin flowering on the lower branches and, in a good year, will produce flowers all over the

prunuscerasiferapissardiinigra 0 150x150 Purple Plum: A Tale of 2 common Trees but one common name

Prunus cerasifera ‘Nigra’

tree, giving the appearance of pink snowflakes all over the bare twigs of the tree. The flowers are overtaken by the emerging purple leaves, giving a different appearance before falling and leaving the trees almost identical.

The two common forms of this tree are one of the sights of Spring, and as they arrive along with the first of the Daffodils they signal the onset of ‘warmer’ weather as the temperature begins to rise a few degrees and hard frosts are usually a thing of the past.

Prunus cerasifera Pissardii Caragh Co. Kildare 150x150 Purple Plum: A Tale of 2 common Trees but one common name

Prunus cerasifera ‘Pissardi’

Once you notice the different colour forms of this tree, you may notice other differences also. ‘Pissardii’ usually makes a larger tree and has darker foliage. ‘Nigra’ has a more compact crown, especially when young.

The colour is also a matter of taste. The brighter pink of ‘Nigra’ can appear a little over the top when combined with other colours whereas ‘Pissardii’ is a softer blush pink which is easier to place.

Prunus cerasifera Nigra in a suburban garden 150x150 Purple Plum: A Tale of 2 common Trees but one common name

Prunus cerasifera ‘Nigra’

Sadly, the production of fruit is a rarity in Ireland and if it does make an appearance, it is lost in the similar coloured foliage.

However, Together these trees make one of the most significant ‘statements’ of Spring and while the dull purple foliage may be a bit overwhelming in Summer, the starry appearance of these first of the common flowering trees is a cheerful welcome to the new year’s growth cycle.

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Cornus ‘Midwinter Fire’: Lift me up where I Belong.

Cornus sibirica Midwinter Fire 225x300 Cornus Midwinter Fire: Lift me up where I Belong.

Cornus sanguinea ‘Midwinter Fire’ grown as a half standard tree.

One of the longest lasting ornamental displays in Winter is that of brightly coloured stems. As these last from leaf fall to the arrival of fresh leaves in April, these are often on display for 5 months of the year. Kings of the winter stem effect are the various shrubby forms of Cornus.

Cornus sanguinea is native to Ireland and, indeed, most of northern Europe and has purple stems in Winter. The cultivar ‘Midwinter Fire’ goes a whole lot further and is exactly as the name suggests with fiery colours which graduate from red to orange to yellow down the numerous stems.

Cornus sanguinea ‘Midwinter Fire’ (‘Winter Beauty and ‘Magic Flame’ are similar) is a twiggy deciduous shrub which is normally seen as ‘block planting’ in industrial or municipal plantings or as  individual shrubs cut hard back every year or second year to encourage colour in the stems and keep the shrub in bounds.

Cornus sanguinea Midwinter Fire on stem 150x150 Cornus Midwinter Fire: Lift me up where I Belong.

Autumn leaf colour on ‘Midwinter Fire’

It is the brightest of all the Cornus species and cultivars and, along with the stem colour, produces clear yellow Autumn leaf colour. In the small garden, growing such a vigorous shrub can be a problem as it competes with neighbours for valuable space at ground level.

One way round this is to grow ‘Midwinter Fire’ on a stem, effectively turning a bushy shrub into a half standard tree and lifting the colour off  the soil surface. As it grows up to 1 metre in a year, it is relatively easy to to plant it as a shrub, select a strong growing stem and train it up a stout cane, removing the other stems to encourage this main stem’s growth.

Cornus siberica Midwinter Fire Stem detail 150x150 Cornus Midwinter Fire: Lift me up where I Belong.

Cornus sanguinea ‘Midwinter Fire’ Stem detail

Once this stem has reached the required height, you can allow it to bush out. The plant shown here reached this in one year from a two year old shrub which was actually being ‘out muscled’ by a Persicaria! The plant will need to be pruned back before it begins to leaf, but if it is not a big problem if you are a little late and the plant is very vigorous and will quickly grow away from the head of the stem. The head can be cut back to stems of various lengths from a few cms. to fifteen or twenty cms. to produce a bushy head for next year.

I have not seen this plant grown as a half standard before, but as it is very hardy and vigorous, it should have no problem coping with this form and adds colour for a very long time in the garden.

The one drawback of Cornus sanguinea cultivars is that they produce a lot of suckers around the plant. These are easier to control when the plant is on a single stem as they can be easily identified and cut off close to the main stem. It remains to be seen if this proves a problem where this particular plant is growing but so far, so good.

 

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Hybrid Hellebores: Brave New World

Helleborus x ericsmithii Ruby Glow compressed 300x225 Hybrid Hellebores: Brave New World

Helleborus x ericsmithii ‘Ruby Glow’

One of the plants now in fashion is the Hellebore, mainly due to it’s ability to flower in the coldest months of the year. Prominent among these ’New kids on the Block’ are the hybrids of a small group of species, which are ‘caulescent’ or  ’stemmed’ . These forms flower on short stems produced the previous year and have attractive foliage, unlike the more numerous and common H. x hybridus forms.

The main groups of these hybrids are derived from H. argutifolius (from Corsica, Sardinia) with pale green flowers, H. lividus (Majorca) which has pinkish green flowers and H. niger (S. Europe) which is white. The first two are stemmed while H. niger

Helleborus x ericsmithii Bobs Best 150x150 Hybrid Hellebores: Brave New World

Helleborus x ericsmithii ‘Bob’s Best’

produces flowers from the base. All three flower in late Winter.

Originally H. argutifolius was hybridised with H. lividus to give H. x sternii, a stemmed form with, variously, green, white or pinkish flowers. This form combined the hardiness of the former with the leaf colour of the latter and the various hybrid flowers were variations on the parents.

The next period was a definite step forward when H. niger was introduced to the equation. It was hybridised with H. x sternii, as well as with it’s parents. This gave rise to the, now many, forms of H. x ericsmithii (H. x sternii X H. niger), H. x ballardiae (H. lividus

Helleborus x ericsmithii Pirouette 150x150 Hybrid Hellebores: Brave New World

Helleborus x ericsmithii ‘Pirouette’

X H. niger) and H. x nigricors (H. argutifolius X H. niger).

If all this hybridisation leaves you cold, then skip to the chase. These various crosses have produced some wonderful plants for livening up the garden in Winter. I have included some here, but there are many more. In truth, the lineage hardly matters as most are similar in effect. Most have white/pale pink flowers and, usually, evergreen leaves. They are mostly hardy in Ireland, withstanding – 10 C.

Although their colour range is limited, they score over other Hellebores in having evergreen and often ornamental foliage.

Helleborus x ballardiae Cinnamon Snow for web 150x150 Hybrid Hellebores: Brave New World

Helleborus x ballardiaeCinnamon Snow’ flowers

There are some excellent foliage forms of various parentage and all flower when colour is needed in the garden. Unlike the majority of other Hellebores, they prefer open conditions rather than shade and are better appreciate there anyway.

As for flowers, the variations are subtle but beautiful. ‘Ruby Glow’ was the first one that I bought but ‘Cinnamon Snow’ has an intriguing mix of white, pink and cream which the name sums up exactly.

The most recent innovation are two new forms; ‘Anna’s Red’ and ‘Penny’s Pink’ which have H. x hybridus in the parentage mix as well, and give these two plants their much darker flower colour

Helleborus x ericsmithii form for Growsonyou 150x150 Hybrid Hellebores: Brave New World

Helleborus ‘Penny’s Pink’

while retaining the ornamental evergreen foliage of it’s H.  x sternii line. These are particularly pretty and, if they prove to be garden worthy, are a valuable addition to the ‘Winter flowering plants’ list.

There are some drawbacks with these plants. Like H. niger, they can suffer from ‘black spot’, a fungal disease which may necessitate treatment with fungicides or removing the leaves before flowering. Slugs may also be a problem, although I have not found this to be the case as yet. A more pertinent problem is attacks by aphids (green fly) as the weather warms up. This is a problem with most Hellebores with me and needs vigilance to combat the problem before young leaves are damaged. A contact insecticide is usually effective but may have to be applied twice or three times during Spring.

 

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The Chinese Witch Hazel that lost it’s scent:

Hamamelis with no scent  225x300 The Chinese Witch Hazel that lost its scent:

Hamamelis with no scent!

Five years ago, I treated myself to an indulgence; namely, a quite expensive plant of Hamamelis x intermedia ‘Pallida’, better known under the blanket term of the ‘Chinese Witch Hazel’. So far, so self satisfied: I planted it about 3 m. from the back door and waited for the unprepossessing collection of twigs to produce it’s promised mid winter bounty of  yellow scented flowers. Yes, it would get big eventually and need pruning. Yes, it would be plain green for most of the year, but yes, it would be worth it for the heady scent delivered every time we walked out into the back garden in the bleak days of January.

Few flowers were produced the first year but, growing well, the second year produced a good crop of flowers which were certainly yellow, certainly produced duly in January, but with no scent discernible. I forgave it that lapse and waited another year before realising that the upright growth was not ‘because it was still young’ and the the lack of scent was not an abnormality which would reverse itself any time soon.

Hamamelis flowers cheerfulness on a cold day. 300x225 The Chinese Witch Hazel that lost its scent:

Hamamelis x intermedia  flowers

In short; I had been sold a pup. This was not H. x intermedia ‘Pallida’ as the label still proclaims. It was an upright, prolific blooming, but scentless cultivar. I confess to feeling cheated and ill used.

In 40 years in horticulture, I had never come across a form of either of it’s parents or the hybrid between them which was scentless. The parents are Hamamelis mollis (Chinese Witch Hazel) and Hamamelis japonica (Japanese Witch Hazel), both of which are always described as having ‘showy scented flowers’. H. x intermedia ‘Pallida’ is often lauded as ‘one of the most fragrant’ of the genus. I would have to investigate further.

The RHS plantfinder website cites several yellow cultivars, all of which are scented while also suggesting that ‘Pallida’ is not strongly scented. The University of Connecticut website suggested ‘Sunburst’ as a yellow cultivar lacking in the fragrance of ‘Pallida’.

The only scent I am getting from my research is that of ‘Mr. Confusion’, a common finding in any web search for ornamental plants. Pacific Horticulture magazine (October, 2006), for instance, contains a wide ranging article on Hamamelis, in which the only cultivar with no scent is ‘Jelena’ but that has coppery flowers. Weirdly, in an otherwise fine article, they misidentify the cultivar captioned as ‘Pallida’. Ursula Buchan, in ‘The Daily Telegraph’ praises ‘Pallida’ for scent but warns that ‘not all H. x intermedia cultivars are strongly scented, however, so do check when buying’.

And so, at last, I found the site of the Scott arboretum (http://blogs.scottarboretum.org) which has produced a chart for fragrance of Hamamelis (and also ranks leaf retention, often quite a problem) which gives the fragrance for over 30 cultivars. It is clear from this chart that there are many cultivars which do not have any scent, including several yellow cultivars. e.g.

  •  ’Angelly’ is listed as ‘no fragrance’ although on ‘Dave’s Garden’ plantfiles it is said to have ‘fragrant flowers’.
  • ‘Barmstedt Gold’ is listed as ‘no fragrance’ but on ‘Dave’s Garden’ plantfiles it has a ‘fabulous spicy bouquet’.
  • ‘Luna’ – ‘Slight fragrance’, Dave’s Garden – ‘flowers are fragrant’
  • ‘Moonlight’ – ‘No fragrance’, Dave’s Garden – ‘flowers are fragrant’
  • ‘Primavera’ – ‘Slight fragrance’. Dave’s Garden – ‘Fragrant’
  • ‘Sunburst’ – ‘Slight fragrance’, Dave’s Garden – ‘the only failing might be the lack of scent on ‘Sunburst’ = result? 

This search, although long and painful, is not scientific, just a comparison of two opinions:  Neither Andrew Bunting of Scott Arboretum nor ‘Viburnum Valley’ of  Dave’s Garden (a very fine garden and plant site) have any commercial axe to grind and to get agreement on just one cultivar is (to me, anyway) significant.

So, albeit tentatively, I can name my plant as Hamamelis x intermedia ‘Sunburst’. It is upright in habit (not spreading), flowers early in it’s life, has pale yellow flowers in January and has no apparent scent.

Having established to my satisfaction that the ‘pup’ was in fact H. ‘Sunburst’, the next decision was a difficult one. To remove or not to remove; that was the question.  It is very pretty and floriferous, and is very welcome in the dog days of a grey Irish winter. But, it is not what I paid for. It is not as stated on the label, the cultivar ‘Pallida’. It is not scented.

It will stay (for the moment). As it gets larger, it will become more problematic. Will the flower display justify it’s place of prominence at my back door when it’s size looms over the garden? I doubt it. Time will tell.

And the moral is? Buy plants like Hamamelis in flower. There are a lot of imitations out there and the average retailer has no idea what they are selling you. Buyer beware.

 

 

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The Unchanging ‘Christmas Rose’:

Helleborus niger RHu 300x224 The Unchanging Christmas Rose:

Helleborus niger

The genus Helleborus is one of a group of plants which have become a ‘must have’ for many gardeners and collectors. They are known historically in gardens by Helleborus niger, the ‘Christmas rose’ which is the best selling species in most garden centres in the British Isles. Recent breeding and selection have produced a host of new inter species crosses and forms, taking the limelight away from this very pretty and worthwhile winter flowering plant.

Supposedly ‘dull’ species such as H. foetidus, a British native, which used to be known only as the species, now have more than 15 cultivars of varying difference and merit.

Helleborus x hybridus 150x150 The Unchanging Christmas Rose:

Helleborus x hybridus in the garden.

However, the main development has centred on Helleborus x hybridus, loosely known as ‘Lenten Roses’ as they tend to flower in Spring. There are a huge number of seed raised forms as well as distinct clones in white, pink, purple, yellow and even orange. These are an amalgam of possibly 8 or 9 different species. They were originally ascribed to H. japonicus, but are now generally acknowledged to include several subspecies, as well as several other species which have broadened the range of colours and plant forms available. The more hybridisation that takes place, the more species and hybrids are used in increasingly complex interactions so that now there are even several yellow cultivars,  unimaginable 15 years ago.

The ‘Christmas Rose’, H. niger, seen on Christmas cards and often cited as ‘the’ Hellebore has, however, produced few cultivars in common usage and has resisted the hybridisers’ efforts to produce any other colour than white. The only cultivar given to this species in the ‘The RHS Encyclopedia of plants’ is ‘Potter’s Wheel’, now acknowledged to be mostly available as a seed strain with the original cultivar doubtfully in commerce. They have been several other white forms selected but few are in commerce.

Helleborus niger Blackthorn Strain 0005 150x150 The Unchanging Christmas Rose:

Helleborus niger, Blackthorn Strain, from Edgewood Gardens, U.S.A.

Those grown as ‘Blackthorn Strain’ are certainly  superior to the species, but are a seed strain rather than a cultivar, showing pink in the flower and have the old cultivar ‘Louis Cobbett’ (also doubtful) in their parentage. This strain was developed by Robin and Sue White and should not be confused with their similarly named strain of X sternii hybrids.

Forms which age to pink or have pink coloration in the flower are referenced by Graham Rice as growing in the wild in Slovenia but are extremely rare in cultivation.  Will McLewin (by email) says that ‘In wild populations (many but not all) the occurrence of  ’pink’ H. niger (from pale to deep red-pink) is not unusual. However the colour is environmentally dependent, not replicated in cultivation more often than not. This is confirmed, implicitly, by the continued absence of reliable pink ‘strains’ in commerce despite strenuous efforts to produce them.’ It seems true that the vast majority of forms in cultivation, seed raised or clonal, are white, with many indistinguishable from each other.

My own plant is an unusual dwarf form which I received many years ago from a lady in Kildare. It is 6-7 inches tall and pure white, darkening to pink only when the flowers fade. Due to the ravages of black spot, I remove the leaves each year before flowering and the result is striking in the dreary winter garden and it does flower for Christmas most years, opening on the 27th of December this year.

Helleborus niger in my garden 300x225 The Unchanging Christmas Rose:

Dwarf Helleborus niger in my garden

The removal of leaves is interesting, as it can be seen in the photo of ‘Blackthorn Strain’ above that the leaves are also absent. One of the problems with the plant originally was that the flowers were hidden by the foliage so that foliage removal before flowering has become common and does not hinder the plant in any way. Many claim that H. niger does not flower at Christmas but this is untrue, even more so with some of the newly bred forms now available. The form that I have consistently flowers at Christmas, but clearly many seed strains do not.

2 Josef Lemper The Unchanging Christmas Rose:

‘Josef_Lemper’, the most common Helleborus niger in the ‘Gold Collection’

The best cultivar forms at the moment come from ‘Gold Collection’ which is the result of work by German breeders Peter Oenings and Josef Heuger (Helleborus.de).  Vigorous selection, where only one of every 100,000 seedling is selected, has produced these vigorous strong plants which flower reliably and early. They are then grown by tissue culture, under laboratory conditions, ensuring that they are all identical in form and growth. The most common cultivars are ‘Josef Lemper’ and ‘Jacob Royal’ (a particularly early form).  It should be noted that the only ‘pink’ forms are hybrids.

 

Jacob The Unchanging Christmas Rose:

‘Jacob’ an early H. niger cultivar from the ‘Gold Collection’

It has been suggested that Helleborus niger is difficult to grow but no plant that has remained in cultivation for so long can be too difficult in gardens. No doubt many of the plants grown and bought yearly die, but there are two causes of this. The first is that many plants bought into garden centres for Christmas are forced, thereby producing a plant unable for harsh conditions outside of a glasshouse when exposed to damp or freezing weather. Secondly, there is rarely any advice given to the purchaser.

Helleborus niger should be bought from plants grown outside or, if forced, hardened off gradually. They like typical woodland conditions of some shade, a rich leafy soil, and absence of competition. Combine them with dwarf bulbs under tall shade. Growing in pebbles (as above) ensures no splashing of the flowers by heavy rain. They dislike being moved and if established properly will gives years of uncomplaining beauty whether it be in winter or early spring. Black spot on the leaves may be a problem but is usually kept at bay by removing the leaves before flowering. Young leaves grow away vigorously.

Try one and see how you get on and the joy of getting flowers for Christmas (if you can manage it) is worth the effort.

 

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Two Unusual Aucubas: The Plant with the Identity crisis:

Spotted Laurel’  is an evergreen hardy shrub which is an imposter in two ways. Firstly, it is not a member of the Laurel family. Secondly, although the form seen in gardens is almost always the unusually variegated spotted form with leaves spotted with yellow or white, the species itself is green leaved.

Aucuba japonica variegated form 150x150 Two Unusual Aucubas: The Plant with the Identity crisis:

Variegated form of Aucuba japonica

Nearly all forms in gardens are seen under the general title of ‘Variegata’, even though there are several spotted clones in cultivation, and, of course, the species A. japonica is a plain green form. In fact, if you search for the cultivar ‘Mr. Goldstrike’, Google images will show you at least 5 distinct forms, including a green one. Similarly, a search for ‘Aucuba japonica‘ will bring up mostly variegated forms. So, to recap; Aucuba japonica is a green leaved shrub, seen mostly as one of several clones, mostly under the cultivar names ‘Variegata’ or ‘Crotonifolia’ and under the common name of ‘Spotted Laurel’.

Aucuba japonica Crassifolia foliage at Vandeleur 150x150 Two Unusual Aucubas: The Plant with the Identity crisis:

Aucuba japonica ‘Crassifolia’ foliage

Aucuba japonica, correctly ‘Japanese Laurel’ is native to Japan, but also China, and is one of the most useful, and yet underused, shrubs for landscape or the home garden. It has thick glossy evergreen leaves which withstand drips of overhead trees, making it one of the best plants for dense shade and polluted environments. It was extremely popular from it’s introduction in the late 1700s as it grew well in cities which were very dark and polluted. It was planted in ‘shrubberies’, usually with ‘Common Laurel’ (Prunus laurocerasus) and ‘Laurustinus’ (Viburnum tinus). It was also used for ‘Laurel Lawns’, a feature where it was planted ‘en masse’ and clipped at 1m., thus creating a lawn effect at waist height.

The plant has both male and female forms, both being required to produce the bright red fruits. The first form, (a spotted one, probably ‘Variegata’ introduced in the the late 1700s, was female and it was several years before a male form was introduced. The flowering female form was a sensation at a subsequent R.H.S. show. 

Aucuba japonica Longifolia foliage at Vandeleur 150x150 Two Unusual Aucubas: The Plant with the Identity crisis:

Aucuba japonica ‘Longifolia’ foliage

Two unusual forms which are growing in the Vandeleur Wall Garden in Kilrush, Co. Clare are; ‘Crassifolia’ (above) and ‘Longifolia’.  ’Crassifolia’ is a male form and very similar to the species but with thicker leaves which have more pronounced serrations. ‘Longifolia’ has longer thinner leaves and gives a more elegant appearance. It is a female form. Both are densely branched evergreens which grow slowly, reaching 1.5m -3m., but are easily reduced in size by hard pruning if required.

Needless to say, both of these may be in gardens under other names. I have seen A. j. ‘Longifolia’ as ‘Salicifolia’, ‘Long Leaf’, ‘Angustifolia’ and others. Indeed, I have only the labels in Vandeleur gardens as providence for my own photos.

Clearly, Aucuba japonica and all it’s forms are much confused, but that should not deny them a place in many gardens and landscapes as their versatility and quiet beauty is as relevant today as it was to Victorian Britain when these plants had their heyday. It’s tolerance of shade, pollution and clipping make it an excellent shrubs for all sorts of locations and uses.

Aucuba japonica Crotonifolia in Warrenstown Two Unusual Aucubas: The Plant with the Identity crisis:

Aucuba japonica ‘Variegata’ in Warrenstown College grounds, 2009

 

 

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A Visit to Vandeleur Wall Gardens, Kilrush, Co. Clare, Summer, 2010

Watsonia Vandeleur 150x150 A Visit to Vandeleur Wall Gardens, Kilrush, Co. Clare, Summer, 2010

View of Vandeleur wall garden with Watsonia in the foreground.

Vandeleur wall garden with Alstroemeria 150x150 A Visit to Vandeleur Wall Gardens, Kilrush, Co. Clare, Summer, 2010

Vandeleur wall garden with Alstroemeria aurantiaca

Outside the town of Kilrush in Co. Clare is the fine gardens of Vandeleur wall gardens.

Beautiful old stonewalls enclose  this sheltered Walled Garden (2.2 acres) which is set among 420 acres of native woodland. Formerly part of the Vandeleur Family Demesne, this garden has been restored around the old path system with a horizontal maze, unusual water-features and a free-standing Victorian-style working glasshouse

Grass maze Horizontal maze Vandeleur 150x150 A Visit to Vandeleur Wall Gardens, Kilrush, Co. Clare, Summer, 2010

Horizontal maze, Vandeleur

which is accessible to visitors.

The gardens were restored from 1997 and the borders were replanted in the early 2000′s. An excellent museum of the family ‘big house’ was added along with a coffee shop and this is now an excellent garden to visit, garnering very good reviews on Trip Advisor.

 

Allee of Clipped Beech Vandeleur gardens Kilrush 150x150 A Visit to Vandeleur Wall Gardens, Kilrush, Co. Clare, Summer, 2010

Allee of clipped Beech, Valdeleur wall garden, Kilrush

As well as being a beautiful tranquil garden set among the larger woodland, it is also a good place to spot unusual plants, e.g. Watsonia, Echium and Alstroemeria, some doing particularly well in this mild western seaboard area.

There are also some fine landscape features, such as the allee of Beech (Fagus sylvatica) which are underplanted with Narcissus for Spring display and the horizontal maze of grass and paving. A giant chessboard also provides an unusual focus in the garden and is very popular, particularly with children.

 

Mespilus germanica in fruit 150x150 A Visit to Vandeleur Wall Gardens, Kilrush, Co. Clare, Summer, 2010

Mespilus germanica in fruit

Another plant which took the interest of many was the unusual fruiting tree, the Medlar (Mespilus germanica). This old fashioned fruit was widely grown in the late middle ages and has gone out of favour due to the need to ‘blet’ the fruits. In essence, this means allowing to over ripen and become soft. They make excellent jelly but are not to everyone’s taste eaten raw.

This was a garden of which we know nothing and simply found through the local tourist office. We visited the garden in late Summer but whenever you visit, you are guaranteed a pleasant and peaceful time in this underrated jewel tucked away in Co. Clare. We were glad we did.

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The Many Faces of Mahonia x media:

Mahonia x media Winter Sun 150x150 The Many Faces of Mahonia x media:

Mahonia x media ‘Winter Sun’ flowers and foliage

I don’t have room in my garden for many more shrubs, but one which is a ‘must have’ which is flowering now is  Mahonia x media. In gardens, the most commonly seen cultivar is ‘Charity’, but in fact there is such confusion in the trade over the similarity of named forms that it could equally be ‘Winter Sun’ or indeed, ‘Lionel Fortesque’, ‘Underway’ or several other similar forms which are identical to the casual eye. It is (in all forms) a magnificent evergreen shrub with upright spikes of yellow, scented flowers through the Winter and jagged pinnate foliage which is ornamental all year round. This makes it one of the most amenable hardy evergreen shrubs for both gardener and landscaper.

Mahonia x media is a hybrid between 2 very fine parents, M. japonica and M. lomarifolia. One which is hardy and common and one which is tender and more exotic.

 

Mahonia japonica in Spring 150x150 The Many Faces of Mahonia x media:

Mahonia japonica in Spring

Mahonia japonica is a beautiful Spring flowering shrub, with toothed pinnate foliage and pretty yellow, lax, highly scented flowers. It is at it’s best in February or March and it’s flowers scent the air for many metres around the plant and is very hardy.

The glossy foliage clothes it to the ground and tends to turn to reddish colouration in cold Winters This makes it ideal as an evergreen shrub for shade and in the U.S. can become an invasive species, especially after wet Autumns. 

To it’s progeny, it passes on it’s hardiness, flower size and scent (although I find this subjective).

 

Mahonia lomarifolia foliage 150x150 The Many Faces of Mahonia x media:

Mahonia lomarifolia foliage

M. lomariifolia is more tender, with amazing pinnate, sharply cut foliage and flowers which are bright yellow and upright.  Both this and M. japonica (despite the specific name) are from China although from different areas of this vast country.

It is worth growing just for it’s foliage which is just as well as it does not survive well in or flower in most of Ireland but grows along the coast and in sheltered gardens like Rowallane in Co. Down, where this photo was taken.

To it’s progeny, it imparts the magnificent foliage and it’s upright habit habit and flower heads

Mahonia x media Charity 150x150 The Many Faces of Mahonia x media:

Mahonia x media ‘Charity’

The offspring of these two species are remarkably consistent across the hybrids produced so far.  The first recorded plant was found in a mixed batch of seedlings from Mahonia lomariifolia which was raised in Northern Ireland in 1951 or earlier. This plant was given the cultivar name ‘Charity’ at the Saville gardens in London, where it first flowered.  ( ’The Plantsman’, vol.1, 1979)

This is the original clone propagated and is definitely the most common. The common strand uniting the various clones is that they make strong hardy evergreen shrubs with all round appeal. One unfortunate habit, passed on from M. lomariifolia, is that older plants become woody and bare at the base. This can be ornamental if used correctly as the plant becomes a small multi stemmed tree.

Mahonia x media Lionel Fortescue flower and foliage 150x150 The Many Faces of Mahonia x media:

Mahonia ‘Lionel Fortescue’ in Warrenstown.

However, for smaller gardens, this is also easily fixed by pruning the plant hard in Spring after it has flowered. This has the advantage of keeping the foliage and flowers at or below head height.

Whatever cultivar you come across, it will make a fantastic addition to the garden, giving bright Winter colour and striking foliage which is an excellent foil for softer foliage plant like Bamboo species or grasses. It is also quite immune to the problems of pets and children due to it’s prickly leaves. What more could you ask for?

 

 

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