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Cornucopia - Summer treasures

Summer Treasures
Joan Millard

New Year’s Day and the temperatures are barely above freezing. This has been the case for most of December and is forecast for the next fortnight. Hibernation sounds like a good idea. I like to call myself a hardy gardener but there is a limit. Bird-watching from the comfort of my warm conservatory is the nearest I have got to inspecting the garden. It has still managed to look good in a bare bones sort of way. Structure is all important at this time of year. This in my garden is provided by a few evergreens, sculptural plants such as phormium, yucca and chusan palm, the spectacular coloured stems of cornus and the wonderful bare branches of trees and deciduous shrubs. Of course, the best times are those frosty, sunny days when everything looks magical. This is a great time of year to reflect on past glories, not to mention looking forward to the coming months of new growth. In this article I will concentrate on the former. I would like to share with you a few treasures of my garden in 2008. The first four are summer bulbs but the final choice is, hopefully, in view of the weather we are having just now, perennial.

The first of my little gems is Ipheion uniflorum, a spring flowering bulb which forms a clump of star-shaped, pale blue flowers (these may also be white or deeper blue). Its delicate appearance belies its robust, hardy nature. This member of the onion family shows as a clump of narrow grass-like leaves in winter, the flowers opening in early spring, March to May. The bulbs thrive on neglect and will spread if left alone for several years. They look great amongst other small spring bulbs such as muscari, dwarf iris, snowdrops and scillas, enjoying ‘woodland conditions’ of dappled shade. Alternatively, they look attractive displayed in a pot.

My next plant is the corm Hypoxis parvula, a tiny pearly white flower with narcissus-like leaves, which grows to just about 12 cm (5 ins) high. Flowering from June into July, this is such a tiny feature plant that it would be lost if planted in the open garden. My specimen is situated in a compost filled sink amongst small sedums and succulents, where it can shine and be noticed. It would also suit a small rockery, again where it could be seen at close quarters. This plant is on the border of hardiness and so should be placed in a sheltered position. Is my patio near to the house going to provide enough protection?

The next little treasure to appear in my garden was the brilliant vermillion Anomatheca laxa, another corm with small, sword-like leaves forming a fan. In July the tiny flowers appear, up to six per stem. This little plant is a real eye-catcher, due to the orange-red colour of its flowers. The lower three petals of each flower have a deeper red splodge. The small clump that I have is growing in gravel at the edge of a bubble fountain feature, where it shows up well amongst the deep magenta flowers and lime-green leaves of the Geranium 'Ann Folkard' and the frothy pink-lilac of the small Gypsophila repens with its silvery foliage.

From July through to September I admired my solitary flower of Eucomis autumnalis, growing in a simple flower-pot placed on my garden table. The greenish-white flowers clustered densely up the bare stem to a total height of 25 cm, (10 ins) 10 cm (4 ins) of this being flower spike. The strap-like leaves in light green formed a rosette around the stem and the flower spike was topped by the distinguishing tuft of pale green bracts, hence its name of ‘pineapple plant’. This bulb is the small sister of the larger eucomis seen in profusion in the Scilly isles and also in warmer parts of our own island. Being frost hardy, it will stand up to most winters but I am taking no chances with my specimen as the pot is easily moved into the greenhouse. My bulb has produced two or three side bulbs in as many years, which I have potted up and passed on, hoping that others will enjoy the splendour of this small treasure as I have.

Now, as a finale, I must tell you about my hot lips. No, I am not bragging about my exploits under the mistletoe, but about my purchase from Hampton Court Flower Show of the fairly new variety, Salvia 'Hot Lips'. This, to my mind, is a real stunner. Its flowers, from mid- summer to the first frosts, are basically white with a distinctive pair of show-girl red lips on the lower petals. From its humble beginnings of a smallish plant with two flowers, one of which I snapped off on the way home, the plant has grown to a fair sized bush with a profusion of flowers throughout the summer into autumn. The cheeky little flowers made me smile every time I walked down the garden. They looked as if they were calling out for me to kiss them. My only worry is that, like many salvias, it may be borderline hardy. I have protected it under a plastic dome-cloche but I am keeping my fingers crossed that it will survive this very cold winter.

Here’s hoping that I will see the return of all these treasures later on this year but, if any of them succumb to the winter bitterness, then I will have enjoyed them for last year and look forward to more chances to experiment with different ‘specimen plants’ in the future. Although these wishes will be rather belated by the time you read this, have a happy gardening new year.

First published in the Berkshire Group Newsletter. Spring 2009
and subsequently in Cornucopia Issue 25.
© Copyright for this article: Joan Millard

This article was taken from a copy of Cornucopia that was published in 2010. You could be reading these articles as they are published to a national audience, by subscribing to Cornucopia.


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