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Cornucopia - Rare, good-looking and easy to grow

Rare, good-looking and easy to grow
Joe Sime

There are many plants that are both good-looking and easy to grow. The garden centres and our gardens are full of them. Hence they are usually not very rare. There are also lots of good looking and rare plants, but they are often far from easy to grow. Slipper orchids come to mind. Increasingly it is possible to buy rare plants that are easy to grow. Unfortunately most are far from good-looking, being mainly other people’s weeds that today’s plant hunters have given collection numbers to in the hope we may buy them. However, I think that most hardy planters have some plants that meet all three criteria. In this article I will describe some of ours and how we came to get them.

Seeking Them Out

Most of us have seen a picture or read a description of a plant and know that we must have it. I first heard of Halesia diptera var. magniflora (a variety of snowdrop tree) in 2002 in Rick Darke’s excellent book, ‘The American Woodland Garden’. The relevant quote is “In full bloom, this tree is unquestionably the world’s showiest member of its family.” As I was already a fan of the Styracaceae, this was obviously one to seek out. The plant finder only had two suppliers and the nearest was the Bluebell nursery near Ashby de la Zouch. Even they did not have it in stock, and it took a year for them to get one from their supplier. When it arrived it was three leaves on an 18 inch stick grafted onto a stock of the common snowdrop tree, Halesia carolina. As my wife helpfully pointed out this worked out at £16.33 per leaf! However, after six full seasons in the ground in a reliably moist but well drained soil that is just the acid side of neutral it is now about 6 ft and well branched*. It has been flowering for three years and it is a show stopper. The pure white bells with bright yellow stamens are at least one inch across and dangle freely from along the branches in early June. They are followed by large fruits with two wings along the outer edges (hence the name ‘diptera’) and finally the leaves take on a good buttery autumn colour.

Rooting Around in Nurseries

The nursery in question was the Dingle near Welshpool. An annual pilgrimage is a must for any lover of woody plants. It was in May 2006, as I was rooting around their shrubby honeysuckles, that I found one I had never heard of: Lonicera grandis. It was a small shrub with slightly yellowish green leaves each edged in a warm brown colour. I was a bit suspicious, as often pot bound plants show odd leaf colours, but I decided to give it a try. It was not in the Plant Finder, nor was it listed in any of my reference books, including Bean, the accepted authority on woody plants hardy in the UK. On the net there was only one reference to it as growing in a garden in France. It settled in well with us, growing to about 3 ft. It has twinned pink flowers in early spring with the emerging leaves. The leaf pattern is maintained as long as it grows in sun. It is still not in the Plant Finder, but it is now offered for sale by a nursery in France, which has a picture of it on its web site that fits my plant.

Supporting Plant Hunters

I guess most people think that buying a share in a seed hunting expedition must be expensive. We associate it with Bulley and the Rothschilds at the turn of the century. But this is no longer so. For example you can have a small share (about 20 packets of seed) from a Chris Chadwell expedition for as little as £25 which compares well with Suttons prices and is much more fun. My next plant is the result of buying a share in Ray Brown’s expedition to the island of Sakhalin in 2002. Our garden now houses several plants from this collection, but the most impressive is Veronicastrum sachalinense. It is like its little cousin V. virginicum except in size. It has strong stems to 8 ft, clothed in rings of lance shaped leaves and topped with long spires of flowers of a good strong blue. It is a stunner. It likes a moist soil and is in a spot that is often waterlogged in winter. The plant is not in the Plant Finder, but you can still get seed from Plant World Seeds.

Buying from the Experts

We all enjoy a talk more when the speaker also comes with plants for sale, and if the speaker is a real enthusiast for his topic you can occasionally find a really interesting plant. We bought Hanabusaya asiatica from a talk at the North Wales branch of NCCPG (as it was then). For such an easy and useful plant it is still uncommon with only four suppliers in the Plant Finder. It is a woodland member of the Campanula family. It runs gently through well drained, shady, woodland soils, putting up stems to about 18 inches which in autumn are hung with deep blue bells about 1 inch across. Although it runs, it is not a thug as it does not form a thick clump and is easy to remove where it is not wanted.

Seed Distributions

Seed distribution schemes such as those run by the HPS and AGS are a very good source. It was through the AGS scheme that we were introduced to the genus Romanzoffia. We started with R. tracyi, which although the most common member still has only six suppliers. It is a summer dormant plant that grows on the foggy hillsides of the pacific north west of the USA. It is small (4 inches high) with neat, round, shiny green leaves and in spring is a mass of small, pure white flowers. For us it grows on a slight slope in moist shade. This year we have grown its cousin R. californica. This is similar, but slightly bigger and grows in damp woodland in northern California. It is not available in the Plant Finder.

Just Waiting

When I bought Lonicera implexa from Ashwood Nurseries in 2005 there were six suppliers listed in the Plant Finder. In 1999 there were 15, now there are none. I’ll admit it is not a show stopper, but it is a nice small shrub to about 2 ft with slender perfoliate stems clothed in glaucous rounded leaves. It is happy given sun and a well drained soil, producing typical honeysuckle flowers in summer. It looks like a climbing honeysuckle that does not climb. There are many similar examples of plants that were once relatively popular but are no longer in the trade. This is particularly true of named varieties of herbaceous perennial. I would wager that anyone with a garden of ten years or older already has a rarity without even trying. If you do, then tell the conservation scheme... they are looking for them.

First published in the Shropshire Group Newsletter, January 2011
and subsequently in Cornucopia Issue 30.
© Copyright for this article: Joe Sime

*RIP (died in the winter of 2011)

This article was taken from a copy of Cornucopia that was published in 2012. You could be reading these articles as they are published to a national audience, by subscribing to Cornucopia.


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