Jills Plant Stories

Phlox paniculata 'Norah Leigh' - click here to view


There is nothing quite like the evening scent of border phlox – it takes me straight back to childhood with its sweet, peppery perfume.   A native of the eastern United States cultivated here since the 1800’s, border phlox come in a range of shades of pink, salmon, white and magenta. The flowers are soft, fresh and clear, carried on tall stalks of generally plain green leaves, which are a perfect foil for the dahlias and Michaelmas daisies and other lovelies of the late summer border. 

Generally I don’t like variegated foliage which to me is distracting to the eye, but I make an exception for ‘Norah Leigh’, which has green leaves with cream splashed edges.  The flowers start as   pinky-mauve buds opening to pale flowers with the same darker pinky-mauve centres, and the whole plant creates a freshness in the late summer when other perennials are running wild and rambling all over the place, in danger of descending into opulent chaos.

Border phlox are hungry plants needing a rich retentive soil, which makes them perfect for our clay conditions.  They can be prone to powdery mildew which can be avoided if they are kept well-watered and not overcrowded. I pinch out some of the growing tips in the early summer (or sometimes cut lower if the plant is quite thin) which encourages a later and thicker regrowth, and more but smaller panicles of flowers. They are at their best when grown in cool conditions or part shade, where the colours of the flowers can really stand out.

Norah Leigh herself was a gardener in the Cotswolds whose daughter married Joe Elliott (the son of Clarence Elliott - plant hunter, horticulturalist and owner of The Six Hills Nursery in Stevenage, which closed in 1954). She had been growing this phlox for years in her garden and passed it on to Joe who was carrying on the family tradition with a successful alpine nursery in Broadwell, near Stow on the Wold.  The plant had been quite a rarity for many years as it is slow to propagate (root cuttings do not hold the variegation), but now thanks to micropropagation we can all enjoy this light and elegant phlox in our gardens.


Scilla peruviana - click here to view


The beautiful Scilla peruviana is just coming into flower here at Langthorns, its head of intense indigo to violet blue flowers looking like a starry upturned cone on top of a short stem with a base of fleshy leaves.  It has various common names: Peruvian Squill, Cuban Lily, and Hyacinth of Peru; although surprisingly it doesn’t originate from Peru at all, but is a native of damp grassy sites in southern Europe. 

Its name  derives from a misunderstanding – the bulbs arrived in England in 1607 (at the port of Bristol) on a ship from Spain that was called The Peru and it then became recorded by the great botanist Carolus Clusius and entered into the history books as having coming from Peru!  

This particular variety of Scilla was one of the first of its species to be recognised as being of ornamental value in Europe - its first known recording being in 1592 - and many more varieties and species followed.  In fact the popularity of bulbs during the seventeenth century was immense – we have all heard of Tulipmania (which was at its height around 1634/37) but the craze for all sorts of fancy bulbs (such as varieties of Crocus, Narcissi, Iris, Fritillaria, Galanthus and Hyacinth) was similarly intense, with fashionable gentlemen creating formal and often intricate flower beds to show off their prized collection.  

The style of those flower beds was very different to what we are used to today, with each plant being shown off individually, with a lot of space and bare earth around, the point being to admire the owner’s ordered collection of specimens rather than his artistic planting style. Just imagine how exciting it must have been to look at all those exotic and colourful rarities from strange lands growing in cold, grey England, and to be able to discuss with friends and neighbours the adventures that must have been encountered, and the merits of each individual flower.  Then think again of that wonderful Scilla peruviana erupting like a little blue firework in that bare soil four hundred years ago and still today looking as fresh and exciting and as exotic as ever it did.


Epimedium - click to view our range


I must admit to having a bit of a ‘thing’ for Epimedium – they are great ground-cover plants, with lovely spring and autumn foliage colouring, and have the most exquisite flowers, which are like miniature columbines, or dolls size narcissi, which come in lots of shades of yellow, pink, orange, white and mauve, with varying degrees of size and of spurs – some even looking like crazy, pretty coloured spiders hanging in mid-air. 

All Epimedium like moist, cool, shady and well drained conditions as they come from mountainous woodlands and although the full name of Epimedium x perralchicum Frohnleiten is a bit of a mouthful it is one of my favourites and one of the toughest of the European varieties, being drought tolerant and evergreen with good seasonal foliage colour and bright yellow flowers (interestingly many Epimedium that tolerate dry shade have yellow flowers).   In the early spring but after the last frost I generally cut all the old foliage off (which by now has become quite leathery and tired looking) before the flowers appear on thin, wiry stems, otherwise they could easily be missed under the old growth.  When the new leaves come through they are soft and heart shaped, a bronze-red colour with green veining, perfect to set off other small spring delights, and, along with the flowers, are always in my bouquet for the Easter breakfast table.

Another lovely species is Epimedium grandiflorum which is deciduous, clump-forming, and prefers a slightly more acid soil.  These plants originated from Japan where they were discovered in the early nineteenth century by the infamous Philipp Franz von Siebold, a physician with the Dutch East India Company (who also gave us the Hosta and Japanese knotweed).  Since then many have been crossed and selected for differing colour forms.  

In the late twentieth century plant hunters (such as Roy Lancaster) discovered new species in China, which are now also being hybridised and ‘improved’ with wonderfully exotic leaves and strange other-worldly flowers, which are all set to take the gardening world by storm.  Meantime there are lots of the old varieties still very sought after, such as another favourite, the cheerful Epimedium x warleyense Ellen Willmott, with soft orange and yellow flowers, which was named after the great plant enthusiast from Warley Place, Brentwood.   But whatever the choice, Epimedium make perfect ground-cover shade-loving plants, whether grown en-masse or as an exciting collection, they have year-long appeal.


Dicksonia antartica - click here to view


In our covered Sales tunnel we have a collection of beautiful hardy tree ferns – Dicksonia antarctica.  Some of the trunks are seven feet high with the graceful arching fronds towering above - which since the trunk’s average growth is only one inch a year makes them around 100 years old!  Throughout the year the new growth of furry croziers uncurl into fronds from the crown of the trunk at an astonishing speed until in a matter of days they are fully unfurled and form a lacy light green canopy.

This ancient species (fossil records show these ferns date back to the Jurassic period – before flowering plants evolved) was named for James Dickson (1738-1822) a Scottish nurseryman and botanist, although he did not discover or collect any tree ferns; neither indeed do they come from antarctica as they are native to the damp, sheltered woodland slopes and cool temperate rainforests of eastern Australia and Tasmania (where their trunks are hosts for a range of epiphytic plants such as other ferns and mosses).

The tree ferns arrived in this country in the nineteenth century in the guise of logs as ballast in cargo ships from Australia which was then discarded on the quayside when the ships were unloaded.  In the mild and damp climate of south west England (and also in the west of Ireland and Scotland warmed by the Gulf Stream) these “logs” unfurled their fronds and the interest in tree ferns began. 

The logs in fact are not woody trunks in the usual manner of trees, but rather the trunk is a vertical rhizome supported by a decaying and expanding mass of roots which in turn forms a medium through which the new roots grow.  This means that there are very few roots in the ground to anchor or feed the plant, and it is the trunk and the crown – rather than the ground - which needs to be watered and fed.  (It is essential though in the winter to keep the crown dry to prevent freezing of the new buds deep in the crown.)

Although Dicksonia antarctica is evergreen and is the hardiest of the tree ferns it needs a sheltered, moderately shady location protected from strong winds to look its best – which is magnificent.


Camellia sasanqua - click to view 


The camellia is a plant known throughout history in Southeast Asia, revered for its beauty and its role in religion and culture, as well as its uses for tea and oil.  Camellia sinensis is the plant that tea is derived from; the young tips of the bush are dried (and fermented for black tea), a practice that according to legend was discovered by the emperor Shen Nung in 2737 BC.  But it is a plain plant and centuries of breeding and experimentation in China and Japan has led to the development of the many ornamental varieties that are grown the world over for their elegant and colourful flowers and glossy evergreen foliage.

Named by Linnaeus after the Jesuit priest Georg Kamel (1661-1706), a keen plant-hunting missionary in the Philippines, the first living camellia flowers to be seen in England (probably Camellia japonica) were reportedly grown in 1739 at Thorndon Hall, here in Essex by the keen plantsman Lord Petre whose tragic early death at the age of 29 was considered a great loss to botany and gardening.  

We are all familiar with those lovely camellias that flower in the early spring, but there is another cultivar from Japan - Camellia sasanqua - that flowers in the autumn. Unlike most camellias it is delicately scented, fully hardy and flowers from September right through autumn and early winter. In China the flowers are dried and used to perfume tea, and in Japan, the fruit of the sasanqua has been used to produce cooking and salad oil.    

All Camellias need moist but well drained, preferably acidic soil, but sasanquas are fairly tolerant of neutral soil and prefer more sun to develop their flower buds.   The plant can be used as a specimen or hedge, and due to its graceful growth habit (Hugh Evans has particularly useful arching branches) may also be espaliered.  

The sasanqua  was imported to England in the late eighteenth century by the East India Company but it was not until more than a hundred years later that the plant hunter Charles Maries   (working on behalf of nurserymen Messrs Veitch in Exeter)  re-introduced this cultivar to a wider audience.  It has gone in and out of fashion over the years but is now being rediscovered as a fragrant and beautiful addition to the garden.


Michaelmas Daisy - click to view


These autumn flowering asters are firm old-fashioned favourites in the cottage garden and the herbaceous border (and are also perfectly suited to the contemporary prairie style) flowering from late August through October.  They have been grown in this country for over four hundred years; the earliest ones coming from Europe, whilst the larger proportion are natives of North America (these North American species have been renamed Symphiotrichum but many nurseries are continuing to list them as Asters).

Aster novi-belgiae is the New York Aster (named after the Dutch settlement of the New Netherlands, later New York) and is not so much a species as a collection of hybrids. It has given rise to many good garden plants with brilliant colours (although it can be susceptible to mildew which may be kept at bay by keeping the plant well-watered and with good air circulation around the base of the stems).  

Many of the most popular varieties were bred by Ernest Ballard at his nursery in Colwall near Malvern, who started his commercial enterprise by accident.  The story goes that when his gardener threatened to leave because of an overabundance of aster seedlings in his garden Ballard bought a field opposite his home to continue to grow them.  One of those seedlings by chance had double flowers which Ballard named ‘Beauty of Colwall’ and sent to the RHS 1907 Aster trials where it won a first class certificate.    After his success Ballard started breeding asters in earnest, naming many of his favourites after family members, such as the lovely double blue Marie Ballard, and the double pink Patricia Ballard.  

Aster novi-angliae is the New England Aster, which is generally stronger and less prone to mildew, although it is less useful for cutting as the flowers tend to close in the evening.  The most sensational variety (and my favourite) is ‘Andenken an Alma Potschke’ which translates as ‘In Memory of Alma Potschke’:  it would be good to know who she was and if the plant with its intense pink flowers lived up to its namesake. 

There are many more fabulous asters such as  ‘frikartii Monch’ (the first to appear) with large single pale lavender blue flowers and ‘Little Carlow’ which has masses of small single intense lavender-blue flowers, and they all provide a welcome splash of late colour, lifting our spirits like an Indian Summer.


Alstroemeria - click to view


We tend to think of alstroemerias as a mainstay of the traditional or mixed herbaceous border, where these tall tuberous perennials with their flecked and striped flowers provide an exotic and exuberant display for many months from June until the first frosts.  They are free-flowering and surprisingly easy to grow (although their roots resent disturbance) and combine well with other plants.   Strangely, every plant wears its leaves upside down, each leaf stalk having a twist in it that brings what should have been the underside of the leaf uppermost.

They originate from Chile, and are commonly called the Peruvian or Princess Lily - maybe Chile Lily didn’t have quite the right connotations for such a dramatic and colourful flower!  Seeds from A. pelegrina were sent to Linnaeus in 1753 by a fellow compatriot Baron Claes Alstroemer of Sweden, and the story goes that Linnaeus was so anxious to preserve this new species that during the cold of the winter he kept the seedlings in his bedroom.  Most of the early alstroemerias were greenhouse varieties, and although there were various species available it was not until the 1930’s that the hardier Ligtu hybrids were developed (Ligtu being the Chilean name for the flower).

Now through more selective breeding there are many new varieties available including the wonderful ‘Little Miss’ compact series which grows to about 45cm and is great for the front of a border or for a container on the patio.  It flowers abundantly and is a great all-rounder (and perfect as a cut flower).

Little Miss varieties  come in a wide range of colours, although that great plantswoman Vita Sackville-West, when speaking of alstroemerias, said  “Keep the orange away from the coral,  for they do not mix well together, and whoever it was said Nature made no mistakes in colour harmony was either colour-blind or a sentimentalist.  Nature sometimes makes the most hideous mistakes; and it is up to us gardeners to control and correct them.”  Whether you heed her advice or not the alstroemeria is the perfect choice for easy, trouble-free summer colour.

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