Jills Plant Stories
Plant stories from Jill Devon at Langthorns
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.
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.
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.