It is good to have the Inula back and finally given the domain they deserve. I have a vague memory about the provenance of my original plant, but am pretty sure it came from a trip that I made to see Piet Oudolf when he and his wife Anja were still running their nursery in Hummelo. My 1999 copy of Piet’s book Méér Droomplanten, which he signed for me at the time, has the words ‘THE BEST !’ written beneath the entry. By then we had already planted the greater majority of the garden at Home Farm, however, it was love at first sight, and so the inula were brought back without a specific home to go to.
Inula magnifica is native to the eastern Caucasus and I. m. ‘Sonnenstrahl’ (main image) is a selection originally made by Ernst Pagels (1913-2007), the influential German nurseryman responsible for the introduction of a huge number of garden cultivars, many of which have become synonymous with the new perennial movement, most notably those of Miscanthus sinensis and Salvia nemerosa. The Oudolf nursery was only about 100 miles away from Pagels’ nursery and the two became friends in the last twenty years or so of Pagels’ life, which must be how Piet came to know this cultivar.
Pagels chose this inula due to its vigour and the fact that it has particularly long rays to the flowers. Long enough to flutter in the wind and increase the already imposing feeling of the plant, where its wide branching flowerheads reach for the sky. This movement in the petals also adds a lightness and delicacy to a plant that is something of a giant. When you see ‘Sonnenstrahl’ alongside the straight species – more on that later – it has star quality. It is a plant that you want to make room for.
So, at Home Farm my original plants were given a space in the vegetable garden on the other side of the Barn Garden wall, whilst I wondered where they could go. Looking back at pictures of the Barn Garden now they peer a good head and shoulders above the wall, for they easily make two metres or more in stature and can take a couple of square metres at ground level with their relaxed splays of giant foliage. The growth is hoary to the touch and the paddle shaped leaves rasp as they brush upon themselves when you get close.
When Home Farm was sold in 2000, the plants were still in their position, waiting for a place to call home. I took a handful of favourite things from the garden of which they were one and, without the room to keep them myself, I gave the crown I dug up to Chris and Toby Marchant at Orchard Dene Nurseries, who kindly offered to foster it and give it a home in their stock beds. Although I am rarely fearful of big plants in small spaces, a single specimen would have taken far too much ground in the Peckham garden. I made do with visiting the wonderful grove of plants at Great Dixter that Fergus has set free in the grass in the lower reaches of the garden near the nursery and pined a little each time, until we moved here and once again had the opportunity of space.
About five years ago I made a return visit to Piet’s with my friend Midori from the Millennium Forest in Hokkaido and collected the seed of the plants he still had growing in the garden. The nursery had gone by then, but I was delighted with the seed until, three years later, they flowered in my stockbeds. It was hard to tell at first, because I only had memory as comparison, but the plants seemed inferior, not exactly a shadow of the parent selection, but certainly a poor cousin, with shorter rayed flowers and, consequently, less star quality. Nevertheless, when we were landscaping the new garden last summer, I dug up the seedlings with the help of a small excavator. It was summer so I cut the foliage and flowers back and split the vast crowns unceremoniously with a sharp spade into a dozen plants and potted them on for later.
About the same time, we were invited to visit Shute House by Tania and Jamie Compton and afterwards, when we walked their own garden nearby, there was ‘Sonnenstrahl’ towering above us. The two of them have an eye for a good plant and, for sure, when I asked it was the superior beast. Jamie promised me a root cutting and, later, so did Toby Marchant from the original plant in their stock beds as a comparison. They both proved to be the same thing and so, eighteen years later, I have them once again, grouped around our cesspit so that their huge basal clumps of foliage will disguise this ungainly and ugly necessity. I have no fear that they will, nor any doubt that their presence will also make the cesspit something of a destination.
Close by, on the banks of the ditch, I have made space for my clutch of seedlings. The ground here is deep and moist from the spring water that feeds into the ditch. Although inula are known for their tolerance of damp conditions the splits, each filling a ten litre pot, were planted in the spring so that they wouldn’t sit wet. The growth around the base of the new plants has been kept clear by strimming to allow them the opportunity to get away and establish while they are still the newbies. Our grass in this country continues to grow in the winter and will overwhelm introductions that are not native and become winter dormant. Although their oversized foliage will compete once established, they need to get their strong taproots down and the reserve in the woody crown in the first year to be able to punch through and hold their own in the future.
They have done well so far, the flowers rising up to carry the eye to the ditch banks beyond the garden and pump up the volume a little amongst the creamy meadowsweet and pink great willowherb. Sure enough the flowers are less dramatic and do not create the spectacle of the original plants nearby, but their lack of refinement feels more appropriate with the natives. Together with my gifted originals they help tell another chapter in the story.