The garden has taken a distinct and irreversible turn. It is not a sad thing, just the beginning of another season. A slowness in the Morning Glories, that just a fortnight ago were still racing skyward and now stay open well into the afternoon in defiance of their name. Kaffir lilies flaring hot colour and the first spears already pushing on the Nerine.
A gentle countermovement happens alongside the feeling that most things have reached their peak and are now ready to begin standing down. When we lived in London it was the Datura which went for its best and most intoxicating September fling. Primed by the cooling weather and definitely responding to the onset of autumn, it had been readying itself for such a finale, which, in the shelter of our Peckham garden, would run through to November and test my resolve in leaving the plant out just for one more night. I have an offspring of the very same plant here, treasured but never thriving on our windy hillside. Though I have moved the pot around to try and find it the shelter it needs, this hothouse flower knows its limits and taunts me here rather than rewarding.
Not so the Nicotiana suaveolens which right now is having a moment. This is another plant that I have grown continually for what must be at least twenty years. I first knew it as Nicotiana noctiflora, in reference to its night-flowering habit, and have a niggling half-memory of where it originally came from, which is surprising considering my devotion. Derry Watkins of Special Plants was here recently and said that it was one of her all-time favourites too, but that she never saw it any more. She used to grow it for sale, but the plants were seldom bought. When I asked her why, she said that she thought it was too subtle for most people. Its quiet elegance is exactly why I love it.
I have explored the tobacco plants over the years. Towering Nicotiana mutabilis, with a confetti of tiny flowers, suspended in a cage of branching stems, which age from white through palest pink to deep rose. Where there has been a need for an exotic moment, Nicotiana sylvestris has provided lush foliage, a bolt of white drama and heady perfume. The tiny, green bells of Nicotiana langsdorfii have been mingled amongst perennials to extend the season in the borders and I currently have a little trial of dark-coloured varieties, which I imagine must have some N. langsdorfii in their blood. ‘Tinkerbell’ has lime green trumpets with a rust-ruby face and unexpected blue pollen. ‘Hot Chocolate’ is similar, but a velvety brown-red. Subtle beauties that need to be placed carefully if their colour is not to be lost.
In Peckham we suffered from the dreaded tobacco mosaic virus, which is carried on tomatoes and affects their solanaceous cousins when in full swing. When it hits, the Nicotiana leaves firstly develop the distinctive mosaic patterning, then they begin to twist and melt, leaving the plants failing in high season with a wide open autumn ahead of them and the associated disappointment. Interestingly, the Australian Nicotiana suaveolens was never affected and, even when growing alongside others that did succumb, it soldiered on until the frosts. I brought it here as seed, which is produced in plenty and is easily reared from a March sowing under glass. Where it has seeded into pots that spend their winter in the frames, I’ve found it to germinate spontaneously in April as the weather warms. The seedlings that make their own way without transplanting catch up with those that are pricked out and cossetted.
In London our plants would return for a second and sometimes even a third year if their spring regrowth wasn’t decimated by slugs. Though I plant out a dozen or so as gap fillers close to the paths, we have too much winter here, but our most splendid plant is growing just under the eaves of the open barn. I presume the ground is dry enough in winter to afford it enough protection to have returned a second year and at twice the size from the reserves of a decent set of roots. I noted the frosted rosette looked green in March when winter turned and looked after it accordingly to guard it from slugs.
Our barnside plant has been gathering in strength over the summer, pushing out flower since July. The wiry stems set the long trumpets free of the basal foliage and the flowers appear with room between them to hover. During the day, from mid-morning onwards, they hang in repose so that you hardly notice them, but as evening descends they awaken. Part of their nocturnal glory lies in their paleness, which is luminous in darkness and this is when they throw out their lure, pulsing perfume to attract moths and other night time pollinators. When we returned from London on Thursday night, the misty air was still and the open barn had captured this heady, exotic perfume. A smell reminiscent of cloves and jasmine that conjures somewhere very different from our cool, dampening autumn.
Words: Dan Pearson | Photographs: Huw Morgan
Published 14 September 2019