In The Garden
Sharp winds have whipped the blossom and pushed and pulled the tender young growth on the epimediums. So often is the way of early April. The cruellest month perhaps but, in its awakening flora, the most exquisite.
Some of my favourite plants are having their moment now. Woodlanders mostly, making the best of bright spring light flooding to the floor ahead of the canopy closing over. The plants that seize this window are ephemeral by nature and you have to steel yourself for not wishing that time would slow. Picking a posy helps to make a close observation of these long-awaited treasures.
Our garden is young and I have just a few square metres of shelter. The pockets close to the studio have to suffice until we gain the protection of new trees and a sliver of shade in the lea of the house is where I keep the Asian epimediums. I have a collection of twenty or so plants, grown against the odds and carefully looked after in pots. I am sure they would perish out in the open, for they are altogether more delicate than their European counterparts, needing a stiller atmosphere and more reliable moisture at the root in the summer.
My efforts to keep them in good condition – namely shelter from wind and trays in the summer to keep the pots moist when I am not here to water – is all the attention they get. Other than picking over the dead foliage in the spring and a monthly liquid feed in summer, they reward me handsomely for this light intervention. Epimedium leptorrhizum ‘Mariko’ was the first to flower. I do not know this plant well yet, but it has flourished for me in the couple of years I have been growing it, forming a neat, low mound of leaf and throwing out charteuse young foliage with delicate red marbling. The large, dancing flowers, held out sideways on wiry stems, are a strong, rose pink with white inner spurs.
Epimedium fargesii ‘Pink Constellation’ is much better known to me and the spray in this posy is from the plant I brought with me from my Peckham garden. It is particular in its long, serrated, shield-shaped foliage, which is sharp on the eye yet not to the touch. Three leaflets to a stem and burnished copper when they emerge, they darken to a shiny, holly-green for summer. The flowers, of palest pink, are well named and staccato in appearance, arranged candelabra-like on long, wire-thin stems. They sport dark purple inner spurs and the creamy beak of stamens terminates in unexpected turquoise pollen.
The Vinca major var. oxyloba is altogether more robust and the plant from which these flowers are taken is one I have introduced into the hedgerow alongside the garden. The original came from The Garden Museum and, having seen it take a hold there, the hedge seems like the best place for it. Beth Chatto’s catalogue lists it as having an ‘indefinite spread’ and sure enough it has jumped and moved already, rooting wherever it touches down. Certainly not one for introducing into the garden. A gate to either end of the hedge, a verge and mown path to either side, will kerb its domain, if it ever gets that far. I prefer it to straight Vinca major for it’s finely-rayed, starry flowers, which are an intense inky purple that vibrates in shade. It has been in flower now since late December.
The name of Corydalis temulifolia ‘Chocolate Stars’ refers to the colour of the foliage, which is perhaps its greatest asset, springing to life ahead of everything else with a lushness that is out of kilter with the season. I welcome its luxuriance and have it with the liquorice-leaved Ranunculus ficaria ‘Brazen Hussy’ and my best yellow hellebore, for which it was a good foil early on. I used it at the Chelsea Flower Show a couple of years ago with Vinca major var. oxyloba, amongst cut-leaved brambles on a shady rock bank of Chatsworth gritstone. The pale lilac flowers were nearing the end of the season and it had lost its April vitality which, right now, makes you stop and draw breath.
This is the second year the snakeshead fritillaries (Fritillaria meleagris) have flowered for us on the banks behind the house. They will not show evidence of seeding for a few years yet but, in the meantime, I will add to the colony to increase its domain in the short turf beneath the crabapples. They are one of my favourite spring flowers, the chequering of the petals more marked on the purple forms, less so but in evidence, green on white, with the albas. They have a medieval quality to them that must have inspired textiles and paintings. And when the wind blows, despite their apparent delicacy, they are oblivious.