The last few weeks of wet has had its influence. The meadows remain uncut and the long grass that we allow to lap up to the garden paths has cast seed far and wide. The wet has seen the seed germinating a whole month earlier than usual in a green haze that shows where the wind has blown. The tomatoes are only just starting to ripen in the polytunnel, for the cool that has come with this summer’s wet has checked the plants that need warmth to flower and ripen. Compare with the heat and drought of last summer, a tomato glut in a polytunnel it was a struggle to keep cool and worrying signs of stress in trees that were dropping foliage prematurely. It is becoming increasingly difficult to predict our new weather patterns and what to plan for, but what does seem clear is that we are bound to have to deal with change.
The wet has been kind to the trees that looked so threatened last year and we have seen a weight in their branches and a second round of growth where they have had the moisture. A halo of new green on the young oaks and vigorous shoots on the shrub roses that have put another notch on their belts. In the garden the paths have narrowed so that we emerge wet from the August overhang after our morning inspection. One such moment, where the Hydrangea aspera crowds the lower steps to the east of the milking barn, has seen it all but obscure the way and I can see that it won’t be long before we start to feel overtaken.
I love the feeling of burgeoning in this corner. My most sheltered (and consequently most treasured) position, it was the obvious place to put the hydrangea. Hydrangea aspera, with their opulent atmosphere, are my favourite, but their lush, velvety foliage dries like sheets in the wind if they are not given respite from exposure and moisture at the root. I have more planted in the shimmering shadow of the enormous crack willow that provides them shelter down in the hollow of the ditch, but I pushed their cultural requirements just too far when I planted them in a frost pocket by the stream a few years ago. I fancied building upon the primordial mood there, but my ambitions were thwarted. Hydrangea aspera is susceptible to a late frost, which catches the unfurling foliage. Once established they grow out of it, but the plants at the bottom of the slope were withered twice, once in April and then again in early May when a dastardly frost caught the regrowth and sapped their last energies.
Knowing their requirement for shelter, I was surprised to discover that they are a pioneer species that colonises bare ground in their homeland of Western China, but there they do so with the help of the southwest monsoon, which provides moisture throughout the growing season. They will not seed here in the same way, but their willingness to multiply means that the main characteristic of the species is its infinite variability. Some can grow several metres in height and width and, though not all are hardy, the ones I grow are tried and tested as garden plants in this country.
The most ornamental is ‘Hot Chocolate’ which was reared by the British authority on Hydrangea aspera, Maurice Foster. He crossed it with a red-leaved, Japanese selection named ‘Koki’, another discovery of the Japanese master plant hunter, Mikinori Ogisu. It has proven hardy in Europe and makes a delectable plant of over two metres in height. The lush, plum coloured foliage is at its richest early in the season and is notable well before the flowers begin to form. As it matures, it loses its early season vibrancy, but retains the darkness that makes it such a fine foil for the flowers.
The flowers come mid-season, one tier of lacecaps overlapping the next and weighting the branches in an expression of horizontality and opulence. The colour of the outer ray florets is a clear, pale pink with a darker reverse that make them mutable and complex. The central dome of fertile flowers is usually alive with bees, a far preferable option to the sterile mophead hydrangeas. Look closely and these are greenish-pink in bud, opening to bright violet with a fringed halo of stamens. The rangy stems are covered in a translucent papery bark the colour of cinnamon, which matches the backlit leaves.
As autumn approaches the flowers brown and become papery, but they outlive the foliage as winter skeletons. Snipping them back to the smarten the plant up for its spring flush of foliage is one of my last and most satisfying jobs of the winter. A time to note how well a plant does when you find it a place that it likes and to wonder if, perhaps, next year the path should move for the plant rather than the plant be curtailed for the path.
Words: Dan Pearson | Photographs: Huw Morgan
Published 12 August 2023
Published 12 August 2023