I am a firm believer in finding the niche. The place where a plant might naturally be most at home. Where the right amount of sunlight falls, be it plentiful or dappled or none and where the shadow counts. The same applies to shelter, for the difference between an airy place or one where there is a still shelter might be the make or break and opportunity.
Our conditions here on the hill are all about the light and free air movement. The sun rises in the east and swings around in a great all-day arc across our slopes until it sets at the top of the valley. There is very little shadow and very little shelter, so for most of the day the garden is exposed and at the whim of whatever the weather decides to throw at it. The places where the air is still or where there is reliable shadow are few. In the lea of the buildings where you can see the light falling differently and where it is worth taking the time to observe where the wind fingers and where it doesn’t.
I have built upon these little microclimates by adding to them with deciduous shrubs. Hydrangea to the east of the milking barn, where its large foliage is protected from the predominant westerlies and there is shade in the afternoon. Hamamelis to the west, where it receives only the second half of the day’s sunshine and gets away with a cool morning. Happy in sunshine if it has a good depth of soil and plenty of humus, the witch hazel is reaching widely now with limbs that shade and shelter its companions. These are mostly herbaceous and rally after the early flush of bulbs and hellebores to create a leafy microclimate in the growing season.
At their feet, and in the rich layer of compost I’ve put down to keep the witch hazel happy, I took a calculated risk and planted the Flame Flower. Pushing boundaries once you get to know your conditions is always worth it, despite it being a long shot that the Flame Flower would work. Hailing from damp leafy forests of Chile, Tropaeolum speciosum does best in this country in the cooler climate of the north and thrives on the north side of a house or hedge. Scarlet and the dark green of yew are a wonderful coupling and you will see it happily romping over the hedges at Levens Hall in Cumbria and Crathes Castle in Scotland. Further south it does less well, although there used to be a fine plant growing on a north-facing wall in the Chelsea Physic Garden. Flame Flower does have a reputation for being tricky, favouring as it does acid ground, humus-rich soils and with its roots in the constancy of perpetual shade. Heavy shade is too much for it, as it needs to reach into the light, but not into scorching sunshine.
So much is stacked against the Flame Flower working here on our exposed hillside, but it has found itself a home in the shadows and the cool of the compost I heap onto the bed in late autumn. Frost will melt the top growth at the end of the growing season, but its fragile roots, which are pale and look not unlike bindweed, are hardy and winter dormant. They travel shallow and wide and so it appears in a different position every year, their leaf stems winding around whatever support might be to hand. This year, after last summer’s heat, they are more in the shade than ever, finding purchase in the limbs of the hamamelis and the filigree growth of aruncus. Their ascent is nicely timed, so that they rise late enough to never smother their host, but provide it with a new layer of interest as it settles into its quiet season.
The Flame Flower is aptly named and sits perfectly against the lime green of its delicate foliage. The buds, an exquisitely made origami, look like little dragon heads with a single horn projecting up and away to the rear. The buds always face towards the light and in one direction so that the flat-faced flowers reveal their full strength of colour when working as a team. This is a fearsome blaze and quite unlike any colour that we might find growing naturally in this country, but always welcome against the weighty greens of August.
Words: Dan Pearson | Photographs: Huw Morgan
Published 5 August 2023