In the twelve years we have been at Hillside, I have deepened the gardener’s journey of learning. The process of trial and error that can only strengthen your knowledge in the doing. My mind’s eye vision of how I’d imagined the narcissus here is a good example of why time is so important in the equation. It takes time to understand where a plant wants to be and time for it then to create its own domain.
Meeting established colonies of plants that have found their niche allows you to see them in all their true character, with mother colonies raining younger generations that have found their way. Pattern making which, when you see it playing out on the ground, is distinct to the plant. This vision of self-determined purpose brings its own kind of joy.
The colonies of wild Narcissus pseudonarcissus growing in ancient hazel coppice in my home county of Hampshire have most likely evolved there over centuries. Gathering in the open clearings and flourishing with the rhythm of light and shadow as it comes and goes in the cycle of the coppice. I had these colonies in mind for the new coppice that we planted on the slopes above the stream. Introducing five hundred bulbs at a time over a wide area is just a drop in the ocean if you are looking for immediate effect but, if you are prepared to be part of the process, the wait becomes something quite beautiful. It has taken five years to be aware of the first seedlings and perhaps it will be another five before they flower and seed, but the process has begun. The hop and skip of youngsters is already visible, always seeding downhill and the distance a seedpod leans from its parent.
You always hope for this demonstration of independence when you plant bulbs into grass. For the easy association of spring celandines and primroses and then the softening sward as it rises to first nestle the flowers and then obscure their foliage as it feeds and then fades under cover into dormancy. But the bulb banks behind the house have proved problematic and over the years I have begun to see a pattern. Despite introducing new bulbs every autumn, the narcissus have repeatedly retreated to the shade of the young crab apples. I had my suspicions, but am now sure that Narcissus fly must be the culprit, for it favours a sunny site and will only lay its eggs in the cleft of narcissus foliage if it can do so in the open. Without you knowing it the grubs hollow out the bulb underground, so that the following year you have nothing but blind offsets. But, as the crab apples and their shadow have grown, so has the safe place for the narcissus and we are beginning to see which ones like it here on the free-draining banks and which don’t.
Shade or no shade, my repeated attempts to introduce the hoop petticoat narcissus (Narcissus bulbocodium) have failed here, so I have been growing them in pots with a number of other small-flowered treasures such as the true form of Narcissus cyclamineus. I lived with colonies of both when I was a student at Wisley, where the hoop petticoats were naturalised in the Alpine Meadow and the miniature Narcissus cyclamineus most appropriately cast its reflection in the dark waters of the Ditch Garden nearby. Thinking back (and this is where time once again comes into play) both the meadow and the ditch at Wisley were not so dissimilar to our own ditch here with its cool slopes and damp ground. So I will only replant the narcissus where the shadow extends its reach on the banks behind the house and, in the spirit of experimentation, start a new colony of moisture-loving narcissus in the dappled light of the willow on the ditch. Perhaps one day they will find their niche here too and I will be able to write with the balance of success and failure tilting in the right direction.
Words: Dan Pearson | Photographs: Huw Morgan
Published 18 March 2023