“A wallflower is someone with an introverted personality type who will attend parties and social gatherings, but will usually distance themselves from the crowd and actively avoid being in the limelight.” Not so the blaze that is burning in the pumpkin bed in the kitchen garden. Smouldering, velvety reds and fiery oranges, so sumptuous and at odds with the awakening of a British spring. With their unmistakable perfume, a warm, comforting sweetness of violets and cloves, the garden wallflowers are anything but.
Erysimum cheiri hails originally from Greece and the wallflower really gets its name from the ease with which it seeds into the crevices of buildings where it lives on apparently nothing. The species is mostly gold-flowered and you can see the flame in the plants that have been selected for the garden and have been adapted to garden culture. Mostly bedding in high Edwardian style for the wallflower comes with tulips.
Jonny Bruce, the gardener and guardian of the garden at Prospect Cottage, gave us the seed at the beginning of last year. He had saved it from the original plants that Derek Jarman grew on the leaward side of the cottage. Derek had admired them where they had naturalised on the cliffs of Folkstone and with good intuition had seen that they might find a niche in the shingle at Dungeness. They thrived for him and more than made up for the severity of the conditions by seeding about and making the place their own. Not a tulip in sight, but a habitat they favoured.
A garden is full of association so these wallflowers come with good feeling. Prospect Cottage was very much part of me coming to terms with my own sexuality. In fact, I went to the very same screening of The Garden which Huw attended not long before we met, neither of us knowing of each other at that point. I stood wallflower close to Derek at the interval, but was too nervous to say how much I admired his spirit and his approach to making somewhere that felt so at home against the odds.
Jarman gave his wallflowers a certain freedom in the shingle and I think he used them more appropriately than I am using them here in their first season at Hillside. In the pumpkin bed and grown like a bedding display, it has been a spring of reacquaintance whilst I gather my thoughts about where they would really do best and then gather the seed. I shall cast it somewhere rougher in a rubbly place where they will contrast their willingness to please with the rusted tin of the barns.
Our Jarman wallflowers, with their special associations, are in fact nothing more than a standard mix of reds and oranges, but over time, and once I let them seed where they want to be, they might throw a yellow seedling that will give away the gold that predominates as the true colour in the wild species. We sowed the seed too early last year, in March when we should have waited until late April. The seedlings sprang to life with the vigour of a pioneer and once planted out in our hearty ground saw them thrive in comparative luxury. They grew too fast and too big so I tipped them out in late summer to encourage bushiness and moved them into their winter quarters after the pumpkins were harvested. I will let a few run to seed now I have had time to reconnect and sow directly where they can hopefully make themselves a home.
Erysimum cheiri is listed as a biennial if you grow it in text book fashion, but given tougher conditions (and opportunity) the humble wallflower can be redefined as a short-lived perennial for two or three years. There are longer-lived cousins of which I have grown a number, which tend to be without scent, but make up for it with longevity. If given a bright, open position and good drainage they form a neat rounded shrub of about knee height and retain good form for four or five years before becoming gangly. Around about now in late April, a slip with a heel makes an easy cutting that will be ready to plant out by the autumn.
Erysimum scoparium from the Canary Islands is the one I would grow if it had to be just one and though I wish it came with perfume, the colour is a delight in its mutability. The flowering season starts in early April, dark buds break to soft yellow and age through apricot pink to faded violet, then mauve. The show lasts a month to six weeks as the tapers run their season and, when the flowers have finally fizzed their way up the stems, I carefully remove them to keep the bush neat. It is a treasure that shines brightly, despite its apparent modesty.
Words: Dan Pearson | Photographs: Huw Morgan
Published 30 April 2022