GARDENING / Peculiar Plants

Click to follow
The Independent Culture
SOME PLANTS are odd. Daffodils, which have a steady job as harbingers of spring in northern Europe, turn up on baking beaches in Greece. The jasmine that breathes of summer evenings also has a winter persona. Other flowers are transformed into trees: vegetables can become flowers. This dog-day series is for those who enjoy oddities.

The sea daffodil (Pancratium maritimum) grows in colonies that would have had Wordsworth reaching for his pen, but they are not found in the Lake District. Once, swimming ashore from a boat in Corfu, I found them everywhere in the sand, fluttering in a stiff sea breeze. In a hot summer, sea daffodils will flower in England; this would have been the year to take a chance on a few bulbs. The Peruvian daffodil (Hymenocallis narcissiflora) is another summer-flowering relation, though it might have been too exotic for Wordsworth. With petals like wood shavings and an incredible smell, one or two would fill a conservatory with their scent. Neither the sea nor the Peruvian daffodil are hardy anywhere but sunny and well-drained places.

Summer hyacinths (Galtonia candicans) are a little like giant Roman hyacinths, the sort that sell out every year the day before my order arrives. They smell only faintly, and demand, like many African bulbs, a moist place in summer and a dry one in winter. In Africa they flower at Christmas; here they cheer up August doldrums provided you remember to give them plenty to drink and protect them from slugs. Their leaves are not their greatest asset, but they are tall enough at over 4ft to be grown behind other plants. I like them because they look fresh at a time of year when the garden turns matt and dusty. Books tell you galtonias associate well with red hot pokers, but they probably work better without the competition of other strong vertical flowers. Think of foxgloves in early summer, making exclamation marks everywhere in the garden: galtonias could be used for the same effect. Apparently they seed themselves if they are happy, but this has never happened in my dry gardens. Perhaps the moist west coast might suit them best, provided the drainage is right.

Daffodils and hyacinths in summer may sound unnatural but my award for the most paradoxical out-of-season plant goes to the summer snowflake. Leucojum aestivum is a large snowdrop lookalike that flowers in summer. A lover of damp places, even those which rarely dry out, it grows naturally in woods and swamps. William Robinson, the Victorian exponent of the wild garden, selected a form which was larger than normal and named it 'Gravetye' after his house.

The current craze for wildflower gardening was given a new twist at a symposium at Kew recently, held on the subject of growing flowers in grass just as Robinson did 100 years ago. Wild- flower meadows are out, perennial garden escapes are in. This means growing strong herbaceous plants like peonies and poppies in grass, instead of sticking to British wild flowers. Fashion-conscious gardeners might order Robinson's summer snowflake to plant along with the beefy garden perennials. And those who feel a little reactionary about the new Robinsonian gardening because it involves naturalising exotics may like to know that the summer snowflake is a British native.

(Photographs omitted)

Comments