Gardening: Still life in the autumn

Plants that produce fresh green leaves at this time of year are perverse - and extremely useful. Ursula Buchan writes in praise of hardy cyclamen and arum
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Having a rather cussed nature, I have always been drawn to any plant that bucked the general trend by growing leaves in autumn, rather than losing them then. It seems such an innocently perverse thing to do. Perhaps the best-known group of plants to do it are the hardy species cyclamen, such as Cyclamen hederifolium and Cyclamen coum, but there are a few others including the Italian arum, Arum italicum `Marmoratum'.

It all comes down to background and upbringing. These bulbs (well, tubers, in fact) originate in places that have hot, dry summers with rains that don't come until the autumn, and when you know that, their behaviour no longer seems so odd. They are so much in the habit of coming to life in the autumn in the wild that they continue to do so even in the very different circumstances of our gardens.

It is not just admirable to sprout fresh and alluring leaves at this time of year; it is also extremely useful. The leaves of cyclamens and Arum italicum `Marmoratum' do a proper job of work as ground cover, keeping the late winter annual weeds at bay, at a time when the deciduous trees and shrubs above are still leafless and not any use for the purpose. But it is for their beauty and strangeness, not for their utility, that we cherish them.

If you have never come across Cyclamen hederifolium, you are in for a treat. The leaves, which lie flat on the ground, are heart-shaped and pointed, not unlike ivy leaves, hence the specific name, hederifolium. But, instead of being plain, they are marbled beautifully in silver and grey-green, on a dark green ground. No leaf that I have ever seen is quite the same as any other. The undersides of the leaves are glossy magenta- purple. Starting to flower before the leaves unfold, this cyclamen is a scaled-down version of our windowsill cyclamen, with five reflexed, twisted pink petals on smooth stalks, growing to about 12cm high.

Cyclamen coum grows its leaves in autumn, but does not start to flower until midwinter at the earliest. The leaves are smaller and rounder than those of the ivy-leaved cyclamen, and can be deep green, marbled or silvered. The flowers are usually a deep carmine-pink, with purple mouths; they are shorter, with more splayed petals. and only about 4cm high. This cyclamen will tolerate light shade but is also very happy in sun, and is often seen in rockeries or raised beds, where its charm can be best appreciated.

The arum is a bit harder to love, because of its obvious affinity to our own rather coarse "lords and ladies" or "cuckoo pint". But it is a much choicer plant, having dark green, glossy arrowhead-shaped leaves with striking silver veining. It looks very fine as an underplanting to the white-stemmed ornamental blackberry, Rubus cockburnianus. (Green and white, or silver, is a clean, sophisticated combination that usually pleases.) Like the cyclamen, the arum is happy to grow under trees, where there is no danger of its getting too wet in summer, but, unlike our ordinary "cuckoo pint", this Italian plant will not flower unless it is put in a sunny place in a warm garden. I am not bothered, since I grow it for the leaves principally, which are excellent, incidentally, for flower arrangements.

An interesting feature of these plants is that I scarcely notice when their leaves do die down in early summer. There is so much else going on then that it seems a very minor drawback; indeed, it can be a positive advantage in crowded borders.

These are not the only plants to buck a trend. There is another group (this is a loose term, for they are not necessarily related to each other) of hardy perennials that hang on to their leaves throughout the winter and do not renew them until spring. They also cover ground that would otherwise suit weedy colonisers very well. These are the unsung heroes of the winter garden, whose frost-shrugging leaves add an air of neat purposefulness, and quiet attraction, to the border.

Among the heroic genera are dianthus (pinks), bergenia (elephant's ears), Euphorbia myrsinites, Geranium macrorhizum, heuchera (coral flowers), heucherella, most pulmonaria (lungwort), Phlomis russeliana, tellima (fringe cups) and several ferns, such as Asplenium sclonendrium (hart's tongue fern), and Polypodium vulgare (the common polypody).

When they are contrasted with the barren brown earth, bare twigs and dead-looking crowns in the average mired border in winter, even those with rather sombre-coloured foliage seem to grow in stature and allure. In harsh winters, most of them are not truly evergreen, but in a normal season they will retain their leaves. I always rather enjoy watching the new-minted leaves push past the old ones in spring, the latter usually discreet in their dying.

Gardens need aesthetic interest just as much as they need evergreen trees and shrubs. They can be useful in so many ways. Years ago, a famous garden designer told me that one of his clients had expressed a desire to have a swimming-pool for the swank of it, but did not want to pay for the real thing. So, in a distant part of the garden, he caused to have planted hundreds of a variety of "modern pinks" (dianthus) to fill a rectangular space. Pinks are ground-hugging and have blue-grey, shiny, spiky leaves, which persist all year. According to the designer, from a distance they appeared to shimmer like water in sunlight.

I was so bowled over by this ingenious solution that I wholly failed to ask the obvious question: what happened in summer, when the "swimming- pool" came into flower and turned pink, white or red? I shall never know, for the designer is now dead, but I imagine that some poor gardener was detailed to shear off all the flowers.