Gardening: Summer surprises

When the garden goes quiet, exotic blooms break out.
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Of the many theories dearly held by gardeners, one of the more fallacious is that gardens "go off" in August. It is not gardens that go off, but gardeners. We either go off on holiday or, if we stay at home, we go off the idea of gardening.

Much of the freshness and promise of the season have gone, it is true, and with them creeps in a fatal boredom with garden tasks, especially weeding, so that we cannot be bothered to go at the bindweed and couch grass with quite the vim we generated in May. It is not the garden that is the problem in August, as much as ourselves.

How can the garden be properly said to "go off" when there are a number of fine shrubs that choose this moment to burst into flower? Intriguingly, many hail originally from the southern hemisphere, thus reinforcing their appeal with a distinctly foreign quality. Just a couple of examples should prove my point.

In the past, I have spent part of August staying on the coast of Argyll in western Scotland, where the exotic nature of large gardens - the result of an almost frost-free Gulf Stream climate - is exemplified for me by the snow-white flowers of the eucryphias, all the way from Chile.

Visiting an open garden in the west of Scotland is a pleasure at any time, but in August particularly. Almost inevitably, the sky will be weeping, so that even the cinder paths in the ancient walled kitchen garden will squelch underfoot, but the rain keeps the midges at bay, so it is recommended weather for summer garden visiting. The garden will probably be open to visitors all the daylight hours but the chances of seeing many other people, except possibly a gardener in the fruit cage picking fat raspberries, are slight. In fact you will have been trusted to put your admission charge in a box by the gate, where you will also find a map of the garden and a short, modest account of the long history of house and garden.

As you wander about the walled garden, there will come a magical moment when your attention is caught by the sight of an upright small tree or tall shrub, either within the shelter of the walls or beyond in the surrounding shrubbery; its glossy-green, polished leaves will be almost entirely obscured by saucer-shaped flowers with prominent stamens, looking for all the world like pure white versions of yellow St John's Wort. These fragrant flowers will seem quite impervious to wind or rain. This most striking plant is likely to be one of three species of eucryphia, E glutinosa, E cordifolia or the hybrid between them, E x nymansensis `Nymansay', although there are others you may come across, from time to time, such as E milliganii and E x intermedia `Rostrevor'.

Eucryphia means "well covered" but, rather perversely, this refers not to the generosity of the flowering, but to the way the sepals form a cap to the flowers before they open fully. E glutinosa is the hardier of the two commonest species, and has flowers up to 6cm across, but its habit is deciduous or only semi-evergreen. To my mind E glutinosa has the prettier flowers, but it absolutely refuses to thrive on alkaline (limey) soil.

The hybrid between these two (E x nymansensis `Nymansay') combines the soil tolerance of E cordifolia with the relative hardiness of E glutinosa. Its name gives a broad hint of its origins, and proves that eucryphias are not necessarily confined to long-established, large Scottish gardens. `Nymansay' originated at Nymans, that fine garden in Sussex, which was home to the Messel family, but has for many years been administered by the National Trust. `Nymansay' makes a columnar shrub or small tree that is narrow enough to be fitted into smaller gardens. The late and much lamented Russell Page, an inspirational garden designer, maintained in his book The Education of a Gardener that the eucryphia was an ideal plant for the sunny angle of a house. Certainly the roots are shallow and the habit agreeable enough, and the position will suit a plant that is slightly frost-tender.

Of course, not all of us live in a tall house with many angles - but, as long as this plant has shelter from cold, drying winds and a moist but well drained, fertile soil, it will thrive well enough, in the south and west of our islands at least. A thick, dry mulch round the roots in winter will help it along if you are tempted to give it garden-room in the colder Midlands. All eucryphias are best planted small, because the roots hate disturbance. And be prepared to wait a few years for the full flowering.

For those who think they have neither the space, nor the damp climate, to please a eucryphia, I have another suggestion. This is an evergreen shrub from New Zealand called Hoheria sexstylosa. It does not like an acid soil, so will appeal to those of us who garden on an alkaline one. It is not remarkably hardy, either, but I grew one for many years in a cold, dry East Midlands garden and every August it surprised me by its charm and floriferousness. I had it growing against a west wall, but in warmer districts it will certainly do well in the open. Its very pretty, white, star-shaped flowers are scented and, what is more, butterflies like them.

Once you begin to think of those plants which flower in August, even just confining yourself (and why should you?) to shrubs, the numbers begin to mount.

What about the tribe of hebes, for example, or the many hydrangeas? Then there are abelias, buddleias, callicarpa, caryoteris, Deutzia monbeigii, hardy fuchsias, hibiscus, Itea ilicifolia... Point made, I think.