Gentiana asclepiadea, the Willow gentian, a native of the mountainous regions of Europe, is an excellent and unusual garden plant, too little used. In the winter it disappears beneath the soil but during the summer produces arching stems 2-3 ft tall. As Autumn approaches these are weighed down along their length by numerous pairs of tubular flowers of the purest blue.
If you find yourself hooked on these beautiful plants then feed your addiction with the varieties and forms available. There are deep blues with white throats, pale blue, white and, if you can find it, a pink flowered form.
For the best results give your Willow gentians rich soil, with plenty of humus, and keep it moist. They're very long-lived plants with deep, tough roots that dislike disturbance so prepare the soil well when you plant. They'll repay you year after year.
And so will their neighbours. The Hosta and the Soft Shield Fern, Polystichum setiferum, both enjoy similar conditions, though the latter will survive almost anywhere.
The Soft Shield Fern is a native, seen most frequently in southern England and Ireland. It has lush, feathery, curving, evergreen fronds, 3ft long and more, which it holds with great poise and balance. Their colour is soft grass-green with, down the centre of each run, distinct orange-brown scales.
Placing the fine tracery of fern fronds and the broad expanse of Hosta leaves together is a classic and oft repeated combination - but with good reason. Few contrasts are more pleasing to look at or easier to achieve. Ferns and Hostas were made for each other.
There's a variety of Hosta for every taste. The Royal Horticultural Society's Plant Finder lists upwards of 500 available in Britain. Get addicted to these and you'll find yourself bankrupt. I've gone for the outstanding Hosta sieboldiana elegans. It forms wide clumps of huge rounded, deeply furrowed, blue-grey leaves up to 1 foot long. Little can match it.
In summer it produces lilac-white flowers, in autumn its leaves turn golden and in spring few things capture the promise and excitement of that season more than the sight of its fresh, unfurling leaves.