Anna Pavord: 'Martagon is an adaptable, shade-loving and rather beautiful early bloomer'

Once considered a relatively minor branch of the lily family, there are now dozens of stunning varieties of martagon
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The Independent Online

When should you plant lilies? In the autumn, at the same time as the daffodils and tulips? Or in the spring, with dahlias and nerines? The irritating answer is: "It depends which lilies." If you like martagons, which are relatively early into flower, then you need to plant in September or October. And that means ordering now. The first martagons I ever saw grew in a bramble patch in our old house. The place had been abandoned for more than 25 years and, by the time we arrived, few garden plants survived except for a deep pink moss rose, pinned against a wall by the arms of an ash seedling. And these wonderful pink lilies, pushing up through the dross and chaos around them. Courage. Promise. Optimism. They were a potent symbol of all the things we needed then, having landed ourselves in a rectory with no roof and with a new baby on the way.

If you've never seen a martagon, think of a lily on a strongly upright stem up to 1.5m/4ft tall, with more than 30 flowers opening from the bottom upwards. The colour is a kind of crushed raspberry, deeper than pink, not quite purple. They are lightly spotted, but the chief delight comes from the contrast made by the ginger anthers, dangling around the dark style. In the wild, L. martagon has an extensive range – France, Germany, Holland, Scandinavia. It has also naturalised itself in some parts of Britain. Gardeners can rely on it as an adaptable species, and where it is happy it grows vigorously, spreading both by seeding and by producing offsets from the parent bulb.

When I first became interested in them, martagons were just a small group in the lily family. There was a white kind which I always found more difficult to grow than the pink. And there was a fabulous dark, almost black one, L. martagon var. cattaniae, found wild in Austria and south-eastern Europe. The petals have a glossy sheen, quite absent in the ordinary martagon, and the buds are hairy, like poppies.

The best group I have ever seen grows in shade in a Scottish garden, where the flowering stems push through a beach of pebbles alongside a stream. They are swamped every winter by floods, but it doesn't seem to bother them. My friend, whose garden it is, says airily (and maddeningly), "Oh but Anna. They are so EASY." I could hit him. But I won't, as he is beyond-belief generous and has given me bulbs and seeds of this beauty.

Slowly, they are getting established. That's the thing about martagons. They don't like being mucked about with, and take a while to settle. But this year some heart-stopping spikes of this dark martagon pushed up through the lower branches of the yulan (Magnolia denudata) that we planted five years ago. The best spikes had 35 flowers on them, ranged all round the stem above the whorls of bright green leaves. In late June, I went up every day they were in flower to thank them for doing so brilliantly.

This is a shady border, where the soil is rich and well-drained. All lilies like those last two things, but martagons are particularly good in shade. In the wild, they often grow in woods of deciduous trees and all our best clumps have shade of some sort. Our soil is just the acid side of neutral, but martagons will grow > in either kind. Not all lilies will. They are stem rooting, so you need to plant them with at least 15cm/6in of soil on top of the bulb. Mark the place where they are planted. They may sulk for a year and not appear, and then you will forget where you've put them. It's no good pretending you won't; I frequently do.

For years, these three types of martagon were all you could get hold of. But then wonderful fudge-coloured beauties such as "Mrs R O Backhouse" started to appear. Or more correctly reappear. Mrs B originally arose from a cross between L. martagon and yellow-flowered L. hansonii made by Robert and Sarah Backhouse, who lived at Sutton Court, Sutton St Nicholas, in Herefordshire. By 1921 it had already won an Award of Merit from the Royal Horticultural Society.

Like other martagon types, it produces smallish, reflexed blooms. Pinkish in bud, these open to a flower of a gorgeous soft colour, not quite brown, not quite yellow, freckled in the centre with dark purplish spots. Lovely orange anthers dangle down from the centre of each flower.

That colour, inherited from L. hansonii, is now showing itself in the huge range of lilies of the martagon type that are now available. Many of them have been brought into this country from Canada by Richard Hyde of H W Hyde, a nursery that specialises in lilies. He now lists 63 different kinds of martagons on his website. Unfortunately he no longer does a catalogue. I can see the advantage of that from his point of view, but I love catalogues. It's so much easier to flick through pages than it is to negotiate the web. But I'm biased, living as I do in an area where the broadband is still pedal driven. BT shows no interest in including us in the superfast programme they say they are "rolling out". Only in the easy, lucrative places, it seems.

The bulbs are expensive. H W Hyde charges £27.50 for a beauty such as "Sarcee" (darkest red, with heavily reflexed petals). If you've not grown martagons before, it would be wise to substitute "Russian Red", which you can get for £4.50 a bulb. That's still not cheap, but price does not seem to be a bar where besotted martagon-lovers are concerned. The most expensive varieties on the Hyde website – beautiful mauve "Bethan Evans" (£14.50), "Bronze Beauty" (£23.50), cream-coloured "Cascading Beauty" (£27.50) – seem to be the ones that sell out first.

"Bethan Evans" is one of many lovely new martagon lilies bred by Dr Ieuan Evans, who grew up in a fishing village on the Welsh coast but who has spent most of his working life in Canada. How, though, could he ever have thought that it was worth bothering with a pollen-free variety such as white "Megan Evans"? A lily without its pollen-covered stamens is a poor, castrated creature. And when the lily has deeply reflexed flowers, as the best of the martagons do, much of their grace and beauty comes from the contrast of the stamens sweeping out between the rolled-back petals.

Fortunately, given the vast amount of beauties on offer, I can afford to forget about "Megan Evans" and concentrate instead on the delightful prospect of newly ordered "Black Prince" (£4.75) pushing up between the ferns next June.

For H W Hyde & Son, visit hwhyde.co.uk or phone 0118 934 0011/075575 30845

WEEKEND WORK

WHAT TO DO

* Summer pruning encourages fruiting spurs. Winter pruning stimulates leaf growth. Some heavy watering may be necessary to help fruit reach maximum potential. Apples such as "Ellison's Orange", which tend to fruit too heavily, should be thinned out again if necessary. Early varieties such as "George Cave" are ready for picking now.

* Take cuttings of indoor plants such as coleus, tradescantia, zebrina and busy lizzies. Use 7cm/3in long cuttings from the ends of vigorous shoots of busy lizzies, and push them into pots filled with a compost-sand or compost-vermiculite mixture. When they have rooted and are growing well, pinch out the tops of the cuttings to encourage bushy growth.

* Take 7cm/3in cuttings of coleus, choosing the tips of non-flowering shoots to pot singly in John Innes No 1 compost.

WHAT TO SEE

* Gardens open this weekend include Andrew Bliss's patch at 87 St Johns Rd, Walthamstow, London E17 4JH, where a theme of circles, both horizontal and vertical, defines the back garden of his terraced house. Quarter of an hour's walk from Walthamstow Tube/overground station. Open tomorrow (1-5), admission £3. For information call 07790 230053.

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