Roddy Milne, our Head Gardener, loves to share his passion for plants. Each week throughout the month we will add one of his favourites….scroll down to take a tour of the April Garden
The Ostrich Fern
Spring is in full swing now and with every day here at Picton Castle, bright new Rhododendrons and Magnolias come into flower. Rhododendrons are one of only a few races of plants where every flower colour is available to the gardener.
With so many colours on offer, things can easily get out of hand with loud clashes occurring readily. Some plants are good simply because they provide a green foil which softens the area between bright colours. A good plant for this is the Ostrich Fern. At this time of year each plant is pushing up delicate, pale green fronds from the ground that will, in a couple of weeks time, have expanded to form a perfect shuttlecock shape. They look particularly beautiful when seen with the sun low in the sky in the morning or evening.
This fern has the scientific name of Matteuccia struthiopteris but is also known as Shuttlecock Fern and sometimes Fiddlehead Fern due to the scroll-like formation of its emerging fronds. It is not native but has a wide distribution in the wild, occurring in temperate regions of eastern and northern Europe, northern Asia and North America. In rural areas of north-eastern North America, the tightly wound immature fronds are used as a cooked vegetable and considered to be a delicacy.
The Ostrich Fern likes to grow in wet shaded places and will thrive in boggy areas where little else will flourish. It will spread by producing underground suckers and quickly, if the conditions are right, form a large colony. It is quite easy to pull up if it spreads to far afield.
Epimediums are a lovely little group of spring flowering perennials. At this time of year they are at their most delightful, as they suddenly push up their little flower stems to carry their star like flowers, whilst at the same time, producing new leaves that look incredibly delicate and are often marbled with pink or copper venation. Despite their appearance they are surprisingly tough and as the season progresses the leaves thicken up to provide a dense glossy ground cover.
Plants often have more than one common name but Epimedium have quite a collection, none of which are particularly flattering or informative. The list includes; barrenwort, bishop’s hat, fairy wings, horny goat weed, rowdy lamb herb, randy beef grass or yin yang huo (Chinese, I presume)! They belong to the Berberis family and grow mostly in China in the wild but have been hugely popular as garden plants for centuries in Japan. Most types grow to about thirty centimetres tall and all are beautiful.
It is worth finding a sheltered shady spot in which to grow them. Once plants are established they will tolerate quite dry growing conditions and the clumps will slowly spread to form a carpet that is too dense to allow weeds through. They require very little in the way of maintenance and do not like being dug up and divided as is the requirement for many perennials. The best clumps you see are often over a decade old. Most types are evergreen and many people cut away the old leaves in early spring so that the lovely new leaves and flowers can be fully appreciated. I have grown them for thirty years and I have never managed to remember to do this. The leaves look good all winter and the flowers appear so suddenly there is only a short window to cut away the old. They are not the most flamboyant of plants but provide a cheerful greeting in the springtime and good, slow growing ground cover for the rest of the year that is a perfect foil for other brighter plants.
The Great White Cherry
Prunus ‘Tai Haku’ is an ancient Japanese cherry tree often known as the Great White Cherry. Here at Picton Castle it is currently bursting into flower and is completely laden with large, pure white, slightly downward-facing flowers. The very first leaves, which are tinged pink, are beginning to emerge at the same time and make a delightful combination with the flowers. ‘Tai Haku’ (which literally means big white flowers) grows to become a large wide spreading tree with a definite oriental feel to its habit of growth caused by the poise and gentle angles of its spreading branches. Although the flowers are double the size of most Cherry’s they are completely lacking any hint of vulgarity. Mature trees also have attractive copper-red peeling bark.
Prunus ‘Tai Haku’ was once widely grown in Japan and its wonderful blossom was often depicted in paintings, but for an unknown reason the tree seemed to vanish from its home towards the end of the 18th century. Then, in 1923, the owner of a Sussex garden showed Captain Collingwood Ingram, an expert on Japanese cherries, an unidentified cherry with gorgeous white flowers. The tree in question was duly propagated and circulated around many British gardens. When Captain Ingram visited Japan soon after this, he recognised the unknown tree in a two hundred year old book of flower paintings. Why the tree disappeared from Japan and how it should re-occur in Sussex two hundred years later will forever be a mystery, however, all the trees currently in cultivation are descended from the original tree found in a Sussex garden.
This is an easy tree to grow but allow it plenty of space to show its wonderful habit of growth and in a place you can walk beneath its branches. It will grow quite happily in a sunny or partially shaded position and will perform beautifully every year.
The species of the genus Berberis have a wide distribution from South America to Europe and through to Northern Asia. An interesting characteristic of this genus of shrubs is that the wood, when cut, is bright yellow. The yellow or orange flowers also have a clever aid to help pollination. When an insect in search of honey visits a flower the stamens suddenly move inwards dabbing pollen onto the insect’s body. This action can be easily triggered by inserting a narrow object or pin into the flower, a pass-time that children find particularly fascinating.
Many types of Berberis, or ‘Barberries’ as they are sometimes known, make fine garden plants. They are generally tough and easy to grow and for this reason and the fact that many are evergreen with impenetrable spinney stems are prickly leaves they are often used by landscape architects, particularly for planting in car-parks and housing estates.
One of the most commonly grown species is Berberis darwinii which first became known to the western world when it was discovered in South America by Charles Darwin during the famous voyage of the Beagle in 1835 on which he was the ship’s naturalist. It is likely the edible but very acidic berries were eaten by native people of Patagonia for millennia before this. In a garden situation Berberis darwinii is evergreen and grows to about three metres tall but is often seen as a hedge or as a clipped rounded bush. During April a fantastic display of bright orange flowers is produced and these are followed later in the season by an abundant crop of small purple-black berries that are much loved by birds.
Despite being very commonly seen in gardens and public places Berberis darwinii is a very beautiful shrub and perhaps the only drawback is the painfully spiny leaves that have dropped from the plant that you will encounter when weeding beneath it.
A Swamp Monster – The Skunk Cabbage
The plant I talked about last week, the Stinking Hellebore, did not live up to its gruesome name. This week however, the Skunk Cabbage certainly does.
At this time of year strange yellow arum-like flowers, 40cm in height are erupting from the ground. They belong to the Skunk Cabbage, Lysichiton americanum, a plant from the Pacific Northwest of America that has made itself very at home in British Gardens. The bright coloured flowers have earned the plant another and more attractive common name, Swamp Lanterns. The flowers have a strong odour, perhaps skunk-like, which attracts flies and beetles as pollinators. After a couple of weeks, as the flowers start to fade, large dark green leaves begin to grow and by mid-summer are over a metre tall and resemble a giant spinach. In North America bears, having newly emerged from hibernation, will dig up and eat this plant. In times of famine the indigenous peoples would use Skunk Cabbage as a food source after it has been thoroughly boiled, with frequent changes of water to remove the poisonous and abrasive chemical calcium oxalate.
As in its native home, Skunk Cabbage loves to grow in constantly boggy places or in wet ditches in full sun or partial shade. Seeds are abundantly produced and a slow but decisive colonisation will start to take place. If planted with other pond side garden plants, these will eventually be smothered by this swamp loving giant.
Each individual plant seems indefinitely long lived and, once established, require no maintenance.
A Stroll Around The April Garden
This month, the spring is well into its stride. The woodland garden, is full of Rhododendrons, Camellias and Magnolias – Picton is a very special place at this time of year.
TOP TIP: If you’re short of time and can’t explore everywhere, this month’s gems can be found along the path to the Walled Garden; along the Front Drive between the Blue Bell Walk and Peep In Walk and in Peep-In itself and perhaps wander up to the Dew Pond. On a longer visit, you could also stroll along the path to the Walled Garden.
A Walk to the South Gardens
The path to the Walled Garden will be a stunning feature for a few weeks yet, with Camellias Alba plena, Donation and Adolph Addison vying for attention with their striking white, pink and red flowers.
About two-thirds of the way down the path, look to the right and see the Jungle Garden, it may look a tad forlorn after winter frost and wind but with grand ambitions for the summer. Our Head Gardener Roddy and his team have been creative and put up fantastic natural sculptures, which in summer will drip with climbers and creepers to add to the Jurassic feel of the area. The Jungle Garden links to the children’s adventure play area, creating a great work-out for little minds and limbs.
Opposite the Jungle Garden area, stray off the path and wander among the shrubs (you won’t find ’Stay off the Grass’ signs at Picton – we want you to enjoy it all). Here you will find every shade of pink, red and white in flowering magnolias, camellias and rhododendrons big and small.
The Walled Gardens
With so much to see in the woodlands, perhaps save the walled garden for the summer when it’s at its most colourful – although you might want to peek in on the non-hardy ferns in the fernery and peruse the herb garden on the way.
Walk Through Peach House Wood
If you fancy a walk through tranquil woods and have time, carry on past the Walled Garden entrance and continue into the Peach House Wood. Otherwise, retrace the path back to the courtyard and follow the signs to Bluebell Walk and Peep-In Walk. (And skip the next two paras and go to ‘A Peek Into Peep-In’.)
If you picked the option of carrying on into Peach House Wood, you will find a startling array of Rhododendrons—from tiny miniature azaleas with pretty dainty flowers in subtle pastels to tree-sized Rhododendron Arboreum. The Gunnera trail takes up again in the wood, creating an interesting example of mixed planting – swamp-loving Brazilian giants nuzzling up to mountain-loving Rhododendrons from Nepal, the Himalayas and the Far East.
As you leave the Wood via the avenues that lead to the castle, walk around the south frontage, up onto the castle forecourt (noting the Camellias flowering around the parking area, and azaleas at the crossroads).
A Peek Into Peep-In
Now follow the front drive up towards the gate houses, between Bluebell Walk and the Peep In Walk. Lining the drive are more fabulous Rhodies and Azaleas. With white candle flowers on the laurels and conifers providing a green backdrop, this is a lovely sheltered walk, with barely a ripple of wind.
Take a detour into Peep-In by turning right off the front drive where two large tree trunks lie on each side of the roadside. Along that path, you will find clusters of Helibores and bright blue lungwort. Continue to the end of the path and turn right at the fallen woman (or rest on her if you will).
Along the path, to the right, you’ll find the Myrtle Avenue. ‘Tis said that if you dream of myrtle, your desires will be gratified and pleasures will possess you! So go on – walk through it, see it, smell it and maybe you’ll dream of it!
At the end of the avenue, turn left towards the tree fern glade. Before you go down the steps to the glade, look up and admire the pretty Pieris Forest Flame. A common enough sight in suburban gardens but few reach such heights.
Now follow the path to the right to see two red Azalea hinodo-giri, flanking the path like abandoned bullfighter’s capes. A certain smell may now be apparent – the attractive yellow lily-type plants in the stream are skunk cabbage (mentioned above) and they sure do stink! Children think they are hilarious – why do kids always like horrid things?
Before you escape the stench, look out for the Acer Palmatum Atropurpureum standing by the stream just before you exit Peep-In. Leaf buds will be fit to burst. It should be a stunning sight soon.
The Dew Pond
Turn left to go to the Dew Pond. At the junction and further along the path are our own Rh Picton Tetra, with large delicate bell-like pink flowers. The path to the Dew Pond is a lovely example of mixed planting. The delicate blossom of Malus Red Sentinel is framed by linear bamboo and laurel’s chunks of green. Wild flowers are scattered in the grass. Follow the path by the Dew Pond and come back via the filtration beds. When you reach the main path, turn right, then left to go past the Acer Palmatum Atropurpureum, now just coming into leaf. Around the Acer are masses of Primula Pulverulenta, just beginning to flower. Exit Peep-In onto the bottom of the Front Drive and you’re back to the entrance of the courtyard.
The Bluebell Walk
As you approach the courtyard from the car park, turn left along the lane, then left again into Bluebell Walk. With any luck, the Bluebells will be just beginning to break into flower. With each day that passes, the woodland carpet of blue will become more beautiful, particularly as it is prettily highlighted with bright yellow daisies and white wood anenomes.
The Front Drive
At the end of Bluebell Walk is the tarred Front Drive. Go right. Within a few steps, you will find two stunning Malus trees laden with blossom, surrounded by a colourful assortment of towering rhododendrons and eye-level azaleas on the fringe of Peep-In Walk. There’s plenty to see along the Front Drive if you only want a short stroll, or you could take a longer walk by turning left into Peep-In Walk (above) where two huge logs flank the drive.
As you leave us, going from Courtyard to Car Park via the Entrance Path, look right to see the sleeping giants of a large Gunnera swamp. Within a few weeks, these huge leaved plants will create a massive canopy of ‘rhubarb’ leaves. It promises to be an amazing sight!
There’s always lots to see at Picton. Do come back to see the mid and late Rhodies in flower, and the Gunnera reach gigantic proportions! Why not buy a season ticket so you can visit again and again without paying again! (And you get a heap of other benefits – including 10% off at Maria’s Courtyard Restaurant.)