Roddy Milne, our Head Gardener, loves to share his passion for plants. Each week throughout the month we will add one of his favourites….
Rhododendron ‘Christmas Cheer’ is a very aptly named plant especially this year when the recent weather has seemed far from cheerful. Due to this very mild weather it is also in full flower for Christmas whereas normally it is at the end of January or during February when flowering peaks and by which time its name seems to have lost its meaning. It is an old Rhododendron hybrid that in times past used to be forced into flowering early in glasshouses to provide indoor floral displays at Christmas for the grand homes of Great Britain. The compact shell-pink flowers are produced on a neat rounded bush that is ultimately two metres tall and the flowers seem to have a remarkable tolerance to frost which can spoil many other early flowering plants.
Rhododendron is a huge family with nearly 1000 different species from which have been bred around 10,000 different hybrids. Nearly all of these flower at typical Rhododendron time during April and May but thankfully there are a few worthy types such as ‘Christmas Cheer’ to brighten other times of year. It is safe to say that Rhododendrons are unfashionable at the moment probably due to their seasonality but partly due to reputation of one species (R. ponticum) that has a devastatingly spreading habit with major environmental impacts in many parts of Britain. No other Rhododendron shares this characteristic. Rhododendrons are often thought of as plants for large gardens however there are many types available that will never grow more than a metre tall during their lifetime.
This year Rhododendrons started to make a reappearance in the displays at the Chelsea Flower Show so perhaps they will once again gain in popularity and people will appreciate their bold floral displays that few other plants can match.
A Berried Delight
With the rather dull and wet weather we’ve experienced of late, it is nice to wander round the garden here at Picton and come across a bright and cheerful sight. There are still a few flowers out, however there are many plants bearing berries. Some of the many types of holly are looking good but the best show must go to a large shrub of Cotoneaster which has been draped with red berries for several weeks already and looks as if it will have a few more weeks until hungry birds strip it bare.
Cotoneaster is a large genus of shrubs originating in south western China and the Himalayas and is familiar to many gardeners. Some types hug the ground and grow only a few centimetres tall while another well known type, Cotoneaster horizontalis, produces interesting arching branches in herringbone formation. There are also many types that form rounded shrubs. What they all have in common is that they all have relatively small leaves, produce masses of small white flowers in spring and red berries in autumn (I might add that there are also a few yellow berried varieties available). The flowers are a major magnet for all manner of pollinating insects and the berries are loved by birds during the autumn and winter.
The plant we have at Picton is Cotoneaster salicifolius and it produces a good display every year. Like all the other Cotoneaster it is very easy to grow in practically any soil in a sunny or shaded location. Due to their resilience and attractive features Cotoneaster must be one of the most widely planted shrubs in car parks and new housing developments. Despite often being overused they can look very attractive in this setting and wildlife will love them.
Vinca, or Periwinkle as it is better known, is deservedly a popular and effective ground cover plant. Generally you will encounter one of two types; Vinca major, which is larger than the other, Vinca minor. It’s nice for plant names to be simple for once! Both species have evergreen dark green leaves on low growing trailing stems. During spring these are adorned with pretty blue flowers that will brighten up a dark shaded area.
Another species rarely seen in gardens is called Vinca difformis and it flowers during the winter and early spring when there are few other flowers to be found. Just to remind you of its presence it has the endearing quality of producing a scattering of flowers almost continuously throughout the summer months.
Endemic to North Africa and South west Europe including Iberia and Sardinia, this Periwinkle also seems very happy to grow here in Pembrokeshire. It will grow equally as well in full sun or heavy shade and will produce luscious pale green leaves and form a spreading mound about forty centimetres tall. Beyond its easy to please steadfast character, the loveliest thing about this plant is the simple shape and colour of its flowers. These are a star shaped with each of its five petals being slightly off-set on one edge, giving the flower a propeller shape. The colour on first impression may appear as white but a closer look will reveal that they are a beautiful icy pale blue colour that is very fitting for the winter months.
The Winter Garden – Flowers of Deep Winter
Gardens never really sleep; there is always some plant within, embarking on some stage of growth. I find this exiting. At the moment bulbs such as daffodils and alliums are poking new growth from the soil and the first of the Hellebores are starting to develop flowers that will be impervious to the most bitter winter weather.
With a garden as big as that at Picton Castle there are always at least a dozen different plants in flower on every day of the year. In the Walled Garden there is, on the south facing wall, a wonderful old plant of a rose known as ‘Buissmans Triumph’. Every year it starts flowering in June and continues having a few flowers right until about now. It also has a wonderful display of large red rose-hips that lasts even longer.
The first couple of varieties of Rhododendron are coming into flower now. To me, their pink, typical Rhododendron flowers feel a bit wrong for this cautious season. There are however quite a number of winter flowering shrubs that look just right. High on my list of favourites must be Mahonia which are Berberis relatives with handsome dark green glossy foliage and clusters of yellow flower spikes. Most types have a strong architectural presence, which is a valuable asset in the winter months when much else is stripped bare. Flowers with winter scent are also a valuable asset. It is a little early for our Witch-Hazels (Hamamelis) to be in flower but scent is provided by shrubby honeysuckles such as Lonicera fragrantisima. The most highly scented flower at the moment belongs to Daphne bholua – a gaunt, slightly leggy shrub of about five feet but with a spectacular scent and which also flowers for many weeks.
For me the favourite plant in the garden at the moment are the wonderful leafless red stems of Cornus alba ‘Siberica’ – especially when bathed in winter sun. Various types of birch tree also look wonderful through the winter. Both these will provide a vibrant display right through the winter until the massive energy of spring starts once again.
Conifers for Christmas – Spare a Thought for the Tree in the Corner
The Christmas tree decorating the inside of your home belongs to a wondrous and important species of plants; the conifer.
Conifers have been clothing the earth for a long time – an ancient linage dating back 290 million years. Ancestors of modern conifers were around at the time of the early dinosaurs, long before the emergence of flowering plants. Ginkgo, a conifer prized as a Chinese herbal medicine for over 2000 years, is a living fossil having remained unchanged in the last 120 million years. Many types of conifer are exceptionally long lived plants such as the Giant Redwoods that take 2000 years to become giants or our native ‘Yew’, with plants over 1000 years often being documented. The record for the oldest living thing belongs to the Bristlecone pine of California that has lived for 4700 years, which means that it was alive during the building of the pyramids of ancient Egypt.
Conifers also hold the record for the tallest living thing, the ‘Coast Redwoods’ of California reaching 364 feet. The record for the largest living thing belongs to the ‘Wellingtonia’ or Sequoiadendron, also from Western USA, which has a massive diameter of 30 feet and an estimated weight of 6000 tonnes. Here at Picton we have quite a few young plants of both, planted in the last 150 years. In years to come the Gardens will look very different should they grow to these giant proportions.
In our gardens some conifers make useful and quick growing plants for screens and shelter while others are delicate looking subjects for choice positions. Conifers provide by far the largest amount of timber for the construction industry, with the roofs of most British homes being supported by their wood. Perhaps then, it is very fitting that we should invite such a tree into our homes each year, but maybe we should marvel a little more about the tree and less about the decorations.
Here’s wishing you a very Happy Christmas from me and the team here at Picton Castle and Gardens
Astelia Chathamica – Far From Home But Really Happy
Astelia chathamica is a dramatic plant grown for its sword-like silver leaves that grow to around a metre long and arch elegantly out from a slowly developing clump. The backs of the leaves are also an attractive silvery-white colour. The plant does not die back for the winter and is silver enough for the moon to light it up and make it look almost luminous – a useful quality for super-short winter days.
Astelia belong to the lily family and individual plants are either male or female. Female plants will have a short flower head, half hidden within the leaves and covered with orange seed-bearing berries. They come from various islands in the seas of the southern hemisphere, with a significant number of species coming from New Zealand. Astelia chatamica comes from the Chatham Islands, an archipelago some 400 mile south-east of New Zealand.
Although it is a striking and dramatic plant, often used by designers for its architectural qualities, it rarely looks over-bearing or out of place in a garden setting, perhaps due to the lightness provided by its silver leaves. Unlike like most silver leaved plants, Astelia grow best in partial shade where it will instantly bring light, especially where there are dark evergreens around. The silver colouring of the leaves associates well with any coloured flowers growing nearby. Astelia chathamica is a large plant, but due to its many qualities it is easy to accommodate in nearly every garden. To grow well it is best to provide a slightly sheltered location with moist soil. Frost pockets are best avoided.
Most people will associate the word heather with low growing plants that cover our British moorlands which, at flowering time, turn them into vibrant shades of pink and purple hues during spring (Erica species) and September (Calluna species).
All heathers are members of the Ericaceae family which they share with other plants such as Rhododendron and Pieris. Most grow in the northern hemisphere and are easily grown in our gardens but there is also an interesting concentration of species in South Africa. These exotic and stunningly beautiful plants are not hardy and very tricky to grow.
Perhaps less well known are a small group of larger growing plants – the so called ‘Tree-Heathers’ – which make fine garden subjects. There is one in particular that is especially attractive and easy to grow. It is called Erica arborea alpina and is coming into full flower now with masses of tiny bell-shaped, scented blooms. At most it will grow to around two metres tall and has an upright, spiky habit of growth. I particularly like the fact that the flowers rustle when you brush against the plant. Interestingly, the swollen root of old plants is used to make smoking pipes in regions around the Mediterranean where it is native. The wood is very hard, heat resistant and has very interesting patterning.
All heathers, including ‘Tree-Heathers’, need to be grown in acidic (non-lime rich) soil and enjoy moist but well drained growing conditions. This is definitely a plant to brighter the short winter days.
A Plant For all Seasons
Photinia davidiana is better known by its old name, Stransvasia davidiana and, strangely for a beautiful and relatively widely grown plant, has no common name. It is a large shrub or perhaps a small, wide-spreading tree, growing to about five metres tall and as much across. At this time of year and for many weeks either side it is festooned with masses of bright red berries. The birds tend to leave them until there is little else to eat which ensures a good display. It is partially deciduous meaning that you also get a slight but very bright orange and red autumnal display while the other leaves are retained by the plant.
It comes originally from China (as do many of our garden shrubs) where it was discovered by a French Catholic priest and missionary, Pere David. He was also a keen zoologist, discovering among other things the Giant Panda, as well as a botanist who discovered over fifty species of Rhododendron, more than forty new Primulas and many other plants.
Photinia davidiana is a tough and easily grown plant that can be planted next to a path where its branches will grow to arch over allowing the white flowers in spring and autumn berries to be appreciated. It has an airy, slightly oriental looking habit of growth which when combined with its other features makes it a year-round attractive plant.