Roddy Milne, our Head Gardener, loves to share his passion for plants. Each week throughout the month we will add one of his favourites….

The Christmas Rose

Helleborus niger

I am really glad that after about six or seven attempts over the last twenty years I have finally managed to grow a respectable plant of Helleborus niger, better known as the Christmas rose (it is in no way related to a rose). This perhaps proves that being green-fingered is perhaps as much about obstinate perseverance as a magic touch.

Most of the other types of hellebore seem to grow well in a variety of places but this beautiful and dainty plant seems a little more select about where it will grow well. It seems to require a warmish spot with a bit of light shade and well drained soil that is moist year round. It also seems to relish a soil that has a slight lime content and is therefore not too acidic. In acid soils plants often last a few years and then slowly fade away. Its demands certainly rule out most of the garden here at Picton with its heavy stodgy soils. I have finally had success beneath a little tree in a raised garden area within the walled garden.

This well known plant also has an interesting medicinal history. It is reported by Pliny (1,400BC) that this Hellebore was used as a purgative in cases of mania. John Parkinson (1567-1650) was a great English herbalist and said of this plants herbal qualities that it was ‘good for mad and furious men, for melancholy, dull and heavie persons, and briefly for all those with blacke choler, and molested with melancholy.’! He also wrote of its veterinary qualities that; ‘a piece of the root being drawne through a hole made in the eare of a beast troubled with cough or having taken any poisonous thing cureth it, if it be taken out the next day at the same houre.’

That being said, this plant is rarely used in modern herbalism as it has toxic qualities and can induce cardiac arrest. Perhaps it is best appreciated as a slightly fussy but very pretty garden plant whose saucer like flowers brighten what can be a gloomy month.

The Spanish Dagger

Yucca gloriosa variegated2

You do not usually associate the winter months with plants from arid places and with a look akin to desert conditions. Yet Yucca gloriosa from the coastal fringe of south-eastern USA is trying its best to put on a floral display by producing a metre tall flower spike adorned with white flowers. It is a close but hardier relative of the Yucca that is often grown as a houseplant.

This Yucca, sometimes called the ‘Spanish Dagger’ is grown for its dramatic spiky rosettes of blue-green leaves. In a garden setting it associates well with other dramatic plants but can also be used as a statement on its own; perhaps growing in gravel or at the edge of a patio. However, a word of warning must be mentioned about the incredibly sharp and potentially injurious points of the stiff, erect leaves. This feature makes it a horrible plant to weed round and a plant unsuitable for anywhere where there may be small children present. The solution, which sounds very time consuming but in reality only takes five minutes, is to cut off about 2mm from the end of every leaf which turns a ferocious monster into something quite amiable.

There is a lovely brightly variegated variety with bold yellow margins to the leaves which for some reason seems more winter hardy than the normal type. It is a very bold and dramatic plant. Yucca gloriosa and the variety ‘Variegata’ enjoy growing in hot sunny places and will tolerate extremely dry conditions and summer drought but it has also proved that it is very tolerant of extremely wet winters. It needs no annual maintenance and will last a lifetime, slowly forming and large and ferocious clump.

The Summer Snowflake

Leucojum aestivum

As lanky, slightly lonely looking daffodils try their luck at early flowering, other flowers such as snowdrops, which normally pre-empt the daffodil, seem more cautious in their approach to the New Year. Another plant, the Summer Snowflake, looks a little like a giant snowdrop and is far better flowering now rather than in three months time when it normally does. During April and May its rather subtle appeal tends to be overshadowed by more boisterous flowers that are plentiful at that time of year.

Leucojum aestivum (Summer Snowflake) is a bulb native to Europe and as far as northern Iran. It occurs in Britain and has been named the county flower of Berkshire and grows in wetter habitats including damp woodland, riversides and swamps. Very early in the spring it produces narrow dark green leaves and produces pendulous white flowers often with green markings. Although not spectacular, the contrast of green and white stands out well.

It is easy to grow and flourishes in moist or even wet soil in full sun or partial shade. Clumps will soon form and these can be left undisturbed almost indefinitely. When in the right location it will start to seed itself around and become naturalised. During the summer the foliage slowly withers away. In some gardens slugs and snails can
be a problem and for some reason that I cannot work out it seems to flourish far better in some gardens than in others even though they might be only half a mile apart. There is an attractive cultivar called ‘Gravetye Giant’ with slightly large flowers that is worth trying to find.

‘The Arborvitae’ or ‘Tree of Life’

Thuja plicata

Those of you familiar with the gardens at Picton Castle cannot fail to have noticed two enormous conifers – one is close to the entrance of the Walled Garden and has massive upswept branches of a very sculptural quality and the other is near the Courtyard and has an enclosed space beneath the tree canopy formed by a circle of lower branches, now long gone, but which once touched the ground and formed their own roots. For a species that can live for over 1000 years, both Thuja plicata are relatively young in terms of conifers, and are about 150 years old.

Thuja plicata has many common names including; ‘Western Red Cedar’, ‘Shingle Wood’, ‘Canoe Cedar’ or ‘Arborvitae’. The tree comes from The Pacific Northwest of America where the Native Americans held it in great respect, not just for its high quality timber which is soft, light, free from knots and exceptionally durable and was used for building, canoes and totem poles, but also for its healing and spiritual powers. Interestingly, a large amount of the timber produced from ‘The Arborvitae’ has been used in the National Assembly for Wales building in Cardiff.

Unusually for a conifer, these trees are quite shade tolerant and we use it quite a lot in our wind-breaks where it is happy to grow below deciduous trees. Although too large for most gardens it will make a tough, fast growing hedge but must be cut regularly to prevent it overgrowing its allotted space, in the same manner that ‘Leylandii’ are prone to do. Cutting them however can be quite pleasant due to the pineapple-like scent given of from the crushed foliage.

The Persian Ironwood

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Persian Ironwood or Parrotia persica is a relatively well known winter flowering shrub that comes originally from northern Iran and southern Azebajan where it grows to be a tree up to 30 metres tall.

In a garden setting it is much smaller and often grows with a spreading habit, with branches growing out at an angle of 45 degrees from the centre stem. The plant here at Picton Castle must be about sixty years old and is about 10 metres across and 6 metres tall. This habit of growth, although attractive, does mean that a lot of space is required however there have recently been a number of re-introductions from the wild that have a more tree like habit and which would prove more suitable for gardens and allowing the space beneath to be used for other plants.

At this time of year its leafless stems bear small, dark red flowers devoid of petals – the colour being provided by the stamens. The steely grey and white flaking bark of the main trunk and larger branches is also an attractive feature for the winter months. During the summer the foliage is glossy green, with each leaf having a slightly wavy edge and during the autumn we find it to be one of the most reliable and colourful subjects in the entire garden, turning to a rich gold, then crimson.

Attractive in every season, Parrotia is easy to grow in fertile, well drained – all that remains is for you to find room for one in your own garden.

Fiery Stems

Cornus, or ‘Dogwoods’ as they are often called, are a race of shrubs and small trees, some of which have delightful showy ‘bracts’ (modified leaves that take on the role of petals) during the springs and summer. Other varieties have wonderful coloured stems that will brighten any garden right through the winter.

Cornus sanguinea ‘Midwinter Fire’ is the brightest and most cheerful of them all and is smaller than others, usually growing to no more than 1.5m, which makes it suitable for smaller gardens. The stems when naked of leaves, show of their brilliant red, golden and orange colouring.

It will be quite happy growing in a semi shaded position but is best grown in an open area where the sun will light up its bright and multicoloured stems. ‘Midwinter Fire’ is not fussy as to soils and is one of only a few shrubs that will tolerate moderately swamp-like ground, a great asset in places such as Pembrokeshire!

In order to maintain the best stem colouration it is advisable to prune it slightly every year to encourage the strong new growth which has the brightest colouration. To create the most dramatic effect it can be planted alongside other differently coloured dogwoods or in front of a dark evergreen such as a conifer or holly. Combining with other winter flowers such as snowdrops and hellebores sounds magical. It may not be the most spectacular plant during the summer but Cornus ‘Midwinter Fire’ certainly holds its own for five months over winter.

Signs of Spring

If you think February gardens are grey and boring, think again. At Picton Castle, there are pretty stirrings of colour in the woodlands and succulent buds bristle with the promise of wonderful things to come, some within a week or two.

Picton in winter

Some brave Rhododendron are already in the flower – notably a very large tree-like specimen in Peep-In Walk and another in the Avenues.

Smart planting of hellibores and snowdrops together bring a delicate touch to ground level in the Avenues. This is probably the only part of the garden where you have to go ‘off-path’ and it’s a tricky business trying not to step on the masses of daffodils, bluebells and other bulbs thrusting through the grass. It’s worth making hop-skip-and-jump progress around the towering trees and budding shrubs to see what’ll happen next.

There’s a race among the Magnolia to spring into flower. The photo archive reveals an interesting contrast between the years – this picture of a splendid Magnolia Cambellii x Robusta was taken in late February 2008.

The snowbound picture was taken on 5th February 2009, but tight grey buds seem unlikely to ‘ripen’ within two weeks.

Nearby we see a Magnolia Stellata (photographed here in the background, behind a Rho. Nobleanum) which we hope will make a show later this month.

Peep-In is probably the most interesting part of the woodlands during February.

A splattering of cheerful yellow Winter Aconites look lovely in a herbaceous border but bring despair to head gardener Roddy Milne. His team planted a dozens of them a couple of years ago, but the woodland mice seem to have feasted during the lean winter months!

The tree fern glade has a slightly comical air, with ferns like wounded arachnia wearing straw caps to protect their crowns from frost.

Nearby, in the winter light, the cocoa brown trunks of the myrtle avenue gleam in the winter sunshine, creating a magical pathway.

Clumps of whispering bamboos provide linear greenery in unexpected places and laurels brace against cold winds, providing the shelter against vicious weather. It’s the sheltered environment that allows Picton’s famous Rhododendrons, Azaleas and Magnolias to thrive, which make a winter walk in the woods such a delight.