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

Prunus ‘Okame’

Prunus Okame

The plant genus Prunus provides us with some of the most beautiful flowering trees – the ‘ornamental or flowering cherries’, as well as other important plants including; peach, apricot, almond, common laurel and of course cherry. Flowering cherries are widely planted as garden and street trees where they can reach quite large proportions and unless carefully sited can easily outgrow their allotted space.

More suitable for smaller gardens is a flowering cherry called Prunus ‘Okame’. The tree was bred in Great Britain (1947) and named after the Japanese goddess Okame who is associated with luck and kindness. Here at Picton our tree is around fifty years old and is five metres tall (it would be less in a more open location) and with an attractive, slightly oriental habit of growth. At the moment every twig is full of deep-pink (or carmine-rose) coloured flowers which appear before the leaves. One major advantage we find here is that finches for some reason do not nip off the flower buds as they are inclined to do with other early flowering cherries. ‘Okame’ has small, neat leaves that provide reliable red and orange autumn colour.

All cherries like an open sunny location and will grow in any ordinary soil but are particularly happy in soil containing lime. The elegant natural shape of flowering cherries is ruined by pruning, so make sure to allow plenty room for future growth.

Agapetes serpens

Agapetes serpens

The botanical plant family Ericaceae contains a great many wonderful and important plants. This includes the heather plants from our moorlands and the blueberries that we eat. Also in this family is Rhododendron, of which there are around 1000 different species that range from tiny alpine species high in the Himalaya Mountains to trees growing ten metres tall, with most species being of tropical origin. A close relative is a plant known as Agapetes serpens.

Agapetes serpens is native to the Himalaya and is usually an epiphyte, which is a plant that grows in the crown or on the branches of another tree. It does not rely on the tree for food but obtains nutrients from fallen leaves. Although it is nearly hardy in this country it grows better indoors. Here at Picton we have grown it in our unheated indoor fernery for quite a few years and it has developed a large swollen rootstock something like a dahlia tuber which serves as a storage organ for food and water.

Agapetes is best described as a semi-climber and clambers to a high of two metres over anything that will provide it purchase. It has small dark green leaves along the length of its arching stems and produces, during the winter months, urn shaped bright red flowers with darker markings which hang from the branches like lanterns and always catches the attention of our visitors. We also grow another slightly larger and more vigorous Agapetes called ‘Ludgvan Cross’ which has large pale pink flowers with attractive deeper pink markings. Both these Agapetes are easy to grow but must have well drained soil. They do not require much in the way of food and are quite tolerant of erratic watering due to the reserves within their swollen roots.

The Stinking Hellebore

Stinking Hellebore

Not all good garden plants are gifted with flamboyant, brightly coloured flowers or have beautiful, evocative names such as; Lilium regale or Rose ‘Empress Josephine’ or ‘Tuscany Superb’.

Helleborus foetidus has not been so blessed. It has smallish, nodding, green flowers and a slightly sinister sounding Latin name. The poor plant’s common names are perhaps even less attractive; Stinking Hellebore, Dungwort or Bears Foot. Add to this the fact that all parts of the plant are poisonous and you are hardly likely to rush to find a home for one in your garden! Many of you might know the other and more colourful kinds of hellebore, namely the ‘Christmas Rose’ and the ‘Lenten Rose’.

Despite all this as introduction, I think Helleborus feotidus is a delightful, easily accommodated and very useful garden plant. Its green flowers are actually a bright and cheerful pale green, its slightly nodding flowers provide it with a rather demure appeal and despite its ‘foetidus’ epitaph it is not smelly, except for a slightly pungent smell when the leaves are crushed. During the summer it produces stems clothed with palmately divided dark green leaves that have a strong architectural appeal even though it only grows half a metre tall. Early in the following spring these stems produce masses of the very long lasting flowers that are much loved by insects including the first bees.
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It is a long lived and easily grown plant that will flourish in deep shade or in full sun. Once established it will tolerate dry growing conditions, the plant in the picture is growing out of a south facing wall where it roots have found their way into the crumbling mortar to find enough moisture.

The Giant Magnolia

Magnolia Campbellii Tree

This week is the start of the flamboyant flowering of ‘the big Magnolia’ here at Picton Castle and to me always symbolises the real start of spring. While so many other plants of a more cautious disposition are creeping back into life after a long winter, the tree-like Magnolia campbellii throws caution to the wind with a breathtaking display of soup-bowl sized pink flowers held on the tips of stout leafless stems.

Magnolia is one of the most ancient genera of flowering plants and the species Magnolia campbellii is the largest, growing to around 30 metres tall in sheltered valleys of the Himalaya mountain range. Seed was first introduced to Britain in 1865 and created a great stir when, after twenty years, the plants began to flower. Many of these original plants are still alive in the county estates of Britain and Ireland and keen gardeners often make a pilgrimage to see them in flower.

With its preference for moist soil, Magnolia campbellii grows best in the western parts of Britain where there is less chance of frost damage to its magnificent flowers. Although quick growing, patience is required, as young plants do not start flowering until they are about fifteen years old. It is well worth the wait as those that do so will always remember that first flowering.

The Humble Snowdrop

Our Native Snowdrop

Our Native Snowdrop

The purity and delicacy of the humble snowdrop is one of the delights of the gardening year and a real herald of the coming spring. The snowdrop, or Galanthus nivalis, is a native bulb to western Britain and much of Europe, from Spain to Ukraine in the east. It grows in moist woodland but thankfully has naturalised widely, having escaped from gardens to adorn our hedgerows and brighten our woodlands. They are often found near derelict cottages as a relic of a bygone garden, where they still thrive after decades or even centuries of abandonment.

Tall, wide spreading flowers of Galanthus plicatus

Tall, wide spreading flowers of Galanthus plicatus

It is hard it improve on a plant that is perfect, however over the last five years some keen gardeners have been consumed by the search for variation which has lead to the near obsessive urge to collect and name every minute variation in flower form. Our native species hybridises readily with other European species and with other cultivars to produce bountiful variation. Such is the demand for the unusual that many varieties command high prices, the record standing at £725 in 2012 for a single bulb. These consumer driven gardeners are known as ‘Galanthophiles’.

Here at Picton we only have two types of snowdrop in any quantity, one of course is the native sort and the other is Galanthus plicatus which is larger flowered, taller and flowers two weeks before the other. It is native to Crimea and is thought to have been brought back to Britain by soldiers fighting in the Crimean War. It is a vigorous and easy plant to grow.

The Tenby Daffodil – A Local Treasure!

Tenby Daffodil
As our road verges and gardens come alive with the vibrant glow of daffodils that brightly herald spring, it is easy to forget about a more demure daffodil that has strong Pembrokeshire connections.

The Tenby Daffodil, Narcissus obvallaris, is native to the area around Tenby and is found nowhere else in the world. Its exact origins and why it has such a limited distribution will forever remain a mystery. In the 1800’s it grew abundantly in woodlands, hedgerows and hay-meadows until an enterprising local nurseryman found a market for them in London which resulted in decimation of local populations as thousands of tons were exported for gardens around Britain. Thankfully it is still alive and well, often taking refuge in the safe preserve of churchyards throughout West Wales.

There are over 26,000 different varieties of daffodil which are mostly the result of intentional or accidental hybridisation, but very few can match the perfect proportions and poise of the Tenby Daffodil. It is only around 30cms tall and the clear yellow flowers are about half the size of the average daffodil. Each flower has a neat, slightly nodding trumpet and a ring of pointed petals, each with a small white tooth at the end. This tooth is perhaps the easiest way to distinguish it from the other 26,000 possible varieties that could be in your garden.

The Tenby Daffodil is very easy to grow and will be happy in sun or shade and grows well when planted in grass areas, but make sure the leaves have died down for the summer before cutting. It is worth obtaining dormant bulbs from a reputable (and knowledgeable) supplier as the wrong variety is often sold. We have clumps here at Picton Castle that were planted over fifty years ago and are still going strong. Clumps can be lifted while dormant during summer, divided and replanted in new places.

March – The Spring Spectacular Begins!

Camelia Cornish Snow

Although we open to day visitors on 28 March with our Magic of Flowers event and our Easter Egg Trail for children, there are a good many people wandering around the gardens already. They’re mainly our garden group members and savvy season ticket holders who walk the gardens year round.

The best things to see now are on the path to the walled garden (which is still taking its time to wake up to spring) and on the Front Drive leading into Peep-In.

Magnolia Cambelli

The absolute star of the garden is the outrageously, awesomely beautiful Magnolia Cambellii this always wows the crowds.

The Magnolia Stellata opposite on the edge of the avenues is about to break and other Magnolias scattered through the Avenues are already heavy with blossom.

On the same path, Camellias Alba Plena, Donation and Adolph Addison are gearing up for a major show, with a backdrop of contrasting Rhododendrons already in vibrant colour. Look out for Rhododendron Sheldonii – these vibrantly red varieties are just beginning to flower and should be stunners for a couple of weeks to come.

Further south, there’s a pretty Prunus Okame in flower, with hellibores and daffodils sprinkled around it in the grass – an idyllic little woodland tableau on a more delicate scale than the flamboyant Rhodies.

Rhododendron shilsonii

Rhododendron shilsonii

The Front Drive is more a series of competent soloists rather than the full orchestra at present, although bristling buds indicate that it is soon to change. Rhododendron Arboreum, and others, are beginning to bloom high in the trees where they get the most sunlight.

Rhododendron Old Victorian Hybrid on Main Drive

Rhododendron Old Victorian Hybrid on Main Drive

In Peep-In, the herbaceous border leading to the fallen woman is a mass of lovely hellibores, blue lungwort and young Rhododendrons in delicate white flower.

When you reach the fallen woman, established Rhodies in yellow, cream, white, pastel pink and near red beckon through the leafless trees. My camera does not even begin to capture the magic of enticing glimpses of colour drawing one ever deeper into the wood.

It’s just a few weeks until we open for day visitors. They have a real treat in store for them!