Here are some of our ‘Plants of the Month’ chosen for you by our Head Gardener, Rod Milne, who is always keen to share his passion! A new plant is added every week!
HOT NEWS FROM OUR GARDEN: As of this week (11 May 2015) ‘Old Port’, has come into flower! ‘Old Port’ is possibly the largest rhododendron in the world – come and see it on the North Lawn. You can see its blooms pictured in our article below about the gardens showing off this month.
Australian Tree Ferns in Pembrokeshire
Tree ferns are fantastic prehistoric plants. There are many species which have a wide distribution across the temperate and tropical parts of the world, however there is only one species that can, with a little help, be grown outdoors in British gardens. It is Dicksonia antartica and comes from Tasmania, Victoria and New South Wales in Australia. The story goes that the original tree fern trunks were brought back to Britain around 1860 from the southern hemisphere as ballast on trading ships. Some of these found their way into wealthy Cornish valley gardens where they were planted and still flourish to this day.
Tree ferns are not woody plants but instead have a trunk made up from matted and decaying roots which means that the sawn off trunks, with seemingly no roots attached, can be planted in the ground and will happily grow away again. A few years ago these trunks could be bought everywhere, including from large supermarkets. Regrettably, I fear very few of these have survived as they are not as winter hardy as is often stated in books and in the gardening media.
Tree ferns enjoy a sheltered woodland microclimate and even here it is very advisable to provide extra protection during the winter. At Picton Castle we place a large bundle of straw in the centre of the crown of leaves and cover this with a small piece of polythene.
This is perhaps the most exciting time of year if you have a tree fern, as they push out a new batch of leaves that over the course of the summer grow to about seven foot long. Each leaf, pending mild winters, will last three or four years. When growing well they are truly spectacular plants.
The Variegated Flag Iris
The flag-iris (Iris pseudoacorus) is found by the acre throughout wet and waterlogged areas of Pembrokeshire. In wet meadows it can prove to be a troublesome invader. It was once used in herbal medicine, most often to induce vomiting, but currently its main use is as a form of water treatment since it has the ability to take up heavy metals through its roots.
Some lovely garden plants are unusual forms of our native plants that have been found growing in the wild and brought into cultivation. One plant I particularly like is the variegated form of the Flag Iris (Iris pseudoacorus ‘Variegata’). Throughout the spring the pointed vertical leaves are coloured bright yellow and green. The colour is most pronounced early in the year and slowly fades back to pale green during the summer when it grows to about a metre tall. The fleeting yellow flowers are an added bonus during May. It is a very good plant for naturalising in wet boggy areas where its dramatic colours stand out well but never look out of place. Although enjoying the same swamp-like conditions as our native Flag Iris, it will grow very well in a garden border provided there is a bit of year round moisture in the soil. The colours are most pronounced when growing in full sun but it will still thrive and brighten a dark shaded area of your garden. The Flag Iris is a plant that should be grown more often as it provides many months of interest.
With our gardens here at Picton so full of colour at this time of year, you can start to appreciate and enjoy certain colours more than others. This is obviously entirely subjective as personal favourites vary wildly. Rhododendron augustinii is one of my favourites and at this time of year it is smothered with blue flowers.
In gardening books you will see this unique colour described as violet, purple-blue, lavender-blue, blue-purple and sometimes just purple. None of these accurately describe this wonderful colour. Unlike the large blousy flowers of most Rhododendrons, each little truss is only three inches across and borne in great quantity creating a spectacular display. It an electrifying colour especially when seen in morning sunlight. When not in flower, it is a light and airy large shrub with small, pale green, willow-like leaves and once again quite different from the usual Rhododendrons seen in gardens.
Rhododendron is a massive family of around 1000 different species. Some are large leaved giants from temperate forests, many species are sub-tropical and some are alpine plants of only a few inches. Rhododendron augustinii eventually grows about two metres tall and comes from various provinces of western China.
It seems to be relatively easy to grow in Pembrokeshire provided it has a little shelter from strong winds and frost pockets are avoided. It is rarely offered for sale but is available from specialist Rhododendron nurseries and is well worth hunting down. It looks particularly fantastic when planted near yellow, scented Azaleas which flower at the same time.
There is no way to get round it, some plants just look weird. This is usually because they are far from their native home and the topography and similar plants of that area. In lush Pembrokeshire gardens, their form and colouring looks completely alien. Other plants require a great deal of patience, such as large-leaved Rhododendrons and some ornamental trees that will not start flowering until they are between fifteen and twenty years old whilst others will grow really well until we have a really cold winter which frustratingly kills them outright.
Beschorneria yuccoides fulfils all these categories, but when they are overcome the result is spectacular and rewarding. The plants that have been growing in the Walled Garden here at Picton Castle are finally flowering after eight years. They have large, yucca-like, spiky rosettes of blue-green, silver tinted leaves from which are rising (at a rate of three or four inches a day) strange pink-apricot coloured flower stems that are partially enshrouded by bright pink modified leaves. From this stem sprout the small nodding tubular flowers. The stems grow about two metres in length and usually at an angle of forty-five degrees. It is the strange colouring and sculptural quality of the flower stem that is the most fascinating feature.
Beschorneria yuccoides (named after Friedrich Wilhelm Christian Beschorner, a 19th century German botanist) is a native to Mexico and will thrive when given a warm sheltered position in full sun, ideally near a south facing wall. Regrettably a really cold winter may prove fatal but when, after a few years, the flowers are produced – the results are extraordinary.
‘Solomon’s Seal’ (Polygonatum) is well known to gardeners and I was going to write about it several weeks ago. However, as it isn’t the most flamboyant plant, it was overshadowed by something more colourful. The remarkable thing is that, several weeks later, it looks even better and taller than it did back then. It has metre tall arching stems, clad with opposite pairs of leaves and from each leaf axle hangs little tubular flowers throughout the spring. It looks great for months and towards the end of summer all the stems die back to the roots.
There is a beautiful native species of Solomon’s Seal (Polygonatum multiflorum) but gardeners tend to favour the larger and stronger growing Polygonatum x hybridum. It will grow well in full sun if sufficient water is available, but will prefer to grow in dappled shade where, once established, will tolerate dry conditions. Each year the clump will slowler get larger and can be left alone for a great many years with minimal attention.
It is thought that the name ‘Solomon’s Seal’ originates from slight depressions in the root that have a vague resemblance to Royal seals. In some cultures Polygonatum is used as a vegetable – the new shoots being cut, boiled and used like asparagus. However, this cannot be recommended, as all parts of the plant are poisonous! It is well known to herbalists who use a tincture to treat sports injuries. Historically it was used as an aphrodisiac!
As primroses and cowslips fade for another year, another group from the Primula family come into their own. Originally from Asia, ‘Candelabra Primulas’ consist of a number of species which bear their flowers in whirls, or candelabras, along an ever-lengthening flower stem that grows to about a metre tall. They all love to grow in really moist soil or even stagnant bogs and are ideal for pond or stream sides should you be lucky enough to have such a feature in your garden. In normal moist soils they will grow reasonably well, but never quite as luxuriantly as when their feet are in mud.
There are many named species and varieties to choose from and once you have them established they will hybridise freely and produce seedlings, often of entirely different colour from the parents. After a few years you will have a wonderful clashing mixture on your hands. At Picton we try to grow them in natural looking drifts mixed with ferns, in beds within the woodland garden where they provide a wonderful multi-coloured show for about two months.
At this time of year, many big gardens are full of boisterous Rhododendron flowers in every colour, so sometimes it comes as a welcome relief to be looking at something completely different.
Tree-peonies fall into this category. Far from being trees, they are shrubs that grow to two metres tall at the very most. The most widely grown type, Paeonia ludlowii, is deciduous. It has almost fern-like leaves, which are attractive all summer and bear interesting yellow flowers, ten centimetres across with a big boss of stamen in the middle. These flowers demand a closer look!
Tree-peonies have been cultivated in Japan and China for centuries and there are varieties available with enormous flamboyant flowers in all manner of colours. Although easily spoiled by rain I think it’s well worth giving these exotic plants a try.
All tree peonies grow best in a sheltered spot in full-sun or part-shade and appreciate an annual mulch of compost, leaf-mould or well-rotted manure.
The Gardens Really Show Off This Month – Take A Stroll With Us!
Already famous for its outstanding beauty, history and coastal scenery, West Wales also boasts seven breathtakingly beautiful gardens, where our temperate climate encourages the development of many rare and exotic trees and plants from around the globe. Each providing a show of vibrant colours, enchanting perfumes, and stunning vistas, one of the ‘Magnificent Seven’ Great Gardens of West Wales is Picton Castle and Gardens..
Much like the castle building itself, our magical gardens are a fusion over many centuries of different gardening styles and always a pleasure to behold. Despite the harsh winds that blasted us all over the winter months, the spring brought a rapid succession of flowers and now the garden is showing off!
With the first half of May seeing the wonderful old Magnolias between the castle and walled garden coming into flower, pay a visit to Picton Castle and Gardens this month and you’ll quickly understand why they are famed for its Rhododendrons, Azaleas, Camellias and Magnolias. Some have enormous scented flowers and others, such as the Japanese Azaleas, have many intensely coloured flowers borne in great profusion.
Originating in Chinese temperate forests come giants such as Rhododendron macabeanum with leaves a foot long and great yellow waxy flowers. At the other extreme come alpine treasures such as Rhododendron scintillans with tiny leaves and tight purple flowers that are far from their home in the snows of the Himalaya. Other beautiful species are Rhododendron basilicum with pale yellow, crimson blotched flowers and Rhododendron hodgsonii with magenta flowers, both with their handsome felt-backed leaves.
There’s a stunning red Rhododendron by the courtyard wall. Walk past it, then go leave the path to admire ‘Old Port’ in flower. Quite possibly the biggest Rhododendron in the world, it was planted in 1860 and stands almost 20 feet high and 75 feet across. Great patience is required when growing these large Rhododendrons as many don’t flower for the first fifteen years of their life.
Over a period of forty years, the Head Gardener at Picton, the late Leo Ekkes, bred a good number of hybrids that are unique to Picton. Perhaps his favorite was Rhododendron ‘Salmon Jubilee’ with neat round leaves and unusual salmon pink flowers.
Rhododendrons have been out of fashion since the 1970s, their unpopularity not helped by the promiscuous habits of a certain purple-flowered species (Rhododendron ponticum) that has seeded from our gardens and swamped swathes of our countryside. Thankfully this is the only one of over a thousand species to behave in this manner and many of the others are amongst the most sumptuous and colourful of all flowering shrubs. One of the favourites is the Tree-Rhododendron (Rhododendron arboreum) from the central-Himalaya. This variety can, after 250 years, grow to over 20 metres and in spring is covered from top to base with dense flower-heads of white, pink or red. The tallest one at Picton is about 10 metres and a mere baby of 70 years.
The fabulous woodlands at Picton are also bursting with springtime colour. Peek into ‘Bluebell Walk’ to admire the misty blue carpet of bluebells beneath the soft greens of old trees awakening from winter. At the start of the wood, paths are lined with more than 60 varieties of ferns, many stretching tentative tendrils towards the sky after their winter hibernation.
The woodland floor is covered with small perennials such as Dicentra, and Pulmonaria (Lungworts), brighten some of the woodland borders. Among the earliest perennials to come into flower, Lungworts have small bright pink or blue flowers of many different shades, which make a welcome relief from what can seem like the never-ending daffodil-yellow of April. These understated little plants are bright and cheerful and easily grown in virtually any garden – slowly spreading to form a ground covering carpet, even in the shade. Some varieties have attractive silver spotted or striped leaves. In the days of ancient herbalism, it was these markings that resulted in the plant being used as a treatment for lung disease. The Medieval Doctrine of Signatures believed that the herbs resembled the part of the body that they were meant to cure but it so happens that modern research has revealed that Lungwort does indeed have useful properties for treating lung inflammation and asthma.
Taking in the stunning colour in ‘The Avenues’, you won’t fail to notice two mighty willow fox sculptures guarding the Gardens. Standing at over fifteen feet high, they are the work of Wales’ premier willow artist ,Michelle Cain.
From here you will be en-route to the ‘Walled Gardens’ where the stars of the show from the end of May will be the Echium pininiana’s flower spikes, rising above the border. Here you will also find a large variety of aquilegia, irises, aliums and cistus. Created around 1800 it was the major focus for horticultural activities at Picton. In its heyday greenhouses, with elaborate heating-flues built into the brick walls, covered the south-facing and far end walls where peaches, exotic fruit, grapes and tropical ‘stove plants’ were grown here in profusion.
A recently created area, the ‘Jungle Garden’, is a voluptuous mix of large leaved exotic plants.. The banana plants (Musa basjoo) predominate and big banana leaves begin to unfurl from around mid May, with Canna lilies providing splashes of colour and ginger lilies (Hedychium) lush foliage often with heady, sweet scented flowers. Despite coming from more temperate climes, most of the plants in this area survive the winter here.
May is an exciting and beautiful month to enjoy Mother Nature in all her splendour – not only for its colour, but for the enticing wafts of fragrance which dance along the paths, so do make a point of smelling the Rhodie flowers – those that are fragrant are utterly wonderful!