Plants in Season

There is always a plant of interest to look out for in Scotland, whatever the season  Whether it be for its flowers, fruits, foliage or interesting shape, there is a plant for every season.

So, from garden favourites to plants in the wider environment, we will keep you up to date with what is on show in every season of the year.


Autumn Bulbs

With so many autumn bulbs in flower at the moment, we thought you might a look back at Stan da Prato’s blog post from November 2020.

Many bulbs come from countries with hot, dry summers so they either flower in spring as winter snow melts or in autumn when rain starts them back into growth. Several crocus flower in autumn. Easily obtained types include the blue Crocus speciosus and lilac C. sativus.  Saffron used in cookery comes from the stigma of C. sativus. It takes c 50,000 flowers to produce one pound of saffron, which is why it is so expensive.   The saffron crocus has been cultivated for at least three thousand years but is unknown as a wild plant. It doesn’t come true from seed so is thought to be a mutant from another species.

There are many other crocus species which between them flower from September through to March, but some are better grown under cold glass. The alpine house in the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh is a good place to see them. The yellow Sternbergia lutea is sometimes sold as a crocus which it isn’t, and it can be hard to establish outside; most people grow it in a pot.

Often wrongly called autumn crocus, colchicums are usually larger with lilac or white flowers. One species, Colchicum autumnale, grows wild in a few damp meadows in Britain. It is sometime called meadow saffron which is potentially dangerous as all colchicums are poisonous. The anti-inflammatory drug Colchicine is derived from these plants but should only be used in the correct doses. Colchicum leaves are quite different from the grassy leaves of crocus and don’t appear till spring when they are easily hoed out in mistake for weeds! With any bulbs it is a good idea to label or mark their position, so you don’t dig them up when they are under the ground. Although we associate snowdrops with the end of winter, a few flower in October.

With most bulbs planting depth should be two to three times their own height so, if the bulb is one inch tall it needs to be below two or three inches of soil. There are exceptions; one being the hardy cyclamen which are in flower now. These need to be just under the soil.   They are excellent for growing in light shade under shrubs or trees. Cyclamen hederifolium– which means ivy leaved – is the one in flower now.  It used to be C. neapolitanum as it grows wild near Naples and elsewhere in the Mediterranean. Later in the winter Cyclamen coum, with rounder leaves, will start to flower. These little cyclamen have very variable but attractive leaves. Some forms have silver leaves. There are some other species such as the dainty pink C. mirabile or C. graecum with beautifully patterned leaves, but in Scotland these are better in a pot under glass. Just now garden centres are selling pots and trays of colourful cyclamen.

These are dwarf forms of C. persicum, originally from the Middle East, so not entirely hardy if we get severe weather. They do well in tubs or pots, perhaps by a door where they provide colour and get some shelter. Another bulb which likes to be on the soil surface is Nerine bowdenii from South Africa. It makes a fine display of pink, especially when planted at the foot of a south facing wall as it likes warm sun. If you look at the website of the Scottish Rock Garden Club, they have many more examples of hardy bulbs and also Ian Young’s very good Bulb Log which he posts every week.

Stan da Prato
November 2020


Woodland Saxifrages

Following the excellent talk by Jim Jermyn last night on plants for a woodland garden, Stan has sent in this wee blog featuring some of his favourite woodland saxifrages.  Those who were at our Saughton Sunday event last week will have seen some of these beauties on display.

Woodland Saxifrages

Saxifraga fortunei

These are mainly Japanese hybrids of Saxifraga fortunei which grows wild in China and Japan.  They do best in a light woodsy soil in dappled shade where they won’t get too dry. Their leaves resemble Heucheras which are also in the Saxifragaceae family. Like Heucheras, they are prone to attack by vine weevil grubs. It’s worth treating the plants with nematodes which are tiny worms that kill the weevils. The wild species was named after the 19th century Scottish plant explorer Robert Fortune who grew up in Berwickshire. Nowadays Edrom Nursery, in Berwickshire, has the biggest range of these plants in Britain.

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Stan da Prato
November 2021


Golden harvest or yellow peril: oilseed rape

The bright yellow flowers of oilseed rape have become a familiar sight in early summer. The plant is a brassica (cabbage family) and its name, rape, comes from the Latin word rapum that means a turnip.  Oilseed rape is a popular break crop on farms which allows pests to die out between cereal crops like wheat or barley. Most is autumn sown and harvested at a time when other crops are still growing which helps farm management.

Rapeseed oil used to have high levels of damaging erucic acid.  Today’s varieties have been bred with low acid to provide an oil that suitable for use in cooking and food processing. Known as vegetable oil or canola, the oil is widely used by the food industry and is now also processed for use as biodiesel. A very small amount has industrial uses as lubricants. The residue is used for animal feed. Rapeseed oil has become popular as it has low saturated fat and is high in omega-3. The cold pressed oils now compete with olive oil.

Anyone who has stood beside a field in flower will know the strong scent. Some individuals experience allergic type reactions to flowering oilseed. This seems to be different from hay fever.  Rape is an insect-pollinated crop, whereas hay fever is usually caused by wind-pollinated plants such as grasses with light pollen. Rape has large pollen grains which don’t move so far.

Rapeseed produces great quantities of nectar from which honeybees produce a  peppery honey, often blended with milder honeys.  A problem with some canola honey is that most of the North American crop is genetically modified to resist herbicides. So, if you prefer organic produce, stick to European honey.

Oilseed leaves have helped woodpigeons become one of the commonest birds in Britain. Recent bans on the use of neonicotinoid pesticides may have an effect on the amount of oilseed grown in this country. Flea beetles can cause so much damage to rape fields as to make the crop uneconomic. Other control measures such as companion planting are being trialled but may not prove practical.

Stan da Prato
June 2021




The bright yellow of gorse, Ulex europaeus, is now prominent in the countryside. This plant’s habit of flowering on and off throughout the year led to the saying that “when gorse is out of flower kissing is out of season”.  Not an activity to be encouraged these days despite recent relaxations in Covid restrictions! It is a very useful plant for wildlife as it supports a wide range of invertebrates and many small birds nest and feed in it. It provides nest site for stonechats, linnets and yellowhammers that need scrub rather than woodland as well as others such as dunnocks and wrens. The dense structure provides a refuge for these birds in harsh weather.

Stonechat on a Gorse bush

As gorse is in flower for long periods, it is an important nectar source in early spring and early winter, when little else is in flower. A number of  invertebrates depend on it.  The caterpillars of a species of case bearer moth feed exclusively on gorse. The dry wood of dead gorse stems provides food for the caterpillars of the concealer moth. Nearly 20 species of beetle are only found on gorse. Many spiders live in gorse and their webs are sometimes prominent on the bushes.  Tiny gorse spider mites construct tent-like structures over the plant, which allows them to live and feed in relative safety. The gorse mites only feed on this plant so they have been used as biological control agents in regions of the world where gorse is an invasive non-native weed.

Traditionally, gorse was collected to provide fuel, to make floor and chimney brushes and was even used to colour Easter eggs. The flowers have a strong scent of coconut and are edible if you avoid the prickles when picking them!  As fodder, gorse is high in protein and was used to feed livestock, particularly in winter.  Gorse is also eaten as forage by some livestock, such as ponies, which may eat little else in winter. This is the basis for conservation grazing by breeds such as Exmoors or Polish koniks.

Exmoor ponies eating Gorse in winter

Gorse leaves are reduced and the green spines carry out much of the photosynthesis. Gorse copes well with poor soil and exposed sites. It is a relatively short-lived plant. 

It will regenerate after fire though this should not be allowed in the birds’ breeding season.   It dies out when other trees and bushes grow up among the thickets and shade it out. On nature reserves gorse is often manged on a rotation. Older stands of gorse lose their compactness and degenerate, reducing their value for wildlife and increasing the fire risk. When gorse is cut to ground level most stumps will regenerate within a year.

Stan da Prato
June 2021



Aquilegia belong to the buttercup family (Ranunculaceae) and are at their best from the end of May into mid/late June. There are approximately 70 species of Aquilegia but the most common in gardens is A. vulgaris which has many different varieties. Other Aquilegia that can be found in gardens include A. canadensis, A. formosa, A. fragrans and A. flabellata to name just a few.

A plethora of Aquilegia

The main problem with these beautiful plants is promiscuity. Taking my own garden as an example, I have never planted any A. vulgaris types at all in the back garden, but they are coming up in all sorts of inappropriate places (through the middle of a clump of Epimedium, shading out a Paeonia cambessedesii as examples. The colour variations are from blue through pink and white plus any combination. These plants are almost certainly from the vulgaris group commonly known as Granny’s Bonnet and include the double Barlow Group as well as a plethora of single short-spurred varieties. In the front garden we have A. fragrans which was grown from seed along with A. canadensis. These were planted on purpose!

Aquilegia fragrans

As already noted, they are very good doers and will grow in any reasonable garden soil in full sun or dappled shade. To control the spread, I tend to cut off the seed heads before they open. I will allow the odd favoured plant to mature its seed head and as the seed capsule starts to split, cut the head off and tip into a paper bag with a label. Seed can be sown straight away or left till February.

Unknown Aquilegia vulgaris

Do not be put off by what I have said about these beautiful plants. Aquilegia are the quintessential cottage garden flower and if you don’t mind them coming up everywhere then let them seed. If you want to exercise some modicum of control, then cut the seed heads off before they mature.

Aquilegia vulgaris (short-spurred)

Colin Ainsworth
June 2021


Tulip Time

As the daffodils fade, tulips take over. Most tulips do not naturalise as well as daffodils as they originate in areas such as central Asia which do not have our damp climate. The scarce Tulipa sylvestris is often said to be native to Britain but, like snowdrops, is a long-established introduction from further east. Tulips do best in well-drained soil in full sun, sheltered from strong winds.  They are effective in containers but make sure the size of the tulip is in proportion to the planter!  Bedding tulips are best replaced each year. If left in the ground, they are unlikely to flower so well in later years. Dwarf species tulips, such as the early multiheaded Tulipa turkestanica, the Tulipa humilis group, the later T. tarda, forms of the slender lady tulip T. clusiana and forms such as ‘Little Beauty’ are often genuinely perennial.

The short-stemmed cultivars of Tulipa kaufmanniana and T. greigii often re-flower without lifting if they are in a warm sunny place.  Kaufmanniana are sometimes called water lily tulips and one variety is called ‘Water Lily’.  The slightly later greigii group often have attractively marked leaves such as the well-known ‘Red Riding Hood’ or the new and extraordinarily marked ‘Fire of Love’. The fosteriana tulips include ‘Red Emperor’, which has one of the biggest flowers of any tulip.

There are 15 main types of tulip. Crossing fosteriana tulips with single varieties led to the   Darwin hybrids such as the well-known red ‘Apeldoorn’, which make excellent tall bedding tulips.  Also good in formal beds or planters are the lily flowered tulips with their distinctive pointed petals; the yellow ‘West Point’ and the pale pink and white ‘Marilyn’ are good examples. Many tulips are classed by when they flower.  Single earlies e.g. ‘Keizerskroon’ are followed by mid-season (triumph) tulips, a big group with many good varieties from the dark ‘Abu Hassan’ to the pale ‘Zurel’.

Then come single lates, such as the very popular, almost black, ‘Queen of the Night’. Double earlies are quite short such as the old classic ‘Peach Blossom’. Double lates (peony flowered) include ‘Black Hero’, a sport from Queen of the Night and the pale Belicia.  Fringed tulips have obvious edges to their petals while parrots have twisted flowers which can fall over due to their size.  Viridiflora have green marks in their petals.   Rembrandt tulips are modern, virus free bulbs that recall the ‘flames and feathers’ of extinct varieties, now known to be infected by a virus, which were much sought after during the Dutch 17th century tulip mania.  Some tulips can be in more than one section in bulb catalogues. The double early ‘Monsella’ and triumph ‘Helmar’ are also sometimes offered as Rembrandts.

The alternative to discarding old bulbs is to lift and dry the tulip bulbs after flowering. If the bulb is smaller or has split into small bulblets you will not get good flowers unless you grow these on, perhaps lined out in a vegetable plot.  Use old bulbs in your less important borders and new bulbs for containers and other key sites. Now is a good time to evaluate your display and plan for 2022. As tulips are below ground for much of the winter, they need companion plants. Wallflower are a traditional choice and provide a striking show in spring as well as scent. Other options are violas or pansies, which work well in containers, forget-me-nots and ornamental daisies. Tulip bulbs are often planted as late as November to reduce the risk of a Botrytis disease called Tulip Fire.

Stan da Prato 
May 2021


So many different daffodils

Daffodils, often in large plantings, are now brightening many parks and gardens. The more vigorous types such as the trumpets or large cupped are the most often seen.   Yellow is the predominant colour though some others, such as the large cupped, cream/white ‘Ice Follies’ (Division 2) also do well planted in quantity in public places.

The smaller cupped Division 3 group are also popular –compare ‘Barrett Browning‘ (Division 3) with ‘Professor Einstein’ (Division 2).

Daffodil enthusiasts use 13 divisions: 12 for the different cultivated forms and one for wild species and natural hybrids as wild daffodils are rather promiscuous! Two forms of wild daffodil grow in Britain, the two toned mainly in England, where it was the subject of Wordsworth’s famous poem,

and the all yellow Tenby daffodil in Wales. They are available from bulb merchants but they can be slow to establish in gardens. Both are forms of Narcissus pseudonarcissus which is also the parent of the large trumpet types such as ‘King Alfred’, ‘Dutch Master’ etc (Division 1). Not all the 13 types of daffodil flower at the same time.

The hybrids from N.  cyclamineus (Division 6 ) are quite early.

Narcissus cyclamineus

They show the ‘swept back’ look of the very small wild parent. This is a bulb that must not dry out, but can naturalise well in short grass. Its hybrids, like the all yellow ‘Rapture’, ‘Warbler’ and the bicolour ‘Jack Snipe’, are larger, but still relatively small.  The even smaller division 6 daffodils include ‘Mite’ and ‘Mitzy’ – these are classed as miniatures.

The very popular ‘Jetfire’ is a division 6 and is an excellent bulb for children to pot up for shows as it’s easy and flowers at the right time.  Probably the most popular dwarf daffodil of all, ‘Tete a Tete’, is in Division 12 (miscellaneous) but is also listed as a miniature.  It looks so different compared to its cyclamineus ancestor. All these are good choices for the Caley show.

‘Jetfire’, ‘Tete a Tete’, ‘February Gold’

Other groups of small daffodils tend to flower a bit later. The triandrus group (Division 5) have more than one flower on each stem. Easily available examples include the white ‘Ice Wings and ‘Thalia’.

Ice Wings

Also multi headed and often sweetly scented are the jonquils (Division 7). Again the hybrids, like ‘Sailboat’ and ‘Quail’, are often bigger and more vigorous than the wild species.


The daffodils derived from N. tazetta also have a scent but tend to be quite tall. Some are not fully hardy in Scotland. Paperwhites, for example, will flower by Christmas in pots, but most bulbs are imported from Israel and are not worth planting outside after flowering, which works well with most other daffodils that have been in pots. Tougher tazettas include the white ‘Avalanche’.

The latest group to flower, usually into May, are the mainly white poeticus daffodils (Division 9) derived from the old Pheasant’s Eye narcissus, the best known being the old cultivar ‘Actaea’. By contrast most of the bulbocodium group (Division 10) are small plants with very distinctive flowers without a perianth, thus the hoop petticoat name. Some, from southern Spain and Morocco, such as N. romieuxii are very early and best grown under cover. ‘Golden Bells’ is a later, strong grower which should do well in grass.

Double daffodils (Division 4) are not to everyone’s taste and of little use to pollinating insects. They do have exotic looking blooms which can fall over due to the weight of their petals. Even more of an acquired taste are the split corona types (Division 11). Some say they look as though they have been punched on the nose!


Most of the 13 categories include some very small daffodils which are also classed as miniatures’. The Caley Spring Bulb show includes classes for most divisions and miniatures.

Most daffodils are easy to grow. They are fairly resistant to mice, deer and rabbits. They like it fairly moist when in growth. After flowering allow the foliage to die back completely. If planted in grass allow to die back before mowing to ensure flowers next year. Never tie the foliage into bunches! Divide congested clumps to encourage more flowers.

You can find out more on the Caley website.


Spring – Early Iris time

Early Iris are a wonderful group of hardy plants which have flowers that rival orchids though they tend not to last as long. The genus shows a wide variety of growth forms. The yellow flag Iris pseudacorus is a common waterside plant in this country. The bearded Iris germanica likes dry sunny conditions to ripen its rhizomes. (But more about those in a later blog).

This article concentrates on three small species and their hybrids which are now in flower and can provide a very colourful show in pots or tubs as well as the garden. They grow from small bulbs and like a free draining soil or compost and full sun. They are often all called Iris reticulata – the name comes from the pattern on the surface of the bulbs and most but not all are derived from that species.  Most are blue like the old ‘Cantab’ and the newer ‘Alida’, Pixie and ‘Fabiola’.

Forms of Iris reticulata have a bad habit of deteriorating after a year, usually as they have split into small bulbs that need time to bulk up. Try deeper planting or putting them where they do not dry out too quickly in spring but do dry in summer -perhaps below shrubs.

The worst is the small yellow Iris Iris danfordiae which most people will treat as an annual. Recent crosses made in Canada by Alan McMurtrie with a fertile form of Iiris danfordiae have introduced more varied colours as with Iris ‘Eyecatcher’ or the yellow ’Sunshine’.

Iris histrioides is now usually readily available as is the very good blue ‘Lady Beatrix Stanley’. It, and its paler hybrids with the yellow Iris winogradowii, ‘Sheila Ann Germaney, ‘Frank Elder’ and ‘Katharine Hodgkin’, are reliably perennial as are their two paler sports ‘Katharine’s Gold’ and ‘Polar Ice’.

There are several good hybrids that seem to have originated from histrioides x reticulata crossing. The purple ‘Pauline’ and the blue ‘Palm Springs’ and ‘Harmony’ are all good plants that should come up every year. ‘Palm Springs’ is said to be a sport from the purple ‘George’ which is also a good doer but seems to have disappeared from the market.

Apart from ‘George’ all of these bulbs are widely available in the autumn. They are not expensive; some varieties are only £1.50 for ten bulbs.

For more info on these bulbs look at the website



Crocus are now brightening up many public open spaces.  They  like well-drained soil and sun. But do watch for mice as they like crocus corms.

Unlike snowdrops crocus come in a range of colours and local authorities often like to use mixed colours. However, limiting to one or two colours can be very effective.

Limited colour planting

The type you see most often are the large flowered Dutch crocus. You can get named varieties: Yellow Mammoth, Joan of Arc (white), Flower Record (purple), Pickwick(striped).

Slightly earlier and smaller are the forms of Crocus chrysanthus. They include Blue Pearl, Cream Beauty, Snow Bunting as well as the gold and black Gypsy Girl, the purple and white Ladykiller and Prins Claus and the larger, very good white variety, Ard Schenck.

Other good small flowered species for naturalising are the Tommy crocus C. tommasinianus which has good forms like Barrs Purple and Ruby Giant- which isn’t a giant! Crocus sieberi is lilac but has various forms, notably Tricolor which has three contrasting colours.

All of these crocus do well in grass but it is essential that the leaves that follow the flowers are allowed to grow properly to create the replacement corm to produce a flower next spring. As the leaves of crocus are rather like grass they are less obtrusive than the larger leaves of daffodils.

Even in a garden you need a reasonable number of crocus to create an effective display. Fortunately Crocus are not too expensive and get cheaper as you buy in bigger quantities. If you are involved in planting a large number of crocus in public spaces your local parks dept. gardeners may be able to help with a machine to lift the turf. Very large numbers of corms can then be broadcast onto the bare earth before the turf is rolled back.

Less commonly seen types of crocus mean specialist growers can have crocus in flower from September through to Easter.

The show bench

The show bench

The Scottish Rock Garden Club website has lots of crocus information.



Despite the very cold spell recently, snowdrops are coming into flower. They are very hardy and can even push though frozen soil. The early white flowers are often seen as a sign of purity and hope.  The festival of Candlemas on 2nd February often featured snowdrops as Candlemas bells.  Galanthus nivalis is the common snowdrop. Though it naturalises well it is not a British native. It was introduced to Britain in the 17th century from south-east Europe. It likes to grow in semi-shade in damp soil, often in deciduous woodland. Its leaves are slender and grey green.

Another common snowdrop is the double form G. elwesii which is larger, sometimes called  the Turkish snowdrop.  It has tall, broad grey leaves. G. plicatus comes from the Crimea and is also easily grown. Its greyish leaves have two folds along the edges and often a central stripe. G. woronowii comes from the Caucasus and has green leaves. G. reginae olgae, named after a Russian born queen of Greece, even flowers in autumn.

There are lots of named snowdrops. Many have been discovered as unusual forms or natural hybrids among existing plantings rather than being bred by gardeners. Some galanthophiles (snowdrop enthusiasts) have collections of over a hundred. Snowdrops with all the six petals of equal length are known as poculiforms.  The Greatorex doubles are all named after Shakespearean characters such as Cordelia and Hippolyta. One of the best named varieties is the vigorous ‘Sam Arnott’ named after a 19th century Scottish gardener from near Dumfries.

One very special snowdrop is ‘Sophie North’ – a selection of Galanthus plicatus. This was named for one of the children murdered in the Dunblane atrocity.  This led to the Snowdrop Campaign to tighten the control of firearms in this country. Collectors value plants with unusual green markings on the white petals or in a few cases yellow on the ovary – the bit above the flower. These will sell for £10 or more, some even for as much as £50 per bulb.  The highest price paid for a Scottish snowdrop was £725 for a yellow form of G. woronowii at an auction in 2012, so it is worth looking out for unusual snowdrops in your garden. Recently Ian Christie raised £800 for NHS charities from an auction of bulbs of a new selection of G. plicatus he has named ‘Lady of the Lamp’.

Galanthus ‘The Lady with the Lamp’

Snowdrop bulbs hate to dry out which is why bulbs bought in packets often fail. The best time to lift and move snowdrops is when they are about to go dormant- the leaves are dying back but still visible so you can locate the bulbs.  If you are sure where the bulbs are you can lift and shift them in summer. If they are not to be replanted immediately keep them in compost and slightly damp. Many nurseries lift snowdrops when they are still in growth – “in the green”. This allows you to see what you are getting but some root damage is inevitable.  Plants received in the green should be planted as soon as possible.

In a normal year you can visit good displays of snowdrops throughout February and March in gardens participating in the Scottish Snowdrop Festival. Although travelling to gardens is not currently possible due to Covid-19 restrictions, do have a look at their website to see where you can visit locally.  There are even some virtual tours. Some gardens and nurseries have interesting snowdrops for sale online. Try Avon bulbs, Dryad nursery, Edrom nursery, Edulis nursery, or Macplants, who all have a good selection.   Good snowdrop gardens in Scotland include Cambo in Fife, Branklyn Garden in Perth, Lawton House in Arbroath, House of Dunn in Montrose and RBGE Edinburgh.

Ian Christie and Stan da Prato
February 2021

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