Saxifrages

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.

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Christmas plants

Thousands of poinsettias were bought for Christmas. They can stay as colourful additions to a room until Easter with care. They have been developed from a wild species Euphorbia pulcherrima which grows in Mexico so they like warmth and good light but not too much water. Ideally place your poinsettia near a sunny window. Do not let the plant touch the glass, and as with all house plants avoid drafts. Water only when the compost feels dry but then soak the pot.  Euphorbias have a bitter white sap so if a stem is broken take care not to get any sap in your eyes. If your poinsettia drops leaves or wilts despite good care, it could mean it suffered cold conditions before you bought it e.g. sitting outside a shop. Poinsettias are grown using dwarfing chemicals and special light regimes which means they are not really worth trying to keep for another Christmas.

Florists’ cyclamen are another popular winter pot plant. They were developed from Cyclamen persicum and unlike some of the dwarf species they are not hardy. However, they do not like very warm rooms. Keeping them in good light in a cool, well it room or conservatory will make them last longer. They can be grown on to flower again. Feed while still in growth then allow the leaves to die back as they naturally become dormant as summer approaches. Only repot if the corm is filling the pot. If a garden frame is available they can sit there during their dormant period, though some very fine cyclamen are grown on window sills throughout the year. In autumn water and feed again.

Most of the pots of bulbs which are bought as Christmas decorations are outdoor types such as hyacinths which were specially treated to advance their normal flowering time. They can flower again if planted outside into the garden but not at Christmas. Paperwhite narcissi are not hardy in our Scottish climate so are not worth saving.

The large flowered Hippeastrums are still usually called Amaryllis by gardeners and are definitely indoor bulbs. The size and number of flowers depends on the size of the bulbs. The two stems on Red Lion have 12 flowers between them. A heavy clay pot helps. Some people have trouble getting them to flower in succeeding years. Remove the flowers as they fade and use liquid feed as the leaves develop. Keep well-watered and in good light as growth continues. By autumn the leaves may start to die back but even if they are still green withhold water. but keep in good light to ripen the bulb. Give them around eight weeks dry and cooler. When growth restarts try replacing the top layer of compost around the neck of the bulbs. They do well in relatively small pots so only repot when they obviously need it. With plants that will be in the same pot for more than one season most growers prefer a soil-based compost such as John Innes.

All sorts of plants are sold for the Christmas market. As a general rule flowering plants need more light than foliage plants. Some are really outdoor plants like pots of little roses. Plants like this need to be in maximum light and in as cool a room as practical. The small evergreen shrubs sold as azaleas are forms of Rhododendron simsii (indica) and more tender than most rhododendrons. They should be kept moist in a cool room or buds may drop off. Later they appreciate being outside for the summer months. Although you often read that they should be watered with rainwater that isn’t normally necessary in Scotland. If repotting do so in spring using an ericaceous compost.

 

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Christmas Berries and Birds

Holly is strongly associated with Christmas. The blood red berries and spines gave the plant religious significance to early Christians but even earlier the Celts held the oak and holly as the two most important trees and the Romans featured holly in their Saturnalia events. Most holly trees are either male or female; only the female forms carry berries. Some garden forms are better than others. JC vanTol and pyramidalis are self-fertile and good for berries but have rather plain leaves. Variegated hollies tend to have fewer berries while Golden Queen is male so has no berries at all. Confusingly Silver King is female and does have some berries! A good berry crop does not mean the tree can anticipate a hard winter but reflects the amount of sun earlier in the season. Other native plants such as ivy were used as decoration but less so now that other plants such as poinsettias – usually red – are available.

 

Robins, which used to be called red breasts, are also often seen on Christmas cards possibly as Victorian postmen wore red jackets. Robins follow gardeners in the way they used to follow wild boar which would dig up the ground to expose grubs which the robin can eat. With patience you can get a robin to take food from your fingers; they like mealworms if you can get them. In winter all robins sing to defend individual territories so Cock Robin may be a hen. Some of the robins in Scotland in winter have crossed the North Sea from Scandinavia earlier in the autumn.

 

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Autumn Leaves

Autumn colours are the result of chemical reactions that occur as the leaves of deciduous trees begin to die. In summer, leaves produce food from sunlight through green chlorophyll.  As summer ends, the cooler weather and shorter days trigger them to stop producing chlorophyll and other pigments become prominent.  Carotenoid turns the leaf golden, and anthocyanin produces red.

Different species vary in the amount of these pigments that they carry. Many of the most colourful autumn leaves are on imported trees such as American and Japanese maples whilst British native trees tend to turn gold rather than red.

Although most conifers are evergreen Larch is an exception, showing golden needles just now.  The colours are not the same each year. Windy weather shortens the show, whilst settled weather with cool nights prolongs it.    A dry summer increases anthocyanin production leading to better reds and bronzes. Leaves in hedges last longer than on trees (less prone to be blown off by the wind).  Beech hedges hold their leaves all winter. Some climbers provide good autumn colour, notably the Virginia creeper and closely related Boston ivy.

When leaves do fall, they can be collected and composted to turn into leaf mould, one of the most useful materials in any garden. You can read our article on how to make leaf mould here.

 

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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

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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

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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

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Gorse

Gorse

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

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Aquilegia

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

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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

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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!

‘Diversity’

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.

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