Sarcococca are compact, evergreen shrubs which come into their own in mid-winter which accounts for the common names of Christmas box or sweet box. The flowers are small, creamy or pinkish white and are very fragrant. These are followed by glossy black berries. For best effect plant by a door or path so the beautiful scent can be appreciated.
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.
Caley stalwart and avid gardener, Stan da Prato, keep us up to date with what we should be looking out for throughout the year.
Thanks to Stan for all of his hard work in producing the information and images that go into these posts.
Did you get a plant as a gift for Christmas? Read on to see how to care for them.
Thousands of poinsettias are 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. As with all house plants avoid draughts. 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 may 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. 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 in another year. 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 frame is available they can sit there though some very fine cyclamen are grown on windowsills. 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 will flower again if planted out into the garden but not at Christmas. Paperwhite narcissi are not hardy in our climate so are not worth saving.
Ivy is a self-clinging climber whose tiny, adventitious roots allow it to attach to trees or walls. In woods it can also carpet the ground. It has glossy, evergreen leaves with three or five points which give the characteristic ivy shape. It is a useful plant as it grows in any soil, in shade or sun. However, only shoots in the sun produce flowers as well as unlobed leaves which look as though they are from a different plant. Small leaved and variegated ivies are available in garden centres.
It is poisonous to humans but exceptionally useful for wildlife. Small greenish nectar rich flowers are produced in autumn. The blackish berries ripen in late winter. The seeds are dispersed by birds which eat the berries. Wasps, hoverflies, bumblebees and late-flying butterflies feed on the nectar. Ivy is not a parasite and does not strangle trees though a heavy growth can make a tree unstable. It is often said that ivy growing on walls will cause damage to the wall. This is not entirely correct. Walls in good condition are impenetrable to the roots but walls with loose mortar may be damaged.
For those of you who may have overindulged over the festive period, this tip may be of some interest to you. Wearing an ivy headband was said to prevent a person from getting drunk. The Roman god Bacchus, the god of intoxication, was often shown wearing a wreath of ivy and vine leaves. Ivy was a symbol of fidelity and priests would present a wreath of ivy to newly married couples. This is a tradition carried on today with some bridal bouquets still containing a sprig of ivy.
Holly is strongly associated with Christmas, featuring on many a Christmas card. With its spines and blood red berries, the plant had religious significance to early Christians and the Romans featured holly in their Saturnalia events. Earlier, the Celts held the holly and the oak as the two most important trees.
Most holly trees are either male or female; important to know, as only the female plants carry berries. Some garden forms are better than others. ‘JC vanTol’ and ‘Pyramidalis’,both varieties of Ilex aquifolium, are both self-fertile and good for berries but do have rather plain leaves. Contrary to legend, a good berry crop does not mean the tree can anticipate a hard winter but, rather, reflects the amount of sun earlier in the season. Variegated hollies tend to have fewer berries. One variegated holly named ‘Golden Queen’ is, confusingly, male!
Holly, along with other native plants, such as ivy, were used as decoration in the home but are less so now that other plants, such as bright red poinsettias, are available.
Robins, which used to be called Red-breasts, are also often seen on Christmas cards, possibly as Victorian postmen wore red jackets. In winter all Robins sing to defend individual territories, so ‘Cock Robin’ may actually be a hen. Some of the robins appearing in Scotland in winter will have crossed the North Sea earlier in the autumn.
As we all appreciate the changing of the seasons, have you ever wondered why leaves change colour in autumn? Autumn colours are the result of chemical reactions that occur as the leaves of deciduous trees die.
In summer, the trees use the green chlorophyll in their leaves to produce food from sunlight through a process called photosynthesis. As summer ends, the cooler weather and shorter days trigger them to stop producing chlorophyll. Other pigments can then become prominent. Carotenoid turns the leaf a golden yellow and anthocyanin produces a red hue.
Different species of trees contain varying amounts of these pigments, causing different shades of yellow, orange and red to be produced. British native trees tend to turn golden rather than red, with many of the most colourful autumn leaves produced on imported trees, such as American and Japanese maples.
The colours are not the same each year with environmental factors affecting the production of the pigments. A dry summer increases anthocyanin production leading to better reds and bronzes. Windy weather shortens the show, giving you lots of leaves to sweep up, whereas settled weather with cool nights prolongs it.
The intense blue trumpets of gentians are one of the glories of the autumn garden. These grow well in Scotland as they dislike alkaline soils and do require good levels of moisture during the warm summer months so you will need to water them in a dry spell. If your soil is very heavy they benefit from organic matter to open up the drainage –if this is not possible consider growing in ericaceous compost in a container. Some of the new varieties have been developed with container growing in mind as they are more compact than the older ones which tend to trail.
Most are forms or hybrids of Gentiana sino-ornata first introduced from Yunnan in China by George Forrest in 1904. The species is itself very variable.
More difficult to grow is the sky blue Gentiana farreri named after the well-known English rock gardener. Some of the sino-ornata hybrids are more vigorous pale blue types eg ‘Devonhall’. Several white cultivars are now available. You sometimes see forms with blue and white stripes but these seem to be unstable. ‘Eugens Allerbester’ is a double but an acquired taste!
Any with the word Silk in their names were bred at Aberconwy nursery in north Wales by Keith Lever as was ‘Gorau Glass‘ (best blue in Welsh). The have just introduced a very attractive sky blue with some farreri parentage named ‘Silken Star‘ This has been derived from the plant Alec Duguid introduced when at Edrom nursery.
The Berrybank series as well as more recent ones with Scottish place names were raised by Ian McNaughton and have been distributed by Macplants – based in Boggs Holdings near Pencaitland, East Lothian. ‘Balmoral’ and ‘Braemar’ both flower earlier than most. ‘The Caley’, the introduction named after the Caley, has proved to be a very floriferous late variety. ‘Oban’ is a nice white one and one of the newer ones, ‘Troon’, is a deep blue, almost purple.
By winter the plants turn brown and the old foliage can be taken off – new growth will push up in spring. These plants usually divide easily into small thongs which can then be grown on.
There is a huge variety of plants to provide late summer colour. Many are in the aster/daisy family. Michaelmas daisies are traditional herbaceous border plants. Many of the older cultivars are very prone to mildew, need staking and not worth persevering with. Several others in this family have yellow or reddish-brown flowers such as Rudbeckia ‘Goldsturm’, Helenium ‘Moerheim’ and Coreopsis cultivars. Also in the daisy family, but usually mauve, is the cone flower Echinacea and the taller purple Eupatorium, which prefers slightly damp conditions. Erigerons are very good at the front of the border. Good examples are the small but abundantly flowered E. karvinskianus or the large cultivar ‘Sea Breeze’.
As a contrast the Crocosmias (formerly montbretias) have iris shaped leaves and sprays of flowers. As well as the old orange forms, there are other colours available such as the bright red ‘Lucifer’. Hemerocallis also have strap like leaves and are still in flower. They grow anywhere and are available in a range of colours. In sunny and well sheltered spots try some of the blue Agapanthus. The deciduous varieties are usually hardier than the evergreens. The tall Anemone japonica (from China not Japan,) available in colours from white through pink, gives yet more contrast in leaves and flower form. Later still are the pink and red forms of Hesperantha which many still know as Schizostylis.
Many grasses are at their best as the flowering stems mature. Some look better on their own rather than mixed with other plants but do experiment to see what you prefer. Pampas grass, Cortaderia selloana, is the biggest of them all though dwarf forms are available. Stipa gigantea is also fairly tall and an elegant grass. Smaller but still graceful as they move in the wind are Stipa tenuissima ‘Pony Tails’or Hakonechloa.
Some shrubs incorporate well into largely herbaceous borders. The butterfly bush Buddleja comes in a series of colours from white through to deep purple. They can be treated as herbaceous by cutting the older branches hard back at the end of autumn.
Sedums like ‘Autumn Joy’ are all good late summer plants; some are attractive to bees, but butterflies seem to have trouble accessing some cultivars. Coloured leaves can add interest like the very easy to grow felt grey lamb’s lugs Stachys byzantina, while the red low growing Persicarias like ‘Darjeeling Red’, are also good at the front of a bed.
Specialist nurseries offer a much wider range of these plants and are always worth a visit or a look at their websites. One advantage of perennials is that most divide very easily allowing gardeners to bulk up their own beds or share with friends.
Why not pay a visit to Saughton Park in Edinburgh to see the impressive range of plants in the herbaceous borders. They might just provide the inspiration that you need.
Annual mixes are a way to brighten up public spaces or private gardens at relatively low cost. They are often referred to as wildflowers which is misleading as they often include non-native plants, such as orange Californian poppies, along with some native cornfield annuals such as blue cornflowers and red poppies, to give more variety. Cosmos is also often added to prolong the flowering period. Insects certainly make use of them.
If you wish to create a similar effect as the one in the picture you need to eliminate less desirable species such as thistles before sowing. To get a really good display in later years don’t rely on self-seeding but cultivate and sow afresh.
We are now in the peak time for roses with a great variety are now available. For formal beds or for showing, the classic hybrid teas such as ‘Peace’ are still unsurpassed, while floribundas such as ‘Iceberg’ are good for mass planting. Recent years have seen renewed interest in shrub roses which go well with other plants in mixed borders. The fact that some have good fragrance is another plus point. Newer varieties of these roses are the product of various crosses between species roses and modern bush types. The result is a wide mixture of shrubs of varying sizes and colours although they are usually quite large, reaching 5ft or 6ft in height. Most are tough and reliable. Many of them repeat flower unlike the wild species. The old- fashioned shape of the blooms look appropriate in cottage garden settings.
Lack of repeat flowering is not a problem with those that produce colourful hips. Good examples are Rosa glauca (formerly rubrifolia) with attractive red foliage and red hips following on from small pink flowers. If you have space, the tall Rosa moyesii, especially the form ‘Geranium’, has bright red hips. The well-known R. rugosa has cherry tomato like hips. Often seen in public landscape schemes, this has an unfortunate habit of trapping litter in its many prickles.
Of the traditional shrub roses, it is still worth growing some of the old moss roses with their unusual mossy growths on their sepals. Rosa mundi has stripes whilst ‘Zephirin Drouhin’ is the thornless rose with scented flowers, but it is prone to fungus problems. ‘Comte de Chambord’ is another good pink while ‘Reine de Violettes’ starts deep pink then takes on a purple tinge.
Of the newer hybrids, many raised by David Austin whose website is well worth a look, most repeat. ‘Princess Anne’ is a very floriferous dark pink, ‘Dame Judi Dench’ is apricot, ‘Gertrude Jekyll’ has very good scent, ‘ Darcey Bussell’ is deep red, ‘Bonica’ is pink and very reliable, ‘Red Coat’ has large single blooms whereas ‘Ballerina’ has lots of small flowers in clusters.
Always one of the features at Gardening Scotland, Meconopsis is one of those groups of plants with star quality. Though best known to gardeners as the big blue Himalayan poppies, there are other types. They come from upland areas in China, Tibet, Nepal and Bhutan so do well in many parts of Scotland, though they are not so happy in the drier eastern parts of the country. Usually thought of as woodland plants in this country, in the wild they are often found in alpine meadows or even scree slopes but always with adequate moisture in the growing season.
The big blue flowers of Meconopis baileyi/betonicifolia and hybrids are what attract most gardeners. Note: there has been considerable confusion over the names of these – for guidance look at the excellent website of the Meconopsis Group. All meconopsis like cool, humus rich soils with semi shade needed in the south of the UK. Some are infertile and must propagated by division. Even though some do set seed, such as the very popular cultivar ‘Lingholm’, division is considered the best method of propagation to get a good form. Meconopsis can be short lived if conditions are not to their liking. Many enthusiasts consider ‘Slieve Donard’ their favourite classic big blue poppy. Other blues include the early and very large ‘Mophead’ and the slightly purple ‘Barney’s Blue’. Other colour forms in this group include ‘Hensol Violet’ whilst ‘Marit’ is the best white.
The very tall M. napaulensis has attractive rosettes which will eventually throw up a giant red or yellow flower spike then dies after setting seed. The smaller red, M. punicea, is also monocarpic but the duller red, M. x cookei ‘Old Rose’ is perennial. M. quintuplinervia is a very attractive small species with lilac blue flowers, sometimes called the harebell poppy.
To obtain any of these plants go to a specialist nursery.
One meconopsis that is very easy to grow and can become a weed, is M. cambrica, the yellow Welsh poppy. It is native to parts of the UK though is very widespread in gardens where an orange form also occurs. Some botanists now classify it in a different genus, Papaver. Only plant it where you don’t mind if it self-seeds.