Wild flower of the week

& In flower now

There is always an interesting plant to see in Scotland.


Corylus avellana – Hazel

The catkins or lamb’s tails of the male Hazel, Corylus avellana, are prominent as the bushes are not yet in leaf. The smaller female catkins become nuts after being pollinated by the wind. Hazel was traditionally cut over or coppiced to produce rods. The flexible wood could be formed into spars, stakes, hurdles and furniture as well as firewood.

Hazel nuts attract many forms of wildlife, most notably squirrels.  Cultivated forms of hazel were selected for their nuts or cobs though some are hybrids with the closely related filbert.  Hazel was supposed to protect against evil spirits and water-diviners use it for their wands.  In medieval times it was a symbol of fertility.

‘Harry Lauder’s walking stick’ is a hazel with twisted stems. The twist is said to be due to a virus. First found in a hedge in Victorian times, the first garden plant came from a cutting planted in what E A Bowles called the ‘Lunatic Asylum’ at his well-known garden at Myddelton House, Middlesex.


In Flower Now – Winter Jasmine

Winter jasmine, Jasminum nudiflorum (as it flowers on leafless stems), is already in flower in many localities. It is so easy to grow that it is often taken for granted. It shouldn’t be, as it is such a useful and reliable garden plant.  It flowers over the winter months, grows in most soils, and is tolerant of both sun and shade. It is not a natural climber so does need support, unless you let it scramble over other bushes which is what it does in China where it was found in 1844 by the Scottish plant collector Robert Fortune.  Any shoot that touches the ground is likely to make roots and thus new plants. Pruning is done in spring by cutting back the old shoots to allow fresh growth to develop in time for next winter. Old plants can be rejuvenated by cutting away the top growth to encourage young shoots from the base.

Less immediately striking, as its flower are so small, are the forms of sweet or Christmas box, Sarcococca. The scent, however, makes up for the relatively insignificant white or pinkish flowers. Originally from China, these undemanding evergreen shrubs rarely grow more than a metre high. Plant near a path or doorway to enjoy the scent.



In flower now: Christmas houseplants

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 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 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. 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 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 window sills. 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.


Wild Flower of the Week: Spruce trees

Now the festive season is over thousands of Christmas tree are being recycled, many by local authorities who would otherwise have to deal with them as rubbish. Prince Albert is said to be responsible for introducing the custom of decorating Christmas trees to Britain from his native Germany in 1841. Most Christmas trees in the UK are the Norway spruce, Picea abies. Although now widespread in the UK, having been planted for forestry since the 16th century, it became extinct as a British native during the Ice Age. It is a common tree not just in Scandinavia, but other mountainous areas of Europe. Its dark green needles are attractive, though prone to dropping in warm rooms, and the strong branches make it an ideal tree to decorate.

However, the commonest tree in Scotland is another spruce from much further away. The Sitka spruce, Picea sitchensis, is native to coastal areas of northwest America and was introduced to Britain in 1831. It flourishes on damper and elevated sites and it has a very fast growth rate compared to other trees.  This means it can yield high volumes of timber in a short time. The yield class figure is used by foresters to describe each year’s growth per hectare of a tree species. Sitka spruce has a yield class of 14 cubic metres; a native oak can be as low as 4. This means that Sitka spruce only needs to grow for 40-60 years to reach its maximum timber potential.

Sitka has a grey tinge to its needles readily identifying it from the greener Norway spruce. It is less suitable as a Christmas tree as its needles are much pricklier. In forestry planation spruce trees grow close together, forming a dense canopy, so few plants can grow beneath them. The dense foliage does provide cover for mammals, and birds of prey may nest in the branches. Smaller birds such as the crossbill, chaffinch, goldcrest, coal tit and siskin also use spruce trees. Caterpillars of several moths which feed on the foliage include the spruce carpet, cloaked pug, dwarf pug and barred red. Seeds from the large drooping cones are eaten by birds and squirrels.



In flower now: Gentians

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 be prepared 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 for this purpose as they are more compact than the older ones which trail.

Most are forms or hybrids of G. 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 G. farreri named after the well-known English rock gardener.   Some of the sino-ornata hybrids are more vigorous, pale blue types e.g. ‘Devonhall’ and 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. ‘Balmoral’ and ‘Braemar’ both flower earlier than most. His introduction named after the Caley has proved to be a very floriferous late variety. ‘Oban’ is a nice white one. 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.


Wild Flower of the Week: Holly

Holly is a plant that 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 holly and the oak as the two most important trees and the Romans featured holly in their Saturnalia events.   Most holly trees are either male or female with only the females carrying berries.

Some garden forms are better than others. Ilex aquifolium ‘JC van Tol’ and ‘Pyramidalis’ are self- fertile and are good for berries but have rather plain leaves. Variegated hollies tend to have fewer berries while, just to confuse you, ‘Golden Queen’ is male! 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 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 be a hen. Some of the robins in Scotland in winter have crossed the North Sea earlier in the autumn.