Wild flower of the week

& In flower now

There is always an interesting plant to see in Scotland.


Wild Flower of the Week – Cow Parsley and Hemlock

There are several wild flowers with white or, occasionally, yellow flowers held in upright umbels.  Although the Umbelliferae have now been renamed Apiaceae by botanists, umbellifer is still a useful English word to describe these plants. The commonest is Cow Parsley, Anthriscus sylvestris (see picture above).  As the name indicates, it likes light shade in open woodland although it is also frequent along hedgerows and banks. It is a short lived but vigorous grower which has increased due to enrichment of many verges by fertiliser run off from fields.

 Conium maculatum

Children often used the hollow stems and seeds of Cow Parsley as pea shooters. This would not be a good idea with the umbellifer shown in the photograph above which is Hemlock, Conium maculatum.  One of the most poisonous plants in Europe, it was used in the past as a method of execution – most famously with Socrates. It likes disturbed ground and damp soil, so is often found on field margins or by the coast. It tends to have a rank smell and the stems have purple blotches, but these may not be visible unless you look closely. The family also contains many important garden vegetables and herbs such as carrot, parsnip, fennel and parsley.


In Flower Now – Clematis montana

Clematis montana has white flowers, though it is most often seen as one of its pink forms.  It is a vigorous and easy to grow climber although, as with any clematis, it needs some support to get up a wall. As it is so vigorous it can easily cover an ugly shed (very useful) or climb a tree. It is much less likely to be affected by disease than the large-flowered clematis.  Pruning is only needed to keep it within bounds and should be done as soon as the flowers fade to allow it to make new growth for next spring’s blooms.

Good forms of C. montana var. rubens include ‘Elizabeth’, which has a good pink colour and a slight scent, while ‘Tetrarose’ is a deeper mauve-pink shade with bronze foliage. C montana var. grandiflora has very large white flowers and like most cultivars is scented.  There are double forms and some with twisted petals – an acquired taste!


Prunus spinosa – Blackthorn

Blackthorn, Prunus spinosa, is distinctive in early spring with white flowers against black branches that do not yet have leaves. The plant typically suckers to form thorny thickets.

Later in the year Blackthorn carries purple fruit which give its alternative name of Sloe. Sloe gin is traditionally made from fruit picked in autumn after the first frost. Each berry is pricked – traditionally with a thorn from the bush- and a jar is filled half way with the berries. Gin is added along with sugar and further flavour comes from cloves or cinnamon.  There is a well-known brand of cider is named after Blackthorn, but it is made from apples. Blackthorn is also traditionally used for making walking sticks.

The Cherry Plum or Myrobalan, Prunus cerasifera, starts to flower even earlier than Prunus spinosa but has some leaves on greener twigs. It is often used in hedges and there is a purple leaved form which is common in gardens. The fruits of the Cherry Plum are red.


Wildflower of the Week – Wild Daffodils

The yellow trumpets of daffodils brighten spring in gardens, on roadsides and in parks during March and April. But these are usually larger garden varieties. Our native daffodil is smaller than most garden varieties. It was known as the ‘Lent lily’ or ‘Easter lily’ since it often blooms then, though botanically it Is not a true lily. Once abundant in parts of England and picked for markets, these wild flowers are now much rarer, having declined during the 19th century.

In Scotland they can be seen in Falls of Clyde Scottish Wildlife Trust reserve. Most are Narcissus pseudonarcissus with narrow, grey-green leaves and pale yellow petals surrounding a darker yellow trumpet giving a two-tone look. Though William Wordsworth wrote about ‘A host of golden daffodils’ the Welsh Tenby daffodil N. p. obvallaris is more truly gold than the Lake District flowers.

Wild daffodils are relatively short and form clumps, carpeting the ground. The plants are poisonous and therefore resistant to deer and rabbits.

The Latin name comes from the story of Narcissus who had many admirers, including the nymph Echo. Angered at his refusal she made him fall in love with his own reflection so he wasted away until he died. The Scottish anthropologist Sir James George Frazer wrote in ‘The Golden Bough’ (1890) that the myth originated from the belief that man’s soul is situated in his reflection. Hades the Greek god of the underworld captured Persephone as she was picking daffodils in the Elysian Fields. Daffodils were associated with death and used in wreaths and planted on graves.In the Christian faith it is linked to the Virgin Mary and is even occasionally referred to as Mary’s Star.


In Flower Now – Crocus

Unlike snowdrops, crocus come in a variety of colours. The large and later flowering Dutch forms are the best-known, often planted in drifts along verges or in public parks. Most are mixed colours but using a single colour can be very effective.  The smaller and slightly earlier flowering hybrids of C. chrysanthus such as ‘Blue Pearl’, ‘Cream Beauty’ and the white ‘Ard Schenk’ are all well worth growing.    The small purple C. tommasinianus will self-seed readily. C. sieberi ‘Tricolor’ is unusual but quite easy to grow.

Crocus have an advantage over daffodils in grass as their foliage is less obvious as it dies down after flowering.   It is essential to allow the foliage to die back naturally so the corms will be strong enough to flower next year.


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.

*I am reliably informed that the twisted hazel was first discovered in a hedgerow at Frocester, near Stroud in Gloucester in 1863.


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.

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