Cotoneaster x watereri

We have passed the autumn equinox. The year grows old and the light fails. In the garden, my eyes search out all sources of colour, of light, of warmth, of comfort. The autumn leaves are splendid this year; the trees being stressed from the drought, followed by some decent frosts to hone the colours. Their distress, physically expressed, is my comfort.  But, I suppose my eyes are searching for signs of life, even so, not the senescent leaves of trees and shrubs falling into slumber. I am seeing the berries: the berries are alive. Within them, future lives are stored in seed. The berries give life to others also. As I walked across the demesne this morning, the first flight of Turdis pilaris, fieldfares, filled the sky. They will have flown in from Scandinavia or Russia to feast on the bounty of berries here. The first sighting is one of the mileposts of the year – it tells me, we are here and all is as it should be. I expect cold weather within the next month – they are the prophets of winter. It is a reminder too, that latitude is relational. The British Isles are south and temperate for millions of migrants every year. They come here to live. Political territories, borders,  walls – these things are meaningless to them. Life is the imperative: and we are just fleas on the dog. A dog endures many generations of fleas.

The berried plants catch my attention. I see the hedgerow Crataegus monogyna, hawthorn, with fresh eyes. The humble Ruscus aculeatus, butcher’s broom, is transformed from a filler-in to something commanding attention. But, my particular attention is caught by the titular subject, Cotoneaster x watereri. Like the Ruscus, it is the chorus to the garden for most of the year. It provides body and depth, seriousness, possibly. Yet, for most of the year, like the god of the German theologians, it is experienced as an absence more often than not.

Type ‘artificial shrub’ into a search engine and numerous sites selling plastic plants will be generated. Cotoneaster x watereri is classed as an artificial shrub. Its parents may never have met in the wild – indeed, the parentage is disputed, or undetermined, at least. But, I feel its existence challenges our terminology in the same way that calling anything unnatural does. Surely, only natural things can exist. I stand with Terence, as so often before: Homo sum, humani nihil a me alienum puto. My translation is free – I am a person, one of all of us, I recognise all of you. We are the same despite the differences.

I love Cotoneaster x watereri for its own virtues too. The arching branches are elegant. The ratio of leaf to berry is perfect to the eye, just beautifully balanced and proportioned, however complicated its breeding. The promise of the life in its berries gives me hope. A full life is a generous one.


Parthenocissus tricuspidata

This week’s postcard is all about identity. Parthenocissus tricuspidata, Boston Ivy, is not what it seems. It is not from Boston on either side of the Atlantic ocean, nor is it ivy. It is a native of Japan, Korea, and parts of China. Given its ability to reach 30m/100′ in the UK, I expect it has spread widely in any similarly temperate climate. The tricuspidata, which describes the leaf shape, is the easiest part of its identity to pin down, meaning three – toothed. Except it isn’t, as Parthenocissus tricuspidata is highly variable in form. Some have five teeth, whilst remaining entire, whilst some have five, but are so indented (bitten) that they start to resemble its cousin, Parthenocissus quinquefolia, the Virginia Creeper. The Virginia Creeper is native to Virginia, but also to Canada in the north and Guatemala to the south. To further complicate matters, Parthenocissus refers to ‘virgin ivy’.  As aforementioned, it isn’t ivy, unless ivy is taken to mean a generic identifier for any climbing plant as, I believe, Coca Cola has managed to achieve in parts of the world for any carbonated drink. I have not studied Greek, hence I do not know where to divide the compound. The Parthenon in Athens is the temple complex devoted to the virgin goddess Athena, though.

It is one of the most useful of climbing plants. It adheres to walls with little pads which bind by a method of secreting Calcium carbonate – the stuff of snails’ shells and pearls. It is a chemical bond, rather than a physical penetration, unlike ivy, Hedera helix. These pads do no harm to the wall and the presence of the plant only benefits the wall. We return to the realms of the umbrella-parasol, the cloister. In a hot climate, the presence of the climber on the wall significantly reduces cooling costs. Not only does it insulate the wall from direct sunlight and the ambient temperature, the evaporation of the transpiration stream – the flow of water from the roots out through the lenticels of the leaves – also causes cooling. In cold climates, the presence of the plant, even in its winter, un-leafed form insulates the wall and reduces heating costs. In both climates, and at all times of year, it provides aural insulation – it softens sound, making it invaluable in enclosed spaces of heavy traffic, pedestrian or otherwise.

Those of a delicate nature might not welcome it on their dwelling. It is rampant and needs to be kept in check routinely. Much of the fault lies with the human agent who plants it though, expecting it to stay content with a 5m/16′ x 4m/14′ wall, when it will climb to six times that. But, it also provides a home for insects and spiders, so confronts us with the reality that the superficial choices that we make determined on form, colour or affordability, have unforeseen consequences. The world is full of other lives and needs and we ignore them at our cost.



Salvia guaranitica

The garden is exhausted. I walk on paths strewn with yellow poplar leaves with their unique scent which I forget year to year. But, when I smell it afresh, it brings every autumn I can remember to mind. I find it re-assuring – it situates me in the passing of the seasons and the passing of my life. By the ponds, the large leaves of the Gunnera manicata – a Brazilian native – look ragged and tired, and soon will need to be put to bed for the winter. Under the beeches, squirrels forage franticly for the mast. Everything is as it should be.

Then, rounding a corner, I come to a bed of Lobelia tupa (devil’s tobacco) and red and blue Salvias in full display, as if winter is just a fairytale to frighten children. It is a last shout of summer echoing into autumn carrying memories of a hot sun. The Salvia guaranitica catches my eye, especially. It is also known as the anise-scented sage, for the smell of the crushed leaves, and the hummingbird sage. What a sight it must be in its native Latin America, growing to its full height of 2.5m/8′, abuzz with the tiny birds sipping its nectar. The Salvias in my bed are a more modest 1.5m/5′, but still impressive. Salvia guaranitica has a running rootstock and spreads into drifts of colour. It is only hardy down to -5 Celsius though, so only a series of mild winters will allow the clump to develop any size. When I gardened in the far north of England, beyond Hadrian’s Wall, it was a plant which we kept alive from one year to the next by taking cuttings and over-wintering it in a heated glasshouse. We would plant it out with the other exotics towards the end of May or the beginning of June when the risk of hard frosts had passed. We had light frosts in September this year, just enough to blacken the leaves of the even more tender Dahlias and ruin their flowers, but the Salvias have endured them.

I am not sure which cultivar I have growing here. I think ‘Black and Blue’ is most probable. ‘Blue Enigma’ is a useful plant in the garden for those seeking that elusive true blue with no red in it. These tall sages are most effective when massed together informally with companions of similar habit. The Chilean Lobelia tupa, being more rigid provides a useful spine to the planting, whilst the Argentine Verbena bonariensis (syn. V. patagonica) brings a different flower form to the border.


Crataegus coccinea

The scarlet hawthorn sits in the garden like the timpani of an orchestra. For much of the year, all the action, all the noise and excitement seems to be provided by showier plants – floriferous roses, or the herbaceous perennials which rise from nothing to fill the garden with colour and scent throughout summer. But, just as the garden is exhausted and it is time to cut the other plants down to their crowns, or to prune the roses severely, there is the scarlet hawthorn in its autumn dress, all flaming gold and abundant large red berries. There are few more pleasing sights on a bright, frosty day with the low sun illuminating the tree’s crown. On a dull, overcast or rainy day, the scarlet hawthorn and other deciduous heroes seem to be the only sources of colour and light to lift the spirits.

Crataegus coccinea is a useful tree in the garden. It is genuinely small, as opposed to being small for the first ten years before turning into a monster like so many other ‘small trees’ of the catalogues. When mature, it reaches 7.5m/25 feet tall and, in truth, it is its round-headed nature which is more likely to cause a problem in a city garden as it will grow as broad as it does tall. I enjoy plants which give and give again at different times of year; the scarlet hawthorn is generous. In spring it is covered with white, slightly sour-scented blossom which is loved by the insect pollinators. In summer, it settles down to a reliable green – the sort of background noise in a garden which is only noticed when it is absent. In autumn, the leaves turn gold before they fall. I believe that in their native New England, the deeper cold turns the leaves to red and even to purple. The berries are a valuable food for birds, birds which may have nested in its crown, protected by its 5cm/2″ thorns. Even in winter, the scarlet haw continues to give, to us and to other creatures. I find the fissured bark visually pleasing. Ladybirds and other hibernating insects find it homely, which in turn brings tits and numerous insectivorous birds in search of a meal. I have spent many a happy coffee time, wrapped against the cold, watching the sharp-eyed birds flitting from twig to twig, picking the crevices for food. Like other hawthorns, the bark of the previous year’s growth ripens through the cold months, gaining a deep red lustre. Slowly, in the cold chemistry of the tree’s stored energy, the buds ripen and swell with the promise of life. These changes, expressed by the tree, are fundamental to the timbre of the garden as a living space as, indeed, are its movements, and the movements of the creatures which are drawn to it.

When first I encountered Crataegus coccinea, it was by a different name, C. pedicellata. The two former species have been shown to be one species. Coccinea, being the older name, takes precedence. It is a more accurate description of the plant, and I should be less reluctant about this change than I am.


Cucurbita pepo

I have picked the last of this summer’s courgettes and pulled up the plants. Although the plants are still flowering gamely, the shortening days and dropping temperatures ensure that little will come of them. Besides, as the growing season wears on, courgettes always seem to suffer from mildew and the once handsome palmate leaves are now mottled, grey, and tattered.

I bought a packet of seed which contained six different varieties – three were the ‘traditional’ baton type, one was round, and two were patty pans. As courgettes are very reliable germinators, I soon had more plants than ground in which to grow them, and as each plant can reach over 1m/3′ across, it is very easy to run out of space. I gave away as many plants as I could, then resorted to planting the spares in the flowerbeds. If life is willing, it seems wrong not to help it thrive. I chose my packet of seed for the varieties of colour and form, but my understanding was slight. Each type matured at a different rate and fruited with variable generosity. ‘Ronde de Nice’ fruited quickly and abundantly, but ended before the others. ‘Yellow Scallop’ was slow and shy and clearly needed an earlier start, more heat, or a balmier autumn. In another season with different conditions, the varieties might perform differently, but that is the virtue of diversity – there will be a harvest.

The abundance of plants quickly turned into a glut of berries, which is what courgettes are, botanically speaking. The ‘pepo’ in the name refers to a berry formed from the swollen ovary of the flower. In the kitchen, I settle all fruit-vegetable distinctions by the Yorkshire method: fruit can be eaten with custard. Courgettes became a twice-daily feature of my diet and I scoured my recipe books for new ways of preparing them. A favourite has been from the Moro cookbook and involves sautéing them with onion, pine nuts, and raisins – simple yet delicious. Still, the supply outstripped demand and I have adapted chutney recipes to include more courgettes. The freezer is filled with variations on ratatouille which will bring memories of summer sun through the dark, cold days of winter. I even became a courgette pest, badgering friends, neighbours, tradesmen who came to work at the house to take courgettes away with them, and still there have been too many.

And yet, this week or next week, when I have eaten or processed this final picking of courgettes, I will miss them. Cucurbita pepo, courgettes, zucchini, originate in the Americas, as do tomatoes, potatoes and chillies, and although exotic, they have become such an essential part of my diet and of my English vegetable garden, that summer would not be the same without them.


Cydonia oblonga

Quince is an unruly, untidy tree. It spreads outwards almost as much as it grows upwards and easily reaches 4m/14′ in both directions. Its branches crisscross and weave through each other in a most undisciplined manner. This time last year I was in the Potager du Roi at Versailles where I happened upon two quince trees which had been ‘trained’. The main trunk had been stopped at around 1m/3′ and four main branches had been directed outwards and upwards like a goblet, these in turn being stopped at 3m/10′ long. The bones of the structure were still visible, but tangled around them in a cloud of fury, the trees were growing as they pleased. Several golden pear-like fruit were hidden among the leaves. I leaned in close to smell them.

What is the smell of quince? It is green, fresh, cool, and constant at its base, then there is an elusive sweet intrigue which grows stronger as they ripen. Place some in a bowl and they scent a room pleasantly, whilst looking magnificent. It is this aromatic quality which makes quince so valuable for cooking. Constance Spry has an excellent recipe for ‘Partridges with Quince’ in her eponymous 1956 tome. Quinces are hard and bitter when raw, but transform into a soft, silky, delicately fragrant and delicately pink elixir when cooked. It is alleged that they can be bletted like medlars, but, as with medlars, I remain unconvinced.

The immature fruit are covered in a grey-ish fur which brushes off to reveal the golden skin beneath. Ancient texts are gloriously vague and at times contradictory, which leaves me free to claim that the fabled golden apples of the Hesperides were quinces. This was the prize which Aphrodite received in the divine beauty contest which sparked the Trojan War. The ancient Greeks thought the trees sprang up from her footsteps, and this association with love and fertility endures in the Balkan tradition of planting Cydonia to mark the birth of a baby.

Quince has previously enjoyed a higher cultural and culinary status in the UK than it does currently. It was an early introduction, recorded first in 1275AD when Edward I planted four at the Tower of London. It was a traditional planting in apple and pear orchards, a practice which was exported to the colonies of New England, but which fell from favour in old England. Its time may be returning given the fashion for Middle Eastern cookery and a broadening taste for exotic aromatics.

It is not a difficult tree to grow and tolerates a wide range of soils so long as they are not prone to water-logging. The simple white five-petalled flower (this is a member of the rose family), is borne early so can be prone to frost damage, and the fruit need a good summer to ripen fully, so a sheltered west or southwest aspect is probably best. The spreading habit of the quince makes it difficult to accommodate in small gardens, although there are more quinces growing in gardens than first meets the eye. Quince A and Quince B are the most common rootstocks for cultivated pears.


Oenothera lindheimeri

Beans may run or climb, Thymus serpyllum creeps, but Oenothera lindheimeri dances. She has been waving her long slender arms for months now and will continue to do so into October. There has been a significant drought this year, yet our heroine has flourished. In fact, I think she has excelled. She drifts through the borders, carrying her white butterfly flowers along her stems. The cultivar here is ‘Whirling Butterflies’ and the name fits. She stands at 1.2m/4′ tall, but all that growing has been since April. There was snow in April and frost throughout May and I had little hope that she would endure it: I checked her crown every few days, looking for life and not finding it. Yet here she is, beautiful and defiant. I expect, like so many other arid natives, it is not the cold which kills, but the damp island maritime winters of the British Isles.

In the English garden, this native of southern Louisiana and Texas is a natural friend with Verbena bonariensis which is common throughout South America. Their flowering period coincides and they have a similar lightness to their touch. The Verbena’s stems are also slender, but, unlike the Oenothera’s, quite rigid, so it is a useful plant which can provide support by stealth to its airier companions in the border. Aster x frikartii ‘Monch’ is another companion. Again, the fairly stiff stems help to provide support, whilst the lesser height and greater size of the flower introduces contrast. Its colouring is harmonious. ‘Monch’ will flower from mid-August until the end of the season.

When I was training, Oenothera lindheimeri was called Gaura lindheimeri. I have a strong affection for her old name, Gaura, from the Greek, meaning ‘superb’. I find Oenothera difficult to say, but it is more than that (the ‘O’ is silent and the ‘e’ is short and hard). I realise that I remember her name, in part at least, because of the rhythm of the syllables. The old rhythm has stuck, the pattern is formed, and it is difficult to break. I have the same problem with Datura which is now Brugmansia, and Crataegus pedicellata which is now C. coccinea. When I meet these old friends whilst out walking, I greet them with the name by which I first knew them and then correct myself. It is as if the world is shaped differently to how I remember it and I wonder if this is how dementia feels. Or parenthood, perhaps, as the child matures. I guess time may tell, but I expect I will have forgotten by then. And, finally, when I was training, Oenothera was, and still is, Evening Primrose, a course-foliaged plant with a hard and harsh yellow flower. Or, in other words, the antithesis of my delicate dancer.