Scabiosa caucasica ‘Perfecta’

It has been a rare year: snow and frosts lingered into April, and the first week of May was greeted with torrential raining and flooding. Until yesterday, it has been hot and dry ever since, and not just hot for England, but actually, really, hot. For the last three weeks, the temperature in my garden has been 28 degrees Celsius/82F by ten o’clock in the morning; there have been evenings when it was still 30C/86F at ten o’clock at night. It has not felt like England. On the edge of the demesne, there are mature trees in distress. Some beeches, Fagus sylvatica, are in their autumn coats, whilst some limes, Tilia cordata,  have been dropping leaves. In time, I expect they will present with other underlying problems – a fungal infection, most probably, perhaps root or bark damage; they were already weakened in other words, and unable to cope with the drought. I walk the boundaries twice a day with the hound, expecting to see large boughs on the ground, but so far, nothing. Yesterday, it rained, and it rained persistently. It seems to have rained through the night and it is raining now. The petrichor rose from the earth like a prayer ascending. I breathed it in and filled my lungs with moist air like balm. I, the gardener, have withered under the unrelenting sun as much as the plants have, but there is always work to be done.

Fortunately, the English garden is catholic, and the English climate, being habitually temperate, allows the cultivation of plants from across the globe and many different habitats.  Some tolerate the English weather and will live rather than thrive, whilst others grow more vigorously than they do at home. The majority of these postcards, to date, have, as their subjects, plants which are native to other lands. This week’s is no exception. Scabiosa caucasica is native, as the name suggests to the Caucus regions of what we now call Turkey and Iran. Its common name is the pincushion flower, but there are others who are better suited to that nomen, such as Knautia macedonica. It may not have rained for more than forty days and forty nights, yet these plants in the garden are show-stoppers. Our unusual summer must be more akin to the temperatures they enjoy and they are thriving. The catalogues list it as reaching 70cm/28″, but this year they are pushing 1m/36″. The flower, fully 5cm/2″ in diameter is a beautiful lavender hue which simply adores the brightest of sunlight. It gives throughout the day, in truth – it is wonderful at noon, and lovely in a different way at dusk. There is also a white form of the ‘Perfecta’ cultivar, although I have never needed it. If I had one complaint then it regards its relative scentlessness. The pollinating insects have no such qualms – the flowers are often weighed down on their long stems by fat bumblebees feeding deeply.

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Chimonanthus praecox

Wintersweet is one of winter’s compensations: a reminder that life does not stop in the dark, short days, it merely slows down, and for some species, it starts. In each flower, the next generation is conceived, and with the fertile seed, life begins. I first encountered Chimonanthus on a cold January evening in Oxford. I smelt it before I saw it, and followed my nose some 20m/60′ before finding the source, tucked against the old city wall. Even then I was confused as the scent hardly seemed stronger up close to the shrub than it had at some distance: it was equally diffuse throughout its range. The flowers are visually insignificant, and I concluded that whatever it was, it must be pollinated by moths, some species of which fly in even the coldest of the winter months. In fact, this Chinese native is pollinated by beetles, those industrious creatures which seem to have a nose for so many good things.

In China it has been cultivated for over one thousand years, being highly valued for its scent and its usefulness in traditional medicine. Its cultivation spread to Korea and Japan, and in the modern era to the USA and Britain. It was worth the wait.

Wintersweet is praecox and the flowers are borne on bare twigs, although sometimes the last of the golden autumn leaves are still clinging on when it starts to bloom. The flower has waxy, translucent petals, the outer being pale yellow whilst the inner petals are pale yellow with dark red markings. They are a little more than a centimetre across and hang their heads like a shy child. Only the scent catches the attention. The scent is sweet enough to warrant the name, certainly, and slightly fizzy, like sherbet.

In Oxford it was growing in a shady spot against an east-facing stone wall and it was rather untidy. In our garden here there is a mature shrub, growing freely. It has reached 4m/14′ in all directions and has a round, fairly open-branched habit. In leaf it is not that decorative, and it is better suited to a larger garden than ours where the burden of putting on a show can be shared by many plants. Or perhaps the edge of a woodland garden where I would plant it with other winter-flowering shrubs such as Oemleria and Hamamelis. Hamamelis, witch hazel, has spidery flowers which likewise are borne on bare twigs, whilst Oemleria tends to flower just as the bright green leaves are breaking bud. All three share scent characteristics, being light, diffuse, and clean-smelling. The scents harmonise, creating a pleasingly intriguing cocktail. Visually, all three are modest, which makes their companionship easy. In the garden here our wintersweet is planted next to an equally mature Viburnum bodnantense ‘Dawn’. It too flowers in winter, but the marriage is not a happy one. The Viburnum’s scent is heavier and sweeter, almost cloying, and it overwhelms the delicate wintersweet.

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