Friday, 31 July 2015

Musk mallow

It seems to be a month for happening across plants with deeply cut leaves. This cheery customer has made its presence known in several gardens – sadly, not mine – over the past few weeks, having certainly found its way there of its own accord. If God loves a cheerful giver, then the gardener can spare the odd warm fuzzy for the generous self-sower, particularly in the case of one as pretty as Malva moschata f. alba, the white form of the musk mallow.

Standing at around 60cm high (two feet in old money), with five pure white, crepey-textured petals surrounding the typically exotic-looking pistil and stamen arrangement of the mallow and hollyhock family tinged, in this case, with the pale pink of the anthers. Although some of the flowers are born in the leaf axils, a characteristic of this plant is the collection of fat, round flower buds with pointed tips, opening in order from the outer edge towards the centre.

In the border, this achieves an effect of white, butterfly-like flowers floating over frothy fresh green foliage, in much the same way as Cosmos bipinnatus 'Purity', or one of the white flowered forms of Nigella damascene ('Miss Jekyll White', for example), while in height occupying a position somewhere between the two.

Weedy? Not particularly, it would seem, although its prowess at seeding itself about has been referred to above. I think its somewhat refined features might cause the discerning to refer to it being in possession of more ‘garden-worthy’ credentials than certain of its burlier relatives – certainly rather more genteel than Malva sylvestris with its whopping great leaves. Now there’s a plant that invites itself in, smokes your pipe, drinks your brandy and sticks its feet up on your table.

The white musk mallow is an altogether more restrained affair, albeit one that found its own way in uninvited. That said, you can be sure I’ll be saving seed as soon as it appears ripe.

Friday, 24 July 2015

Old lady plants

Let’s get something straight at the outset. I have no desire to disparage old ladies. Civilisation, in my opinion, has been built, sustained, and will long survive largely due to the influence of old ladies. Sadly though, and for reasons unfathmomable to me, old ladies don’t, on the whole, get to write history books, and so their part in the shaping of the modern world remains, for the most part, unacknowledged.

However, having thusly tabled my preemptive defence against a charge of disrespect towards the elderly and female, I find myself unable to deny that I have, on more than once occasion, sought to impugn the reputation of a group of ornamental annuals, perennials and shrubs by applying to them the soubriquet ‘Old Lady Plants’ – albeit a pattern of behaviour not seriously indulged in since childhood.

What qualifies as an Old Lady Plant? Anything with large blooms, the blousy, the frou-frou. The mophead hydrangea is an archetype, though the hollyhock and paeony fall comfortably into the same group. Somewhat confusingly, smaller flowered specimens are not excluded, so brightly coloured fuchsias, trailing dwarf campanulas and the charteuse splash of Alchemilla mollis would be equally welcome, as would any flower that you might find scenting soap, or drawer liners. Lavender, and Lily-of-the-valley, then.

But the characteristic possessed of the most excellent recommendation to my childish sense of logic, was that the plant should be found growing in the garden of the old lady who lived on the corner of the street in which I grew up. Old lady? She was probably sixty, if that. You have to hang around a bit longer to be an old lady these days. You can be a mad cat woman as soon as you like, though, unless you’re a feller. In which case, should you find yourself living on your own, you’d best get a dog if you want to avoid suspicion and abuse from the local ragamuffinry.

Looking back, I wonder if it was possible that I was trying to define cottage garden style, while never having heard of the concept? Or perhaps, at the very least, making some effort to distinguish this particular garden aesthetic from the other fashionable look of the seventies and eighties, the one heavily reliant upon bedding plants and pampas grass. I remember proudly tending rows of alyssum and african marigolds along the front edge of the narrow flower beds which edged our back lawn. I don’t remember anything except bare soil between those rows and the fence behind, except a deep red paeony at one end, and a choisya at the other, the latter of which, mum would say, wrinkling her nose, “smells of cats”.

The thing is, having looked with disdain upon these plants in my youth, I now love each and every one. Perhaps I’m slowly transforming into and old lady?

I think I probably flatter myself.


Thursday, 16 July 2015

Cut-leaf cranesbill


The rear third of my garden is a wilderness, in which long meadow grasses and wildflowers frolic with abandon. I imagine the neighbours must hate it – this being the only part of the garden they can see from their windows. Bill, on the other hand, loves it, sniffing about for traces of fox and cat, and self-medicating by consuming vast quantities of cleavers – which makes him immediately sick – and then reappearing with the fur around his muzzle ebellished with clusters of tiny green seed capsules. I know he will complain with plaintive whines as I pull these free, but the memory of this procedure never seems to deter him from repeated forays into the undergrowth.

The wildflowers here are, of course, not the kind of wildflower that anyone seems to want – certainly not to be found as constituents of the more fashionable of wildflower mixes you might find in a garden centre or online, but rufty tufty native fare. You know – weeds. So if goosegrass isn’t your thing, we can do you buttercup, dock, woundwort, rosebay willowherb, ribwort plantain, and several varieties of thistle. And nettles. Lots of nettles.

And romping through this lot a kind of wild geranium that I haven’t noticed here abouts before. I’m used to working in the company of Herb Robert, with its pink flowers and red stems like strawberry bootlaces (I’m noticing an increasing habit to draw my metaphors from either the confectioners or the cake shop), but what struck me most about this obvious relative of that worthy weed was the discrepancy in size between the leaves (up to two and a half inches round, and so heavily dissected that the lobes appear almost like antlers), and the pink flowers which, by comparison, are tiny. This is Geranium dissectum, the cut-leaf cransebill, and the disparity just mentioned appears ludicrous, like some comic character in a cartoon strip with a burly frame and shrunken head. But the flower itslef, with its is five heart-shaped, sugar-pink petals, contrasting with the noticably hairy sepals, is exquisite.

The Plants for a Future database records a whole host of medicinal uses, both internally and externally, and both the leaves and roots are rich in tannins, and can be used to create a brown dye. All parts of the plant are edible, though it’s probably not something you’d want to seek out as a delicacy.

It’s all gone over now, at least in my garden, doubtless a few weeks early due to the particuarly dry conditions. This is rather a shame as I’d have liked to have got some better pictures of it. Looks like I’ll have to wait until next year, though I have my camera ready in case I catch it lurking in the shade under a hedge somewhere before this summer’s out.