Monday, 26 November 2012

Passions and parrotias

There’s a garden that I look after which has it all. A sunken patio surrounded by cottage garden beds, clipped evergreen shrubs, lichen covered stone and a large pond complete with jetty, still water reflecting the ghostly white stems of birches standing tall and silent at the edge. Beyond the artfully hidden compost bins the end of the garden disappears into mature oak woodland. The whole place is quite magical, so much so that in all honesty the prospect of tending it might have proved too much for me to bear had not the previous gardener moved out of the area. A fortuitous day indeed – certainly for me. And, who knows, perhaps also for him. That jetty can be quite slippery.

In my experience gardeners are often outwardly serene individuals in whom passion runs deep and, whilst on occasion the outer serenity may be occluded by a somewhat warmer front, the passion is invariably present. Snowdrops appear to cause normally respectable people to behave with quite irrational zeal, and I’ve witnessed genteel ladies positively foam at the mouth over a tray of Mexican succulents. All gardeners have something which will stir up this fire within. In my own case the trigger is usually a tree of one sort or another; perhaps a majestic, centuries-old oak, silent chronicler of generations and home to a myriad tiny lives, or a knobbly-kneed swamp cypress dipping its feet in the river while unfurling soft new green needles in spring.

The garden in question is stocked with some particularly fine specimens, although not ostentatiously so. Three trees in particular are prone to quicken the pulse whenever I see them – a pair of parrotias and a liquidambar, all of which have been a blaze of colour these past few weeks. The American Sweet Gum (Liquidambar styraciflua) is a medium to large sized tree with glossy leaves which in shape resemble those of a maple (on the tree it’s easy to tell the two apart, as all acers have leaves directly opposite each other on the stem, whereas on the liquidambar the leaves are staggered, or alternate). There is a wonderful example in the gardens at Scotney Castle, where the ground by the boathouse is covered with a carpet of yellow and red leaves every autumn.

The Persian Ironwood (Parrotia persica) is a more splendid tree even than this, with three features of note. Firstly, a shapely trunk with attractive grey brown dappled bark. Secondly, fantastic autumn colour, with leaves in vibrant golds, orange and red. And lastly – and most wonderfully – tiny filaments of deepest red which materialise to clothe the bare branches in mid winter, reminiscent of the flowers of its relative the witch hazel (Hamemelis sp.).

Of course, all of this means that for much of November I’ve been knee deep in leaves in this garden. I don’t mind. I’m just glad I didn’t have to resort to anything desperate to get here.

Photograph of Parrotia persica flowers (top) © Phillip Merritt