Monday, 29 April 2013

An uplifting afternoon

I have a cold. This is very annoying, as the light outside today is shining with an intensity not felt for many months; the sky alternating between sunny and overcast with dramatic, silver-fringed clouds, and the air thick with a cacophony of birdsong. By late afternoon everything in our west facing garden is backlit: the bamboos in the courtyard, the early white tulips lining the path, and most impressively the amelanchier, now looking its very best, every stem heavy with pale cream candelabras of pristine new flowers. It’s impossible to stay indoors feeling sorry for oneself so I plug my constantly running nostrils and make my way to the greenhouse for more sowing and potting up activity, while Bill lies on the lawn outside, making himself sick with an all-you-can-eat buffet of lawn weeds, chief among them the strap-like leaves of Plantago lanceolata. Perhaps he’s trying to tell me something, as the ribwort plantain is used medicinally for, amongst other things, alleviating respiratory problems, and is an effective expectorant. Seven years after beginning to carve out something resembling a garden from the blank, weed-strewn canvass we took on it still loves our garden – especially the grass paths – as not only is it more than happy to grow in compacted soil (earning it one of its many common names, ‘waybread’ for its habit of growing on paths), but also likes to seed itself into the much more open soil structure of the borders. Truth be told, although its ground hugging rosettes are something of a pain in what little lawn we have, when grown in open ground I rather like its leaves and look forward to seeing the dark flowerheads with their little creamy tonsures, which hover above the plant on slender stalks and sway with the breeze, reminiscent of a small sanguisorba. Prodigious they are if allowed to set seed but, in the border, they’re not hard to pull out. I think I shall miss them if ever I become so efficient at home that I manage them out of our garden, although that day shows no sign of arriving.

But there’s something far more exciting which has drawn me away from my desk. These past few weeks I’ve been peering into the gloom below the pyracantha hedge, looking for signs of life in the leaf mould. Ever since I carefully snipped off last years mature leaves at the beginning of the month I’ve been waiting in excited anticipation for the unfurling of delicate, two-tone yellow flowers accompanied by heart-shaped leaves on impossibly thin, wiry petioles. The strong yet delicate and airy structure of the plant suggests some tiny eccentric aeronautical construction – you could almost be forgiven for thinking that the epimedium was designed to take to the air and fly. But the levitation for which this plant is known is of an entirely more earthy nature, with its reputation as an aphrodisiac. In a mood of uncharacteristic gentility I had decided that the nickname ‘horny goat weed’ for some reason referenced the horns on a goat’s head. It doesn’t, as another name, ‘Randy Beef Grass’, should have told me. Sold in tablet form as a the Chinese herbal medicine equivalent of Viagra, the uplifting effect was allegedly first observed in his charges by a Chinese goat herd, and is attributable to the compound icariin in which the plant is rich. Enough. Of more interest to the gardener are the properties of cultivars which provide robust and evergreen ground cover – many exhibiting attractive bronze markings on the leaves – several of the hardier types able to cope with dry shade. I have a fairly generic, but reliably hardy Epimedium x versicolour 'Sulphureum', whose leaves should emerge tinged with red, although mine refuse to, an annoyance which I feel may be due to the almost complete lack of any direct sunlight. I’ll move a clump this autumn into a more exposed position to test this theory next spring. In the meantime, I have a long shopping list of cultivars to acquire, starting with E. x rubra with its red bordered pale yellow flowers, looking for all they’re worth like something you’d buy by the quarter from a glass jar. Probably best not to eat them, though. The kind of sweeties that would keep a chap up all night.

Rather impressionistic due to the photographer wobbling about in low light