When we come to planning our flower gardens we often pay a lot of attention to the various colours we want to use, but do not give so much thought to the role texture can play, and how important the form of foliage and flower is.
The solid blocks of colour offered by most bedding plants stand at one extreme of the range of floral effects - the bright gold, yellow and orange shades of marigolds might be very appropriate in some places but hideously out of place in others – while the lighter effect of foamier flowers are at the opposite end of the scale.
At the moment the Head Gardener has a couple of plants of one of my favourite of these flowers out in her shaded garden at the moment – some two meter high examples of the glorious meadow rue, Thalictrum delavayi. This is one of over 100 species of Thalictrum found in the wild – no-one seems to be quite sure exactly sure how many species there are, and the boundaries between species are poorly understood. They are not related to the true rues, but are members of the buttercup family, and mainly found in damp and areas. The forms most commonly grown in the garden hail from meadowland and prefer garden soils that are on the heavy side.
They are a bit of a conundrum really, as they tend to have very dainty foliage – maidenhair fern-like in many species – which might lead the gardener to think they are frail, but they are remarkably hardy plants. They flower late in the season and thus add colour to the woodland garden at a time when it is slightly bereft of interest.
The Head Gardener’s plants give a run of drama through the spring and early summer as they prepare to flower. Over the winter they die down to become totally dormant. Early spring sees them kick into life again; forming a clump of fine ‘maidenhair’ foliage from which the flower stalks will eventually emerge. These shoot up and branch as they go until they form a graceful framework. The flower buds are to be found at the end of each of these branches. At first green and in little clusters, they eventually turn lilac and strike out on their own, each unfolding to become a perfect lilac parasol, with creamy white anthers dangling from pendulous stamens.
The double form of the species, ‘Hewitt’s Double’, has some of the showiest flowers any of the meadow rues, carrying its tight, pompom-like clusters of lilac-mauve flowers atop wiry, purple tinted stems. There is also a pretty single white flowered form of this species, but I think the mauves are the best ones to go for.
Thalictrum aquiegiifolium is earlier flowering, with thousands of heads of tiny blooms that make a fluffy head of soft mauve in nearly summer, while T. flavum has pale yellow flowers..
These plants are all easily grown. Any good soil will do, preferably in a sunny position or in dappled shade. They need adequate drainage, as a site that is waterlogged, even for part of the year, may prove fatal.
The natural tiered shape of the Thalictrum is spoilt by heavy staking. It is important to allow them to be themselves. Give them the protection of a more substantial neighbour on their windward side and plant them among other herbaceous plants that can lend a shoulder to lean on. If you do need to stake them try to use as thin and unobtrusive a stake as you can.