Sunday, July 27, 2008

Too subtle for words!

It is an unwritten rule of gardening that the more we garden the more refined out tastes become. We eschew the bright gaudy flowers we adored when we started gardening in favour of more delicate colours and simpler forms.
It is, I think, part of a western belief that simple forms and toned-down colours are the height of sophistication. Japanese taste is sometimes held up as an ideal, people citing the wonderful contemplative gardens of the Japanese temples and courts as exemplars of sophisticated refinement.
They might not have ever seen a Japanese seed catalogue, not photographs of Japanese and Chinese public gardens, redolent with the worst excesses of “public gardening” imaginable – the strongest colour clashes and the most strident floral designs. Keep an eye out for the plantings in Chinese public gardens during the Olympic Games. I have seen a taste of some of these and they are gloriously bizarre and as far from sophisticated as it is possible to get.
I guess my tastes have changed over the years. When I first gardened I loved bright and bold cactus plants, and grew many of them in my garden. I also loved the bold Tall Barded Irises my grandparents cultivated, with every colour imaginable except true red. Like most men, I liked the flowers to be as big as possible, and the brighter coloured they were they more I liked them. I loved two-toned roses like ‘Raspberry Ice’ and grew pink and red dahlias for summer.
Now I grow softer coloured plants in the main, although I do like some colour still, and will often sneak some bright flowers into the picking garden, so I can have them inside.
Among the few plants that are in flower at the moment, I have a few varieties of hellebores blooming. Here it is possible to go to ridiculous lengths to have subtle colours – so subtle they are hardly noticeable in fact.
There are green flowered hellebores and grey flowered hellebores for those whose taste is so refined they abhor any colour at all, but there are also a good number of varieties with colour as well.

Among the species I grow Helleborus niger ‘White Magic.’ This is an evergreen plant that grows maybe 50 cm high and will eventually make a clump of about the size diameter. It has white flowers with a prominent green eye, but as they followers age and they get pollinated they can tend towards pinks.
This plant prefers really good drainage – I have mine in an elevated position at the edge of a garden under a weeping maple – and must not be planted where it will get wet feet.
I also grow the interesting species H x sternii. This is a hybrid of H. argutifolius and H. lividus. As it is usually seed grown it can show give a lot of variation in height, leaf and stem colour. It has greyish foliage and wonderful lime green flowers, backed with maroon. Mine has seeded itself a little, but not enough to be a pest.

The best colour variations available are among the H. x orientalis hybrids. There are some stunning forms around, and it is just a matter of picking which ones you prefer. Remember that these are always sold as seedling, as it is just too difficult to multiply these in any numbers to make them commercially viable. Most modern strains will breed very close to true, so if you buy a deep red strain, you should get deep red flowers.
The best way to select your plants is to buy them in flower, and they will be in nurseries very soon, if they are not already.

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