Queues, Kew and Squills

We’ve just returned to the fresh air of Wales after a rare trip to London. We haven’t visited the (English) capital for over a decade, and were very pleasantly surprised by how much cleaner and graffiti free it has become since we were last there. The main reason for the trip was to attend an open day at Liberty’s for new designers, and we’d optimistically taken up 4 of our scarf designs and stood in a queue, having got up early, until the store opened. The day was really well organized, and within a couple of hours or so we had our 3 minute pitch in front of a couple of the Liberty staff, with another staff member with stop watch at the ready, to bring the session to a close (1,000 folk attend the day, so discipline is vital for the day to work for them). An interesting experience, and whilst we don’t think that they’ll stock the designs, as always we’ve come away with some worthwhile ideas to explore. In fact it had already struck me as ironic that we should have taken our scarves, designed from images taken in our garden of the natural world, to the centre of London, which is about as far removed from nature as I guess it’s possible to be in this country.

Fiona’s latest scarf and fabric design – Hellebore, which we took to London

This had really been brought home the previous day when we’d decided to visit the Kew Botanical Gardens. We’d arrived at about 11.00 am, and were really impressed with the displays, particularly of Magnolias and Cherries. The Princess Diana glasshouse was also beautifully planned and planted. There were still lots of daffodils (sadly mainly unnamed) in bloom, and a huge swathe of Chinodoxa siehei, looking like a blue lake from a distance. (ADDENDUM in 2013 Click here for an image of just how many bee free flowers there are. And compare with our own experiences with Chionodoxa forbesii ‘Blue Giant’. See in April’s Insect Friendly Flower Folder above. The wrong species, or just no bees in central London on a hot sunny day?).

But it only struck me after a couple of hours there that I hadn’t seen or noticed a single insect – bear in mind that I do now tend to subconsciously pick up on these, since my interest in moths has developed. And this on the warmest day of the year so far, according to the morning weather forecast. I paid more attention from this point on, but by the time we left at 3 pm I’d only seen 3 bumblebees and a single wasp. Not a single honeybee. 2 of the bumblebees were visiting the small purple flowers of a species Rhododendron polylepsis, which looked a little like our insect friendly Rhododendron racemosum.

I thought this was a frighteningly low number for what must be one of London’s biggest green lung spaces. Then on the Saturday, in the gardening section of our paper was an article by Sir David Attenborough, who has lived in Richmond for the last 50 years (the next stop on the tube from Kew), saying how dramatically over this period the number of butterflies in his own garden has declined, and how gardeners can help the situation by growing the right sort of plants in their gardens. Perhaps those at Kew need to think a bit more about insect friendly planting, or are there other reasons like low humidity or pollution to account for this apparent dearth of insect life?

I’ve thought a lot about the waltz of attraction between flowering plants and insects recently, and how certainly in temperate zones it’s vital for the plants to ensure pollination, and for the insects to obtain nutrition, from nectar and pollen, in their adult stages. It is so fundamental and has developed over millions of years, that to see an apparently beautiful flower filled space without the other partner in the dance was very strange. Since insects are the most diverse and numerous group of animals in the natural world (about 80 % of all animal species), and of course key components of the food chain for higher animals, I found this absence a really worrying indicator of the state of London’s natural environment.

I think I’ll also set up a new page on this site to show the insect friendly plants which we grow – I reckon we see more bees, flies, etc, in a minute in our garden than we saw all day at Kew.  But there were some notable plant ‘finds’ in addition to the Chinodoxa I’ve already mentioned. 2 lovely Magnolia heptapeta, which were smothered in creamy flowers, a gorgeous columnar Malus baccata ‘columnaris’ with healthy green leaves and white pear blossom like flowers. I must look up what the fruit are like. (Later…..They are yellow and the tree is known as the Siberian crab apple, but frustratingly neither this nor the Magnolia seem readily available in the UK.) And then finally a drift of small Scilla, or squill, growing amongst mature trees, with clusters of tiny pale blue flowers. We asked some Kew workers for a name, but they weren’t able to help us, having apparently just been discussing amongst themselves what the plant was! But subsequently searching on line, it looks like it was probably Scilla pratensis (or litardierei), and one we think we’ll try growing. We’d intentionally left cameras behind, so sadly no images of these, though they can all be found on line.

After getting home we found we’d had some very welcome rain, which has caused an explosion in foliage, and lots more flowers to open, including our Corylopsis pauciflora. This is a Witch hazel relative from SE Asia, but the pale yellow drooping clusters of flowers have a quite strong and lovely scent, and it’s also attractive to moths.

Corylopsis pauciflora – flowers just opening 4/04/11

I’d grown it from pre germinated seed years ago, and for the first time last year, it bloomed, and even set a few seed, so maybe in future years I’ll be able to propagate it from these. Also we grow masses of Chrysoplenia davidianum, as an underplanting in lots of areas with shade.

Chrysoplenium davidianum – a favourite shade tolerant groundcover and underlayer plant

Provided its not extremely dry, it’ll cope with extreme, almost total shade through the summer, and then emerge when other larger plants die back.

Chrysoplenium davidianum beneath Helleborus hybridus, where it survives almost total shade as the Hellebore leaves develop

It hugs the ground, and has interesting slightly hairy leaves and stems, and then for about a month, these sulphurous yellow flowers which are visited by some flies, including the Bee Flies. If we get some more sunny weather, it’ll be interesting to see if honeybees like it. They certainly seem to enjoy the flowers on a couple of our Skimmias which have also opened recently, (and look at what the Skimmia variety is called), although the flowers don’t seem to have much interest for bumble bees, butterflies or moths. To be fair to Kew, we didn’t see any Skimmias whilst we were there, but then we only managed to walk around a fraction of the site. Perhaps if we had found some they would have had bees on them.

Skimmia confusa ‘Kew Green’ and honeybees!

'Little Beauty' Tulips, Dog Violets and Rhododenron racemosum petals

‘Little Beauty’ Tulips, Dog Violets and Rhododenron racemosum petals

With all the rain, it’s at last given us a chance today to plant out and move a few plants which we’ve propagated over the last couple of years – Rosa ‘Francis Lester’, Stachys officinalis and some Clematis have all been found new homes. The ‘Francis Lester’ came from cuttings from a relative’s rose growing in spectacular fashion trained onto an East facing wall, and since a change of house for her now beckons, I should be able to supply a replacement if space allows in the new garden. I find that rooting hardwood cuttings from roses in a nursery tyre in November fairly easy, with the added warmth, topsoil and drainage that this provides.