There’s a real satisfaction in the achievements that take a long time to mature, whether in the garden or elsewhere, and gardening lends itself to these long term aims. Not many quick fixes here. And some of the plants that have travelled with us over the years have been particularly spectacular this year. I’ll mention 4 which in a real sense could fall into the category of heirloom plants.
Firstly, an unknown Peony lactiflora, which we inherited with our previous Victorian Bristol home. We’d no idea of course how long it had been in the garden before we moved in, and it was getting crowded out there by a maturing Philadelphus bush, so we dug it up and moved it as one of the first plantings into the newly formed longhouse border which runs the length of our home, about 16 years ago. It’s gradually settled in, flowering better some years than others, and it huge blowsy flowers can get beaten down by heavy rain, but this year it’s been magnificent. And this from a plant that could perhaps be as old as I am? The individual flowers vary enormously in form, and this year it even had some insect appeal, though whether for pollen, nectar or some other sugary surface secretion I’m not sure.
We’ve also grown a clump of 3 Peony lutea ludlowii which were grown from seed saved from a plant growing in Bristol, which we’d acquired as a seedling from the old Bristol Botanic Gardens at Leigh Woods, on one of their open days. (The parent plant may indeed have been from one of the earliest specimens grown in the UK). It’s pretty localised in the wild in China, but it’s nice to think that it’s travelled with us, and in turn been passed on to other folk as seeds and small plants to grow on and enjoy for years to come.
Finally, 2 of our favoured old species roses have come from seed saved from plants in Bristol. The Rosa glauca hedge which shelters the terrace garden North and South, were all random seedlings from Bristol, and it’s flowering just now, and seeding around here just as prolifically so visitors can take away a bit of our garden too.
Rosa moyesii was propagated in similar fashion, and whilst it’s taken longer to get going, (it is after all planted into excavated shale), this year has seen it bloom prolifically and allowed me to see and film some proper buzz pollination by bumblebees. Neither of these roses are scented, but their vigour, simple flowers and insect appeal compensate. You have to pick the right time of day, for us during late afternoon, as the falling sun illuminates and warms the simple flowers, and suddenly the bees descend, and become almost manic in the considerable time spent literally buzzing in each of the flowers. None of the quick 2-3 second flower visits that they use in simpler flowers – bugle and Pulmonaria for example – they can spend 30 to 40 seconds in each Rosa moyesii flower. And the sound! The opening cupped flowers seem to amplify the buzz. Such excitement.
I mentioned in a previous blog that the noise is actually generated by them vibrating their flight muscles to dislodge extra pollen from the flowers. Unfortunately I haven’t been able to find anything on buzz pollination in roses on google – the search gets clogged somehow with features on google buzz (which techies could probably explain to me!). Interestingly the close-up images of the anthers don’t show obvious external pollen grains, so maybe the pollen does have to be shaken out or off in some way by the bee’s vibrations. Honeybees can’t perform this buzzing pollination, so perhaps we need our bumblebees for good R. moyesii fertilization and then the glorious orange flagon shaped hips later in the year.
On the subject of roses, a rose which we planted last autumn has bloomed for the first time. And I was so impressed with its form, colour and most particularly scent, that I had to pick its flower straight away (it’s a bit hidden away in the garden!), rush inside, and persuade F to close her eyes and smell it. I even repeated a variant of this exercise as a rose scent test 2 days later with some friends, and interestingly, in this blind comparison (to help to concentrate on the scent alone), everyone picked this same rose as their favourite scent.
And what were the competitors in this little event? Rosa de Rescht, Rosa ‘Felicia’ (both of which have wowed us and garden visitors in the past with their wonderful but different perfumes, and survive pretty well without resort to any spraying) and the winner was the climbing form of Rosa ‘Etoile de Hollande’. Even more impressive was that one friend was able to name it, and had tried to grow it with limited success in the past. We hope we can do better, since it is so fabulous, and I was encouraged when I found a site (EveryRose.com – a rose database) which lists over 7,500 rose varieties with comments and ratings from gardeners who have actually grown them. There was a glowing report from someone who has grown it in acid soil, 1000 feet up in the Cambrian Mountains. And it’s thrived. So fingers crossed for here long term, and I think it’s well worth checking out this website for this sort of personal feedback, rather than relying on the sometimes optimistic descriptions of vigour and disease resistance found in many nurseryman’s catalogues.
Our honeysuckle is also now filling the air with perfume, particularly at dusk, as you walk from the front door.
Along with the bumblebee buzzing, another loud buzz caught my attention this week. I had to search for some time to actually locate the source, although it was so loud it could be heard from yards away. I sense my own hearing isn’t as acute as it used to be, and I find it difficult to pinpoint directions of sounds. Eventually I found the culprit. Or culprits. I’m not sure of the species of fly, but I’m assuming that they were involved in a moment of sustained arousal or passion, which saw positions shift, along with the amplitude and frequency of the sounds, before the upper, and I guess male fly, did a flit and allowed the female to recover.
The final sound alert this week was whilst I was sowing seeds from the Narcissus ‘Topolino’. With several thousand to get in the ground I vacillated over where to put them, but eventually plumped for the steep east facing bank behind the house. This was completely dug out 17 years ago, but with the help of ‘Fox and Cubs’ Hawkbit, and Cotoneaster horizontalis, it has now largely greened up, stabilised the surface from frost damage every year and is now starting to accumulate fallen leaf litter which is aiding soil fertility. So I thought it was a suitable area for mass sowing, which will probably take 5 or 6 years before one can see any result from this year’s efforts. It meant creeping crab like across the slope with a raking out hammer in one hand for creating a simple hole in the surface, and then dropping in seeds from the other hand.
I used this approach since early attempts with other species of seeds on this bank, simply broadcast, even if mixed with wallpaper paste, produced very poor results – I think most seed simply rolled or was washed down to the slope bottom.
As I was carrying this out, I was suddenly struck by a cacophony of swallow ‘lookout- lookout’ alarm calls. I’ve learned that this always heralds something significant – a visitor in the yard, or in this case, looking round and up, I noticed a group of perhaps 15 swallows taking turns to divebomb a sparrow hawk as it flew leisurely overhead, scanning the scene. Unfortunately I didn’t have my Camcorder to hand, because the contrast between this cacophony and the subsequent silence as the bird flew on was striking. Within half an hour, the blackbird felt it was safe to resume its serenade.
The previous day I did have my still camera to hand to capture 2 insect sightings that I’d not seen before. The first was what I first thought was a very large ‘bee’ which landed on a courgette leaf near to where I was working. The aphids give some scale to it. But what was it?
Emailing photos of it to a couple of friends drew a blank, so I checked the Natural History Museum site, and discovered that they have an excellent new centre for biodiversity, and an identification service. See details below:
Angela Marmont Centre for UK Biodiversity
The Natural History Museum
Cromwell Road, London
SW7 5BD, U.K.
+44 (0)20 7942 5045
The following day, F called me over to see the spider below which seemed to be carrying an enormous ball beneath its body. Neither of us had seen this before, but it is apparently a nursery web spider (Pisaura mirabilis).
And the ‘ball’ is a silk cocoon which it spins, within which its eggs are laid. It hunts by sight, not using a web, and carries the egg sac around with it in this ungainly way, holding on to with its’ palps beneath its’ mouth. When the spiderlings are due to emerge, it fashions a protective web tent over the egg sac. It is apparently a very common spider in the UK. Other Wolf spiders do a similar thing, but carry the egg sac behind them, attached to their spinnerets. What extraordinary sophistication, and technical skill to construct this moveable papoose.