Fifty Shades of Green and Grey; Seasonal Landmarks; and Coping with the Wind

Lightning. Thunder. And fifty shades of grey.

Followed by sunshine, and the strangely vibrant fifty shades of green that are the very stuff of August Welsh landscapes. Pretty much every year, but in this year more so as the weather stays in its jet stream influenced rut. Suffice to say that the last 3 days have produced very fleeting periods of hot sun between torrential downpours (84 mm rain for these 3 days, when the UK average for the 3 summer months of June, July, August is just 227 mm). Yesterday in particular, the light and heightened colours on the surrounding hills were a stunning compensation for days of frustrated indoor pacing.


The Geranium procurrens on our rear bank in a deluge, and a cobbled path below – how do you capture the intensity of these showers with still images??

All of the above are Camcorder screen captures, so not too sharp, but the colours are pretty accurate.

Even within the garden, greens have excelled this summer. But what about flowers to complement this lush background wash? Walking around on a grey, but only misty morning, I was surprised by how many white flowers we still have throughout the garden at this time of the year, and how under gloomy conditions they enliven the picture. Probably more than the more vibrant oranges, blues and purples which are also in abundance right now. And unlike the issue with white petals on early spring shrubs (Camellias and Rhododendrons for example) which die suddenly and ungraciously to a messy brown after the merest hint of frosty breath, most white flowers in late summer seem to avoid this unflattering demise.

Still some lovely White Viola cornuta flowers around amongst the Sedum spectabile.

The first white Cyclamen hederifolium flowers amongst moss, native Germander Speedwell, Dog Violets and Saxifrage fortunei rubrifolium.

One of our favourite late season nectar flowers for many insects, but not it seems honeybees, the white flowered Lysimachia clethroides seems to fit in well with Crocosmia.

This unknown medium height white flowered Aster is the first to flower this year.

A white flowered Hydrangea can add some light to mainly spring flowering woodland areas.

The exception being our white Buddleia davidii. The cultivar name is long lost, but we keep it going by cuttings, which usually only survive for a few years down here, and it rewards us with masses of long flower pannicles every year. The individual flowers have such a short life because they’re so popular with butterflies, moths, flies and bumblebees, but not it seems honey bees. And since once pollinated the flower’s job is done, the petals fade to brown, and seed capsules quickly form. So it’s one of the few plants in the garden I bother to dead head. Partly to remove the brown faded spikes which do detract a bit, but also since by cutting the stem back to just above the pair of lower flower pannicles, the flowering period can be extended and any late emerging butterflies can be enticed into the garden, even for the very brief bursts of sunshine we’ve enjoyed this year.

Worth growing even with some faded brown flowers, for its insect appeal, white flowered Buddliea davidii.

Two days ago on August 28th we passed our Welsh Fifteen Day (W.F.D.) for the first time this year when we had more than 15 butterflies simultaneously feeding on the Buddleia flowers. This year Large Whites, Peacocks and Small Tortoiseshells were in the majority, but we did see a single Red Admiral, Wall Brown and Speckled Wood as well. (Click here for when it happened last year.)

It reflects a constancy, for now, of life lived here and captured beautifully in 1995 by my younger brother Mark’s poem, written at and about Gelli Uchaf.

Extract from ‘In Translation‘ by Mark Wormald :

 ‘The butterflies were out around the buddleia; a welsh fifteen,

       Geese down the lane were squinting in goosed rage,

       at some Cyclops in the brambles, unseen…. ‘

In fact, this year numbers haven’t built gradually, but exploded from none to over 25 in a single day, after a burst of warm sun.

Peacock, Inachis io, on Lysimachia clethroides on the ‘Welsh Fifteen Day’ (W.F.D.).

Wall Brown, Lasiommata megera, on Verbena rigida on W.F.D.

Small Tortoiseshell, Aglais urticae, on Buddleia davidii cultivar on ‘W.F.D’.

Ten days before this, we had a fleeting few days when another seasonal landmark was passed. The landscape was filled with the mews of wheeling buzzards. We always have buzzards around, and occasionally you hear the odd call, but in mid August this becomes very frequent. I haven’t been able to find a reliable explanation, but suspect that it’s the equivalent of the local farmers weaning this year’s lambs, which round here happens about a month earlier. The majority of the noise seems to be coming from juvenile birds, so I guess that by now the parents have had enough of feeding those extra mouths and they’re encouraging the youngsters to fend for themselves. No chance of supporting boomerang buzzards in this tough environment.

The third seasonal landmark elicited a shriek from Fiona last night as she was preparing supper. A low flying bat in the kitchen.


Remove it.

Or at least close the door and shut it in the bedroom upstairs. We suspect it may have been a juvenile, and we nearly always have a few such events before we regain a peaceful living space by the end of September. Where they emerge from internally usually remains a mystery, but in most of this part of Wales bats are extremely abundant, in large part because the landscape supports such a diverse and numerous insect population. Their ability to leave and enter through the tiniest of spaces is best illustrated by the story of Fiona reaching out at the top of a ladder whilst whitewashing up to the lead flashing of the chimney tray on our gable wall a few years ago. As she strained with paint primed brush to cover the last few stones, a rump appeared from the tiny gap between the lead sheet and irregular stone’s face. The rump retreated, but not in time to avoid gaining a white stripe. Fortunately Fiona retained her poise and returned to the ground safely.

No bat, but the chimney’s bat hiding lead tray flashing, and swallows.

Along with wet weather we’ve had a few windy days, and in advance of a predicted 30 mph day, I decided we should tie in the longest new shoot of the climbing Gelli Rose seedling to a South facing 9 inch diameter branch. Flexi-tie and a stepladder allowed me to train it along this branch, and since the oak still has a thin patchy canopy from years of growing beneath the now removed Norway spruce, I reckoned that the rose will have a chance to establish itself nicely throughout the enlarging tree, with a little guidance from the gardeners, before the oak foliage fills in too much. What we hadn’t anticipated was that we’d awake two mornings later to find that this chunky branch had been broken by the force and unusual direction of the predicted winds.

Where next for the Gelli Rose?

I’m now faced with having to deal with tidying up the storm inflicted damage. My scariest moment – or rather, one of a few scary moments – with a chainsaw was tackling a similar bit of storm damage on a larger oak branch a couple of years ago. I still don’t know how it happened, but whilst removing the last small offshoot lateral from the main branch on that occasion, the 12 inch diameter splintered base separated from the main trunk, flipped through180 degrees and headed straight for my stomach, necessitating a well timed dive to avoid being skewered at the last moment. So caution is called for.

The year continues to throw up more insect finds, in particular an interesting small and unidentified Ichneumon wasp which I found feeding on our Bronze Fennel flowers –

And a large number of small bees which were enjoying the masses of self seeded marjoram and oregano flowers amongst the buddleia and sedum.

I’m not even sure if this is the same species as the one below, which seems to have a distinctly orange area on the upper abdomen, and was photographed a few days earlier.

Over the last 3 years, more of these tiny bees visit the garden’s flowers through the year, but usually in one’s or two’s. This time perhaps a dozen were simultaneously feeding on just a couple of plants. But interestingly in spite of a long time looking, I’ve still never seen a honeybee on the marjoram flowers.

This insect specific preference for different individual flowers, often growing side by side in the garden, is my most noteworthy observational point of the year, I think. And it’s best illustrated by the co-planting I’ve made of two different turtleheads, Chelone obliqua, and C. glabra which have now bulked up beside several Hydrangea cultivars (mainly H. serrata forms). I’d thought that the fairly short-lived turtlehead flowers would add complementary flower colour and form at the same time as the Hydrangea flowers. The bumblebees, or more to the point, one species of bumblebee, LOVE the Chelone flowers, and largely ignore the Hydrangeas.

This bumblebee species (probably Bombus pascuorum), loves the flowers of Chelone glabra and C.obliqua, completely disappearing inside them, and then having to reverse out. It’s also one of the two species which commonly visits native Foxgloves (Digitalis purpurea). Turtleheads are in the Scrophulariaceae family of plants which seem to be one of THE best groups of flowers for attracting bumblebees.

Whilst honeybees LOVE (some of) the Hydrangea flowers, and ignore the Chelone flowers.

For the first year, 2012, we’ve had honeybees visiting many of the Hydrangea cultivars we grow. This is the stunning H. ‘Blaumeise’ .

I also thought I’d give an appropriately timed link here to some recent research, by Katrina Alkorn, Heather Whitney and Beverley Glover from Cambridge University, which has gone some way to explaining how bees and flowers have developed systems for hanging onto each other in strong winds. Many of my images in ‘The Real Botany of Desire’ blog pages show that most bees, butterflies and moths have efficient but vicious looking ‘talons’ for gripping onto flowers’ surfaces. What they don’t show is that microscopically, many flowers have developed petal surfaces which although they look smooth, are actually covered in cone shaped cells, and so like the ‘Velcro’ concept, provide a better grip for the pollinating insect’s talons, particularly in a strong wind. All part of ‘The Real Botany of Desire’, I guess.

Of course the exceptionally green and wet summer has meant that we’ve been able to keep lifting, dividing and planting, particularly in the sub layer planting of the meadow copse with no issues of plants wilting, and have been able to gain about 6 months in getting this area established. The downside has been that un-mulched surfaces and our paths and yards, which by summer are usually needing less weed control, have continued to produce new generations of seedlings. However, the fact that we don’t use weed killers means that every so often you find a few self seeded plants for free, which with a gentle fork out from the gravel can be moved on. All of our Geranium sanguineum plants have been ‘sourced’ in this way.

Geranium sanguineum (left) and Kidney Vetch seedlings in the yard’s gravel.

Even more of a thrill has been starting to move on the hundreds of Saxifrage fortunei ‘rubrifolia’ seedlings from our mossy copse. I’ve discovered we’re fortunate to have the conditions to grow this plant really well (moist but free draining, and not too severely cold), since many visiting and even local gardeners, struggle with it. So, it’s become a bit of a signature plant for the garden. It always lifts the spirits at the fag end of October, with its froth of white flowers heightening any autumnal tree and shrub leaf tints.

White Saxifrage fortunei rubrifolium flower froth between Acer foliage in October 2010.

Usually, the flowers are cut down by the first frosts of the winter, before seed has had a chance to form. Not this last year, 2011, with the mildest autumn ever. And it seems like our mossy path provided the perfect natural seedbed for the, unnoticed by me, thousands of fine seeds which must have drifted out a few inches from the browning seed capsules last December. It’s taken until now for me to feel confident about starting to prick them out, but there’s a huge number, with an interesting blend of green, green-brown and red stemmed variants.

Parent, top left, and seedlings.

Perhaps when these plants start to flower in another year or so, we might even get some flower colour variants, since the mother plant group was fairly close to another group of smaller S. f. ‘Pink Mist’ with its slightly later, though equally pretty, shorter pink flowers.

And finally, some more flowers on some self sown Astrantia major seedlings.


These are the first 2 flowers on a new, for us, Clematis cultivar C. ‘Daniel Deronda’ AGM, not only look stunning, but as I lined up to photograph them for the first time, in flew a hoverfly and bumblebee. So unlike many Clematis, it looks like having great insect appeal.

All the rain is helping my mossy mushrooms mature.

This is the last of 4, all very different seedlings, to flower in this their first year, developing from the collected seed/hips of Rose ‘High Hopes’. Will this be a climber? And if so, where will we plant it? No scent, but really pretty wavy petals and golden stamens.

Dahlia ‘Bishop of Auckland’ has added a bit more colour in a gloomy August.


4 thoughts on “Fifty Shades of Green and Grey; Seasonal Landmarks; and Coping with the Wind

  1. Wow! What stunningly beautiful photography! I keep hoping the butterflies will notice our buddleia. I really enjoyed the tour. Thank you.
    ~ Wendy

    • Hello Wendy,
      Glad you like the photos. What sort of climate do you have? It seems most of the (few) butterfly species we get up here like the Buddleia flowers. But maybe in your part of the world there are native flowers which outperform it for butterfly appeal? We’re fortunate in being able to grow quite a bit of it in one area, which helps its appeal, BW,Julian

      • We live in a temperate rain forest type climate on the West Coast of Canada. There’s a sea-breeze here which we did not have at our old place 30 minutes up island. ( We live on the East Coast of Vancouver Island) At the old place we had tons of butterflies. Sadly I was not into garden photos then… although gladly I took tons of photos of our children… Would you believe that today I did get a shot of a white moth/butterfly on the Buddleia? It was blurry but at least I am getting closer. ~ Wendy

      • Hello Wendy,
        Sounds like your climate may be similar to ours then…West coast, and high rainfall? Maybe if you’ve moved fairly recently, it’ll just take a bit longer for butterfly numbers to build up? Anyway, you can always take a torch out and look at the buddleia flowers after dark. I bet you’ll see loads of different moths on them, if you choose a cloudy mild evening. It took a while for me to get the knack of photoing insects well, so persevere! The images will become less blurry with practice.. Thanks for the comment, BW,Julian

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