Starry, Starry Days; Spindle, Stewartia, Sycamore and Samarai; and A Historic Trio.

Gonzalo got me gazing skywards.

Frankly, not much excuse was needed as I repeatedly rammed the digging bar into the shrubbery shale, in patterns as close as possible to the 5 dots on a dice side. I’ve slowly learned that when planting amongst thick vegetation, using a defined pattern helps finding the holes again, when you pause and grab the bulbs and compost to back fill. I’m in the last stage of the annual bulb planting session, when enthusiasm has long since left me.

Particularly since the final batch of 400 Narcissus ‘Actaea’ AGM, which will thrill in the spring, consists of sacks of bulbs with at least 2 or 3 offsets per bulb.SDIM9872 (2) (Addendum – this lovely image is of N. ‘Merlin’ which was sent in error, in place of ‘Actaea’ last year, much to our delight).

Tip – do plant some. Both ‘Actaea’ and ‘Merlin’ seem more reliable in our garden than the true species Narcissus poeticus var. recurvus ‘Pheasant Eye’ in our garden, but factor in this bulb profligacy when planning numbers to order. The large bulbs with offsets are just too big to squish into single crow-barred holes without splitting, and any way the extra bulbs are a bonus. But, having thought I was on the home straight, another few hundred still have to go in. So as the remnants of hurricane Gonzalo hit us from the North West after battering Bermuda a few days previously, I was in the perfect spot to watch the sycamore’s seeds plucked from the canopy in flurries of monocoptered perfection.SDIM9512 (2)

Still images can’t capture the experience, so I do suggest finding a suitable tree next autumn on a windy day to watch this. (Click  here for a brief You tubes video). Very few seeds head straight down, though most indeed do end up downwind from the tree. But several soared skywards, gaining height. And the numbers this year were phenomenal. Tens per gust, with many thousand becoming trapped in the turkeys’ anti raptor netting, and left hanging.SDIM9528.ajpg (2) Shoaled from the parent.SDIM9532a (2) Drift netted.SDIM9525a (2) Awaiting release, once the rain softens the winged fins, but for now mere matchstick men, captured with a Lowry lens.SDIM9537 (2) Perhaps, packed pilgrims pacing, on this first day of the new Islamic Year.SDIM9527 (2)The design of the sycamore, and indeed other Acer seeds (a form of samara, the term used to describe a winged ‘achene‘, where papery seed appendages develop from the ovary wall), has been shown to be aerodynamically near perfect. Maybe it’s all those millenia of evolutionary refinement?SDIM9506a (3)

Samara seeds like Acers, are meant to spin.

In its rotary descent it slows and reaches a stable rate of descent, thus delaying the effect of gravity. The unexpected high aerodynamic lift produced, is because of the airfoil shape and its’ creation of a stable leading-edge vortex. (Click here for a review paper of the potential for biomimetic designs, gleaned from seed dispersal for space exploration. And click here for a You Tube of a working monocopter, designed to mimic the aerodynamics of the sycamore samara, and appropriately called SAMARAI).

All this stunning adaptive, honed evolution, which is capable of putting maximum distance between seed and parent, before it reaches a resting, and possible germination, point. In this apparent sycamore mast year, we hope that only a tiny fraction will actually succeed, or there’ll be a lot of hoiking out of troublesome seedlings, for years to come.SDIM9501 (2)As the clocks fall back today, and daylight shortens, I was fascinated by the Roman’s disciplined approach to seasonal time management – dividing the day into 12 variable length hours. 75 minutes at the summer solstice, but just 44 minutes on the shortest day. Click here for more on the interesting history of daylight saving time, and how it was measured. Here, with a rural lifestyle, daylight and rain are the key determinants of any outside activity.SDIM9543 (2)

But as much of the garden starts to shut down, these are the starry, starry days of our favourite Saxifrage fortunei.  It was named in 1863 by William Hooker, after the explorer Robert Fortune, who spent much time in China and was responsible for founding the Indian tea industry with plants sourced from China in an undercover operation.

SDIM9546 (2) Click here for more on Fortune. We first happened upon a few forms of this plant in a local nursery many years ago, and it loves our environment in spite of being a native of South East Asia – in particular, China and Japan. It clearly enjoys our moist, cool conditions, though it’s not fussy about sun or shade in our garden.SDIM9491 (2) Very similar to S. cortusifolia, (below), with irregular sized petals, or zygomorphy, it lacks the yellow marks on the petals of this species, and also tends to have toothed petal margins, as above.SDIM9496 (2)

The majority, and most garden worthy form, of those we grow is S. fortunei rubrifolia, with bronzed leaves, featuring maroon lower surfaces. Many visitors think it’s a Heuchera at first sight. It’s very amenable to lifting and splitting in autumn, and this is how we’ve established our big clumps from just a couple of plants originally. Flowering so late, means in some years the white froth is cut short by the first frosts, but 3 years ago a mild run into December saw the flower heads last until then. The following spring, I was delighted to find hundreds of self-sown seedlings growing in the mossy path next to one of the clumps.SDIM9489 (2)

This year has seen most of these nurtured offspring flower for the very first time, some still in pots shown below amongst the other stunning late flower in our garden now – the pink spires of Persicaria vaccinifolia.SDIM9426 (2)

And how delightful to see such a range of leaf colour and form, as well as flowering time, height and colour. Even the odd pink flowered form. Just as interesting has been seeing honeybees from the recently installed hive visiting the flowers and ending up with dull pink faces from the pollen.SDIM9518 (2)If you don’t grow this plant yet, and could manage to water it if it wilts in prolonged dry spells, do think about trying it in a woodsy, or shady spot – I’m sure you would be as delighted as we are, as its’ stars emerge in late autumn.

SDIM9515 (2)

In a post for some reason laden with alliteration, and ‘S’ dominated themes, a brief sunny interlude illuminated the previously nondescript spindle berry, Euonymus europaeus, on our bank and showed that, like the sycamore, it’s been a bumper year for fruit, with many orange berries on this small specimen, grown years ago, from seed collected in Leigh Woods outside Bristol.SDIM9482 (2) There’s even a bit of autumn leaf colour, unlike the wind stripped Amelanchier to its left, or the single germinated seedling sourced 3 years ago in Paris of E. carnosus which is at last looking viable with wonderfully glossy green leaves, but not yet any hint of the spectacular deep burgundy of the leaves on the mother plant when we picked up the seed. Perhaps time and patience are needed, or maybe in our climate it never will colour up?SDIM9485 (2)

With livestock around we’re now very careful about Euonymus foliage. 2 years ago a ewe aborted after snowy weather and we later discovered some nibbled Euonymus shoots carelessly discarded by me onto a still unlit bonfire as unused Christmas foliage decorations. Was this responsible for the abortion?

We can’t be certain, but there is toxicological evidence of the role of Euonymus as an abortifacient. We also grow the tiny creeping E. fortunei ‘Kewensis’ (another of the Scottish adventurer’s legacies), which is less brash than the more commonly grown larger forms like E. ‘Emerald and Gold’. We’ve never seen flowers or fruit on this plant, but it does quietly carpet the ground amongst other native deciduous woodland ground cover like wood sorrel, and as an evergreen comes into its own once winter arrives, and other foliage disappears.

The final ‘S’, is for Stewartia pseudocamellia, which we acquired mainly for its consistent stunning autumn colour, but this year the first of two specimens we’ve planted, produced wonderful white flowers in late summer, and then obvious seed pods.SDIM9523 (2) Inveterate seed sower that I am, I thought I should discover optimum seed sowing conditions, so having extricated a few seeds onto the kitchen table, nipped upstairs – only to find, on-line, that germination is very slow and patchy, and any seed left in an indoor environment for more than just 24 hours is apparently likely to lose all viability. At least I still have some chance with this year’s crop, but perhaps a lesson learned for any other tree seeds. If in doubt, sow straight way?

Stewartia provides a tenuous link to this final piece on a whistle stop tour of 3 very different gardens in the South West made earlier in the month around the occasion of Fiona’s niece’s wedding. Was this the spectacular bark and trunk of a mature Stewartia at Killerton? Unfortunately we couldn’t find a label on a particularly fine specimen tree.S1090029 (2)S1090010 (2)

Killerton (above), Hestercome and Tyntesfield, all shoe-horned into 3 days, and all very different grand houses and gardens.S1090011 (2)

Killerton was the first we visited in lovely sunny weather, and a real treat for its setting, S1090016 (2)glorious woodland, intriguing summer/bear house (!),S1090027 (2)S1090024 (2) more naturalised Cyclamen hederifolium than we’ve ever seen in a garden before, S1090028 (2) some spectacular autumn colours, and willow sculptures sensitively placed amongst the trees.S1090017 (2)S1090035 (2) Click here for visiting details.S1090013 (2)

Hestercombe was somewhat disappointing by comparison. Structurally significant as one of the first (or indeed only?) gardens laid out by Sir Edwin Lutyens, and planted with Gerturde Jekyll’s advice, the stonework and design was impressive, though perhaps we weren’t seeing the garden at its best.S1090045 (2)S1090046 (2)S1090047 (2)S1090050 (2)The woodland walks were disappointingly ordinary for tree interest, though in a lovely deep valley setting. S1090049 (2)The much advertised waterfall, wasn’t falling due to lack of rain, and the house, for now, is not really restored to any former glory, though it currently hosts an interesting display of artworks by Tania Kovats titled ‘Oceans’, including a collection of 350 bottles of sea water sourced from around the world and appropriately called ‘All The Sea’ (given a major ‘tweak’ by me below).S1090043a (2)And visually intriguing in its staging and concept. Click here for visiting details for Hestercombe. And here to see ‘All The Sea’ in its unadulterated simplistic state at a previous venue. The reviewer’s accompanying text left me a little baffled though.S1090041 (2)Another interestingly placed art work above, greets the visitor at the start of the exhibition.

Finally, on our way home from the wedding we made a whistle stop tour to Tyntesfield. A vast complex, and estate, it has changed hugely since we last visited just after its acquisition by the National Trust in the early 2000’s.S1090122 (2) Well worth visiting for a memorable house, mushroomed hollies (now there’s an idea), S1090128 (2)kitchen garden, farm complex,S1090129 (2) biomass heating system,S1090118 (2)S1090119 (2) and when we visited, this impressive colourful display of squash.S1090127 (2) And hair do’s – purple and grey, ahead of shocking pink.S1090130 (2) And hugely impressive since it was all created (the Gibb’s estate, not the hair do’s), with wealth generated from the brief period of trade in guano sourced from the Southern hemisphere. (Or bird shit to be less polite).

As a rhyme in the City of London at the time recalled.

‘Mr Gibbs made his dibbs,
Selling the turds of foreign birds.’

True British entrepreneurial genius, before exhaustion of supply and the German entrepreneur and organic chemist Justus von Liebig, (click here), discovering the vital role that nitrogen plays in plant growth. Thus ushering in the start of the agrochemical era of modern agriculture dependence on artificial fertilisers. (As well as Liebig inventing Oxo cubes and Marmite – both currently no doubt viewed as British inventions by the majority of the UK’s population).

Bird shit lost its profitable pre-eminence.

The long decline of Tyntefield began, before rescue for the nation by the local population’s rapid fund raising, and the National Trust stepping in.

Click here for visiting details.

I must fleetingly also record the very special wedding. A day of many happy memories, and unique colourful images. Fiona deserves huge credit for finding the venue as an option eventually chosen, by the bride and groom, and a huge thanks to the families and staff for creating such a memorable event, on such a scale. As an interesting and amusing insight into this historical location, you might find the interview with the owner, Sir Benjamin Slade, enjoyable and unconventional, (under the title ‘I’m going to be a Mega Mega Star’). Click here. And just a couple of vignettes from the day below.S1090079 (2)S1090080 (2) Romance was clearly in the air.


9 thoughts on “Starry, Starry Days; Spindle, Stewartia, Sycamore and Samarai; and A Historic Trio.

  1. I’ve just spent a really enjoyable time drinking my coffee and reading through your wonderful blog. Your sycamore seed photos are delightful and would make amazing photographs for display in a gallery. Your days away at the family wedding must have been incredibly busy with your visits to the gardens …thank you for sharing- brilliant blog.

    • Hello Marianne,
      Thanks for the comment. Sometimes, usually when the weather’s lousy like now, I find it fun to fiddle with some simple images like the sycamore seeds and see what effects I can create from something fairly dull colour wise, but impressive in form. I’m glad you enjoyed looking at them, (almost as much as I had making them!). Actually though watching some of them spin upwards in the strong gusts was even more amazing,
      Best wishes

  2. I think you could fill a magazine with just one of your blogs. There is such a lot of things I have never heard about. I have never heard of other forms of Euonymus europa although the common form grows wild around us. The Saxifraga is so beautiful but nothing like the common types that I have in my garden. The bees and bumbles must be very happy with all that Persicaria. Killerton looks a beautiful garden and the willow sculptures are a sharp contrast to what I saw in Savill Garden. Amelia

    • Hello Amelia,
      Thanks for that. The Saxifrage really is a stunning plant – it would be great at any time of the year, but to be able to look forward to seeing all those frothy white flowers in late October/November is a real boost. And being white they look great in the sun, or as most of this autumn, under leaden skies and rain.
      We’d have loved to spend more time in all 3 of the gardens/houses in Somerset/Devon, but Killerton was definitely our favourite.
      Best wishes

  3. I was confused when you said sycamore and showed a maple samara, but I guess you mean sycamore maple. In the US sycamore means Platanus occidentalis or even a London plane tree. Speaking of which could the tree you couldn’t ID be a sycamore? The trunk looks too massive and straight to be a stewartia, but maybe that’s the camera angle. Bark photos here: Happy fall, Carolyn

    • Hello Carolyn,
      Thanks for that detail, and showing up my lack of effort in looking up the scientific name for the UK’s common Sycamore. Which is Acer pseucoplatanus (so plane like, but an Acer species) – not thought of as a British native, but almost accepted as such, since its been here for hundreds of years, being a native of Southern, Central and Eastern Europe. Thanks for the link to the site. The leaves were much smaller than a Sycamore, and the fruit – which stupidly I don’t seem to have on a photo, looked very like the Stewartia’s. The trunk was beautiful , quite wide, though not massive, but also sculpted in an angular form tracking up the trunk- not the typical rounded circumference. However catching this on a single photo which also showed off the gorgeous bark was tricky! I’m guessing that in a landscape like Killerton, it could well have been one of the earliest specimens planted/sown in the UK. Further investigations are obviously needed!
      Best wishes,

Comments are closed.