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Chasing Spring

Bluebells woods
Bluebell woods at Aqualate Mere National Nature Reserve in Shropshire, April 2018. A site managed by Natural England.

Even without the constancy of a garden close to me at the moment, I am keenly aware of all the different growths that occur throughout the year. My senses are heightened from currently living on a canal boat, being closer to nature, and I feel this is all the more from having acutely experienced winter this year.

A beautiful spring day on the canal
On the canal. Finally Spring has arrived.

My obsession starts with snowdrops, as soon as I glimpse a stray flowering one in a graveyard or somewhere I suddenly crave to see drifts of them and set about seeking such scenes. I am not a galanthophile at all, my favourite is still Galanthus nivalis - common European one, and then maybe about four or five other curious ones (S. Arnott - fragrant, Hippolyta - a double, the curious crinkly one - Diggory and Trump the perfectly patterned almost ace of spades one). What I am always after is a good coloniser, and nothing satisfies me more than seeing flowers like these defy and disobey the laws of human control, not sticking to the defined fenced areas that they were designated to, always cheeky ones hopping the fence or out of the bed into the path. This is true of all the great spring colonisers - crocuses, cyclamen, scillas, wood anemones, lesser celandine, daffodils, primroses, cowslips, violas, wood sorrel, bluebells, etc.

A mass of snowdrops found along a country road
Snowdrops along a country road.

In Wales especially down the M5 I saw primroses spill over banks and daffodils run amok, naturalising in fallow fields, brightening under the still bare branches and dark undergrowth of trees. And always those odd clumps of cultivated flowers (namely daffodils and snowdrops) that appear randomly on a roadside with seemingly no human establishments around. One of the best colony of snowdrops that I have seen is at Wisley Common, who knows who started them there and why, remnants of an old estate perhaps, or a local trying their hand at some woodland gardening. But every year, there is a tantalising glimpse of them from the A3.

Daffodils on the roadside.

The strange leafless Tussilago farfara with its naked stems easily mistaken for a dandelion comes out earlier especially on disturbed ground, and I have never understood why some people have vehemence for dandelions, they are integral to the fabric of the British Isles, they are our native flora and apparently 40 microspecies are endemic here. I prefer to let them win me over with their cheeriness in grassed banks and fields, that and daisies.

Tussilago farfara growing on a pile of rubble
Tussilago farfara growing on a pile of rubble. The leaves coming out after it has flowered.

I admire the tiny flowers that start to break out on Prunus spinosa like silent miniature fireworks and then with mixed early flowering cherries they start to lighten up the scene of the motorways. The delicate green leaves of hawthorn that first appear in the hedgerow or a mid-layer to woods.

Hedgerow floristry - Prunus spinosa, Cornus sanguinea, Artemisia vulgaris seedhead, Salix caprea catkins and first leaves of hawthorn Crataegus monogyna
Hedgerow floristry, appreciating spring up close - Prunus spinosa, Cornus sanguinea, Tilia cordata, Artemisia vulgaris seedhead, Salix caprea catkins, and the first leaves of hawthorn Crataegus monogyna. Photo courtesy of Graeme Walker.

The gorse that arches itself into the canal, wind bent in the South-east near the Beachy Head cliffs, and flowers its heads off later in the Highlands bathing the air in a sweet coconut scent. The first sight of ransoms - Allium ursinum one of the early forage plants to stir excitement in the taste buds. Then it’s the trees - the willow catkins, the subtle early flowerers quietly doing their thing and finally the emergence of their leaves. The list grows longer by the day even as I write this.

Gorse flowering abundantly in the Highlands
Gorse in the Highlands.

I am counting and looking out for every signs of growth in winter, anything that gives hope and break the monotony of winter and the weather, reminding me that there’s life. Even catching the scent of Lonicera purpurisii in the air planted in a supermarket car park is a boon. Then it gets to a stage where it is impossible to keep account of all that is growing and the acceptance that it is a deluded and absurd task, succumbing to the flow of life that happens beyond my control. But before then there is always the chase, the almost feverish chase, the foolish guise of catching everything before it passes over.

In Pennsylvania in the States this sensation was worsened by the fact that the spring season there was much shorter - blink and you might have missed it. Plus seeing the plants of my native country is great but it’s like old comforts, flora of another country on the other hand especially their wild ones was a heady rush of exoticism fuelled by the fact that this might be one of the few chances I get to see them in this way. I was fortunate to have experienced a mild winter in my time there last year, but even then it felt like a never ending bleak dark grey and brown broken up only at times by heavy snow and a new appreciation of evergreens and conifers.

A cathedral of trees at Mt Cuba Center
Cathedral of trees at Mt. Cuba Center.

The deciduous woodlands are extraordinary there, dominated by tall tulip trees Liriondendron tulipfera, Acer and beech - Fagus grandiflora, but also a great variety of oaks, white ash and hickory species. Andrew Wyatt - a famous artist of that region depicts the bleakness of these scenes in his paintings, (although this is the case even in his paintings of warmer seasons). My American friend and amazing gardener Emma Senuik said to me that I had to experience one of these long, hard winters to really understand what it’s like when all of it was over; that sounded like the least tempting thing I wanted to do, but when spring finally broke I understood why, the testing of endurance, the profound relief of that deep thaw, it was worth it just for that sheer moment of contrast. The green that finally appeared on the tops of trees allowed me to breath.

Azalea collection at Winterthur with a carpet of spring flowers underneath
Azalea collection at Winterthur with a carpet of spring flowers underneath.

So the chase roughly started with Winterthur garden, where some of the best colonisation of plants I have ever seen occurs - they have a good 100 years of undisturbed settlement. Blue carpets of Scilla siberica and Chionodoxa lucilliae, the yellow ethereal dangling flowers of Corylopsis set against this backdrop and perhaps glimpses of Adonis amurensis ‘Fukujukai’ patches - another treasured rarity in this part of the world. Then dense carpets of Trillium, Mertensia virginiana (Virginia bluebells of the borage family these could be their equivalent of our own dear ones), Anemone apennina (Italian windflower not commercially available in the US), Phlox, Phacelia bipinnatifida, almost every spring flower imaginable covers the entire floor underneath the feet of the Azalea collection - which themselves are a colourful mass of awe. This as well as the prehistoric valley opposite the March Bank filled to the brim with the shuttlecock fern Matteuccia struthiopteris and their old quarry filled with the candelabra Primula x bulleesiana hybrids a cross of P. bullyana and P. beesiana.

The impressive Quarry Garden at Winterthur with Primula x bulleesiana hybrids.

A valley of Matteuccia struthiopteris at Winterthur
A valley of Matteuccia struthiopteris at Winterthur.

Then in the nature reserves like Cheslen Preserve or The Laurels - a preservation of wild and old cultivated landscape it was Erythronium americanum, succeeded by bloodroot Sanguinaria canadensis, mayapple Podophyllum peltatum and Arisaema triphyllum Jack-in-the pulpit. The mid layer of woods - the light yellows of witch hazel Hamamelis vernalis and Lindera benzoin, the shock red of Aesculus parviflora and white/ pink Cornus florida flowering, followed by their wonderfully simple single petalled Rhododendrons, even the invasive Wisteria with their purple trails all over the trees are beautiful.

Cornus florida at The Laurels Preserve.

Erythronium americanum.

Sanguinaria canadensis
Sanguinaria canadensis at Cheslen Preserve.

Late April/ early May is around the best time to catch the peak of spring ephemerals and one of the can’t be missed gardens for this is Mt Cuba Center - a botanical delight of native plants of the Eastern US particularly the Piedmont region underneath its ‘cathedral of trees’.

Domestic gardens like Dr. John T. Lonsdale’s garden Edgewood really got me going too. British, he was a former microbiologist who came to the States with his family about 25 years ago. Prior to coming to the US he was already an active member of the Alpine Garden Society in the UK with a particular love for Cyclamen. John is very knowledgeable and a well respected plantsman and is one of these who blur the lines between the amateur and professional. ‘I do this as a hobby’ he is often heard to say and casually runs a small nursery from his garden too and runs everything with the same precision as I had imagined he would have done as a microbiologist. Coming to a new country he had to get use to a whole new climate and terrain, the plants he was so familiar with does not necessarily do well here, so in a sense he had to learn all over again what would work and not work in a whole new setting and context. But this seems to have become a part of John’s excitement to keep experimenting.

Edgewood - John Lonsdale's garden with Cercis canadensis and different cultivars.

John is no longer just an ‘amateur hobbyist’ he has cleverly found a way of extending and doing what he loves and being paid for it - he is the Research Specialist at Longwood Gardens and is responsible for the trialling of new plants and seeing what would make good breeders for certain desired characteristics. He has been gardening Edgewood since 1995, his driveway before the gates to his house is lined with hardy mainly species Peonies and Hellebores that he has given away by the hundreds because they have almost become a weed. The garden is not very big —1.5 acres and one of its distinctive features is that it consists mainly of an incredibly steep bank filled from top to bottom with rarities and gems - a mixture of natives and related brethen from around the world all carefully selected.

Prosartes masculatum
Prosartes masculatum, one of countless many unusual plants at John T. Londale's garden.

Even the plants that I knew, there were interesting variants and cultivars of that I had never seen before. Ranging from Anemonella, Podophyllum, Epidmedium, Saruma henryi, Claytonia caroliniana, a rare bright orange C. virginica (they are usually white with thin pink stripes or magenta), Prosartes masculatum, Trillium, Corydalis, Erythronium, another area where Pulsatilla specifically featured, the new construction of a bog garden and much much more. He grows every species of Cyclamen bar one - Cyclamen somalense (there are about 23 species), which is fair enough considering the latter’s hard to access locale in the high altitudes of Al Miskat mountains in Northeast Somalia and with only about three in cultivation in the world. He had wild collected a lot of the seeds and had grown them on himself. I felt like a layman in a connoisseur’s banquet of exquisite flavours.

Pulsatilla at John Lonsdale garden.

On the slope it was the first time that I got to appreciate looking up and under the legs of certains plants that I am usually use to looking down on as ground cover and having their flowers dangle down above me for a change or at eye level where I could see them better like Solomon’s Seal (the native one here is Polygonatum biflorum) and Uvallaria grandiflora. Of course all this grows quite differently here, they do not have the same slug problems as we do because the winters are too cold for them and it is not as wet, so Trillium and Hosta can grow happily unscathed. In England seeing the odd straggly pathetic American Trillium grown and half eaten. I had often wondered whether it was worth the seemingly loads of effort. But in their homeland environment they grow effortlessly. Even the trees grow differently pushing higher and taller quicker; I had always thought Cornus florida was not so hardy and that is why we don’t grow them in the UK, but turned out that it was quite the contrary, it was that we were missing the really hot heat that helps their wood ripen and fortify them against the really cold winters.

Phlox divericata at Shenk's Ferry Wildflower Preserve.

The pièce de résistance of the spring climax for me was going to see wildflower preserve Shenk's Ferry. Every year gardeners and wildflower lovers make a pilgrimage to this site. Seeing these type of flowers in the garden is one thing, but seeing it colonise so well in the wild is phenomenal.

Trilliums literally fills banks and banks at Shenk's Ferry.
 
Some of the treats of the feast on display are Hepatica acutiloba, Aquilegia candensis, Mitella diphylla, Anemonella thalictroides, Trillium grandiflorum and T. flexipes, Dicentra cucullaria and D. canadensis, Saxifraga virginiensis, Viola bicolor/ Viola blanda (white ones), V. pubescens var. scabriuscula and V. eriocarpa (yellow ones), Phlox divericata, Hydrophyllum virginianum, Asarum canadense, and Packera aurea.

Seeing Aquilegia canadensis growing like this on rocks at Shenk's Ferry reminded me why it is important to see plants in the wild. Having only seen it in a garden context I did not imagine that they could grow like this and could well be in a rock garden as well as a border.

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