A North Wales Alpine Gardener's Diary
This entry: A thoroughly typical February! - Entry 30
As the title suggests, this has been a very uneventful February in our neck of the woods with no snow, little frost, average rainfall and a gentle but discernible onset of growth to suggest that winter is almost over and spring is on the way. Certainly the birds in our garden are starting to prospect for nest sites, and there is a gradual increase in the volume and diversity of birdsong, but I have yet to see my first butterfly, and bees of all kinds seem very few and far between; noticeably absent, for example, from the now fully open flowers of Crocus tomassinianus, Eranthis hyemalis, and the various snowdrops that are sometimes abuzz with them.
Madeira - escape to the sun
As we usually do at this time of year, we took a week's break in warmer climes, this year visitng one of our favourite destinations, the Atlantic island of Madeira. It is a bit of a lottery weather-wise going there in January-February as it can be very wet, but this time we were extremely lucky, although we did not think so when we arrived at Funchal airport in what turned out to be the middle of a fierce storm! But within an hour the rain stopped, the sun came out, and for the rest of the week it was wall-to-wall sunshine with temperatures in the upper teens (centigrade). This enabled us to spend most of the daytime outside, walking on the levadas (if you don't know what they are, look it up!), touring round in our (extemely cheap) hire car, and visiting the famous Funchal Botanic Garden, and Blandy's Garden, of which we never tire. We did not spend much time botanising as it was not that sort of holiday - the wishes of one's spouse as well as one's own must quite reasonably be taken into account if a reasonable level of harmony is to prevail!
Anyway, on the grounds that 'anything goes' as far as a gardening blog in midwinter is concerned, here are some of the more spectacular plants we saw during our stay starting in Funchal Botanic Garden:
Dombeya wallichii is, unsurprisingly, commonly known as Pink Ball Tree , Pink Snowball Tree, or Topical Hydrangea. The flower balls can be 4 - 6 inches across. D wallichii originates from India, East Africa and Madagascar. The genus Dombeya (now included in the enlarged mallow family, Malvaceae) is named after Joseph Dombey, an 18th-century French botanist, doctor, and explorer, while the specific epithet is for Nathaniel Wallich, one of the most interesting, gifted and altogether extraordianry botanists and plant collectors. There is not space here to tell his full story so I have provided the link below to the excellent Kew web site where you can find out all about him and his exploits, mainly in India, and including the early development of the tea industry. In the case of D. wallichiiiIt was the scent which first caught my attention - I must have beeen 30m away from the tree - and when I got nearer the loud humm of the many bees and other insects similarly enticed to the feast was tremendous; altogether one of those special first encounters with a species known to me but never before seen in flower.
D. cacuminum comes from Madagascar and there and elsewhere it is often known as the Strawberry Snowball Tree, also for obvious reasons!
This tree is one of several often called Fire Bush or Flame Tree, and it is hugely popular as a street tree throughout the tropics and semi-tropical regions. It is a member of the large tropical family Bignoniaceae (200 genera, about 800 species), most of which are woody plants, many being liagnes. You will probably be more familiar with more hardy members of the family such as Glory Vine (Campsis radicans), the much less spectacular and more frequently grown Eccremocarpus scaber, and incarvilleas.
This spectacular climber from India in the Acanthaceae was draping its 15 cm long saxophone-like flowers from a pergola so that one could examine them at very close quarters. This too is commonly grown in gardens in many parts of the world and I have seen it in Oakland, California, in an even better, darker colour form.
Echium nervosum (syn. E. fastuosum)
Madeira and the nearby (nearest 500 km) Canary Islands have many beautiful endemic plants, none more so than the various giant echiums (Viper's Bugloss), Most spectacular and quite often seen in coastal gardens in the UK, is the towering E. pininana, which is quite capable of producing a spire 5m high of solid blue or pinkish-blue flowers, which must number in their thousands, although I have not counted! This is monocarpic, but there are several less spectacular but no less beautiful perennial woody species, several of which I have raised from seed and am now attempting to grow in my garden. I saw one of them, E. nervosum (syn. fastuosum) on this trip; it is often planted as an ornamental on roundabouts, roadside verges and the like. It has the merits of forming a tidy rounded bush with rosettes of evergreen silky hairy leaves, in the middle of each of which is borne a single short-stemmed 'candle' of blue-lilac flowers. The first photograph shows it in Madeira, the second a two year old plant covered with protective fleece for the winter in a pot in my garden; fingers crossed it will 'do the business' this summer.
The Blandy Garden
The gardens of the Blandy family of Madeira wine fame have been in existence for 150 years and as a result have many magnificent mature trees, including huge specimens of perhaps the most beautiful of all conifers, Araucaria excelsa (Norfolk Island Pine), a close realtive of the Monkey Puzzle, and one of the most beautiful pines, Mexican yellow pine (Pinus patula), which has long slender needles that are as soft as hair. The garden is mostly laid out in a quite informal manner, but with formal feature gardens in the areas around the house, It is home to many unusual plants, some of which I have not seen elsewhere, but I can only show you one or two; you must make a visit yourself to see much more.
Members of the Proteaceae seem to be especially well represented with various species and hybrds of banksias from Australia and proteas and leucospermums from S. Africa. The illustrations are of Banksia marginata, Leucospermum cordifolium and Protea cynaroides:
This most gorgeous of camellias, which is only hardy outside in mild and sheltered gardens in the UK, is a joy to behold at Blandy's Garden, with large bushes of a number of different cultivars flaunting their huge, often frilled flowers:
Camellia reticulata 'Donato'
This brings me back conveniently to our garden where the camellias are mostly just coming to their best. They love our acid soil, and cool moist climate, apart from the ferocious, occasionally salt-laden winds that often batter our hillside, but they withstand those better than you might expect. Perhaps my faovourite of those we grow is C. japonica 'Jupiter', a very old single-flowered variety that we have trained against a NE facing house wall where it gets very little sun.
Camellia Japonica 'Adelina Patti'
This equally old cultivar commemorates the opera singer of Spanish birth who settled in the Swansea Valley late in life after a fantastic career as the leading soprano of her age, building a romantic chateau-like dwelling there at Craig-y-Nos with its own theatre which was a miniature replica of that at Bayreuth.There she regularly performed in the late 1800s -early 1900s to packed audiences drawn from far and wide by her beautiful voice. The chateau is still there and is now a hotel/conference centre.
Camellia japonica 'Little Bit'
This strangely named full double is a favourite of mine because it is such a good glowing red, and it keeps well as a cut flower - many canellias don't! Also it is slow growing having only formed a bush 1.5m high by 1m wide after 15 years.
Camellia 'White Swan'
White camellias are largely a snare and delusion as they nearly always turn brown at the edges soon after opening when grown outside, even in areas with little frost such as ours. But when they do have a chance to show of their best in calm, mild weather they are gorgeous. I have several, the best of which is the single, 'White Swan'.
Coming back at last to a few plants that are more appropiate fo this blog I give you, in order, three 'special' snowdrops, a charming little species narcissus, and some hints of promise to come with peonies pushing up through the rich compost with which I mulched them in the autumn.
This snowdrop, which was given to me with several others many years ago by the late Paddy Ryan, has the distinctive feature of a pronounced yellowish green receptacle.
Galanthus nivalis 'Daphne's Scissors'
See the scissors marking on the inner tepals!
Galanthus nivalis 'Trymposter'
This is the only one of the 'Trym' group that I have and I like it very much.
Precocious growth on Paeonia ruprechtiana
Paeonia mlokosewitschii buds emerging through a c
Roll on spring!!