So the weather for the start of Chelsea week was heavenly, seeming to ‘teeter miraculously between spring and summer’ according to Dan Pearson in the weekend’s Observer. Furious with myself for missing the chance of a ticket, I prowl the Botanic Garden looking for solace, and of course there’s plenty. The meadow plantings in front of Cory Lodge and at the eastern end of the garden suddenly burst into colour. Lovely iris are still very much in evidence, pale mauve Iris pallida and Iris sibirica ‘Caesar’s brother’ (I can’t find an explanation for the common name) jostling for space with the cobalt and white spears of Camassia leichtlinii, myriad grasses and new green foliage and the ubiquitous Anthriscus sylvestris – cow parsley – also known as wild chervil, wild beaked parsley, keck and Queen Ann’s lace. According to Mike McCarthy, writing in The Independent, cow parsley is experiencing a boom, at the expense of other species which used to grace our hedgerows, largely due to soil improvements – apparently many wild flowers thrive in infertile soil. Whilst it may look pretty, it’s a monoculture and as such disappointingly one-dimensional.
The Chelsea garden I’m most sorry to have missed is Sophie Walker’s Cave Pavilion. Sophie, the youngest woman in history to design a Chelsea garden, was inspired to study horticulture while travelling in Bolivia. Her garden, designed to emulate a ‘dreamlike jungle Eden’ was described by one commentator as ‘a rainforest in a giant Perspex box’, with a viewing window at one end. The structure, says Dan Pearson, is a ‘21st century take on the Wardian case’, the kind of portable mini-greenhouse used by 19th century plant hunters to transport plants from their native habitats. The plants, supplied by Sue and Bleddyn Wynn-Jones of Crûg Farm Plants, included new species and one genus completely new to cultivation, Uocodendron whartonii, which they discovered in 2003 in Taiwan. This is apparently the first Chelsea garden where the plants are fully traceable, each having its own collection number, and is designed to raise awareness of international plant conservation. I caught a television interview with the Wynn-Joneses, who spoke about the importance of plant-hunting, both historically – many of the plants we assume are native species come from China, for example – and now, for plant conservation. In many cases it’s a question of getting in before the bulldozers, they suggested, preventing the loss of species before we even know we have them.
The Bank Holiday weekend sees me off on the trail of E.H. ‘Chinese’ Wilson (see February post ‘Where’er you walk’) whose intrepid journeys provided the seeds for rhododendrons at Norfolk’s Sheringham Park. I persuade my long-suffering brother to take a break from his regular birding routes and we brave the crowds to see the results of EHW’s expeditions. In many ways they are spectacular: great banks of colour, from deep crimsons and purples to delicate pinks and whites, and opportunities for the long view from the top of a series of viewing towers. Possible to imagine for a moment standing in the foothills of the Himalayas and seeing such a sight for the first time – were it not for the hordes of holiday-makers/pushchairs/dogs all on the same mission. And where were the species? Or the plant labels? The plant history? Humphry Repton’s garden design was the subject of a small exhibition in the visitor centre – an intriguing quirk of his process was to produce a ‘red book’ for each of his designs with explanatory text and watercolour illustrations with an overlay to show ‘before’ and ‘after’ views – but nothing about Wilson or the plants, and a brief paragraph only in the guide on sale in the shop. I suppose that’s a good reminder of the different priorities in a National Trust visitor centre, and a university botanic garden with an emphasis on the science. At any rate, I found myself as usual preferring the incidentals – sunlight through saplings in the wood or the architecture of the twisted trunks – rather than the main show. And what a relief to get back to the less peopled salt marshes and shingle shore of Cley and Salthouse! Never thought I’d be so glad to see a sandwich tern!
My own travels recently have taken me to Norwich, twice. On Saturday I was delighted to be reading in Words and Women’s garden festival in the city’s beautiful Plantation Garden, a Victorian gem restored in the 1980s – well worth investigating if you haven’t seen it. I wasn’t able to stay for the whole event, but loved Lois Williams’ reflections on the gooseberry and Anna Mudeka’s wonderful Zimbabwean music – what a voice! Now London is next on my list: in particular the Open Garden Squares Weekend (14-15 June) when over 200 garden squares will be open to the public. According to Jo Thompson, whose London Square Garden won a gold award at Chelsea, it’s the capital’s gardens that keep us breathing. There is also a magical secret garden feel to these spaces: I remember Sunday afternoons when I lived in Woburn Square as a student, letting ourselves into the garden with a residents’ key, and this reminds me of Cambridge Botanics’ own quaint tradition of the Sunday key holders. And back to London, towards the end of next month a chance to hear Dan Pearson and Tom Heatherwick talk about their fantastic Garden Bridge project, as part of the Seeding the City initiative.
My most recent adventures were closer to home: a day’s walk in full sun over the cliffs to Sheringham, the air shrill with skylarks over drifts of the lovely sea thrift Armeria maritima then inland along wooded lanes to Cromer. And on Sunday evening I passed up on an invitation to hear quail singing (good decision: they didn’t) but went along with the outing to look for nightjar. We set out just before sunset under an almost cloudless sky, along lanes whose verges were crowded – yes, with cow parsley. The challenges for conservation were echoed as we drove past Sandringham Park, the flat purple of Rhododendron ponticum stacked and towering either side of the road. The origins of this ‘British rhododendron’ are unclear. What is certain is that the Victorian taste for the exotic led to the spread of a plant which will out-compete most native species and hence is responsible for the destruction of native habitats.
In contrast, our destination: Dersingham Bog Nature Reserve. I have to admit my heart sank as we set off down the track in the cold near-dark and what looked like wasteland materialised in the dusk before us. We joined a handful of other seekers and at least a million hungry midges and whispered and loitered. And loitered. Eventually, the call – a mechanical trrrrrrr trrrrrrrr – and occasional flurries of sotto voce excitement, – "flying left coming towards us now, left, flying right"... I saw – an unidentified bird miles high and far away, which might have corresponded to Andy’s description of the nightjar’s ‘floppy’ flight, and the briefest flash of something lightish in the darkness. Oh, and the insectivorous sundew: yes there really is such a plant, alive and well in the Dersingham bog. In fact, Drosera (commonly known as the sundews) comprises one of the largest genera of carnivorous plants, with at least 194 species. If there were a photograph, it would be of a kneeling human figure, bottom raised heavenward in the gloaming, nose down beneath the duckboard, peering at a tiny rash of red dots poking out of the marshy ground.
As Writer in Residence, thoughts from the garden