Love-in-a-mist: Nigella damascena

White nigella damascena flower
I love the splash of magenta at the centre of this white nigella flower.

There’s something very appealing about the name ‘love-in-a-mist’. It sounds old-fashioned and romantic,  which suits a flower that has been a cottage-garden favourite for a long time.

The flowers are intricately structured and appear to float above a light, frothy mass of finely-cut foliage. (The foliage looks very like that of fennel. So much so, that one of the names of the species Nigella sativa is ‘fennel flower’.)

The combination of the complex flower structure and the angular shapes of the foliage make it a very pleasing plant to photograph. (The seed-pods too. They are strikingly puffed-up globes that have spiky-looking little horns on top and a ruff of feathery foliage around the base.)

Nigella flowers come in blues, pinks and white. Those I like best are the flowers that are white, but veined with blue or green, as in the photo below. These have an especially elegant look, which demands that you get really close to the flower so that you can see it properly. For next year, I’d like to grow and photograph some of the cultivars that have dark centres – ‘Midnight’, ‘African Bride’ or ‘Delft Blue’.

Right now, though, I need to get out in the garden and collect some of the ripe brown seed-heads that are just waiting to sprinkle their seeds everywhere. Then I can sow them in among the bulkier plants in my newest border. They’ll provide an excellent contrast to the shapes of irises and large-leaved foliage plants, as well as the bolder flowers of dahlias and echinaceas. If I’m organised enough, I’ll try to sow them at intervals throughout the spring and summer, so that they give a longer season of foliage and flowers.

They may seem small and rather shy, as they hide in their cloud of foliage, but nigellas are a really pretty and useful garden plant. They do deserve to have their seeds sprinkled in any spare corner you may have!

Nigella damascena bud
A bud lives up to the name ‘Love-in-a-Mist’

Deceptive: Cactus Flower

Yellow echinopsis cactus flower
Not as soft as they look – those hairs on the stem can irritate your skin!

What could be more inoffensive than a flower? We’re used to thinking of them as pretty and delicate – which this cactus flower certainly is. And it’s ephemeral too. The flower only lasts a day or two before it’s gone.

But don’t be taken in by the fragile appearance of the flower. See those hairs on the flower stem (or ‘flower tube’)? They aren’t as soft and silky as they look. And, oh, don’t touch! I did – accidentally – and I regretted it.

Those hairs don’t look anywhere as threatening as the spines on the body of the cactus but they can be really painful to your skin. I don’t actually know (or remember – it was a long time ago) whether it was the hairs themselves containing some sort of irritant, or whether the hairs hide tiny barbs. Either way, it taught me to be more careful!

If you do get cactus barbs or hairs stuck in your skin, remove what you can with tweezers. Then try covering the area with a thin layer of a suitable household glue (Elmers etc), lay a piece of gauze over it, let it dry and pull off to remove the rest. Ouch!

Clematis: Squeezing Extra Colour into a Small Space

Clematis Hagley Hybrid 1476
This ‘Hagley Hybrid’ flower seems to be enjoying the evening sunshine.

Gardeners are always wishing for more room to grow plants. Inevitably there will be another flower, a shrub – even a tree – that we’d like to be able to find space for.

Since we don’t have gardens with elastic sides, we just have to squeeze things in as best we can. Or be extremely disciplined about the plants we buy. Nope, that’s not happening here! But then, I have the ‘excuse’ of needing new plants to photograph…

Clematis Arabella 2302
The mauve flowers of Clematis ‘Arabella’ are carried on short scrambling stems.

A sneaky way of cramming some extra flowers into the garden is to grow climbers. I have several clematis plants growing through shrubs where they take very little extra space. Roses and clematis are a classic combination, but I tend to use any shrub as a potential climbing frame.

I love clematis. I think it’s pretty much my favourite plant, so I face terrible temptation at my local nurseries. (One of them has usually got a good selection at very reasonable prices – very difficult to ignore!) So, as you may guess, I’m now trying to find extra spaces in the garden for more clematis…eventually I may run out of space for them too!

Clematis Mrs N Thompson
‘Mrs N Thompson’ is bright and bold.

It’s a moment of pure delight to see the first flowers on a young clematis. They’re always more beautiful in their richness of colour and the graceful way that they hold their flowers, than any picture on their label. Sometimes I forget where I have planted a clematis, and then have a happy surprise when I spot the colour peeping out here and there on the host shrub.

I must admit, I’ve lost a few clematis plants over the years. Some were planted in areas that were just too dry and others may have been struggling with too much heat at their roots. Now I try to pay a bit more attention to putting them in more suitable places, but it does take them a while to get established here. It’s worth a bit of care and patience though, because the flowers are simply lovely.

Next week’s blog post could be a bit late, or have fewer photos. That’s because my trusty old PC is dying, so I will have to move on from Photoshop CS3 at last. (I’ve been resisting that change for a long time.) We do have a new PC, but there will be a lot for me to learn in the way of photo-processing – argh! (Wish me luck!!)

Clematis Victoria 2398
‘Victoria’ has brought some delicate beauty to the variegated euonymus that it’s weaving through.

Blue (and Violet and Purple) for Bees

Cerinthe major 'Purpurascens' (Honeywort)
The common name of Cerinthe is ‘Honeywort’ and bees love it.

If you’ve been reading my blog for a while, you’ve probably noticed that blues and purples are my favourite colours in the garden.

Some of the darker flowers have a lovely velvety look – petunias and the deep purple morning glory ‘Grandpa Otts’ spring to mind. They just ask you to stroke them! And at the lighter end of the range, soft violets and lilac-blues are delicately beautiful.

So I’m delighted to read that bees share my attraction to these colours and often prefer blue and violet flowers.

Scientists studying bees’ vision have discovered that, unlike us, bees can see ultraviolet light. This allows bees to see the ultraviolet patterns that flowers use to show them where to find nectar.

(There’s even a colour named ‘bee’s purple’, which is a mixture of yellow and ultraviolet light and is visible to bees but not to us.)

Blue Olearia-1064
This blue daisy bush (Olearia) looks like an aster but flowers in spring and early summer.

A German scientific study  of bumblebees also found that (in an area where violet flowers produced the most nectar), they preferred violet over blue. This allowed the bees to collect more nectar than bees that didn’t show a preference.

Apparently the world bees see is a mixture of mostly blue, green and ultraviolet, also yellow and some orange, but no red. Red just looks like a black to bees, but bees have an excellent sense of smell, so that flowers in the red colour range can attract them by scent.

There are already a number of bee-friendly plants in blues and purples in my garden.

Cerinthe (top photo) is a marvelous plant for pollinators because it is especially rich in nectar, giving it the common name of ‘Honeywort’. (This cerinthe was photographed in a garden I was visiting in the spring. The cooler temperatures at that time gave it a much darker colouring than my own plants had in the warmth of summer.)

Flowers of Geranium 'Rozanne' with lavender.
Flowers of Geranium ‘Rozanne’ with lavender – a combination sure to attract bees!

The geranium ‘Rozanne’ is now lazily flopping into the lavender bushes beside it, creating a partnership that pleases both me and the bees. This geranium flowers over a long period, so it really earns its place in a bee-border.

Another flower that is popular with bees and that self-sows around my garden is Centaurea montana – the perennial cornflower. It also attracts butterflies and moths, which means it works well as a pollinator magnet. The unusual flower shape and the combination of blue and magenta make it a lovely garden plant.

The daisy bush (Olearia) was photographed in a garden I visited in spring. Apparently it attracts both bees and butterflies – and I’m wondering if I can find a suitable space for one in my own garden…

As you might expect, I’m looking forward to checking out what violet, purple and blue flowers are best for bees. There will, of course, be plenty of other colours too. But, hey, I’m really pleased that my buzzy little friends share my colour preferences!

Flower of Centaurea montana
Centaurea montana is a very easy-to-grow plant that attracts bees, butterflies and moths.

Daisies: Simple but Pretty

Anthemis tinctoria-2299
The flowers of Anthemis tinctoria ‘E C Buxton’ glow in the evening sunshine.

Daisies – the kind you find in your lawn – are the first flowers that I remember being aware of as a child. (Though I was a few years older by the time I tried the fiddly task of making a daisy chain.)

Now, as an adult, I’m aware of the tremendous range of daisies – the different colours, sizes and growth habits that give each their own character.

That character can vary greatly because the daisy family (asteraceae) includes plants you would expect, e.g. asters, coneflowers, dahlias, marigolds – and a lot that are a surprise, for instance cornflowers, and, believe it or not, lettuce!

Echinacea 2486
The large flowers of echinacea give a naturalistic look to the garden.

The bold shape of the bigger daisies, such as echinacea, makes them a great plant to mix with more delicate plant forms for contrast. (I have lots of fennel and verbena bonariensis which create an airy feel, and wispy grasses give a softness too.) Add in other plant shapes – spires (veronica and veronicastrum maybe) and some bold leaves – and you have a border full of textural and architectural interest.

Aster-2466
This tall aster has flowers of a very attention-grabbing colour!

My own garden is in a state of constant change at the moment. (I think that most gardens probably are.) The main border that I’ve created over the last couple of years has filled out so much that the plants no longer have enough space. Some plants are busily setting seed everywhere while others have grown more than I expected. So there will be a lot of shifting plants around!

As I re-organize borders and create new planting areas, I hope to add lots more daisies, especially some of the late-flowering ones like heleniums and dahlias. (My plan is to create a garden that allows me the opportunity to take photographs over as long a period as possible.)

There will certainly be plenty of choice for me because the daisy family is vast, so there will be a colour, size and shape to suit any planting plan I come up with.

Doronicum-flm-645
Doronicum (leopard’s bane) flowers are a cheerful sight in spring and early summer.

Bees’ Needs: Flowers!

Bee on a borage flower
A bee enjoys the last of the borage flowers.

This week has been ‘Bees’ Needs Week’ here in the UK. This is an annual campaign where a number of groups come together to increase awareness of the needs of bees and other pollinators and ways in which we can help them.

Suddenly there seems to be a lot more interest in the role of gardens in helping wild creatures, especially insects and birds, to survive.

(This week, the ‘Gardener’s World’ TV show was all about wild meadow flowers and ways that we can encourage some of the same plants into our own gardens. And the major garden shows – Chelsea and Hampton Court – have an increasing emphasis on planting for wildlife.)

In reality, the desire to help our bees and pollinators has been growing steadily over the last few years but now there is much more information about what gardeners can do. (And, I think, willingness in gardeners to do what they can to help.)

I’ll link to some of the best bee info websites that I’ve found at the bottom of this post.

A bee on a red scabious flower (Knautia macedonica).
Bees love this red scabious (Knautia macedonica).

In our garden here in Suffolk, I’ve tried to plant flowers that would be a good source of pollen and nectar over a long period. For early and late in the year, there is Mahonia and Viburnum bodnantense ‘Dawn’, but I really need to plant more early spring bulbs, especially crocuses, and flowers that will last well into autumn.

Among the most successful of the bee plants in the garden here are borage, red scabious, alliums, lavander and catmint.

At the moment there is a big patch of borage plants – they seem huge this year – and, although the flowers are almost over, the bees have been very busy here.

The red scabious  happily seeds itself all around the garden and you can usually find a few bees on its flowers. Verbena bonariensis does the same thing, cropping up all over the place and keeping not just bees, but hoverflies and butterflies happy too.

A beekeeper has caught a swarm of bees in a skep.
L: Checking that the bees are comfortably settled in their temporary home. R: Waiting for latecomers.

One year, I got a bit more than I bargained for when a swarm of bees decided to take up residence in the cherry tree in our front garden. Luckily a nearby beekeeper was happy to take them away to a nice new home. It was impressive to see how deftly he was able to shake them out of the tree into his straw skep. Once the queen and the majority of the swarm were safely settled in the skep, the rest of the bees gradually joined them by crawling in through a gap left for them. Frost fleece came in pretty handy as a way of discouraging escapees!

I hope to increase the number of bee-friendly plants in our garden and to encourage other wildlife too, probably by growing some wild plants in odd corners of the garden. The idea of having a small ‘meadow’ planting area appeals to me and may be a project for next year.

I’ll be writing more about bees and gardens soon. In the meantime, here are some helpful (UK-based) sites if you’d like more information about planting for bees:

  • The Pollinator Garden – site by Marc Carlton. This site has more information than anything else I’ve found so far. Great planting list with details of what kinds of bees the different plants attract. Comprehensive information, including how to build bee hotels, creating garden meadows etc.
  • Save Bees and Pollinators  – The Wildlife Trusts. Information about the importance of pollinators and the threats they face. Links to information about how you can use your own garden to help them.
  • RHS Plants for Pollinators  – Royal Horticultural Society. Has downloadable plant lists for garden plants, wild flowers and ‘plants of the world’.
  • The Bumblebee Conservation Trust – has lots of information about different bumblebee species and their needs. Their ‘Bee Kind’ tool allows you to find out how many bee-friendly plants are in your garden. (It’s massive and goes on for 34 pages but you can also use it to see just the best plants for bees by clicking on ‘Only Show Super Plants’ in the filter bar.)
A bee on Verbena bonariensis
Verbena bonariensis is popular with bees, butterflies and hoverflies.

A Rediscovery: Triteleia Laxa

The blue flowers of Tritelia laxa 'Queen Fabiola'
Tritelia laxa ‘Queen Fabiola’ has blue flowers that are reminiscent of agapanthus.

Occasionally I come across something in the garden that I had pretty much forgotten about.

That happened last year when I was starting to clear an area of the garden that had become overgrown with too-rampant plants. (I have quite a few of these!)

I was delighted to discover these pretty little blue flowers – Tritelia laxa – still managing to survive, despite the tide of geraniums, Japanese anemonies, ivy and assorted weeds that was threatening to engulf them.

I haven’t seen them very often in the UK. Perhaps that’s because they are not thoroughly hardy and don’t like getting very wet in winter. Luckily for them, my soil is very well-drained and I guess that the weeds etc. have been protecting them from the winter cold.

Triteliea growing in a garden.
These triteliea flowers have managed to survive and multiply in a rather neglected corner of my garden.

The flowers used to be known as Brodiaea and you can still find the corms for sale under that name. They have several other names too, but the one that intrigued me is ‘Ithuriel’s Spear’. So I had to Google it…

Apparently, Ithuriel was the name of an angel who had a spear that could unmask any disguise by its touch. According to the poet Milton, he was sent to the Garden of Eden, where he used the spear to discover Satan, who was hiding in the disguise of a toad. (You can see that this must come from the sharp-looking tip of the flower bud somewhat resembling a spear.)

So now, as a result of that strange association I’m imagining myself wandering around the garden, trying to touch the frogs (haven’t seen any toads here) with a tiny blue flower. Somehow I don’t think they’d be too impressed! (Nor would the neighbours!)

Plant names seem to belong in a strange world of imagination and fantasy – but they can be amusing. And now I must go and take some more photographs of my rediscovered little beauties…

Triteleia laxa (also known as Brodiaea) 'Queen Fabiola'
Tritelia (aka Brodiaea) makes a great cut flower.

 

Elderflowers: Pink Fizz

Pink elderflowers
Sambucus ‘Black Lace’ has finely-cut foliage and frothy pink heads of flowers.

Time moves fast in the garden. One moment a plant is in full flower and the next it’s covered in seedheads or berries.

This year especially, with so much new work to do in the garden, I’ve been finding it difficult to keep up with all of the plants and flowers that I want to photograph. Sometimes I leave a plant too long and then find that the flowers have gone over before I get near them with my camera.

A few days ago I realised that the flowers on our bronze elder were almost gone and I really didn’t want to have to wait a year to have another chance.

Having chosen one of the last few flowers, I decided to photograph it indoors. This was the easiest way to get a sharp image. It has been quite breezy here recently and it takes very little to make the elder’s long branches sway – so not much chance of being able to focus on the flowers!

Of course, I could have collected some of the flowers to make elderflower cordial or ‘champagne’. The flowers can even be fried in batter to make fritters. Or the flowers could be left to produce berries for making an elderberry syrup.

(The syrup really doesn’t appeal to me because the berries contain cyanide and other toxic substances. These are destroyed in cooking, but  I still wouldn’t fancy chancing it!)

Other parts of the elder tree also contain cyanide, which may be behind the superstitious belief that burning the wood is unlucky.

There are many old beliefs surrounding the elder tree. These are a strange, inconsistent mixture! One one hand, it was said that if you burned the wood, you would see the devil but on the other hand, having the elder planted near your house would keep the devil away.

In early times, the elder was thought to be a protection against witchcraft and evil spirits but by medieval times, it was reckoned to be both the wood used for Christ’s cross and the tree on which Judas hanged himself.

Well, there’s no confusion for me. I simply enjoy the pretty flowers while they last and the beautiful lace-like leaves and dark berries too.

Flowers of Sambucus nigra 'Black Lace'-2121
The tiny pink flowers can be used to make elderflower cordial or ‘champagne’ – and it will be pink!

Summer Scents: Philadelphus

Philadelphus Coronarius flowers
Our neighbours’ beautiful philadelphus leans over the fence into our garden.

As a photographer, it would be easy for me to forget that being in a garden is not just a visual experience.

Scent is something that I tend not to think about until I am greeted by an unexpected waft of perfume from some nearby flowers.

For the past few weeks, a shrub in my neighbours’ garden has been flowering magnificently and leaning right over the fence into my garden. It has been a most welcome sight, but, beautiful as the flowers were, their scent was even more impressive. Strong and sweet, this scent has been filling the air near our back door and has made it a pleasure to step outside.

The shrub is a philadelphus or ‘mock orange’. I’m guessing, from its strong perfume and height (about 9-10 ft.) that it is likely to be Philadelphus coronarious. (You can see it in the top photo.) It has just finished flowering and now the two philadelphus shrubs in my own garden have taken over.

White philadelphus (mock orange) flowers
This Philadelphus was in the garden when we came here – I think it’s probably ‘Virginal’.

In the photograph above, you can see the older of these. I think it has been in the garden for a very long time and it was terribly overgrown and straggly when we arrived. I cut it back a lot and it has grown back strongly.

Despite now having quite a lot of shade from nearby trees, this philadelphus is heavily covered with flowers but their scent is not as strong as those on the neighbours’ shrub. By the look of it, I think that this one must be the cultivar ‘Virginal’ – it was one of the commonest ones. (Nowadays, there seems to be a very large number of cultivars available.)

In contrast, I do know the name of the philadelphus in the bottom photograph. It is ‘Belle Etoile’  – I’m sure, because I planted that one!

(Not knowing the full names of plants that you’ve ‘inherited’ or else photographed in other people’s gardens makes titling photographs accurately very difficult.)

Belle Etoile seems to have less scent than the others, however, it makes it up for that with the pretty purplish colouration at the centre. This makes it attractive to photograph, as well as blending it nicely with its dark pink and purple flowered neighbours in that border.

I’m enjoying the company of these lovely shrubs at the moment – what more could a flower photographer ask, than a beautiful subject that also happens to smell good while you’re working up close to it. Sweet!

Flowers of Philadelphus 'Belle Etoile'
Philadelphus ‘Belle Etoile’ has a magenta blush at the centre of the flower.

Little Stars

The star-shaped flowers of Allium christophii.
The star-shaped flowers of Allium christophii.

The shape of flowers is one of the main elements that draws me to photograph them. If it is a plant with a distinctive shape, especially when it’s graceful, then (as I’m sure you’ll expect) I’m keen to create images of it.

Allium christophii is one of the more spectacular early-summer flowers, with it’s firework-burst head of delicate purple stars. Each little star reflects light, giving it the appearance of being metallic. They remind me of the rich colour and sheen of anodised aluminium.

Flowers of Ornithogalum nutans
Ornithogalum nutans has a spike of starry flowers.

While the allium has a very sculptural look, there is something softer and more subtle about Ornithogalum nutans (AKA ‘Nodding Star of Bethlehem’). I hadn’t seen it until a recent garden visit and I was immediately attracted by the elegant white flowers with their green markings. They would look lovely mixed in a border with ferns and and something with bold leaves – hostas, maybe. (I think they’d be a great choice for the rather more ‘natural’ pond-side border that I’m currently planning.)

Flowers of Scilla peruviana
The little stars of Scilla peruviana orbit the still-unopened flower buds

Scilla peruviana is another plant that I’d like to grow so that I can photograph it. The purple and blue stars look as if they’re in an orbit around the darker buds that are still waiting to open. There are lots of possibilities for interesting compositions here, but it helps if you have the plants in your own garden so that you can spend some time experimenting. (I’m always wishing I could spend longer with the interesting plants I find in the gardens I visit. The only solution is to do a bit of plant-shopping!)

The last plant is one that I do have in my own garden. You may have come across the edible blue flowers of borage (also appropriately known as ‘starflower’) as a pretty addition to summer salads or frozen in ice cubes for drinks. Here, I let it seed around an area of the garden so that the bees can enjoy it. Borage is also an excellent companion plant for anything growing around it because it adds trace elements to the soil. (So it’s not just a pretty face!) Pimms, anyone?

 

Flowers of borage (starflower)
Borage is also known as ‘starflower’, a very apt name!