Rich With Colour: Dahlias

Pink Dahlia 3065
One of my favourite dahlias, for both its flower shape and its colour.

This year I’ve been trying to extend the flowering season in my garden a little. So I’ve planted echinaceas, heleniums, rudbekias and asters, which helped to keep the garden going through the transition into autumn.

But I’ve been missing out on one of the best flowers for this time of year – the dahlia.

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These little dahlias are quite cute!

As a newcomer to dahlias, I find the choice of flowers quite bewildering. There are so many different types to get to know…cactus, semi-cactus, ball, pom-poms, anemone-flowered and more.

So far, I’ve decided that I like the peony-flowered and single dahlias the most because they have open centres (great for bees). The collarette dahlias are really interesting to photograph because they have two rings of petals – the large outer petals and a sweet little ring of twirly mini-petals around the central disc. (You can see one in the top-left corner of the photo-mosaic below.)

So far I’ve just planted two dahlias here. One is ‘Siberia’, a white, waterlily-flowered dahlia which you can also see in the mosaic below. The other is a seedling of ‘Bishop’s Children’ which has flowered in a rich bright red. That’s a small start, but next year I’ll be on the lookout for more.

Dahlias-8up-A
Some of the dahlias that I’ve photographed recently.

As usual, one of the biggest factors in my plant choices will be finding flowers that will make good photographs. Dahlias have a huge range of colours and shapes, so choosing will probably take some time.

For photography, I often look for flowers that have one colour with another blushed over them, or a different colour along the edges of petals, because it gives an interesting element to the photograph.

Shapes within the flower are important when photographing it too. Elegant curves, contrast of size and shape and interesting small details are all essential parts of a satisfying flower image.

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The brightest of reds.

I can foresee a slight snag with my new interest in dahlias. It’s going to be hard to restrict myself to the plants I actually have room for! Well, that will be a problem for next year. This year I must get on and improve the soil in the borders for them. And I’ll start working on my dahlia ‘to buy’ list, while dreaming about the wonderfully rich colours that they will bring to my garden…

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A dahlia that I’d love to grow.

Tougher Than it Looks: Hibiscus Syriacus

Hibiscus Blue Bird
The colours of Hibiscus ‘Blue Bird’ glow in the evening light.

Like many, the first time I saw hibiscus flowers was while on holiday in Spain. These were the red Hibiscus rosa-sinensis – flamboyant and very exotic-looking flowers that will always remind me of my parents’ garden there.

My parents had retired to Spain and spent over 20 years living there. On visits to them, I enjoyed looking after their little garden and visiting the nearby garden centre to buy plants for it. It was an exciting world of unfamiliar plants where I could have easily wandered for hours. (Nowadays those plants have become much more commonplace and are easily bought in UK garden centres.)

The Spanish garden centre was just a few minutes walk from my parents’ apartment, so a visit there became a frequent entertainment. (And it was a great place for buying gifts for my flower-loving mother.) My eye was often draw to the hibiscus plants there – both the usual red cultivar and the others that had flowers in a range of pinks, oranges and yellows.

White hibiscus flower
This white hibiscus is much less showy than those with the red markings and it seems to be shyly hiding under the leaf!

Living in Scotland at the time, I had no idea that it was possible to grow hibiscus in the UK. It was only when I moved to Suffolk that I came across the hardy hibiscus shrubs (Hibiscus syriacus) and fell in love with them.

‘Blue Bird’ was one of the first of the hardy hibiscus that I came across and it’s flower colour has made it my favourite. These flowers vary from a quite definite blue, to a softer, more lavender shade. This is can be due to the flower aging, but can also be dependent on whether the shrub was grown from seed (very variable) or from a cutting. (I’ve read that hibiscus seedlings can be a nuisance in parts of the USA, but that isn’t a problem in chilly old Britain!)

So far I have two hibiscus shrubs in the garden – Blue Bird, which has flowered abundantly this year, and a young plant of ‘Walburton’s Rose Moon’. This second hibiscus has massive flowers that open to a much flatter shape than the more cup-shaped blooms of Blue Bird.

A white hibiscus would look good in a new area that I’m planting up – probably ‘Red Heart’ which has showy red markings in the centre of its flowers. Another possibility would be the much more restrained plain white cultivar (above), seen in a nearby garden.

The hibiscus flowers are almost over for this year (there’s just one pink one left), but I’m already looking forward to being able to spend more time photographing them next year.

Hibiscus Rose Moon 2615
Hibiscus Walburton’s Rose Moon

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’

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

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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!

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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.

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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.

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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.

 

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!

Bud-Burst: Nectaroscordums

Nectaroscordum 3
A newly-opened head of nectaroscordum flowers, with some of the buds still pointing upwards.

As spring becomes summer, there are new flowers opening every day. I wander round my garden, eyeing up the fresh buds with great anticipation – just waiting for the first glimpse of colour as the petals begin to unfold and burst out of their casings.

Nectaroscordum siculum (Sicilian honey garlic) is one of the plants I like to watch develop from bud to flower. It starts off with its buds all wrapped up in a papery covering, which you can see in the photo below. The buds look almost like a bunch of miniature tulips in a florists’ wrap as they peep out from behind their thin cover.

Nectaroscordum Buds 2
Buds emerging from their paper-like covering.

Gradually the individual flower buds manage to wriggle free of their protection. They then begin to move from sitting upright to hanging downwards as the bell-shaped flowers get ready to open. It takes a little while for the buds to get from being upright to hanging down, so that the flower head goes through a stage of having some of its buds still sticking upwards – making it look a bit like it has an unruly hair-do! (Top photo.)

Nectaroscordum Buds 3
And they’re out! The first buds emerge.

Eventually, all the flowers hang down, in a graceful umbel at the top of a tall stem. (And it sways in the slightest breeze, making it a little tricky to photograph if the air isn’t still!) Later, after the flowers have been pollinated, the seed pods will all turn upright again. Those little flower stems are extraordinarily mobile!

The flowers are a lovely sight, coloured with a soft blend of purply-pinks and cream that rather reminds me of mother-of-pearl.

Nectaroscordums are very easy to grow in a well-drained soil in sun and seem drought-tolerant in my garden. They multiply well too, though it will take a few years before the seedlings flower. If I’m lucky, maybe I’ll end up with a sea of them – that would certainly keep me happily taking photographs!

Nectaroscordum Flower 1
The top buds are starting to point downwards before opening.