Rowan Lore

Red rowan tree berries
The rowan tree – once viewed as a powerful protector against evil forces.

Autumn is the ‘berry time’ of year. In our neighbours’ garden, a rowan tree is now heavily laden with glistening red fruits.

This small tree reminds me of the rowan trees that grew in the garden of my childhood home in the north of Scotland. Rowans can often be seen growing beside houses throughout the Scottish Highlands.

In the past, these trees were seen as a ‘lucky’ tree – a superstition which was a diluted form of earlier beliefs in the rowan’s magic powers, especially as an antidote to evil.

In Britain, the rowan was once regarded as one of the most powerful protectors against the forces of darkness. It was believed to keep away witches and malicious spirits and to avert the evil eye.

Witches were believed to be afraid to come near a rowan tree because, if a christened person should touch a witch with any part of the tree, then the Devil would be entitled to carry her away to Hell as his tribute.

Faeries and spirits also kept their distance from the rowan. An old tale tells of a woman who prevented a ghost’s return to its grave by barring its way with a rod of rowan.

Another tale shows that even the Devil himself was believed powerless against the supernatural force of the rowan. A young miller’s apprentice had rashly arranged to meet the Devil. His anxious friends advised him to take a rowan branch with him, draw a circle around himself with it and, whatever happened, to remain within the circle.

When the Devil appeared, he threw a book to the boy and asked him to write his name in it. The boy refused to return the book. Enraged, the Devil made the most terrifying attempts to reach him, but could not break through the magic circle. Defeated, the Devil eventually disappeared, leaving his book in the hands of the startled apprentice.

Since any part of this magical tree was able to turn aside evil, both its wood and its berries were used to make charms.

To make a more powerful charm, red thread was combined with rowan because red, as the colour of blood, possessed a strong magic. Red rowan berries were strung on a red thread to make an amulet which could be placed around the neck of a child to keep it safe from the powers of the unseen world.

”Rowan tree and red threid

Gar the witches tyne their speed”

(Scots traditional charm,  gar = makes,  tyne = lose)

Red thread was also used to bind rowan twigs in the form of a cross which was frequently used to protect young children and livestock. During the dangerous period before baptism, when a new-born child was particularly at risk from witchcraft, the evil eye, or even abduction by faeries, a rowan cross might be fastened to its clothing or to the cradle.

Beltane (1 May) and Halloween were reckoned to be the most dangerous times of the year, because evil forces were then at their strongest. To stay safe, it was wise to carry a sprig of rowan or even to have a piece of rowan wood sewn into your clothing. You might also place a rowan cross above the doorway of your house to make sure that no witches could get in.

It was thought unlucky to use rowan for ordinary firewood, or to cut one down, except for special uses. The tree that protected the Scottish Highlander in life, sometimes protected him in death too, for a coffin or bier made of rowan wood was regarded with great respect.

During its long history as a magical protector, the rowan has earned affection and respect. Nowadays, however, it is more valued as a graceful garden tree which is also very beneficial to wildlife. Next time you see one, I hope you’ll think of the significance the rowan has had for our ancestors and, maybe, imagine how they felt about it. Sometimes a tree isn’t just a tree!

I’m intrigued by beliefs, superstitions and folk-tales about the plants that surround us. I’d love to know more, so if you know any, I’d be delighted to hear about them in the comments……

Not Always Greener

red-flowered miscanthus grass
The flower heads of this miscanthus are like crazy red fireworks!

Late summer and autumn can be a great time for grasses in the garden. Some change colours around this time and there’s an amazing variety of flower and seed heads which add texture and interest to garden borders.

Grasses can give a lovely ‘natural’ look to a garden and help to create a relaxed atmosphere, especially when they’re grown with the other plants that are at their best at this time of year – rudbekias, echinacea, heleniums and asters are the obvious ones. (The slightly ‘wild’ look that many daisies have makes them ideal companions for grasses.)

Chasmanthus latifolium
The flat heads of this chasmanthus are a lovely coppery colour

The natural look of grasses can create a problem because they don’t look right with many of the more traditional plants. Hybrid roses, for instance and many of the double-flowered plants (like clematis).

In my own garden, the solution has been to create different areas. (Not that easy because it’s not a very big garden.) In one area, the planting is what I’d describe as ‘modern cottage-garden’, with a wide mixture of flowering plants, including roses and clematis, small shrubs, herbs, and bigger plants such as lilac, wisteria, philadelphus, viburnum and hydrangeas. The other area is beside the site for my in-progress pond. (Still digging!) This is where the planting will be much more informal. The perennials in this area are generally taller. I have the little yellow sunflower, Helianthus ‘Lemon Queen’ and Japanese anemones here, as well as crocosmias – all of which can be very thuggish. So the plants going into this border will need to be vigorous enough to make their own claim on some space without letting themselves be crowded out. (And there may need to be quite a bit of interference from me to ensure fair play!)

Grass flower-heads
Grass heads like these add a lot of texture to a border

When I was a kid, I was very attracted to the textures of grass heads and loved to run them through my fingers. (Sometimes stripping off the seeds – I must have spread a few plants around that way!) This tactile quality of grasses helps to make the garden a more inviting place. Somewhere that you can touch the plants, feel them in your fingers and become involved with them – not just somewhere that you look at from a distance.

If you look at them closely, grasses, especially the flower heads, can have a lot of detail. They can be delicate and airy, bold and attention-grabbing, brightly-coloured or subtle, and some have a slightly metallic sheen to them. They are wonderful when they are back-lit by the low light of autumn, even more so if there’s a spider’s web sparkling with dew-drops suspended from the leaves.

Grasses, like other plants, are a reason to spend time in a garden: time just looking and enjoying the detail. There’s a quote from writer Henry Miller that is particularly appropriate here, ‘The moment one gives close attention to any thing, even a blade of grass, it becomes a mysterious, awesome, indescribably magnificent world in itself’.

Do you enjoy the details of plants? Does anything particularly catch your eye? I’d love to know in the comments!

Panicum virgatum
The delicate heads of Panicum virgatum

Waterlilies – Beautiful, Exotic, Mysterious…

purple waterlilies
These beauties were growing in a glasshouse.

The waterlily is one of the most enchanting plants and it has held a fascination for humans right throughout history.

Sacred in Egypt, India and China from ancient times, the waterlily has become a symbol of many things: renewal of life, immortality, purity, divinity, enlightenment.

So when we look at these beautiful flowers, we’re aware of more than just the waterlily itself. We feel the magic of  all the associations that have grown up around it. We get caught, ever so slightly, in its spell…

pink waterlily
A hardy pink waterlily in an outdoor pond.

Before the age of around 20, I had only ever seen waterlilies in photographs or paintings. Never in ‘real life’. (I don’t think I’d even seen a garden pond during my childhood on Scotland’s north coast. The climate there isn’t exactly encouraging to serious gardening.) The first time I saw one in a garden (somewhere much further south), I was entranced. The flower seemed like something foreign and entirely exotic and that impression has stayed with me. Since then, I’ve always been delighted when the chance comes to photograph them.

Photographing flowers in someone else’s garden is always a little tricky. Usually it’s not possible to use a tripod, so close-up work is difficult. You must be so very careful not to stand on any plants or brush against anything that you might damage. But waterlilies are even more awkward. Frequently the flowers are just too far away or they’re sitting at an angle that means you can’t see them properly. It’s wonderful when you find waterlilies growing right by the edge of the pond and when you can get close enough to them without the danger of taking an unintentional nose-dive into the water!

yellow waterlily
I love this pale yellow waterlily

As you might expect then, the idea of being able to photograph waterlilies in my own garden really appeals to me. Currently I am starting to dig out a pond. Actually, it’s only a small hole so far – I’m digging an exploratory trench so that I can work out where pipes run and hopefully avoid them. Today it has been raining for a few hours and I’m really grateful because it will make the hard ground much easier to dig. (Digging is much better left until after we’ve had some rainy weather. Summer here is so hot and dry that the ground bakes as hard as stone.)

It will probably take quite  while to get my pond made and to work out what to plant around it. But I do already have a couple of little waterlily plants. They were given to me by a kind friend who was sorting out her own pond. At the moment they’re planted up in a pond basket which is sitting in a huge plastic box. So far they seem quite happy (and they even have a little frog who likes to lurk in the pond basket beside them) but I’ll be glad when I can give them a proper home. And then I’ll have to wait and see what colour (pink or red) they are…

Do any plants enchant you – I’d love to know in the comments!

white waterlily
Elegant simplicity – a white waterlily

 

A Plant Photographer’s Paradise.

White Japanese anemone flower
A beautiful white Japanese anemone

I’m lucky that East Anglia has some great gardens to visit. Last weekend there was the chance to get over to the Fullers Mill Garden near Bury St Edmunds, before it closes for the season. (It’s open from the start of April until the end of September every year.)

The garden is entered by a narrow lane that passes through the edge of the ‘Kings Forest’, Forestry Commission woodland at West Stow. So as soon as you arrive, you are surrounded by the sound of the wind rushing in the trees. This changes when you get right into the garden and arrive at Fullers Mill Cottage – now the sound you will hear is the River Lark forcing itself through a narrow weir before it spreads out again and becomes calmer on its journey through the garden.

As you continue into the garden, the sounds from the forest and the weir recede and you’re surrounded by a feeling of tranquility and calm. Even when the garden is full of  visitors, you can find a quiet spot just for yourself. (And if you’re lucky, it might just happen to have one of the benches that are dotted around the garden.)

House and border at Fullers Mill Garden
Left: Looking towards the house. Right: A shrub border

The original garden at Fullers Mill was small when the creator of the garden, Bernard Tickner and his wife Bess bought the cottage in 1958. Over a period of more than 50 years, Bernard was able to gradually buy land from the Forestry Commission and turn it from rough ground into a garden filled with a vast collection of  plants, many of them uncommon and unusual.

Steps and terraces at Fullers Mill Garden
Steps and terraces in the Low Garden

The first area to be developed was the ‘Low Garden’ (Photographs above and below). The terraces here are full of flowering bulbs in spring, and in summer there are the beautiful flowers of the giant lily, Cardiocrinum giganteum.

Path below the terraces at Fullers Mill Garden
Path below the terraces

Bernard said that his ‘gardening heroine’ was Beth Chatto and reckoned that there was a similarity in the way both gardens grew and developed over time. The gardens now cover seven acres and offer a wide variety of planting conditions. While the Low Garden has a mix of shady and sunny areas that suit woodland plants and lilies, the Top Garden has poor soil and dry conditions, so is much better suited to Mediterranean plants. Moisture loving plants are happy around the mill pond and along the river and stream banks. (The garden has both the River Lark and the Culford Stream running through it.) There are open areas too, so sun-loving plants can also be found a suitable home.

Trees in Fullers Mill Garden
Two views of the same area in the ‘Top Garden’

One of the great things about having such a wide range of growing conditions is the sheer variety of plants that can be grown. I was amazed by the huge number of different trees, shrubs and perennials growing here. It made me wish that I had a better knowledge of plants and could recognise more of what I saw. I suspect that even then, I’d still find that there were a lot of rare or unusual cultivars here that I didn’t know.

For me, the wonderful collection of plants was an opportunity to take lots (and lots!) of photographs. I could easily spend days in this garden and still find that I wanted even more time for photographing the plants. (My husband did have some difficulty in getting me to leave the garden. Next time, maybe he’ll just leave me there!)

Flowers in Fullers Mill Garden
There were plenty flowers to keep me busy taking photographs!

Despite the fact that there are large collections of plants (around 70 or more euphorbias and the same number of lilies and snowdrops are just a few of these), the garden is designed to be in sympathy with the character of its site. The river and stream areas are allowed to keep a fairly natural, informal look and the planting in the woodland areas feels very appropriate – somehow very ‘comfortable’ there. This is the sort of garden that I love. (I’m much less keen on formal gardens and have never come to like topiary or parterres – or even box edging.) Overall, the feel of the garden is unfussy and relaxed, and extremely welcoming.

Perennial border and riverbank at Fullers Mill Garden
Left: A perennial border Right: The river bank

In 2013 Fullers Mill Garden was gifted to Perennial, The Gardeners’ Royal Benevolent Society to ensure its future and keep it open for visitors to enjoy. Bernard remained involved with his garden right throughout his later years. (He died last year, at the age of 93.) In a radio interview when he was almost 90, Bernard said that he didn’t believe a garden was ever finished. ‘I’m still buying plants, much to Annie, the head gardener’s distress, because then she’s got to find a spot for them. And I say, ”You can find somewhere Annie, to fit those in”. And she does eventually…it may take a little while.’

You can hear the radio interview with Bernard Tickner here. It’s easy to hear, from listening to him talk, how much he loved the garden at Fullers Mill and how how happy it (and gardening) made him. That happiness is something that the visitors to the garden can’t help but share. It’s a delight to stroll around the peaceful grounds along the banks of the river and stream, to walk under the trees and to discover all the wonderful plants tucked into every corner of the garden.

Riverbank at Fullers Mill Garden
The riverbank retains a feeling of wildness and informality.

Fullers Mill Garden is now looked after by head gardener, Annie Dellbridge and her team of gardeners and volunteers. They tend the garden with obvious loving care and make visitors very welcome. (The garden is open from the start of April to the end of September, on Sundays, Wednesdays and Fridays. You can find full details on their website here.)

I fell in love with this garden and I know I’ll be back for several visits next year. And I even managed to bring a little bit of it home with me by buying a couple of white Japanese anemones and an aster, ‘Les Moutiers’.

Bernard Tickner said he liked the idea of buying a plant raised in a garden as a memento of it. But then, he was a man thoroughly in love with plants. I’ll give him the last word here, because it’s something I feel too (and I do hope he’s right!): ‘I love plants. Once you’ve got the ”disease”, you’ve got it for life. It doesn’t ever desert you.’

Autumn colour at Fullers Mill Garden
Autumn colour at Fullers Mill Garden

 

 

A Change In The Air

Acidanthera murielae (aka Gladiolus callianthus)
Acidanthera murielae (aka Gladiolus callianthus) brings a touch of glamour to autumn.

There’s been a change in the last week or so. Early mornings have been misty and daytime temperatures have dropped enough to make it feel like time to put the summer clothes away. (Though after the extremely hot days we’ve had this summer, anything ‘normal’ will feel very cool.)

We’re no longer woken by the light in the early hours of the morning and the evenings suddenly feel darker.

I love the beauty of autumn – the changing colours and (especially) the softer light that it brings. It’s a light that has lost the harsh glare of summer, making it much better for photography.

Even so, I always feel a slight melancholy at the ending of summer. It’s something I’ve felt since childhood. I was brought up in Caithness, the ‘far north’ of Scotland, where it seemed to hardly get dark at all on summer nights. That, coupled with the long school holidays created a marvellous feeling of freedom and unlimited time. (And the windy winter days, when darkness would fall by about 4 pm were, by contrast, something to dread.)

Now, as a keen gardener, it’s not just the leisure of summer that I miss, but all of its plants and flowers too. I miss watching new leaves unfurling and buds fattening up and showing that first little sliver of colour before they pop open and reveal their glorious petals…..but this year is different. Because I can see that I need to be more positive and enjoy the moment rather than regretting the fact that summer is ending. Instead, it is time to plan for next year and to do the work that was impossible in summer. (Right now that means digging. A lot of it. The hot weather meant that the ground became rock hard and my plans to dig a pond and new borders have been put off until this last couple of weeks. It’s amazing how much easier a drop of rain makes the work!)

white Hibiscus syriacus
A white hibiscus would look good near the acidanthera.

Of course, new borders means new plants too. The fun part! And time to indulge in a bit of fantasy…. That’s where the photo at the top comes in. I saw the acidanthera in a garden last September and was impressed by how graceful they looked. (Much taller than I expected too.) So now I’m imagining how lovely they would look reflected in the planned pond and thinking what else might look good on that side of the garden – particularly if it’s a plant that looks good now and helps to extend the life of the border later into the year. (My overall plan is to have a garden with plenty to photograph for as much of the year as possible.)

The white hibiscus was in a garden I visited a few weeks ago. It has a simple elegance which I think would look good if I keep the planting around the pond fairly unfussy. (And I already have a couple of other hibiscus bushes in the garden which still have some flowers, so there’s a decent length of flowering period.) The white hibiscus with red markings (below) would echo the colouring of the acidanthera but would be a bit much if planted close to them and could look too fussy in the pond area.

White Hibiscus syriacus with red markings
Showy but very pretty – for further along the border perhaps.

Other flowers that could look good planted in my imaginary (so far!) border would be white gaura, with it’s flowers that look like dancing little moths or tiny butterflies and the dark buttons of the tall red scabious that already seeds itself around my garden.

My mother would never have approved of this white and red border – she always said the two colours should never be used together for cut flowers because it was unlucky. (The colours suggest blood and bandages, apparently.) And this was from someone who denied that she was the slightest bit superstitious…hmm. (Anyway, a real border would have other colours too – not sure what yet.)

It’s quite fun to design a fantasy border, and to finish with, I can’t resist adding a clematis to the mix. (They’re one of my favourites and I find them very hard to walk past in the garden centres. This one is in my garden already and it’s called ‘Ville de Lyon’.)

If you have any suggestions for planting to go around my pond and the border behind it, please do add them in the comments. I’m happy to gather as many ideas as possible because the pond and border will be a reality next year – I’m digging them at the moment!

Clematis 'Ville de Lyon'
I always have clematis in my borders.

 

A Photographer’s Garden

passionflower white lightning
I couldn’t resist buying this passionflower to photograph it.

As both a photographer and a gardener, obviously I tend to choose plants that I think will make a good photograph. The flowers I choose are often fairly large with a complex structure or interesting markings – something to hold the interest of the viewer.

It probably won’t take you long to spot my favourites on this blog. Passionflowers, hellebores, clematis, tulips and alliums are just a few of the flowers that give me the urge to grab my camera. (And, um, a strong urge to visit garden centres too!)

Buying plants to photograph means that I’ll have plenty of subjects for pictures. But buying one each of these plants won’t add up to good garden design. Instead, if I don’t restrain my plant-hunting, I’ll end up with a very bitty-looking garden.

Of course, the remedy is simple. We’re told to plant in groups of three or five, or in drifts if we’re lucky enough to have the space. Yeah, fine! That just gets a bit expensive at the garden centre….

Luckily, lots of the plants I’ve chosen are easy to propagate or else like to spread or seed themselves about. These plants are gradually becoming the backbone of my garden and they make it look a bit more cohesive.

There’s a snag here though. (There would be!) Some plants are getting just a bit too enthusiastic. Tall red scabious are getting absolutely everywhere, the geraniums are ruthlessly trying to smother the young astrantia plants nearby, and Japanese anemones are doing their best to take over the entire garden.

It appears that this photographer’s garden is going to be a constant balancing act. (And some of the more thuggish plants will have to be forced to mind their manners. That may take quite a bit of effort on my part.)

I hope you have the chance to enjoy a garden in this wonderful weather.