Colour Change: Nigella

Since my post about colour-changing spring peas, I’ve been looking out for more flowers that change colour. There’s been one practically right in front of me but I hadn’t noticed it until now.

Nigella damascena (probably ‘Miss Jekyll’) has been seeding itself around our garden for a few years. It becomes covered in lots of soft blue flowers and some that are white with blue veins. I’d always liked the pale-coloured buds best as a subject to photograph because of the extra detail of the delicate blue veins on the bluish-white petals.

Nigella damascena bud about to open.
This light-coloured bud of a nigella flower is just about to open.

Despite photographing them fairly frequently, I hadn’t realised that these pale flowers were the immature colouration. I had thought that they were a variation and that the flowers just came in a mix of blues on each plant. However, I’ve just read online comments by other gardeners who say the lighter coloured flowers gradually darken to give the beautiful sky-blue of the mature flower.

I don’t know why I didn’t notice this before. Even now I’m wondering if it is really true. I’ve just been out in the garden to look at the plants and all the buds I could see were light-coloured. There were no darker blue buds. So it seems that all the flowers do indeed start off as a white slightly flushed with a pale blue and with the blue and green veins as shown above.

Most of the mature flowers were blue but I could see one or two that were still pale. Maybe they will darken to the same blue as the rest if given time. Or will they? It will be difficult to tell because the seed pods develop quickly, so the whole plant is always changing. Perhaps some flowers simply don’t mature as fully as others before their petals drop. Trying to find the answer will give me a very good reason to look at these pretty flowers more often!

Blue Nigella damascena flower
This nigella flower has matured to a lovely blue.

Under Attack!

Normally I don’t have many problems with slugs and snails in the garden, probably because we have a low rainfall here. But when they do appear, it seems that they’re keen to snack on the flowers that I most want to photograph.

Some flowers seem to be particularly tempting to the hungry critters. For a few years we had a lovely pale blue clematis (Perle d’Azur) in a large wooden tub. Well, it should have been lovely, and sometimes it was, but just for a little while. Sooner or later the slugs and snails would find it and reduce the flowers to lacework.

Irises are another flower that tend to get a bit chewed. Sometimes, as with the top photograph, I have to avoid having damaged parts of the petals show. With this one (Iris sibirica ‘Silver Edge’), I had to find a low angle that hid a prominent hole in one petal and then crop to remove extensive damage on another petal.

The occasional damaged petal is one thing, but sometimes the damage is much worse. While living in Scotland (more slugs and snails there!) I decided to grow an assortment of sunflowers to photograph. So I was dismayed to discover that all my seedlings had their stems chewed right through at the base. No sunflowers for me!

I’ve had similar damage to the irises too. I was glad to be able to photograph the iris below because the year before I was denied that chance. The buds on the iris’s first and single flower stem were almost ready to open and looked really promising with their soft shades of caramel and pink. Excitedly, I visited in the morning to see if the top flower had opened and was ready for me to photograph it. Imagine my disappointment when I discovered the flower stem lying on the ground, looking sad and wilted, with its stem chewed the whole way through. I could have cried!

Since then, I have discovered that it helps to surround vulnerable plants with a circle of either gritty sand or wood ash from our woodburner. But sometimes only careful cropping or the use of digital heal and clone tools can save a photograph.

Bearded iris 'Top Gun'

Gone Blue: Colour-Changing Flowers

Last month I photographed these tiny spring pea (Lathyrus vernus) flowers. After I had finished photographing them I noticed that they were still changing colour after they had been picked.

The flowers had started off as a purple-pink but were changing to blue as they aged. I wondered if they would turn entirely blue and I found, after a couple of days, that almost all of them had. (As you can see, there is one flower that has stubbornly managed to remain pink in the top photograph. However, I reckon it would have turned blue too if it had been able to last long enough.)

Having flowers that change colour is a bonus for a photographer, allowing a whole new set of photographs to be made of the same subject. It’s also fascinating to watch as this happens.

Apparently the reasons for this kind of colour change are practical. It lets pollinating insects know that the individual flower has already been pollinated and will now have little pollen or nectar left to offer them. This helps the plant by directing the attention of pollinators to those other flowers that are still waiting to be pollinated.

Colour change happens in other plants too. The one that I’m most aware of at the moment is Salvia ‘Hot Lips’. That’s because I bought what I thought was an un-labelled sage with a good bright red flower which would be ideal for an area of planting with hot colours. (I already had the magenta-flowered Salvia microphylla, which flowers really well here. This looked like a red version of it.)

I was a bit surprised later on, when the new flowers on the plant began opening in the well-known red and white bicolours of Hot Lips. From what I’ve read, the flowers on this plant can be red, bicoloured, or white, depending on temperature or growing conditions. So it’s an interesting plant to watch but not so useful if you have a particular colour scheme in mind!

Colour change isn’t something I’ve been much aware of in the past. But now it has me intrigued and I can see that it may give me good photographic opportunities too. So I’ll be keeping an eye open for other plants that do this…there’s always something interesting happening in gardens!

You can see my post with the spring peas still in their original pinks and purples here.

Lathyrus vernus (spring pea) flowers

Crumpled Tissue Flowers: Cistus

The rock rose here (Cistus x purpureus) has been at it’s best this week. In the warm afternoon sunshine, the shrub has been absolutely covered in these crinkly pink flowers.

Now, however, those first flowers have gone over – shattered into lots of pink papery shreds lying on the ground. But I can see that there are plenty more flowers yet to appear, as there are lots of fat little buds waiting for their time to burst open.

These flowers are tightly packed inside their buds and emerge looking like scraps of crumpled tissue paper. They each last only a day and on a sunny day, there can be many flowers open at once. When I took these photographs, the rock rose had dozens of bright flowers, but early this evening when I looked at it, there wasn’t a flower left. Tomorrow morning I shall go out and see how many of the new flowers have opened in the sun. (In the UK, these shrubs are also known as ‘sun roses’.)

However ephemeral the flowers may be, the shrub itself has survived here for a long time. (Earlier white-flowered rock roses haven’t done so well and died in very cold winters.) It was planted not long after we arrived here, as part of a gravel garden.

Plans for this area have changed though, and it will become a mixture of veggie garden and somewhere to grow some wildflowers and other plants for bees. Our greenhouse will also have to be moved to this area, so I may have to cut the sprawling rock rose back a bit. Rock roses don’t like to be heavily pruned but I may be able to get away with taking off one or two of the longer branches. As insurance, I’ll try taking some cuttings from it too. If they root successfully, I’ll have some new rock roses to plant out in another sunny area. If I’m really lucky, they might even survive as long as this one has.

Rock rose flower (Cistus)

A Slow Start and Gradual Change

The cold weather in May has slowed down the development and flowering of our garden for June. Normally there would be plenty of flowers here, including these alliums (Allium christophii) that I photographed last year.

There aren’t even as many of the alliums as there were in the few years before. Last year there were a good number of them in the bed where the picture below was taken. This year there are only a few in the same place.

I know that other gardeners find that Allium christophii doesn’t always come back but I don’t know why…is it because the bulbs became diseased, were in soil that was too poor, or had they just reached the end of their lifespan? (The plants had a sunny and well-drained site which seemed to suit them.)

Allium christophii flower buds opening
Allium christophii flower buds opening

Luckily I have another patch of Allium christophii which has done much better. This is an older area that I had planted as a gravel garden and here the plants have multiplied over the years. Ironically, the way the alliums had spread in this area made me worry that they would take over the other, newer border too. (And that’s still possible because there are plenty of allium seedlings in both areas.)

The unpredictability of gardening and the way things change from year to year is one of the things that keeps it interesting for me. (How boring would it be if the plants always stayed the same year after year!) There are always new things to learn and different ideas to try out. And there are always surprises around the corner!

I’m glad that I do have the older patch of alliums that are doing well because I would hate to be without their little purple stars. The bees love them too, which makes them important for my future plans for the garden. I think I will try to move some of those tiny allium seedlings to another area. Then I can just leave them there to grow and develop into new bulbs. Hopefully, in a few years I’ll be surprised by a whole new batch of these lovely flowers.

Allium christophii

Trollius: Golden Globeflowers

This globeflower (Trollius chinensis ‘Golden Queen’) has been flaunting its gloriously sunny petals throughout a couple of weeks of unseasonably grey weather.

It has been a bright point to days that should have felt like the run up to summer. In combination with an orange geum (‘Rijnstroom’, photographed for this post) it has given a cistrusy zest to a new border that I’m building.

Actually, I don’t know if they’ll normally flower at the same time because I have just recently bought the globeflower from a nursery that keeps most of its plants in a large glasshouse. The extra warmth they get in there means that they can flower early. So I’ll just have to wait until next spring to see if the flowering of the globeflower will coincide with the geum.

Whether or not it flowers at the same time next year, I know I’ll be delighted to see it again. How could you do anything but smile, in response to such cheerfully golden flowers?

Trollius 'Golden Queen' (globeflower)

Tiny Beauty: Spring Vetchling

The spring vetchling or spring pea (Lathyrus vernus) is one of those plants that needs to be seen up close to appreciate its loveliness.

It’s a relative of the sweet pea, but is far smaller and looks much more delicate. It doesn’t climb, but instead produces a rounded clump of leaves and flowers around 18 inches high and wide. The flowers are just 3/4 inch long.

Several different cultivars of Lathyrus vernus have been bred to give different flower colours. You can find plants with flowers in pink and white, plain pale pink, white or blue. The plant in my photographs is the original species.

These flowers start out purplish pink, but gradually age to a pale blue. This gives a range of different shades of colour which adds to the appeal for photography. In those areas where background flowers are out of focus, the colours have a softness that reminds me of watercolour paint (top photo).

While writing this, I have popped back into my studio and had a quick look at the flowers in their vase. I was delighted to discover that the flowers have continued to change colour even after picking. The remaining flowers are now almost all blue, so I should be able to take some quite different photographs of them. (In that case, next week’s post will probably be blue spring flowers.)

The spring pea’s flowers are amongst my favourites at this time of year. For me, the smallest flowers can be the prettiest.

Lathyrus vernus (spring pea) flowers

A Plant to Share: Billbergia Nutans

The cold weather this spring has meant that there is less than usual in flower in the garden. So I had to look elsewhere for something to photograph this week.

Luckily I only had to go as far as the conservatory to find a plant in full flower. This is Billbergia nutans (aka ‘friendship plant’ or ‘queen’s tears’ ), a bromeliad that comes from South America. There it can be found growing attached to the branches of trees in the rainforest. Despite the huge difference in conditions, it seems quite content as a houseplant and is very easy to grow.

This billbergia must be pretty hardy, because our conservatory is unheated and gets cold in winter. (The conservatory is used more as an indoor garden than as a normal living area and in the winter usually has plants brought in that wouldn’t survive outside.) There is sun in the morning and early afternoon, followed by shade and this seems to suit the plant well. It grows fast, and after being split in two, has quickly filled both pots.

Billbergia produces leaves which grow in rosettes with the flower stalk at the centre. These leaves are long and arching and as they grow older, their edges develop tiny spikes. For most of the year this is a very plain-looking plant with nothing to show but its clump of green leaves. But while it’s in flower, it does look quite spectacular.

The speed at which billbergia grows and produces offsets means that it really does deserve the name ‘friendship plant’. The young rosettes at the outer edges of the plant can be detached (when they’re at least 6 inches high) and potted up as new plants. The other name, ‘queen’s tears’ comes from the way that the flowers drip nectar onto the ground. (It’s very sticky!)

My plants have tightly filled their pots now, so I think it will soon be time to remove some of the young offsets. That means that some new plants will go out into the world, continuing the chain of shared plants. A happy thought!

Bilbergia nutans

Something Sweet: Pink Tulips

Tulips are a sign that spring is well underway. Winter is forgotten and plans are being made for summer.

However, tulips are something that I don’t have much experience of in the garden. I think that’s because I became frustrated by the fact that so many varieties don’t come back again. I’d plant tulips that flowered beautifully the first year (and perhaps remember to photograph them) but then the next year I’d wonder what I’d done wrong when they failed to reappear.

Recently I’ve allowed myself to fall in love with them again. They are one of the prettiest and most feminine of flowers at this time of year and I love to photograph them too. So now I am happy to grow a few every year, to give myself something new to photograph and to enjoy while they’re here.

Some tulips, like the one below, have only flowered once before disappearing. So I was delighted when the tulip in the top picture not only came back this year but has produced even more flowers. It’s ‘Angelique’ and is certainly a vision of sweetness in the early morning sun.

I didn’t buy any bulbs last autumn but this year I’ll make a point of buying some tulips that I haven’t tried before. Then there will be something new and delightful to look forward to next spring.

Tulip 'Angelique'

Finding a Balance: Weeds for Wildlife

This week I’ve been looking out for bumblebees on white deadnettles here. The white deadnettle (Lamium album) is an excellent wild plant for the queen bumblebees that have just emerged from hibernation in spring. The flowers, which are already opening now in April, are a great source of nectar and pollen when there isn’t much else around.

We have a lot of bee-friendly plants in the garden and I’m trying to develop this further by planting to provide for bees and other insects for as much of the year as possible. This is causing me a bit of a dilemma at the moment because this particular deadnettle runs rampant in my garden.

Deadnettles are members of the mint family and this one is determined to take over as big an area as possible. Before I knew that it was such a good bee plant, I’d spent years trying to remove it from the garden, with very slow progress. (I doubt that it was deliberately planted by anyone – most likely it just ‘arrived’.)

Recently I’ve been reading a lot of books about gardening for wildlife. They all recommend the white deadnettle for bees, moths and beetles, so I feel that I really shouldn’t get rid of it all. At the same time, these books don’t mention how invasive this plant can be.

It’s a UK native wildflower, but can be bought as a garden plant (presumably for a ‘wild’ garden). As you probably guessed from the name, it looks just like a nettle – except for the rings of white flowers around the stalk – but thankfully it doesn’t sting.

So now I’m wondering what to do. I have noticed that there are a couple of different species of bumblebee that visit the flowers. (Not many yet. It’s been quite chilly and if I was a queen bee, I’d have popped back to bed for a bit longer!) I really don’t want to deprive these bees of their food source but I know that the moment I turn my back on the deadnettle, it will reach out and grab the rest of my garden. The bees might then be really well-fed, but everything else will be swamped.

The best answer is probably to grow some of this over-enthusiastic plant in large pots. I’ll have to watch that none of the roots escape through the drainage holes, or else it will be off, racing through the garden again, with me in pursuit.

As you can see from the photo below, ladybirds like deadnettles too. Maybe I’ll get to like it eventually!

Ladybird on deadnettle