This delightful deciduous shrub is known for its unusual and colourful late winter and early spring flowers. These typically appear before the foliage emerges and are arranged in pendant catkin-like racemes that hang from the branches. The foliage can turn rosy red and yellow during the Autumn season. The genus comes from the Greek word Stachys meaning an ear of corn – hence the hanging flowers appearance. Plants in this genus are sometimes commonly called spiketail also in reference to the flowers. Native to Japan it was introduced to UK cultivation in 1864. It can be grown by seed or summer cuttings taken with a heel in late July and given bottom heat. Layering is also a method – do this in summer months and the new plant should be ready to detach the following spring. It grows well in fertile soil that is free training in full sun or partial shade of a woodland. In terms of garden design it is a perfect shrub for woodland gardens or it can be effectively trained against a wall with southern exposure.
This striking orchid is known not only for its beauty but for its story. The remarkable design looks less like a flower than some kind of engineering construction. Angraecum sesquipedale – the flower was discovered in eastern Madagascar by the French botanist Louis-Marie Aubert du Petit-Thouars, is also known widey as Darwin’s orchid.
The genus name, Angraecum, is derived from the Malayan word anggrek, which is used to describe several species of epiphytic orchids. The specific epithet sesquipedale comes from the Latin sesquipedalis, meaning ‘one and a half feet’, in reference to the long flower spur.
This orchid is widely known and admired for its association with Charles Darwin who was sent a specimen in 1862. He predicted it would be pollinated by a moth with a proboscis 20 – 30 cm long. The moth was discovered in Madagascar by Rothschild and Jordan in 1903 and named as Xanthopan morgani praedicta, seventeen years after his death. As predicted both spur and proboscis are long. Darwin was fascinated with how orchids, the world’s largest plant family with nearly 30,000 species, are pollinated by insects, because they had co evolved in many different ways with their pollinators.
Yellow snowdrops have been growing wild in Northumberland for centuries. A study carried out by John Richards, Professor in Botany at the University of Newcastle found that only 1% of snowdrops in Northumberland were yellow. Meaning the yellow colour was not spread evenly over a native colony. It was found that colonies had snowdrops that were neither yellow nor green, but instead a sort of inbetween colour. These were named ‘halfers’. You might ask what caused the yellow colouring? It became apparent that when the yellow snowdrops and halfers appear in spring they contain just one third of the amount of chlorophyll A and almost no chlorophyll B compared to the common green snowdrop. Despite this, once they have flowered the chlorophyll levels are found to be the same as the regular greens. This disproves the common assumption that yellow snowdrops are weaker than the green forms. The reason why the yellow flowers occur is still not fully understood. Professor Richards suggested that it might be that yellow snowdrops particularly thrive in high light intensity. Spring arrives later in Northumberland meaning the light intensity is high by the time the snowdrops emerge. Yellow snowdrops have also been found to grow particularly well on the east coast of Scotland even though they do arise from there originally. Recently there has been an increase in the number of yellow snowdrops that gleam in the spring golden sunshine. In recent years an expensive yellow snowdrop sold on eBay was named ‘Golden Fleece’. One eager buyer paid £1,390 for one bulb in 2015!! However it took 10 years to breed and another eight to multiply up before bulbs were available for sale. Hopefully as we look towards the future we will see more golden snowdrops available for our gardens.
The freaky dark fruits of Dead Man’s fingers will certainly be a talking point for your garden. This creepy looking plant is scientifically known as Decaisnea fargesii. It originates from Chinese and Nepalese woodlands and scrub between 500 m and 2500 m elevation. The eerily skin like feel of the bright blue seedpods give the plants its common name. Inside each seedpod is a translucent jelly pulp. Within this jelly pulp are flat dark black seeds. Although the seeds are not edible the pulp jelly part is edible. Those who have managed to taste this weird looking jelly say its tastes refreshing and similar to a cucumber or melon. The plant is found in the chocolate vine family Lardizalaceae and as it is frost hardy it can be grown in the UK as a garden ornamental shrub. Why not try growing this shrub in your garden and see if you can spook your visitors around Halloween time.
These exotic looking flowers are actually easy to grow in your garden here in the UK as they are fully hardy and put on a fantastic display. This little known genus is a tuberous perennial known for its dramatic flowers and its tolerance of wet and shady conditions. It belongs in the Zingiberaceae family (Ginger family) and originates from high altitudes of China and the Himalayas. There are 22 recognised species, with eight of them endemic to China. The genus was named by James Edward Smith after William Roscoe, a botanist who helped establish Liverpool’s Botanic Garden. The striking flowers are similar to those of orchids and irises because of their unusual hooded upper petal and three lower petals. If you look closely there is lip like landing pad for pollinating insects. These plants do best in shade where the flowers will last longer for about 4-6 weeks. They can tolerate some sunlight but exposure to hot sun and dry conditions will cause them to shrivel. When planting make sure the tubers are planted deep beneath the soil. Cover with mulch to help feed the plant and ensure the soil is moist during the summer months, but they require good winter drainage. These flowers grow well in a rock garden, woodland or shaded border. Roscoea can be divided every 3 – 4 years in April before the tubers start to grow.
Echium candicans, also known as Pride of Madeira, is certainly a wow factor endemic plant from Madeira. It has tall iridescent flower spikes covered in clusters of blue flowers that typically emerge in late spring through green-grey whorled leaves. Described as a shrubby perennial it is found in the plant family Boraginaceae. There are 40 known species of Echium in the world, which come from parts of Asia and the Mediterranean regions in Europe. Within the genus the flowers come in shades of blue, pink, red and white with tubular flowers and beautiful protruding stamens. This stunning plant may reach up to 2m tall with a spread of 1.2m. Outside of the island of Madeira it can easily be mistaken as a native in some coastal areas of California. Today it is grown world wide as an ornamental garden plant. Wonderful for pollinators it grows well beside the coast in frost-free conditions, as it is not full hardy. The soil should be free draining and in full sun. Echium candicans dislikes hard pruning but when young can be lightly tip pruned. This will keep a rounded structure that if left alone would become woody and irregularly shaped. Due to its short-lived habit it sets seed easily, so collect the seed once it has dried on the plants. Cuttings can be taken in late May/June after flowering – make sure watering is carefully balanced to prevent the cuttings from rotting. All Echium species are known to be toxic if eaten. The leaves and stems may cause skin irritation so do wear protective clothing at all times.
Iris tuberosa is a striking, elegant, enchanting flower for your garden in late winter and early spring. It has had its name changed a few times but is now classified as Iris tuberosa and more commonly referred to as “widow iris” and “snake’s head iris”. It originates from Southern Europe, being found in Greece, Spain and Turkey. In some mild parts of the UK the first flower spikes appear with green and black markings which are very rarely seen in nature. It also has a slight fragrance that intensifies in the sun or a warm room, making it a great flower in a vase. Like many native Mediterranean plants, it puts up with pretty poor soil, which makes it ideal on chalk. All it really needs is late winter and spring rain, followed by a thoroughly good baking in summer, when the foliage will die down and disappear. Try growing it in a sheltered spot which isn’t too shady. Good companions are other early spring flowers such as snowdrops, crocuses and hellebores.