Friday, 11 January 2019

Sensitive stamens

Sparmannia africana (African linden tree)
It is well-known that some plants can move their leaves, such as Sensitive plant (Mimosa pudica) and Venus flytrap. But that some plants can move their stamens, this was new to me.

The stamens of theses plants are sensitive to touch, when you lightly brush the flowers with a finger the stamens either move inwards towards the stylus (like in Mahonia) or outwards towards the petals (like in Sparmannia africana, also called African linden tree). This movement is quite quick and easy to see.

Mahonia flowers before touching with stamens near the petals
Mahonia flowers after touching, the stamens have moved inwards

The stamen movement is most likely aiding pollination by bringing the stamens (and with it the pollen) in better contact with visiting pollinators. Other plants with stamen movement are Berberis species, Opuntia and Helianthemum nummularium.

Helianthemum nummularium, another plant with sensitive stamens
 Watch this short video to see how it works.

Sunday, 16 December 2018

Berkheya purpurea, an unusual addition to the flower border

I have first seen Berkheya purpurea flowering in a botanical garden in Germany. I really liked the thistle-like leaves and the large pale-pink daisy flowers but it took many years until I saw it again, growing in the Merton Borders in Oxford Botanical Gardens. By then I had already acquired my first allotment so could try growing this fascinating plant myself.

Berkheya is very easy to grow from seed, you just have to sow the seeds in a good seed compost, keep them warm and moist and in good light. After about 2 weeks the first seedlings appear. They grow quickly and can soon be pricked out into individual plugs and later into 9 cm pots. I plant them out on the allotment when the roots start to grow through the bottom holes.  

Berkheya purpurea flowering in the Merton Borders in Oxford Botanical Gardens
The plants like to grow in well-drained soil (especially important in winter) which does not dry out too much in summer. Sunshine is essential and they don`t like to be crowded by other plants, a place among other low-growing perennials or at the front of a border would be ideal.

Berkheya purpurea has large prickly leaves which form a low-growing rosette which stays green in a mild winter. Don`t be alarmed when the leaves turn brown in a hard winter, the plant will grow back from its base in spring. The first flowers appear in June and carry on until autumn, this year I had the last flowers in October. The daisy flowers are very large, up to 10 cm in diameter and pale-pink in colour. They attract a lot of pollinators such as bumblebees, solitary bees and hoverflies.

Tree bumblebee, honeybee and solitary bee sharing a flower
Another tree bumblebee
Common carder bumblebee collecting nectar

South Africa is the home of Berkheya purpurea, the plants grow naturally along streams and on steep, grassy mountains slopes 1525 to 3050 m above sea level, from the mountains in the Eastern Cape to the Drakensberg in KwaZulu-Natal, Lesotho and the border of the Free State. Snow and frost are common at a higher altitude and summer can be quite wet. This might be one of the reasons that Berkheya is quite happy to grow in the UK.

Frosted Berkheya leaves, still green in December
The seed heads look pretty as well

There are 75 species in the genus, about 71 species are indigenous to South Africa, and most have thistle-like leaves. Jelitto Perennial Seed offers a selection of different species including Berkheya purpurea. I would also like to try Berkheya cirsiifolia, which has white flowers, so watch this space if I succeed. A few years ago I had one plant of Berkheya multijuga (with yellow flowers) which survived a few years, but unfortunately rotted away in a wet spring. Berkheya purpurea does seem to be a lot more forgivable and I have not lost a plant so far. 
I hope I could spark your interest in growing this pretty plant; I would love to hear from you if you decide to give it a go next year.

Monday, 10 December 2018

Autumn on the wildlife allotment

The year has gone really quickly, summer is just a dream now and winter is coming. But so far we did not have any prolonged cold weather here. We had some very early frosts in September which blackened the Dahlias but surprisingly did not do much to the Cosmos which were still standing in October.

There were quite a lot of lovely warm days, a reminiscence of summer. Many perennials kept on flowering well into late autumn such as the autumn asters and Bidens heterophyllum. Others which had suffered in the heatwave started to flower again such as Astrantia major. But autumn was still quite dry and the few rainy days did not do much to relieve the drought.

Dahlia merckii flowering on the allotment
Dahlia merckii, Verbena bonariensis and seed heads of Echinacea purpurea
Kniphofia 'Mango Popsicle'
Aster pyrenaeus 'Lutetia' flowering in September
The allotment on a sunny morning in September

On cold and sunny mornings I liked to get up early to photograph the seed heads and grasses on the allotment which looked beautiful covered in dew. I especially love the grass Eragrostis elliottii which has a lightness and airiness, not found in many other grasses.

The cloud-like seed heads of Eragrostis elliottii look beautiful on a cold morning in autumn
Calamagrostis brachytricha, also called Diamond grass, sparkling in the early morning sunshine
Spiders like the seed heads of Inula magnificum and Veronicastrum virginicum

Bees were quite active until October, especially the Common carder bumblebee (Bombus pascuorum) was quite abundant.  I have even seen a solitary bee, the Ashy Mining Bee (Andrena cineraria), which normally has just one generation which is active in spring. You normally don`t see it in late autumn. But this year there were several bees flying around on my allotment, visiting flowers. They must have been confused by the weird weather we had this year.

Common carder bumblebee on a Berkheya purpurea flower
Another Common carder bee visiting a Cosmos flower
A Drone fly (a  type of hoverfly) drinking nectar from aster flowers
I was very surprised to find some Ashy mining bees on my allotment in October

I was glad the allotment hedgehog survived the summer heatwave, partly probably thanks to the ponds on my allotment which offered much needed fresh water. The foxes were frequently seen as well, always looking busy. For a long time I had not seen the little wood mice which used to live on my allotment and I already feared that the cats might have finished them off. But luckily they are alive and well, happily residing in one of my compost heaps.

Here is a little video of some of he nocturnal wildlife on my allotment including the hedgehog, a little wood mouse and foxes:

Below are some more pictures from the allotment:

Seed heads and grasses
Cosmos is still flowering in October
Seed heads of Echinacea purpurea, Verbena hastata, Alliums and grasses
Panicum virgatum, also called switchgrass, looks very pretty in autumn
Bidens heterophyllum is still flowering in October
Annual Coreopsis with the grass Hakonechloa macra in the background
Kniphofia caulescens flowering in September
Aster flower (Symphyotrichum novi-belgii) covered in dew
Astrantia major started flowering again in September and is looking very pretty after a frosty night

Thursday, 29 November 2018

A visit to Great Dixter in early May

I first read about Great Dixter, the famous garden of the late Christopher Lloyd in East Sussex,  a few years ago and was fascinated by the colourful and bold plant combinations and the naturalistic planting style. I vowed to myself that one day I will visit the garden and see for myself what so far I had only seen in pictures.

In early May this year the time had finally arrived, I was working close to the garden and had a few hours to spare, the sun was shining, so what better things are there to do than visiting a beautiful garden.

It was early May but the garden was already so lush and colourful, with tulips and alliums, poppies and forget-me-nots and many more spring-flowering plants vying for attention. I especially liked the lime-green flowers of Smyrnium perfoliatum which were dotted all over the garden, a biennial plant which self-seeds easily if it likes the conditions. Lime-green Euphorbia palustris was another showy plant which I have now planted on my allotment. Another pretty plant with tiny pink flowers was the poppy Papaver dubium ssp. lecoqii var. albiflorum (a rather long name for such a small plant) which I have not seen anywhere else so far. The emerging flowers of giant fennel (Ferula communis), a huge umbellifer from the Mediterranean, were an impressive sight and its feathery leaves provided a beautiful backdrop for many of the other plants.

Smyrnium perfoliatum and red tulips
Euphorbia palustris, a spectacular plant
The small pink poppy with Smyrnium perfoliatum

The large areas of wildflower meadows in different parts of the garden were beautiful and just starting to come into flower with wild orchids, buttercups and blue Camassia. I could see a lot of yellow rattle in the meadows which must have helped to weaken the grass. As the vegetation was generally on the short side I assume the fertility of the underlying soil must be quite low as well.

I was impressed by the diversity of plants in the meadows  and would have liked to do a vegetation survey to see how many species per m2 I could come up with. But I was there to enjoy myself, not to work :-). 

Green-winged orchids in the meadows
Beautiful wildflower meadows

Camassia is naturalised in some of the meadows, I am trying something similar on the allotment now

It was also interesting to see that some plants which others would regard as weeds were left to naturalise in some places such as cow parsley, but which worked really well as a light and airy backdrop for more showy plants (see picture below).

Alliums, poppies and forget-me-not with a background of cow parsley

I would be nice to be able to see Great Dixter at different times of the year as I am sure that every few weeks it will look different. The tropical garden was still in its winter sleep in early May and many of the later perennials were just starting to grow.

Below you can see some more pictures of the garden.

The Sunk Garden, there were actually newts in the pond in the middle of the garden
The pretty pink poppy again, here with the umbellifer Orlaya grandiflora
Alliums, tulips and columbine
Poppies, alliums and cow parsley
I am normally not a fan of topiary but here at Great Dixter it fit perfectly, containing the wilder plantings in the middle
Giant fennel (Ferula communis), one of the signature plants at Great Dixter
Allium 'Purple Rain', white honesty, giant fennel and columbine
The Peacock Garden with sweet cicely, Euphorbia and meadow rue
The High Garden with alliums, giant fennel, honesty and many perennials and grasses
Phyllostachys nigra, a very showy bamboo
Columbine and honesty, a pretty picture in pink

Sensitive stamens

Sparmannia africana (African linden tree) It is well-known that some plants can move their leaves, such as Sensitive plant ( Mimosa pud...

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