When, in 1937, Vita Sackville-West wrote about her 25 favourite flowers, she included two fritillaries. The crown imperial, Fritillaria imperialis, was especially important to her because she had come upon it unexpectedly growing in a damp ravine in Persia where ‘the Crown Imperials stood up like torches between the wet rocks’. F. imperialis is on my mind just now for another reason. A daughter, who lives round the corner from me, has both cultivars: the orange, and the yellow F. imperialis ‘Lutea’. This last week she has been watching the blue tits hanging upside down collecting nectar from the drooping flowers. A friend in North Carolina posts photographs of humming birds, but here in Britain we rarely think of birds as pollinators. Vita writes that the nectar is held in little cups up in the bell of the flower. I took my daily exercise by way of my daughter’s garden – no need to touch any gates – and found that it is quite easy to see these nectaries in the flower though not so easy to photograph. The wily tits had discovered that much the easiest way of getting the nectar was to make a hole in the top of the flower and eat the nectary whole. This, however, will have cut off the source of nectar. Will the tits be clever enough to go for the more sustainable source of sweetness? Even one greedy tit could stymie such a policy. Maybe next year will bring the answer. Bumblebees do the same thing of course, but without cutting off the supply of nectar.
The other fritillary chosen by Vita was the British native snakeshead fritillary, Fritillaria meleagris. Although it is not native in Scotland it will grow well in the right conditions. In my previous garden I planted 6 bulbs in a shady corner and forgot about them. They liked the damp, sometimes flooded, corner of the garden and seeded there happily, sometimes producing white flowers. I had no such success in Torphins. At Crathes they grow in the shade of the Double Shrub Border along with the rather fine pale yellow Siberian Fritillaria pallidiflora. Other spring flowers like dogs’ tooth violets and primulas grow alongside. Just now James reports that the Corsican hellebore, Helleborus argutifolius, is doing well on that border, but some of the spring bulbs are going over quickly with the warm dry weather.
There would certainly need to be at least one clematis in my list of favourites. Hard to choose though; possibly the Clematis macropetala that grows on the Croquet lawn steps. Its flowering always delights just as spring is burgeoning. There is a pink macropetala – ‘Markham’s Pink’ that used to grow at the north end of the Blue and Pink Border that is also charming. I like to find out about the names. Ernest Markham (1881-1937) was head gardener at Gravetye Manor in Sussex – home to William Robinson of wild garden fame. The two men developed new cultivars of clematis. When William Robinson died Ernest continued breeding, producing ‘Markham’s Pink’. A seedling labelled ‘red seedling’ with large red flowers was later named ‘Ernest Markham’ by the Jackman’s nursery (founded in 1810) that inherited the collection after Ernest’s death. Clematis alpina ‘Frances Rivis’, growing in the Upper Pool Garden, is bluer than the C. macropetala and has longer ‘petals’ – strictly sepals. All I could find out about Frances Rivis is that she had a garden at Rosehill House in Saxmundham in Suffolk. Clematis alpina ‘Burford White’ that grows at the back of the south border of the Rose Garden is named after the Burford Nursery which takes its name from the town of Burford in the Cotswolds.
Coming into flower a little later than the C. macropetala, Clematis x vedrariensis grows on the opposite side of the steps. It is easy to see that one of its parents is Clematis montana. For a while the C. macropetala and C. x vedreriensis bloom together giving an impressive frame to the view of the castle from the bottom of the steps.
One large, almost white, clematis blooms on the Aviary Terrace just beside the other set of Croquet Lawn steps. Its name is Wada’s Primrose – introduced in the 1970s and named after the Wada’s nursery in Japan.
The prunus continue to surpass themselves this year. In a video sent by James this week, the Prunus sargentii beside the Red Garden is just a mass of pink – rarely seen like this. My neighbour’s damson tree has never been so glorious. And now the native geans, Prunus avium, are just coming into flower. I miss my weekly drive to Crathes taking in the geans that thrive on the lower banks of the Hill of Fare; also those that bloom on the northern edge of the Warren Field as I approach the castle and garden. The cherries provide more nectar for the bees; my flowering currant is still buzzing with dozens of bumblebees.
Patience is a virtue, catch it if you can, sometimes in a woman, never in a man. So my mother-in-law used to say. Gardeners, however, know that patience is the only way. But in this year of the Covid 19 we all have to be patient in different ways. Will I get back to Crathes this year? When I do return the garden will have changed – that’s in its nature. I think of the Cornus controversa ‘Variegata’ that grew for a few years behind the doocot pond. Then suddenly it took ill and died before we had time to properly savour its loveliness. But as so often with gardening, one disaster can lead to an opportunity: what was a heartfelt loss has solved a problem for James. The cornus was outgrowing its space and was overcrowding the styrax that grew nearby. I wonder what opportunities we will make use of when we finally emerge from this surreal existence.
Adding to the strangeness is the weather. While the virus finds its way around the world the weather here is glorious: day after day of sunshine, but not a drop of rain.
In normal times the gardeners might well have been weeding the June Border and filling any gaps with appropriate plants. James reports that the June Border is fairly tidy – this largely due to the lack of rain. The photograph of gardeners and volunteers working in the June Border at this time last year shows lush growth not evident in James’s video. James’s patience is stretched too. He sees the hundreds of tulips that were planted in the autumn slowly coming into flower with only himself and Andy to appreciate them – Tulipa fosteriana ‘Candela’ still in bud in the Golden Garden and T. fosteriana ‘Madame Lefeber’ already blooming in the Red Garden. The good thing is that they were not just planted for one year, but chosen for naturalising, and planted deep. So with patience we should see them all again next year.
The Evolution Garden makes slow, but intriguing, progress with so many demanding essential jobs competing for time. Watering the glasshouse plants in this hot weather must take up a major part of the day.
I will leave you with some photographs of plants from previous years – just a taste of what we are missing. Have patience everyone and keep safe.