Brambles and Butterflies



Brambles and Butterflies

At the RHS’s garden at Wisley there are two very different areas to enjoy at the moment; the Winter Walk and the Butterflies in the Glasshouse. One embraces winter while the other turns its back on the weather by creating an almost tropical environment.

A good starting point for the Winter Walk is, conveniently, viewed from the main café. The low winter sunlight shines through a collection of dogwoods and willows creating a striking display of reds and oranges. The stems are sufficiently bright that even on an overcast day they shine vividly. This is one of the times that I wish I had a larger garden. I’m useless at judging distances, but these stems must be 50-100 yards away from the window seats, the same effect could not be created with the 10ft depth that I have.

Close up the plants are equally spectacular. The path weaves along the edge of the lake through the stems, the colours changing at every turn. Cornus alba ‘Sibirica’ is bright red, Cornus sanguinea ‘Midwinter Fire’ has stems which are orange at the base, rising to a brilliant scarlet at the tips and there are greeny-yellow willows (whose name I am not sure of). In between everything grows a bramble, Rubus biflorus. This is probably my favourite winter plant. Its long arching stems appear to have been whitewashed, with only the occasional tip remaining green. It is as if the cold has spread up from the ground and painted the stems. Vicious thorns make it clear that this is not a plant to walk casually through, or even past, but you can look into it and imagine a world such as Narnia, held fast in its grip. Horticulturally, it looks particularly good when combined with the vertical red stems of dogwood.

The walk continues past witch hazels, whose spidery flowers are now in full bloom. Deutzias and Christmas box may not be as spectacular to look at but their sudden wafts of fragrance are a delight. The winter honeysuckle is also in flower, with a delicate scent that you will miss if you walk by too quickly. Little snowdrops and hellebores line the paths and there is a new winter border of heathers, grasses and conifers, which looks attractive when viewed from the lake.

The walk leads to the Glasshouse (it is frankly not worth walking up past the Piet Oudolf borders at the moment as they are mostly a sad display of fallen stems and blackened seed heads) and into an extraordinary contrast. A wall of warmth hits you as you pass into the building, increasing as you walk round into the Tropical area. At this time of year the Glasshouse is full of a wonderful collection of butterflies. In shades of brilliant red and electric blue they flutter in between the plants, pausing photogenically at strategically placed feeding stations. They have beautiful names too: Giant Owl, Tree Nymph and King Swallowtail. The plants they fly between are also beautiful and a spectacular treat for those of us trapped in the depths of winter: huge agaves, colourful strelitzias, callistemons with their fluffy red bottle brushes, Plumbago indica and oranges and lemons. They combine to make a wonderful display, but it is not one I can get terribly enthused about. A single visit to the Glasshouse is lovely, but outside the views are constantly changing and reminding us that, even though it may still be cold and dark for much of the time, our gardens are waking up.        

Soon the daffodils will be in flower, the blossom will be out and, when the tulips arrive, Wisley will be a riot of colour. Many of the winter displays will either fade or be cut back to prepare for next year but, for the moment, for me at least, it is the dogwoods, willows and brambles that steal the show.



A Show at Wisley, with Dahlias

This September’s RHS Wisley Flower Show was spectacular in itself, with numerous Chelsea Gold Medal Winners amongst the trade stands and the most wonderful arrays of plants in peak condition.

The only downside was the traffic overflow, which meant one took 20 minutes driving far slower than a man could walk to reach any car park and this then necessitated quite a trek to get to the Show itself.

It was still very worthwhile; despite the crowding nearly everyone seemed happy. Flowers of that standard just seem to do the trick.

The occasion also provided the setting for the National Dahlia Society’s Annual Show which took place in a large marquee, packed with blooms in what might be called “every imaginable Technicolor hue”. The Society was founded in 1881 and has remained steadfastly true to its values. As its website says “for over a century (it) has given unbroken service to gardeners interested in this wonderful flower.” Its Roll of Honour Gold and Silver medals are touchingly awarded simply for “services to the dahlia”. Fashion has passed it by. When gardeners convinced of their own good taste once loved to mock and scorn the dahlia as “vulgar, vulgar, vulgar!” the Society ignored them as a load of rather silly people who wouldn’t know a good thing if they saw it. Now dahlias are a part of so many superb and highly creative gardens, the Society continues as before, albeit very pleased at the good sense others are at last showing. It quite properly remains essentially unmoved in its own certainty as to what constitutes a good plant.

It holds two major shows each year, the one at Wisley and the other at Harrogate; both in September when the majority of blooms will be at their best. Those exhibits inside the Wisley tent were every inch show dahlias, with a limited number of stems and flowers in each vase and every one in perfect condition and conforming as nearly as possible to the judges’ guidelines. This presentation, like those at most single-plant societies’ shows, is of course very different from the way most of us use dahlias in our gardens. I, and I think many other gardeners nowadays, choose to use them as part of mixed plantings, treating them as an element of the overall effect in the same way as one might squeeze out some oil paint onto a palette. That said they are glorious when used in a top class cutting garden such as the one we mentioned at West Dean.

One imagines, despite the constant introduction of new varieties, that little has fundamentally changed in the world of show dahlias. But this hardly matters, what counts is the incredible warmth of atmosphere, pride in achievement and the friendship and camaraderie amongst the exhibitors and judges. They had come from all over the UK, including some from Northern Ireland and were very open to engaging in conversation with any visitor who wanted to talk. I have seldom met a happier group of people. They are clearly not in it for the money; even a major prize would only buy a few litres of petrol. Somehow they reminded me of one of the most laudable aims of the Declaration of Independence: “the Pursuit of Happiness” and to look around you might well believe they had achieved it.

We should remember what a debt we owe to these stalwart groups of people, who have preserved and enhanced the flowers we so happily and relatively carelessly use like paint. If you go to the next autumn flower show, take a look at the dahlias. They’re worth it.


Link http://www.dahlia-nds.co.uk

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