Christopher Lloyd’s Garden Flowers

Christopher Lloyd (1921 – 2006)

I happened upon some of Christopher Lloyd’s books earlier in my gardening career and immediately liked his straight-forward, no-nonsense advice, as well as his curmudgeon-like sense of humour. His best known books are In My Garden and The Well-Tempered Garden but, truthfully, they are all a joy to read and invaluable to gardeners seeking an understanding of the mysterious ways of plants.

Lloyd’s practical experience as a gardener is much evident in his books and, one of his last, published shortly before his death in 2006, Christopher Lloyd’s Garden Flowers, is, at 384 pages, a sound reference for use when researching plants (second only to Graham Stuart Thomas’s Perennial Garden Plants). Mr. Lloyd can be counted on to mention the practical aspects of a plant that are overlooked by other garden writers but which are so important to the proper raising of plants in the real world.

He grew up at Great Dixter, a country house in Northiam, East Sussex , where Edwin Lutyens had a hand in designing the foundations of the garden in Lloyd’s father’s time, and where he has carried on, until his death, gardening in an avant-garde fashion for decades. He caused quite a commotion in British horticultural circles when he removed all of the old roses from the rose garden and replaced them with exotics, many of them annuals, in a riot of colour; even at an advanced age he was an experimentalist in garden design and practice and has had considerable influence on the course of all things garden in the British Isles and beyond.

Here then are two excerpts from Christopher Lloyd’s Garden Flowers that illuminate two plants, one easy, the other not so much, that will give us plants of tall stature, good blue (or nearly so) flowers and will add colour and foliage to the garden at times of the year when they often need a boost – Monkshood and Delphinium.

scan from An Illustrated Treasury of Cultivated Flowers by Frank J. Anderson

Jim Thorleifson

Christopher Lloyd’s Garden Flowers

Christopher Lloyd (1921 – 2006)

384 pp

First published 2000

Timber Press Ltd, Portland 2005

Aconitum (Ranunculaceae)

The aconites might, in their name, be confused with the winter aconite of the same Family. They are also popularly known as monkshoods – from the hooded, asymmetric flower.

Aconites are poisonous – pretty well all the Ranunculaceae are to some degree. But aconites are the chosen favourite of do-gooders who insist that they should always be labelled as poisonous in gardens that are open to the public and should always be mentioned as poisonous in every gardening article or entry where they feature. But who is going to be tempted to nibble aconites, anyway? And if we did, wouldn’t we quickly spit out the disagreeable contents of our mouths? This insistence on designating every poisonous plant has spread like a leprosy, wasting a lot of time, space and effort. I suppose we shall be expected to label our poisonous weeds, soon.

Within Ranunculaceae, aconites most closely resemble delphiniums, having irregular flowers and pleasingly incised, palmate leaves. But, as John Raven remarked in A Botanist’s Garden, ‘their colour always strikes me as dingy and lifeless’ compared with delphiniums or veronicas. Another appropriate comment is that aconites all look in need of a good wash. However, they are very hardy and easily grown perennials of which we should not like to be deprived. They thrive in sun or in shade. In the wild, they tend to grow on the margins of woodland or in open glades.

Their rootstock is a tuber – one tuber being formed below each stem. Some varieties easily become over-congested, which prevents flowering. These should be divided and replanted every year or two. Autumn is the time for this, as monkshoods are remarkably early on the move, new foliage being made as early as late January. That applies even to the autumn-flowerers; so they have a long growing season.

To date, only four aconites have received the RHS Award of Garden Merit. That seems a fair assessment, to me. Among the earliest in bloom, May-June, is Aconitum napellus (lm/3ft). It need not detain us. A fault in many aconites is the dominance of the central spike. Side-growths may comprise the bulk of flowering potential, but these are later in flower and their impact is marred by the central spike having already run to seed. The early summer-flowering ‘Bressingham Spire’ (lm/3ft) is of this kind, though imposing and a good if murky blue.

One of my favourites, though I have never grown it, is the July-flowering A. x cammarum ‘Bicolor’ (1.2m/4ft), usually known as ‘Bicolor’ tout court. The hoods are a mixture of blue and white and show up well, notably in a shady situation. That is July-flowering. So, and well into August, is ‘Spark’s Variety’ (1m/3ft). Its branching, indigo-blue inflorescence has no strong central spike to detract from the equally important laterals, when they come out. I grow this with mauve border phloxes but also, for contrast, with the bright yellow sunflower, Helianthus ‘Capenoch Star’ (1.2m/4ft).

In autumn, we are well served by A. carmichaelii – always a telling shade of blue, though it varies a good deal in its different forms. A. fischeri (1m/3ft) was the name of the typical cultivar grown in gardens, for many years. Truly, a no-trouble plant guaranteed to keep down weeds and requiring no attention. It does not flower till October, by which time its leaves are yellowing, which seems a bit incongruous as accompaniment to a newly opening flower spike, but I got used to it in time and rather liked the contrast.

A. c. ‘Wilsonii’ is described as a group. Often 2m/6ft tall, it would combine well, in its autumn season and in a rather moist, shady place, with the white cones of Hydrangea paniculata ‘Tardiva’ (also 2m/6ft or more) and the pyramids of spidery, yellow flowers of Senecio tanguticus (2m/6ft), now Sinacalia tangutica (senecios have been mercilessly split by the systematic botanists). This is a colonising plant.

Best in the Wilsonii group, is ‘Kelmscott’ (1.3m/4½ ft ), with a long inflorescence, and a long autumn-flowering season. I sometimes use its strong blue behind bronze chrysanthemums, bedded out in August.

Apart from indigo and blue aconites, some are muted yellow, like A. lycoctonum (1.2m/4ft, self-collapsing). I have no time for this. Nor have I done well with ‘Ivorine’ (60cm/2ft), which is ivory white but so quickly becomes congested and non-flowering that you need to be thinking about replanting every year; an attention it hardly deserves.

Not to be omitted is the climbing, herbaceous A. hemsleyanum, (syn. A. volubile). This is easily raised from seed but can be an unacceptably weak and washy mauve. On the other hand it can be quite a telling ‘blue’, and then looks well intertwining with the yellow lanterns of Clematis tangutica. Probably the wisest course is to buy a plant specifically advertised as ‘dark blue’.

Delphinium (Ranunculaceae)

Like aconitums, delphiniums belong to a branch of their family with irregular flowers. The showiest part is composed of sepals, one of which carries a spur, although, when fully doubled, the spur disappears. The petals compose the ‘bee’ or ‘eye’. Leaves are a handsome feature. A group of delphiniums in a mixed border, in April and May, is a feast in itself and an excellent setting for oriental poppies, for instance.

In writing that, it is of the Delphinium elatum hybrids that I am thinking, the kind of delphinium that first comes to mind when this flower is mentioned, quintessentially with long spikes of pure blue flowers, perhaps with a black ‘bee’, perhaps with a white. Delphinium spires have a unique stateliness in the June-July border. Other colours that come naturally to them are almost as welcome as blue: alternating blue and mauve, mauve itself, pinky mauve (often called pink), purple and white. The ‘bee’ varies in colour between black and white with a kind of sooty grey somewhere in between. They are matchless cut flowers (until they suddenly shatter, on the third day), for a spacious setting, especially when combined with the globes of pink peonies. However, since the advent of indispensable ‘oasis’, we now see delphiniums presented upside-down, as against the poles supporting a festive marquee. Such indignity. How would you like to be presented to the public, upside-down? Never be a party to these antics.

In the garden, the modem hybrids with double or semi-double flowers, often have an unfortunate tendency (as also have double roses) to retain their petals (actually sepals) after they have faded.

Modern hybrids grow exceedingly tall, 2.5m/8ft being nothing unusual. They need secure staking but stakes should reach no higher than just below the spike. If the stem is too bloated and puffy for the spike not to hold up without additional support, as is often the case with seedlings, the plant is useless. I prefer not to stake early, leaving this operation long enough for a single tie to suffice for the season. Stakes are not beautiful and, in a border setting, should be visible for as brief a period as possible.

There are shorter strains available, but when a heavy spike is held on a shortish stem, the result is graceless. But a seed strain like ‘Magic Fountains’, purporting to be dwarf, is actually quite well balanced as well as manageable.

Delphiniums – the elatum types – should be fully perennial, but improvements which they have undergone in other respects have sometimes resulted in a shorter-lived plant. On heavy soils, they are martyred in winter by slugs, which devour their dormant buds. It helps to heap grit over their crowns.

The year’s cycle, for a delphinium, starts with early movement, often in February. When this becomes apparent is a good time for shifting plants, should you need to. Autumn is dangerous, when they are dormant. Unless you are very careful (and that is possible, in your own garden), the root ball can lose sizeable chunks of fragile root and the plant will be unable to make good the damage at that season.

At flowering time, powdery mildew may set in, though this is less common or serious under mixed border conditions than where delphiniums are being grown on their own, as the exhibitor prefers. They must be protected with a suitable fungicide. After flowering, the plants will be cut back, leaving some foliage. They will often sprout again from the base and flower a second time, in September. I welcome this bonus but anti-mildew sprays will need to be repeated.

Propagation of named varieties must nearly always be from cuttings (though division, on a small scale, is possible in spring), made with the young shoots in early spring, when they are some 10-15cm/4-6in long. Each cutting is severed, with a sharp blade, from its juncture with the parent stock. Insert in pots in a light and gritty cutting compost, to half the cutting’s length. Rooting needs no special apparatus and will succeed in a close, cold frame, in a light but not scorching position. Apply shading if necessary. After hardening off, the young plants can be planted out at the end of May.

When delphiniums are propagated from seed, this needs to be fresh. Sown in February or (in a cold frame) March or April, the seedlings can be potted individually into square modules, 18 to a seed tray, and will be ready for planting out from mid-May. Flowering will start in late July, the height of the plants in this first year being a couple of feet shorter than in the second, when they will flower from mid-June.

Seed strains, in general, are not being rigorously selected. It was different when the Pacific Hybrids were first launched. Nowadays the commercial seed producers tend to spend as little money on selection as they can get away with. Consequently, although it is well worth the fun of growing them from seed, you need to have high standards on what you will retain. More than half the seedlings are likely to need discarding, but something good should remain. You will do better to purchase seed strains purporting to be in a single colour range, rather than complete mixtures, which are a pretty hopeless jumble.

Really, named varieties that have been through the RHS trials should be preferred. Choose them on the trial ground at Wisley, if you have the chance. Being able to see their relative heights is useful, as are their relative times of flowering.

Florists’ flowers come and go, quickly. Here, even so, are comments on a few of the cultivars that please me. ‘Skyline’ (2.5m/8tft) is light, clear blue and flowers late. ‘Shimmer’ (only 1.7m/5 ½ft) is also later than most; semi-double, true blue with a white eye. ‘Mighty Atom’ (2m/6ft) has a well-furnished, lavender blue spike and looks good, in my border, behind the pale yellow platforms of an achillea.

‘Joan Edwards’ (2.4m/8ft) is pure, strong blue, white-eyed. ‘Blue Nile’ (2m/6ft), deep blue with a white eye. ‘Cassius’ (2m/6ft) is a mixture of blue and mauve with a dirty brown bee, but surprisingly nice. ‘Turkish Delight’ (1.5m/5ft) has large, pale pinky-mauve flowers. ‘Can Can’ (2m/6ft) is very double, blue and mauve. ‘Tiddles’ (1.2-1.2m/4-5ft) is pale blue-mauve and very double. An old, fully double variety, ‘Alice Artindale’, which has smallish, blue-and-mauve rosettes, is particularly good for cutting when in its prime, to dry, as it can be hung upside-down (in the privacy of a darkened room) and will retain its shape without the florets closing or drooping.

Delphiniums have a wide geographical range and there is quite a choice of species, let alone hybrids. In an inland valley in British Columbia, it stuck in my mind that a grassland area where we set up our tent, had been eaten tight by cattle, except for yellow dandelions and a blue delphinium species, which had been sedulously avoided and were making the only possible floral display.

Delphinium grandiflorum (30cm/1ft), often misnamed D. chinense, plus a selling name like ‘Blue Butterfly’, can be grown as an annual. It has single, intense blue flowers and would be a lovely thing if it would only grow more willingly and make a larger plant. Some plants survive the winter and will be bushier in their second year. This has been crossed with D. elatum to give us the Belladonna group, some of which, like ‘Lamartine’ (blue) and ‘Moerheimii’ (white), have been named. The white seed strain, ‘Casa Blanca’, was particularly impressive in its first year on a Wisley trial, but hopeless in its second. Still, worth a try. These Belladonnas have a few flowering side-branches which are as dominant as the leader. They are light framed, graceful, generally 1m/3ft tall. ‘Connecticut Yankees’ are a mixed seed strain and similar.

‘Pink Sensation’, which looks like a Belladonna, is truly pink (though not a great plant) and owes this to two scarlet Californian species, D. cardinalis and D. nudicaule. These two, plus the yellow-flowered D. semibarbatum (syn. D. zalil) have been crossed with D. elatum and given rise to some most exciting hybrids in a psychedelic colour range, including pure red, orange, pink, cream, yellow and magenta. Alas, they are hopeless in a practical role. Not hardy, not perennial and difficult to propagate true. But we live in hopes.