As I walk around the garden I see things shaking off the pall of winter and coming to life from small dog’s tooth violets (Erythronium) and Trillium to the huge and dramatic Rhododendron hodgsonii. I am reminded on my walk of all the places that these plants hail from. The Erythronium from North America, the rhododendron from the Himalayas.
As someone who is curious I naturally read up all I can about how to grow these plants and where they come from. However, the descriptions given in the botanical literature can seem rather dry. Take this one of R. arboreum for example.
“Distributed at elevations of 1700-3400m; flowering on the months of March to May. It inhabits open slopes and forms thick forest in the lower reaches of its ranges.”
Whilst this tells me many essential details such as how hardy it is likely to be, what the climate is like and when it will flower it is a rather dry passage that gives little flavour of the habitat in which you might fine Rhododendron arboreum. It tells me even less of what might be growing with it.
There is no better education for a gardener than seeing plants growing in their natural habitat. That is why I shall be travelling to Sikkim in northern India for a once in a lifetime opportunity to see many of the plants I am trying to grow at home in the wild. I am a firm believer that wherever possible, seeing plants in the wild teaches you how to garden better at home. You do not have to travel to the most far flung places in the world to do this, though I understand the temptation for those that do! Simply by taking a stroll through the countryside you can observe plants growing where nature put them. It is also possible to learn some lessons from careful observation.
Right now might be a good time to go and see bluebells in a woodland. If you visit regularly you will have seen the change in the flora around you. There may have been snowdrops early on, maybe some daffodils. By now you will be seeing bluebells and wild garlic and as your gaze moves higher up you will notice the expansion of new growth in the tree canopy. By the middle of summer the canopy will have fully expanded but in clearings there will be a froth of cow parsley. In the deepest shade the foliage of the spring bulbs will be withering away leaving ferns and moss.
By observing how the native flora responds to changes in light levels, moisture and so forth you can translate this into your own patch where you might have a bit of shade from yours or a neighbours tree. By doing a little light reading you will soon discover that there are other plants from around the world that will thrive in similar conditions. Then you can begin to peruse the catalogue of nurserymen or going to plant fairs to pick up those rare and special treasures. Before you know it you to will be booking your next holiday and spending less time on the beach and more time looking at the local gardens and parks. Perhaps sneaking a few seeds back in your luggage! Before you know it, what started as a walk in the woods has led you via books, the Internet or on your own two feet to the four corners of the world. You will probably meet or hear about some remarkable people and plants on the way.
Meanwhile there are many more plants in flower closer to home. One of my favourite members of the pea family is Lathyrus vernus, a perennial member of the same family as garden or sweet peas. It’s purple flowers make a wonderful display especially under shrubs with yellow foliage such as Philadelphus ‘Aureus’.
I love Amelanchiers, especially the cultivar ‘Ballerina’ which has bronze coloured young foliage that emerges at the right time to display the cascades of white flowers.
One of my favourite trees is also in flower at this time. Pyres salicifolia ‘Pendula’ is an ornamental member of the pear family that has silvery leaves that glint wonderfully in the sunlight as well as those simple but beautiful pear flowers.
Whether you are at home or abroad nothing demonstrates the art of the possible like plants.