Friday, 29 June 2012

Gaillardia: the Saucy Flower

It might seem a bit of a stretch from Richard the Lionheart to the humble  blanket flower, but it’s not as far as you think. Gaillardia were named after a French magistrate, Gaillard de Charentonneau. Gaillard in French can mean either “strong; lively, spritely” or else ”strapping man”. One imagines Richard himself as gaillard, but his famous castle, Chateau Gaillard, was so named because it was, in Medieval French, “saucy” since he’d built it to spite the King of France, and also because it was so stoutly built it could not be taken.

What struck me was that you could say the same  of the flowers themselves – they are certainly lively and strong, as well as being stout stalwarts of the perennial bed. Whether they’re saucy or not I’ll leave you to decide.

Gaillardia aristata
Gaillardia aristata by Matt Lavincreative commons 

Thursday, 21 June 2012

Painted Daisies

In 1802 the Russian count Apollo Mussin-Pushkin set out on a scientific expedition to Georgia and Mount Ararat. He brought with him a team of experts, including the German explorer Baron Frederick Augustus Marschall von Bieberstein, who spent a long time in the region and eventually published Flora taurico-caucasica  (1808-1819). It was Bieberstein who was credited with finding the painted daisy, although it’s not named after him.  Mussin-Pushkin and Bieberstein  found some other useful plants on that trip, including achillea filipendulina, the parent of many modern varieties, and the catmint nepeta mussinii, as well as the striped squill puschkinia scilloides.

It was a pity that the daisies were not named after Bieberstein or even Mussin-Pushkin, because they keep getting shuffled around. Currently, painted daisies are in the tanacetum family, the same family as the common tansy or feverfew. Before that they were in with the pyrethrums, and they've also spent time as chrysanthemums and leucanthemums (the white daisy family). I tend to think of them as pyrethrums still, but if you want your local nursery or garden centre to know what you're looking for, ask for tanacetum coccineum. (Red tansy, in other words.)

Friday, 15 June 2012


Erigerons (soft "g") are a group of plants, mainly North American, that grow in sunny, open places. There are a large number of species, but I'm mainly interested in the garden perennials. Their flowers resemble those of asters, but they open at midsummer, making them long-day flowers. The dried plant was supposed to repel fleas, thus the common name, fleabane. The Latin name actually derives from Greek, eri - early, and geron - old man (as in gerontology).  This was probably suggested by the white hairs that surround the seedheads.

According to Val Bourne, erigerons were popular about 50 years ago, but they're definitely out of fashion now. She claims that people found them too much trouble, and short-lived, but I never had any problems with mine. Still, if you read down through her article, you'll notice that the introduction dates for a lot of the plants she mentions are around the 1950s, although there are some German introductions from the early 1970s.

Wednesday, 13 June 2012

Neglected Daisies

For my next few posts I’m going to focus on something a little different. I’ve been thinking for some time about a series on “neglected daisies”: erigeron, pyrethrum, gaillardia and coreopsis. Or, if you prefer, fleabane, painted daisy, blanket flower and tickseed. I’ve used all four of them in my garden, and they are wonderful plants, with the last three flowering for months. Erigerons tend to do it all in one go, but it’s a great go while it lasts.

Some of the prairie daisies like helenium, coneflower, rudbeckia moved to centre stage when the New Perennial movement took off in the nineties, with its emphasis on structure and shape. (Piet Oudolf’s book had five categories of shapes: spires, umbels, globes, plumes and daisies.)

Their enduring seedheads guaranteed them a place in a garden that needs to look good when it dies back. Other daisies, however, were not touched by the spotlight of fame, and I think it’s time they got their moment to shine.

I hope that these posts inspire you to plant some, and I hope that you enjoy them as much as I did. 


Petunias - as we like them.
I'm quoting this from Margaret Maron's post "THINKING OF THALASSA" because it amused me. Maybe it should be "Magenta the Motivator" from now on:

I remembered one of Thalassa’s shows in which she went on a long rant about how her red hybrid petunias reverted to this same sickly pinkish-purple.  Left alone, petunias will reseed themselves and come back year after year, but seeds from red petunias do not come up with red flowers.  They come up purply.  Because so many hybrid flowers of the red, pink and blue color range tend to revert, she and her mother called the color Garden-of-Eden purple and amused themselves (and us) by hypothesizing that all the original flowers must have been this color and that it wasn’t until Eve got kicked out of the garden that the colors became more varied.
Self-sown  petunias
The picture of the self-sown petunias is from The Online Plant Guide. They have several other pictures as well, all proving Thalassa Cruso's point.

Monday, 11 June 2012

Indigo: Seventh Colour or Odd One Out?

Indigo is the odd colour out of the spectrum. It has no complement, and it is really only in there because of Isaac Newton. He may have applied strict mathematical logic to the question of the planets’ orbit and their cause, but he also imagined that while gravity whisked the planets around in their courses, they produced the music of the spheres. Humans cannot hear this music. The seven planets, however, were thought to each have their own distinct note. Seven planets, seven notes in the Western major scale, so of course seven colours in the rainbow.  Newton even felt that there were similar intervals between colours and notes. (You can hear the tones and see their associated colours on YouTube: Presumably indigo fitted in well between blue and purple, but most modern scientists who study light consider the spectrum to consist of six colours, the primaries and their complementary colours.

Indigo is a useful term, however, for those colours that hover between blue and purple, inky and somber as they are. Some have suggested, in fact, that indigo is the colour of blue ink. The colour of new Levi’s, indigo means jeans for most people. It balances across the purple line from magenta. If magenta is in-your-face Lady Gaga, indigo is like Lou Reed – unflamboyantly cool.

Friday, 8 June 2012

The Battle of Magenta

Everyone is familiar with Gertrude Jekyll’s dislike of magenta – “malignant magenta”, as she called it. Many other writers of her period were equally dismissive, such as Alice Morse Earle, who said that as she glanced back through her writing on the subject, she felt the word “made the black and white look cheap.” (Kellaway: 93-5)  E. A. Bowles referred to certain geraniums as having, ”a pernicious habit of daunting that awful form of floral original sin, magenta, and rejoicing in its iniquity.” (Bowles: 98) Wilhelm Miller pulled no punches in The Garden , saying of discord: “One colour is responsible for nearly all the trouble, viz. magenta and the tones near it.” (Miller:156)

Geranium 'Patricia'
Geranium 'Patricia', photo by Simon Ross

This led to some controversy, as others, like the American writer Louise Beebe Wilder, argued in favour of “Magenta the Maligned”. Clarence Elliott, who owned the famous Six Hills Nursery in Stevenage, went further and criticized the avoidance of magenta, saying,” Some folk seem hardly to like to use the word “magenta," as though it were unclean, and resort instead to "rosy purple." This seems as bad as softening "cold bath" into “soapy tepid.” (Elliott: 603)

Euphorbias I Have Known

euphorbia bracts flowers green
Euphorbia "flowers". Creative commons, Jarek Zok

Euphorbias come in a wide variety of forms, everything from tiny cacti to poinsettias, but in this article I’m sticking to the perennial varieties that you’ll find in most gardens. And right up front I have to admit to something: I’ve only got experience of one half of the euphorbia world. Because their world is divided, like the Tories or 1920s America, into Wets and Dries. The Dries are the ones you see in gravel gardens or in Mediterranean plantings. The Wets, thanks to heavy clay soil, are the ones I’m more familiar with.[1] The minute I heard of euphorbia palustris (of marshes) I knew I would be planting it. I too wanted green flowers,but without having to buy new ones every spring.

Thursday, 7 June 2012

Impure Blue

There seems to be a reluctance to admit that there is such a colour as bluish-purple. Blue has rarity value, for sure, and I can believe that it sells better. But stop trying to convince us that Siberian irises, phlox, or geraniums are blue. 

Or dianthus, as one blog famously pointed out in an article entitled True Blue, My Ass. She was complaining there about dianthus amurensis “Siberian Blues”; maybe they’re depressed in Siberia because the best they can muster is a sort of washy magenta. Maybe the Siberians need filters. If you look up “Siberian Blues” on Google, the images will dazzle you with their blueness.  Some of them are so blue, they look fake even on first glance.

I had the same suspicions when I bought the phlox “Blue Paradise” to sit between the magenta and blue parts of a border. And I have to say it’s not too bad, really, but it’s not blue. Claire Austin’s page has a good picture of it: a purple flower, leaning towards blue-purple. 

Another much-hyped phlox, Nicky, apparently becomes blue-purple when the light is low, and magenta when it’s sunnier. A neat trick, but still not blue.

Another blog, Carolyn’s Shade Garden, provided the inspiration for this piece when she explained why she uses Latin names:

And my favorite:  Gardener: “I didn’t like the iris I bought last year, when it bloomed the flowers were purple.”  Me: “You are right the flowers are purple.”  Gardener: “Then why do you call it blue flag?”  I could write a whole different article on the color I call “horticultural blue”, which results from plant breeders’ apparent need to describe purple flowers as blue.

My own personal theory is there is paranoia about trying to sell anything as purple or purple-blue. Personally, I love these colours, but I seem to be in a minority. I’ve loved Siberian irises since I first saw them, and their colour is still gorgeous to me.

It would be fun to do a border or bed in Impure Blue. You would have lots of geraniums, asters, campanulas, clematis and irises to choose from. And hellebores. And roses. And....well, you get the idea. Now I have to think of similarly impure plants to go with them.

Wednesday, 6 June 2012

Why the name?

I'm writing this blog because I've just moved from England back to northern Canada, and while I'm still at roughly the same latitude, I've moved from zone 7-8 to zone 3. Also, I currently have no garden, just 15 years of insights and observations. Now that I'm not actually gardening, maybe I'll have time to share them.