Blooming London: the plant diary of a London square during lock down
London, like many big cities, has a different climate to much of the UK. With its large built-up areas creating a micro-climate, or “urban heat island” with heat stored by the city’s buildings, much of the capitals flora comes into bloom earlier than elsewhere giving us a tantalising glimpse of things to come. National Garden Scheme CEO, George Plumptre, has been sharing the delights of his own London square, his place of sanctuary, fresh air and exercise, during the current government restrictions, on his twitter account @GeorgePlumptre – his daily posts from 23rd March are collated here:
(You can also listen to an interview with George live from Eccleston Square on ABC Australia and enjoy a virtual visit to Eccelston Square, as the bottom of this page.)
June 14: National Garden Scheme gardens are reopening and limits on our lives are lifting. So it’s time to close Plant of the Day, begun 83 days ago as a bit of fun in lockdown. I’m bowing out with a gorgeous plant that is a personal favourite because of its name: Hydrangea ‘Annabelle’.
13 June: It’s Saturday so a tree for Plant of the Day. Despite its name, tree of heaven, Ailanthus altissimo has acquired a poor reputation as a result of its vigorous growth. We have one in the square and you can see it’s distinctive leaf pattern.
12 June: Plant of the Day is this cheerful perennial pea which scrambles vigorously up a wooden pergola before producing bright pink flowers (and a few white ones). It’s interesting that this really bright colour is fine in pea flowers, it can be a bit overwhelming in some other flowers.
11 June: Plant of the Day is one of my mysteries, A large bushy shrub with distinctive leaves and striking purple flowers. I thought it was a solanum, but the leaf is wrong. We’ve a few in the garden and they add flashes of colour to banks of midsummer green. Any ideas what it is?
10 June: Plant of the Day is Acanthus or Bear’s Breeches, a vigorous perennial which combines glossy foliage with impressive flower stems. A real statement plant but itneeds controlling.
9 June: Pelargonium or geranium? Plant of the Day often causes confusion, especially as there is a completely different geranium family. Few plants bring such rich red to the summer garden. Introduced from South Africa in the 18th century by Francis Masson, Kew’s first plant collector.
8 June: We’re back to challenging names for Plant of the Day, Arthropodium cirratum, an exotic perennial from New Zealand that until recently was considered too tender for most UK gardens. I like the combination of arching, strap-like leaves and delicate sprays of star-like flowers.
7 June: The other day I did Abutilon vitifolium as Plant of the Day. Now it’s the turn of a very different variety (not sure of name?) whose soft yellow flowers have the bell shape so typical of abutilons. It makes a tall shrub, but the overall shape is not as elegant as the flowers.
6 June: It’s Saturday so trees for Plant of the Day, acers or maples. On both sides of the world, in Japan and North America, they’re nationally important. Ours in the square are Japanese, smaller than American varieties, with spreading canopies and delicate leaf and bark patterns.
5 June: Friday Favourite is foliage: hostas. We put up with their fatal attraction to slugs (best beaten by growing them in pots which shows off their sculptural shapes). I love the glaucous blue shades and miniatures. On Sunday we are visiting an National Garden Scheme garden with 100+.
4 June: We’re back in Australasia for Plant of the Day, leptospermum. Not long ago they were thought too tender for most British gardens but we have two in the square. They don’t look much till in flower, then they’re striking. The white-flowered is grown for famous Manuka honey.
3 June: Plant of the Day is an old favourite, foxgloves or digitalis. They’re one of those flowers that links our gardens to the countryside, growing as happily in a border as in natural woodland. We’ve got a variety, including some lovely miniature ones that are hard to photograph.
2 June: Plant of the Day is a bit of a quest. It’s a small ‘front of border person’ and I love it’s rich green foliage and frothy flowers. I think it’s Heucherella tiarelloides, those paying attention will see similarities with it’s cousin Tiarella done a few weeks ago. Not sure, ideas?
1 June: Australasian plants are strongly represented in the garden and one of the most typical groups are the bottle brushes (callistemons) – they only come from Australia and Tasmania. Understated for much of the year, when those flowers appear, well they’re pretty dazzling.
31 May: Plant of the Day could be the last hurrah for the roses and we celebrate those exotic dark wine-red/purples that are often the most richly scented and include some evocative names such as ‘Cardinal de Richelieu’ and ‘Tour de Malakoff’. Not sure about names for these beauties.
30 May: It’s Saturday so trees for Plant of the Day. It’s with good reason that the silver birch is called ‘Lady of the Woods’. Elegant, striking, definitely feminine, they fit anywhere. Best planted together, our group are cool in summer and stand out from across the garden in winter.
29 May: A few weeks ago we celebrated the tree paeonies that are one of the garden’s showpieces. We don’t have so many herbaceous ones but as you can see from our Friday Favourite, they’re also pretty luxurious. The secret is the combination of rich flower colour and deep green foliage.
28 May: There are certain shrubs that I think are useful rather than beautiful. You look and think ‘not very interesting’ then you plant one and realise that it’s habit, foliage, long period of interest etc, make it really valuable. Plant of the Day, Phlomis, is one of these.
27 May: It’s fascinating how varied the range of daisy flowers is. From the humble daisy on lawns to the erigeron that I featured recently, and oxeyes in meadows, they’re everywhere. The range includes today’s Marguerites or argyranthemums which grow in different guises in the garden.
26 May: Plant of the Day focuses on a family of flowering shrubs I’n not certain about, deutzias. Pic 1 is right (it has a label!) I think the others are deutzias too, but I’m not sure. Also they are lovely now, covered in confetti-like flowers, but out of season they can look scruffy.
25 May: Plant of the Day is one of my favourite foliage plants, Melianthus major. Pointed, deeply-toothed leaves are rich blue-green in colour and carried in arching tresses to striking effect. It originates from South Africa and grew wild in my Cape Town garden when I lived there.
24 May: Philadelphus have all flowered and been the stars of the Bank Holiday. Not sure of the first’s name but the others are all of the most gorgeous and graceful of the lot, Philadelphus delavayi melanocalyx (dark calyx), calyx being outer layer of petals. Sorry, nerdy but relevant.
23 May: It’s the weekend so we’re back to trees for Plant of the Day. Any elm has been pretty rare in England since the Dutch Elm Disease of the 1970s. This is a Wych Elm, Ulnus glabra ‘Lutescens’. Gorgeous lime-green foliage and a generous spreading habit. One of the square’s real gems.
22 May: We’re back to roses for our Friday Favourite and this elegant group of white ones. Once again, so much variety in the close detail of their flowers – two large, two small – and in habit they vary from spreading shrubs to vigorous climbers.
21 May: Plant of the Day is nepeta or catmint, brilliant for edging. In the square garden it edges two short borders with roses. From a neat line of blue-green leaves it froths into spires of mauve-blue flowers, once they are done you trim back to a neat edge. Perfect for months.
20 May: It’s properly rose bonanza in the garden right now. I’m fascinated by their different details and because ours are spread out all over the place, not stuck in a ‘rose garden’ you notice this more. Plant of the day is pink ones, other colours to come in the next few days.
19 May: From small people yesterday to one of the garden’s most vigorous characters for Plant of the Day. Most hydrangeas are shrubs, a few are climbers and the best-known is Hydrangea petiolaris. As you can see, ours has scaled high up a plane tree, it has the distinctive flat flowers.
18 May: Plant of the Day is hardy geraniums or cranesbills. Cottage garden favourites and with good reason, we only have a few from this large family but they are all indispensable perennials. Some are densely flowered, others like little pheum have lovely scattered flowers.
17 May: One of our most handsome trees is Plant of the Day, Liriodendron tulipifera, the Tulip Tree from the USA. A tall elegant shape in the garden’s centre, it has strange, shovel-shaped leaves that go butter-yellow in autumn and now, the greeny-yellow flowers that give it its name.
16 May: Quizzes have been very popular during lockdown so instead of a single tree Plant of the Day is a tree quiz. Get these four sets of distinctive foliage in the right order: ginkgo, plane, acer, ailanthus.
15 May: We’re celebrating scent with this Friday Favourite which has indeed been a firm favourite since introduced to UK in 1548, Jasminum officinale, Common White Jasmine. Delicious scent matched by clusters of tight pink buds opening to pure white flowers to give a champagne moment.
14 May: We’re back to small people for Plant of the Day. I’ve always been fascinated by those perennials which are small enough qualify as Alpines. These two little gems definitely do, the first is an erodium, I think the second is a miniature campanula?
13 May: Few scents are as evocative of early-summer in an English garden as that of Plant of the Day, philadelphus – Mock Orange. The best in our square garden is this one with distinctive yellow-green leaves. The flowers are gorgeous and the fragrance wafts over you from a distance.
12 May: We’re with one of the garden’s stellar collection of climbing roses for Plant of the Day, Alister Stella (no pun intended) Gray. We have two in the garden both combine spectacular size with the wonderful fine detail of the changing flowers as they open from orange-blush to white.
11 May: Height is a great advantage in perennials and Plant of the Day Libertia (New Zealand Satin Flower) is a good example why. Great on their own or in a planting scheme with smaller people in front.
10 May: One of the great features of a number of the trees in the square is the way they host spectacular climbing and rambling roses. Plant of the Day is this stately maple which hosts 3 roses, a vigorous red one which has climbed to a prodigious height, and pink and yellow ones.
9 May: It’s the weekend so tree time for Plant of the Day. One of the best features of some is how they hang over the square’s boundary railings. I need help identifying the first with light lime-green leaves? No 2 with brilliant golden ferny foliage is either robinia or gleditsia.
8 May: Plant of the Day marks VE Day. I’ve thought a lot about my parents, Dad, 31 was in India with his regiment, The Buffs. Mum, 22, was a land girl and budding pianist. She gave a VE Day concert in her local church, playing Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto. They married in 1951.
7 May: We return to a small person for Plant of the Day; like so many small plants the daisy-like Erigeron outperforms it’s diminutive size. Cheerful and long-lasting, it’s brilliant for filling gaps against stone or brickwork. The blend of colour shades in the flowers is a delight.
6 May: Abutilons can be tender, in Britain, they thrive where it is sheltered and warm enough, like a London square. Many are untidy shrubs with striking bell-shaped flowers, Plant of the day Abutilon vitifolium is different with pretty saucer-shaped flowers in pure white or mauve.
5 May: When people think of fritillaries it’s usually the delicate Snake’s-head, Fritillaria meleagris. But there are brilliant lesser-known cousins such as Plant of the Day Fritillaria persica. I love it’s dusty, chocolate-purple flowers. As the name suggests, it’s from the Middle East.
4 May: Plant of the Day is one of the strangest looking in the garden, Echium pininata. It also claims one of the strangest common names, ‘Giant Viper’s-bugloss’. It comes from the Canary Islands and is very un-English looking, a bit threatening. But people love their exoticism.
3 May: Plant of the Day is Cercis siliquastrum, better known as Judas Tree: according to legend he hanged himself on one. It’s appearance belies such sombreness, prolific pea-like flowers are usually rosy-lilac, we have a lovely white-flowered one in a prominent place as you can see.
2 May: Plant of the Day celebrates the ceanothus or Californian Lilac, of which the square garden holds the National Collection. As you can see in photo 1, many are impressive trees, covered in their distinctive flowers in various shades of powdery blue, except the elegant white one.
1 May:The square garden has an enviable selection of rambling roses that tumble from trees or frames. I’ll feature one for Friday Favourite for a couple of weeks starting with one of the best, ravishing Cecile Brunner with gorgeous noisette pink flowers that open from a neat bud.
30 April: The popularity of meadow-style planting has championed Plant of the Day camassia and echoes their North American native habitat. Their pale mauvy-blue (or white) flowers look great scattered in grass. We don’t have meadow but they mix well with pink and purple tulips.
29 April: There are hundreds of clematis, but perhaps the most popular and reliable is Plant of the Day Clematis montana. Vigorous growth means it spreads happily in most situations, quantities of pale flowers make it a perfect partner to virtually any neighbour as these pictures show.
28 April: From yesterday’s bullish euphorbia today we enjoy two of the garden’s most refined characters. Corylopsis and stachyurus both have delicate racemes of flowers. Hillier’s calls one ‘exquisitely beautiful’ and the other ‘of considerable merit’. The names are their main challenge.
27 April : I did euphorias ad Plant of the Day a while ago but deliberately left one, Euphorbia mellifera ‘Honey Spurge’ because it lasts for months and is the most impressive. In the square it has grown into bushes taller than me. Great structure and showy, honey-scented flowers.
26 April: Plant of the Day, Aesculus x carnea, ‘Red Horse Chestnut’, is the most rewarding for us because as photo 1 shows, it is in the sightline from our flat to the garden. Horse Chestnut candles are a talisman of spring so it’s a tragedy these majestic trees are threatened by disease.
25 April: Plant of the Day is the garden’s most enigmatic tree, Davidia involucrata, the ‘Pocket Handkerchief Tree’. It’s fascination is the flappy white bracts (handkerchiefs) which protect the soft little flower heads. Named after the 19th-century French missionary who found it in China.
24 April: As it’s my birthday and time for a Friday Favourite, I think Plant of the Day needs a celebratory look, so what better than part 2 of our gorgeous tree peonies. The size of dinner plates, they’re luxuriant splashes of rich colour. The flowers close at night and open in the day.
23 April: I’m signing off our tulip season – still going strong after a month – with a Plant of the Day showcasing a zany striped characters which illustrates the tulip’s diversity.
22 April: Hillier’s, the top plant manual, calls Plant of the Day wisteria ‘one of the noblest of all climbers’. You can see why looking at ours which has clambered 30 metres or so to the top of a plane trees. Racemes of fragrant, soft mauve flowers are instantly recognisable, gorgeous.
I’ve never been a great fan of growing weird-looking plants because they’re unusual. But you must admit that Plant of the Day Clianthus puniceus has a certain pzazz. It also has suitably eccentric names, ‘Lobster’s Claw’ or ‘Parrot’s Bill’. It loves the square’s warm shelter.
20 April: Good gardening isn’t just about what you grow but what you grow it with. So Plant of the Day looks at plant association. You hope for happy neighbours who complement and enhance each other. A bit like people really. Here’s one from the square garden.
19 April: Plant of the day is one of the garden’s less well-known but most beautiful trees, the Halesia or aptly named Snowdrop Tree. It hails from the USA and for a few weeks in April is covered with clusters of pure white bell flowers.
18 April: Plant of the Day quiz: who wrote ‘We’ll Gather Lilacs’? Like the song, lilac is one of a small group of plants that are instantly evocative. They hang over the edges of the square so passers-by can enjoy the tresses of flowers. Traditional pale mauve is best because of its scent.
17 April: We return to Friday Favourite for one of the garden’s highlights, the enormous Banksian Rose which covers a wooden arbour and the garden shed. From our windows we can watch the delicious small noisette flowers emerge from buds to make a billowing mound of soft buttery yellow.
16 April: April is early for roses and yellow is not the colour most people think of for them. So Plant of the Day is some we have in the square garden, where the London climate brings them out early, Rosa xanthina and Canary Bird. But these are the intro to tomorrow’s yellow rose forte.
15 April: We don’t have many of the vast rhododendron family in the square, apt as they are woodland plants. So for Plant of the Day we’re lucky to have two of the prettiest, one the scented common azalea, the other I’m not sure of the name but I love the pink flush to white flowers.
14 April: Plant of the Day is one of the square’s real showstoppers, the tree peony. Originating from China their flowers are impossibly luxurious. As if to emphasise this they appear swiftly – these photos were taken in a few days – and do not last very long. Plant royalty.
13 April: It would be hard not to have a tulip Plant of the Day at this time, they are such a feature of everyone’s gardens. In our square they’re scattered all over, some in pots like the main walk, some in single colours, most in very bright mixtures.
12 April: Plant of the Day is one I’ve always associated with Easter, that is suitably celebratory, the Crown Imperial, the most exotic member of the fritillary family. Grown in Europe since the 16th century when it was introduced from Constantinople.
11 April: Magnolias are some of our most rewarding flowering trees. A suitable Plant of the Day for Easter Weekend when many are at their best, showing off their uniquely luxuriant flowers in shades from pure white through pink to wine red.
10 April: Good Friday’s plant of the day is the thorn tree or crataegus, of which we have one in the square garden. Many have alarmingly long thorns dotted along their branches as well as distinctive small leaves and heavily gnarled bark.
9 April: Just over a week ago my stripy camellias were a very popular Plant of the Day so I thought we’d go into the Easter weekend with another group, all flowering now and all deliciously pink. As you can see, many are large enough plants to look up into, a great view.
8 April: Plant of the Day is one of my mother’s all-time favourites, erythronium. As you can see it’s a gorgeous little spring treasure. This one is Pagoda, the way the petals curve back or reticulate is particularly pretty. Good they thrive in our square as woodland is their natural home.
7 April: Scent is the most elusive plant quality. Plant of the Day is one of the few real head-turners, Viburnum carlesii. Ours in the square garden has flowered for weeks; walking past the delicious fragrance wafts over you. Tight pink buds opening to white flowers are equally beguiling.
6 April: Plant of the Day starts the week robustly with euphorbias – some of which are vigorous to the point of thuggery. But their combination of shape and colour for months makes them great garden plants.
5 April: Today is Palm Sunday which I’m celebrating with Plant of the Day, Cordyline australis, the New Zealand cabbage palm. They’re an odd sight in an English garden and will only survive in a sheltered site. Just now their mops of spiky leaves sprout equally spiky flower clusters.
4 April: Weekend Plants of the Day are trees, but some call today’s a shrub. Whatever, Staphylea colchica is very pretty, I love the contrast of fresh green leaves and brilliant white dangling flowers which appear in generous clusters. It has an unfortunate common name, the ‘bladder nut’.
3 April: Plant of the day at the end of the week will be Friday Favourite, this week I’ve gone for small and delicate, the tiarella – so much nicer than it’s other name, ‘foam flower’. They’re shade-loving but robust little treasures with tiny, gorgeous flower spires and bold foliage.
2 April: Plant of the day is new foliage to celebrate the fresh, glossy greens that have a moment of glory before plants flower. Some, like hardy geraniums and acanthus make mounds that rise daily like bread, their flowers are weeks off. Hellebores produce new foliage after flowering.
1 April: It’s easy to have a different a clematis flowering in each month of the year. Best in early spring is my Plant of the Day, Clematis armandii. The star-shaped flowers are rich white and on a mature plant like this make great clusters. Unusually for a clematis, it’s evergreen.
31 March: After yesterday’s gorgeous but gaudy camellias, for today’s Plant of the Day we go to the other extreme, a low-key and low-growing group of what my mother called ‘interesting small people’ – all with blue flowers. A swathe of forget-me-not, scilla, brunnera and a little violet.
30 March: On a miserably cold day typical of March, I thought we all needed cheering up. So plant of the day is the camellia, a colourful highlight of our London square garden; there’s usually one in flower October to March. But few match these variegated beauties for sheer bravado.
29 March: Plant of the day: trees again, but in contrast to yesterday’s stately plane trees, today it is three of the flowering cherries of which the square garden has a great selection. Two luscious blossom close-ups and one funny character with blossom growing straight from the trunk!
28 March: To differentiate my weekend Plants of the Day they will all be trees. The first dominates our square garden and its appearance: towering London Planes – Platanus x hispanica. As you can see they are magnificent even without their canopy of leaves, enjoy the gorgeous dappled bark.
27 March: Plant of the day from our London square garden. At the end of a gruelling week we all need something cheering and what could be more so than the narcissus family: perfectly formed, bright, cheerful and reliable – just like my family.
26 March: Plant of the day: The wonderful Beth Chatto said of wallflowers, ‘when I stoop to put my face into the velvet-textured, crumpled petals of old-fashioned wallflowers and smell the rich heavy scent I feel unbelievably sad – the kind of feeling only evoked by a memory of childhood.’
25 March: Plant of the day: Last of the Leucojums, or snowflakes, the elegant, taller cousins of snowdrops which are just coming to an end in the square’s garden. They have little clusters of bell-shaped flowers at the end of slender, curving stems and I love the way they gently nod.
24 March: This is the time of year that our London square garden comes into its own with new things appearing all the time. So on our daily walk I’m going to photo my ‘plant of the day’. Today’s is Exochorda x macrantha ‘The Bride’ which as you see really lives up to its name.
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