June 18, 2021
The garden the painter Cedric Morris made at Benton End in Suffolk was far from being the NGS ideal. ‘Something of interest all year round’ was not his goal. Irises were his passion. His paintings of them (and other flowers too) are explosive celebrations of his love of colour. Among his gardening disciples was Beth Chatto, who propagated several of his favourites. Another friend was Elizabeth David, who took us to meet Cedric and his partner, Lett Haines, one day in the 1970s.
It was a cold day in winter (I remember a savoury brown stew and ample red wine). In the walled garden there was little to see. In the middle stood a lonely shrub that was evidently suckering about with abandon. I asked. ‘Shepherdia argentea’, he said. ‘Won’t you have a piece?’ So that’s my Morris souvenir, now the centrepiece of the tiny seaside garden we care for on the Solent. Its ambitions are not limited to the ten-foot square brick-walled bed in the centre. It puts up wayward shoots anywhere, rising to five feet or so, covered in curving oval silver-coated leaves two inches long, around a much-branched central shoot – trunk is too strong a word. There are six or seven distinct suckers already the same height, filling the bed, above the box and rosemary, campanulas, geums, geraniums, cistus and mint making a seaside tangle. As I write two wrens have chosen it as their momentary perch.
It doesn’t stop, there, though. It has found chinks in the paving round the bed and would eventually make a silvery thicket of the whole garden. Anyone with a sand-dune to fix would welcome it. I have only once seen it flower; little yellow flowers like an eleagnus that are followed, but not here, by the red berries that give it its native American name of Buffalo berry. It needs a mate to fruit. I’m not surprised you rarely see it offered in nurseries; what gardener wants an aggressive suckerer? So the sucker when Morris gave me the piece fifty years ago was me. I have offered it to the Garden Museum for their Cedric Morris celebrations, but now they have Benton End itself, thanks to a most munificent patron, they will inherit plenty.