Peak ponticum

June 4, 2019

Few species have been as demonized as Rhododendron ponticum. Among foresters it is a hissing and a byword; among conservations not much better. The charge sheet: it self-sows with prodigious energy and success in typical forest land, which is often acid and rained-on. The seedlings then grow with villainous vigour and smother other seedlings and saplings. They create a damp shade, which is no bad thing in many woods, until it falls under a new suspicion: of harbouring and encouraging Phytophthera ramorum, or P. kernowiae, pathogens responsible for the death of among other things, larches…

For years there were grants available for the thanklessly repetitive tasks of spraying, or better injecting it with herbicide. The grants systems change but the problem remains. Foresters still shudder at the sight of mauve blooms in the woods in May, however pretty they may be. Tourists crowd buses to visit the hotspots. There is no denying the spectacle of hillsides aglow with it. Nothing shows up the shades of purple more vividly than the old slate-mines of North Wales, where whole mountainsides are slate-black and ponticum purple.


I am schizophrenic about it. Last week in Snowdonia no one could deny its beauty. It can form phalanxes of flowers by the roadside or peep from high among forest trees where flowers are the last thing you expect to see. Its shades of purple, or mauve, sometimes intense, sometimes much paler, are always a startling contrast with woodland green. Yet the sight of it among our trees, often flowering (as weeds often do) when a mere stripling, two or three years old, makes me shudder. There is no alternative to costly destruction.

One botanist has been convinced by its supernatural vigour to declare it a new species, and baptised it R. x superponticum. Other authorities say that’s rubbish. Although it may possibly have swapped a few genes with other species, such are the American R. catawbiense, it remains true to the R. ponticum standard – or rather one of them: the strictly pontic one is from northern Turkey, the other (oddly enough) from Portugal. They are apparently not physically different enough to be two species, but the one that spreads is consistently the Iberian strain. So ‘super’ is fair enough for its performance but doesn’t make it a distinct species.

Plantae Tradensis

June 3, 2019

In April I rashly mentioned counting up to 120 difference plants in this little garden. I might have expected the question; what are they? Here is a list, E and OE,  as no one seems to say any more.

April 20, 2019

 Plants in the back garden, upper level


Rose Madame Alfred Carrière

Camellia ‘Top Hat’

Fuchsia magellanica ‘Alba’

Euphorbia wulfenii

Helleborus corsicus

Iris unguicularis

Hedera helix (ivy) + variegata

Trachelospermum jasminoides


Rosa glauca

Clematis Perle d’Azur

Cissus striata

Agapanthus  Hybrid

Solanum jasminoides album

Camellia jap. Alba Simplex

Sedum spectabile

Iris foetidissima

Periwinkle (Vinca minor variegata)


Erigeron karvinskianus

Geranium ‘Rozanne’

Acnistus (syn. Iochroma) australis (pot)

Rose Phyllis Bide

Rose Iceberg

Hydrangea (white)

Rosa mutabilis

Fuchsia Thalia (pot)

Acar palmatum Shishigashira (pot)

Nandina domestica (pot)

Pelargonium ‘Coral Sunset’ (pot)

Iris from La Papaline (pot)

Tulbaghia violacea (2 Pots)


On steps

Myrtus luma variegata (pot)


Back garden main level

Rose ‘Parsons Pink China’

Laurus nobilis (bay)

Clematis Prince Charles

Trachelospermum  jasminoides Variegata


Ribes ‘White icicle’

Hydrangea petiolaris

Hydrangea seemanii

Astilbe (white)

Clematis ‘Polish Spirit’

Anemone x hybrida ‘Honorine Jobert’


Vibumum tinus variegata

Nerine bowdeni

Astor divaricatus

Hydrangea ‘Len Ratcliff’

Agapanthus ‘Queen Mum’

Clematis ‘Alba luxurians’

Clematis alpina (blue)

Rose ‘Gloire de Dijon’

Chaenomeles (apricot)



The neighbour’s unidentified Hybrid tea roses on & above wall!

Hydrangea paniculata ‘Limelight’

Yellow-variegated ivy

Campanula persicifolia

Viola labradorica


Main level (main bed)

Cornus alternifolia variegata (pot)

Enonymus fortunei variegata (on wall)

Jacob’s ladder (variegated)

Daphne Bholua (J. Postill)

Aquilegia vulgaris ‘Alba’

Dryopteris erythrosora (x 3)

Pulmonarias (-)

Geranium Rozanne

Sarcocca confusa

Cornus sibirica albovariegata

Prunus autumnalis

Scilla peruviana

Sedum (London Pride)

Erica (white heather)

Iris sibirica ‘Papillon’

Lily (?)

Anemone ‘Honorine Jobert’

Narcissus ‘Thalia’

Clematis ?


Lower level

Hydrangea petiolaris

Clematis montana ‘Grandiflora’

10 ferns in pots: Royal Fern (Osmunda regalis) etc


On verandah

Meyer lemon (pot)

Calamondin orange (pot)

Oleander, pink (pot)

Pelargonium ‘Apple Blossom”

Clivia miniata


Main level, greenhouse side

Trachelospermum jasminoides variegatum

Campanula p? (London weed)

Lycianthes (Solanum) rantonnettii

Clematis orientalis

Eccremocarpus scaber (cream flowers)

Yellow-variegated ivy (Hedera canariensis?)

Viburnum x burkwoodii

Rose ‘Bantry Bay’

Standard box x 3

Hosta sieboldii (pot)

Phlox ‘White Admiral’

Rose ‘Iceberg’

Clematis viticella ‘Kermesina’

Hedera helix (mini-white-variegated)

Cotoneaster horizontalis

Clematis x ‘Avalanche’

Of rocks and weed

May 29, 2019

More news from Japan. I happened to mention that I love oysters, the smaller and sweeter the better, and best of all the curiously-named Kumamoto. Curious because these days they come, I understand, from Puget Sound.

Where, then, is Kumamoto? It is a prefecture in the Kyushu archipelago in south-west Japan, important as the prime source of the Nori seaweed essential for making sushi. We had been discussing rocks, and how the Japanese choose them for their gardens. We have granite outcrops in the Welsh woods that split to make splendid ten-foot splinters. There is one deeply embedded (and much regretted) still in our former Essex garden. Wales, said my penfriend, has connections, and not only rocky ones, with Japan.

Laver is not quite as essential to the Welsh diet as Nori is to the Japanese, but it is the same plant. Its unpredictable life-cycle had baffled botanists in both countries until Dr. Kathleen Drew-Baker, at Bangor University, discovered that at its ‘seed’ stage, as a single-celled alga, it relies on vacant seashells as shelter. In the 1950s Japan was suffering a critical shortage of nori; here was the solution. And to this day the people of Uto, a town in Kumamoto, celebrate an annual ‘Drew Day’ around a monument to the Welsh doctor on the shore.

And à propos of rocks and the acknowledged twentieth century master of the Japanese garden, Mirei Shigimori. His parents were admirers of French painters of the Barbizon School – in particular, Millet. Hence their son’s name. Another of their children was named Bairon after the author of Childe Harold.


May 28, 2019

An uninvited arch

It was no part of our garden plan to have a pink rose arch across the middle, springing from the wall and resting on the greenhouse. It is a bonus of this über-flowery season, primed I’m pretty sure by the warmth of last summer. The hybrid teas from next door (our neighbours have a rooted objection to pruning anything, ever), having over-topped the ten-foot trellis by another seven or eight feet, are so weighed down by their flowers that they flop right across us. There are two: a sumptuous scarlet and a sunset pink one with blooms like cabbages, each weighing I suppose a quarter of a pound – and if it ever rained, very much more….

They have gatecrashed a party that already had a lot of colour. The pink of Bantry Bay definitely disagrees with our new cabbage friend – and also with Parson’s Pink China, which I have carefully planted so it is hard to see both at once. Iceberg, Alister Stella Gray and Mme. A. Carrière are neutral enough, but the ructions start with the purple of the potato bush (now a tree, and now no longer a solanum) Lycianthes rantonnetia and the yellow Clematis orientalis I slyly slipped in for a cunning contrast. Quarter-pound pink cabbages dismiss any such airy notions. What is airy, though, is the ultra-lightweight Chilean climber Eccremocarpus scaber. Its little creamy flowers peep out at the top of all this blue and yellow on the most delicate, flimsiest under-pinnngs.

What a sourpuss I would be, though, to censor this riotous behaviour.


Tea and botany

May 14, 2019

Last year we went to Cornwall to see magnolias and saw nothing through the driving snow. (Camellias at eye level, snow on their flowers, looked wonderful). This year the view was perfect, the magnolias magnificent, and the garden at Tregothnan glorious: from the house over the grandly austere parterre into the combe that zigzags down to the River Fal, with a ship moored exactly where you might build an eye-catcher.

It is an understatement to say that Tregothnan is spacious. The walks and glades among huge trees, magnolias and rhododendrons of course, but all the things you go to Cornwall to admire, stretch down valleys and over plateaux, follow streams and sneak into woods, it seems without limit. Then there is the startling sight of a hillside trim as a vineyard with long lines of shining green; Camellia sinenis, producing Tregothnan tea, the only tea, as far as I know, grown commercially in England. The Boscawen family, with Viscount Falmouth at its head, has been at Tregothnan for 700 years, and is still having new ideas.

I went down to ransack the archives of the Garden Society, the dining club formed one hundred years ago by such horticultural legends as Gerald Loder, Reginald Cory, Frederick Stern and Lionel de Rothschild to meet after RHS Show Days and discuss their new plants. Show Days at Vincent Square are alas almost extinct, and new plants much rarer than in the days of the great plant explorers. Today they would be accused of cultural appropriation or worse. The urge of gardeners to talk about their favourite plants is not so easily suppressed. The Garden Society dines on.

Old timers

May 9, 2019

The party photographed by Frances Elliott


Back from a gathering of R.H.S old-timers at Hergest Croft on the Welsh border (literally; it runs through Park Wood, the principal glory of the estate). The owner, Lawrence Banks, fourth in a dynasty of tree-collectors, was Treasurer of the R.H.S, his wife Elizabeth the first woman (and professional landscape gardener), President. Where else could we meet to celebrate the 90th birthday of the Society’s veteran Editor, Elspeth Napier? Elspeth was editor of the journal when it underwent its transformation into The Garden. Trad’s Diary was born under her editorship (and could probably benefit from it today).



Christopher Brickell, long time Director of Wisley, and Brent Elliot, the even longer time Society’s librarian, were there, with Caroline Boisset, Elspeth’s assistant editor, and Martin and Alison Rix – names which all mean a lot to committed members and gardeners. ‘We are the old RHS’, said Lawrence. In our day the Society still felt almost intimate, like a gathering of old friends, amateurs in the best sense, of people who have mastered their subject out of sheer love for it. A society hundreds of thousands strong needs systems that change its aura. ‘Professional’ and ‘amateur’ have both changed in their connotations.

Park Wood, where we wandered in the afternoon, is the place where I first learned that trees were an important part of my life, and decided to learn about them by writing a book (the fastest way, as any journalist knows, to learn a subject). It was Lawrence’s father, Richard Banks, who inspired me, climbing round high thickets of rare rhododendrons to show me a maple, a birch or a silver fir of intoxicating beauty. When in the 1970s the RHS staged a Conifer Conference there was a prize for the biggest collection of different cones. Dick Banks came second, just pipped to the post by the Queen, or rather the Crown Estate. But Dick had climbed every tree himself.

Plant collectors who know the Himalayas (alas, I am not one) have called Park Wood, in its steep-sided valley, noisy with its stream under a high vault of oak and larch, the nearest thing in Britain to Nepal. I would say heaven.

Easter trance

April 23, 2019

The scene of the crime

London (or at any rate Kensington) was in a trance over Easter. It was summer weather, London was radiant, but everyone had gone away. The streets were quiet, and in the enclosure formed by the terraces around us, nobody had a party: no music, conversation or barbecue smoke. I spent the afternoon writing a list of all the plants in the garden: 120, plus pots in the greenhouse. Then in the evening, after supper outside (this is still April) I sat with all the lights out, gazing at something I have scarcely ever seen in London: the stars. Nothing stirred: no wind, no birds, no sound of even distant traffic. Surely with such a clear sky, and an almost full moon there’ll be a frost? Warm air was pouring up from Africa; we were in an atmospheric duvet.

I had switched off the rather spasmodic pump that trickles into our tiny fish tank. For two weeks now I’ve been worried about our two Comets and a tiddler. The water has needed changing and the tank emptying of a winter’s worth of detritus. Only one of the fish has been coming up to feed, and that with little appetite. Over the weekend we found out why: he (she) is alone. What could have taken the others? It could only be a heron.

How a high-flying heron could spot the glinting surface of our tiny tank, only five feet by one and a half, I can’t imagine. Not only is it shaded by the wall beside the greenhouse, but the tall branches of the big potato bush hang over it. From the sky, I supposed, there would be nothing to see. There was a heron standing in the greenhouse ridge, I remember, three or four years ago. He flapped off over the garden wall when I showed up. So herons not only sail past, they come down to investigate. In most gardens they are as likely to find a frog as a fish.  How can we baffle them? I’d hate a net over the water; maybe just a cunningly placed wire?For all the serenity this little space encloses, nature is still red in beak and claw.


April 18, 2019

The orchard at Le Manoir aux Quat’Saisons

From the day he walked into a brasserie in Besancon to be a washer-up to his seriously senior status today Raymond Blanc has exuded a special sort of focussed enthusiasm. It has made his Manoir aux Quat’ Saisons, near Oxford, one of the best restaurants (and most expensive hotels) in the country. It has made him the most convincing television chef, and it powers his no-holds barred gardening. He employs twelve gardeners at Le Manoir, not because of the size of his gardens, but their intensity. In April the sight of perhaps half an acre of perfect tilth scored in immaculate straight rows (this is his veg plot) is pretty striking. Its produce, via the kitchen, is irresistible. But most impressive of all is the orchard, where more than 800 varieties of both British and French apples and pears are arranged in perfectly-pruned files round a central circle. The famous Potager du Roi at Versailles, it seems, had 400 varieties.

Blanc works in collaboration with the celebrated Delbard nursery at Malicorne, near Montlucon in the Allier, the very centre of France. Henri Delbard is famous for rose-breeding, too, having created a series of flowers matching, more or less, the palettes of Impressionist painters. His collection of historic varieties of fruit is a national reference, trained, cordoned and espaliered in wonderful ways, double and quadruple candelabras among them.

The art of pruning and ‘training’ trees is a French speciality, obsession indeed, which can have pretty ugly results. The British way, of letting a tree grow to its natural shape and size, is not at all the thing. “Elagueurs” with their saws and axes even scale tall hedge trees between fields; though here the purpose is harvesting fodder for cattle. (Cattle love elm leaves in particular). In French orchards – and here at the Manoir – pruning becomes an art of almost Japanese intensity. Apples and pears are given the same precision treatment as vines; each bud to be retained carefully chosen, the rest removed. How many pairs of secateurs does it take, I wondered, to reduce nearly a thousand fruit trees to perfect parade order?

Not only is Raymond growing them, he is testing them in the kitchen, compiling notes on the best method of preparation for each variety; whether it is best poached, roasted, steamed, baked or pureed. How many cooks?

Hugh’s Gardening Books


Trees was first published in 1973 as The International Book of Trees, two years after The World Atlas of Wine….

Hugh’s Wine Books

Hugh Johnson’s Pocket Wine Book

I wrote my first Pocket Wine Book in 1977, was quite surprised to be asked to revise it in 1978,…

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