When we built our kitchen, forty years ago, we commissioned the stained-glass artist Jane Gray to make us a panel over the door between kitchen and conservatory. It illustrates our four favourite plants, one for each season, surrounded by a garland of autumnal vines. The flowers are a Corsican hellebore for winter, a Crown Imperial for spring, blue agapanthus for summer and white Japanese anemone for autumn.
I remember exactly how and why we chose them. Even where. We would still choose exactly the same flowers forty years later – with one exception. At that time we had just discovered the Crown Imperial; the sumptuous, juicy, rather smelly Fritillaria imperialis. There were scores in our new garden, both yellow and deep umber-orange, forming a long alley beside the box hedges along the central garden path and in clumps seemingly at random elsewhere. We loved upending the bells to show visitors the five white drops of nectar under each. Nothing in spring was more exotic than these oriental apparitions.
Today I’m not so sure. They are still here – but not in anything like an orderly alley. We soon discovered that they wander around at will, mysteriously displacing their huge bulbs. The result: you never know when you are going to spear or dissect one as you dig: until the strong sweet smell hits your nose. Every year as I work in the border I find myself reassembling their fat juicy segments. I bury them in the corner of a wall until they recover and form new bulbs ready to flower again. They die off slowly, too: you have to tolerate their thick stems yellowing and flopping right through the spring before you can yank them off. Glorious flowers they may be and with a fascinating story, but I am slowly moving them (when I can find them) to a wild corner they can have to themselves.
What replaces them as the icon of spring? We’re still thinking.