Saturday, 19 December 2009

Winter Colour

Winter colour in the garden is now easier to achieve than ever before.  No longer restricted to a palette of dark and glaucous evergreens with maybe heathers and a few berrying plants, the range of shrubs and small trees with coloured stems increases all the time. 
Within the genera of Salix and Cornus alone there is a wide variety of colour available, from subtly bronzed greens to vibrant reds, acid yellows and deep reddish blacks.  Careful combinations can yield brilliant effects, especially near water, where these plants thrive, and the range can be extended with the waxy white-bloomed stems of the ghost brambles, Rubus cockburnianus and R. biflorus. 
Add in the jazzy barks of the snakebark maples and the gleaming mahogany of Prunus serrula and you have the possibility of creating effects at least as colourful as those of summer, and given that we welcome anything bright in these darkest, coldest months, you may be given the licence to let rip with something truly psychedelic.  The effect has to be well-planned, however - these are big plants, needing to be viewed en masse and preferably at sufficient distance to haze the individual stems into a more general block of colour.  Across water, where the late, low sun can reach them, the combinations can be made dazzling, and if the planting is properly maintained, with old stems removed each year to allow vibrant new growth through, you are assured of fireworks for many years.  See the list of winter plants for some suggested varieties.

Monday, 7 December 2009


Few of our native plants have such an extensive and tangled mythology as the mistletoe, Viscum album. Reduced to a tiny sprig dangling forlornly from the light shade at Christmas time, this plant was in times past a powerfully magical symbol, only an echo of which now survives.
The plant is a semi-parasite, with roots that invade the body of larger woody plants to access minerals and water. Unlike fully parasitic plants it does photosynthesise, so is not dependent on the host for all its needs. In Europe this species lives happily on some 200 species of tree, although we tend to associate it with orchards. In Oxford there is a wonderful colony infesting the trees next to Magdalen Bridge, visible only after the leaves have fallen in autumn. The image is of a young plant growing conveniently low down on a small Sorbus near my house. The leaves, leathery and yellow-green, are paired on whippy stalks, with small clusters of the sticky, gelatinous berries in the axils. In overall habit the plant makes a decorative ball of foliage - a few years ago I bought an entire plant instead of the usual sprig, and was amazed by the intricacy of the 70cm ball of leaves and berries that arrived. It also looked much bigger in the house than it had in the market.

And so to mythology...

A magical plant as far back as the Ancient Greeks, mistletoe was thought to be the Golden Bough of Aeneas, the ancestor of the Romans. In early Christian tradition it had once been a tree, but the timber for Christ's cross was hewn from a mistletoe, since when the plant has been reduced to a withered parasite clinging to others, presumably as a punishment for allowing itself to be put to this use by the Roman soldiers. With a reputation for immortality mistletoe held, in Ancient Britain, a central role in the Druidical rites celebrating the winter solstice.

Finally its use as a Christmas decoration, which must have some connection to the midwinter ceremonies of the Druids. Though only recorded as far back as the 18th century, the use of mistletoe in the home still has shreds of earlier mythologies adhering to it - the mistletoe should not be allowed to touch the ground after harvesting, for instance. Originally the greenery would be kept in the house until Candlemas in early February, although other traditions have it hanging throughout the year as a preventative measure against fire and lightning strike (something akin to the old country practice of growing house-leeks on the roof) before being replaced the following Christmas Eve.

Tuesday, 1 December 2009


Of all the myriad materials used in exterior design (and the list increases by the week, usually at an exponential rate during the show-garden season), timber is easily the most versatile.

At the most basic level, it is structural. Thanks to its flexibility, great tensile strength, ease of handling and durability (when cared for) timber has an essential role to play in the safe creation of many garden structures (and most of the buildings we still live in). In this role it supports decking, stairways, roofs and floors, holds up gateposts and prevents doorways from collapsing.

Beyond this however is the great and inescapable fact of its natural good looks - even beauty - and this quality has been exploited for centuries to embellish the man-made environment, both indoors and out. Whether shaped or left in its native state, wood brings something of the primitive to the garden. As our first building material and the fuel for our earliest fires wood has claim to be as deeply rooted in the human subconscious as the tree is in the earth. Living and dead it has been of critical importance to our survival, sheltering and warming our species since its infancy. In the form of the living tree it continues to be a source of spiritual solace, although paradoxically the forest has also the capacity to inspire fear - the sinister beings of fairytale lurk there.

I think this is the source of its fundamental importance - trees are alive, as we are, and this (despite the fact that they can survive for many times the span of a human life) gives us a kinship with the material that is simply not possible with, for instance, stone. To see trees resisting the force of the wind, growing in the least promising situations, of such varied appearance and habit is to be halfway to imbuing them with personality, character and motives. So far as we know they possess none of these attributes, yet it is hardly surprising that our forebears viewed them as spiritual entities. Even reduced to decking planks wood has spring, resistance to the environment, something of life about it.