Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Early summer ephemera

In a small garden plants generally need to be of interest for an extended season, not just a brief period, if they are to be worth the space the occupy.  Hence my interest in foliage and half hardy plants that can flower all summer.  But even so I can still find some space for plants that make only a fleeting contribution - providing that contribution is the highlight of its brief season.  The Magnolia 'Raspberry Ice' in the front garden is a good example.  10 days flower if I'm lucky - but glorious for those ten days even if the rest of the  year it's just green height and background.

Now, in early June, another highlight is having its display.  The 4in/10cm flowers of Paeonia lactiflora 'Bowl of Beauty' have opened from fat buds and, in the intervals between some rather heavy rain showers when they close up again, are displaying their blowsy charms.

Paeonia lactiflora 'Bowl of Beauty'
This is still a young plant.  Even in the good soil and sunny spot the plant needs growth has been a little slow.  The tuberous roots haven't built up sufficient bulk to fuel more than a couple of flowering stems - but even this promise of things to come is enough to convince me that I made the right choice when I bought it after lusting over a far larger plant in the garden at Cotehele, a National Trust property on the Cornish bank of the River Tamar.

It won't last long.  By next week the petals will be shattered and fallen, its brief season over for another year.  But it will linger long in the memory and I can always justify the space it occupies in an increasingly crowded small garden by reminding myself that it does actually have two seasons of interest.  In early spring the new leaves emerge red flushed, providing another brief moment of colour, all the more valuable during that bleaker season.

Red flushed young foliage of Paeonia lactiflora 'Bowl of Beauty'
Similarly ephemeral but just as much a highlight at this time of year are irises.  I don't grow many.  I can't justify the space they would occupy during the summer so I content myself with a few isolated clumps.  No bearded irises, they would take up too much of my precious sunny areas - though I am constantly thinking of (but never get round to) growing a few on the allotment for cut flowers.  Instead I have a couple of clumps of Iris sibirica, the elegant species and the stockier cultivar 'Perry's Blue', in the front garden and white striped Iris laevigata 'Variegata' in the pond

Iris sibirica
Iris sibirica 'Perry's Blue'
Iris laevigata 'Variegata'
I've had Iris laevigata 'Variegata' for as long as I've had the pond (12 years now).  It hadn't flowered for a few years as the pond got shadier and shadier but the renovation over the last year has let in far more light and it's flowering again.  It's not the prettiest or most elegant of the water irises - but the white striping of the foliage provides interest over a far longer season than would be the case with its more flamboyantly flowered but plainer foliaged cousins.

Like the peony, these irises don't linger long.  But, for a few brief days bridging the gap between spring and summer, they provide a highlight.  No wonder that larger gardens would set aside garden areas devoted solely to peonies and irises - and visit them only when both plants were in flower at the start of summer.  My four are my homage to more spacious times.


  1. John, I wonder if it's because my Maine climate is cooler at this time of year than yours in Plymouth, but my siberian irises (which started blooming about a week ago) usually last about a month (that is, from the time that the first variety opens in the earliest, most protected location and the late variety finished blooming in a different part of the garden). I, too, have young peonies that have been slowly getting established and not making many buds. I'm looking forward to the day when I have enough flowers on the peonies to cut some and bring them indoors, where they last much longer. -Jean

  2. Thanks for that info, Jean

    It's most likely the range of varieties you grow. Back in the days before I moved to this garden I grew a few more varieties. The species was always the earliest with others coming into flower over a period of about a month - just like yours. Each variety only lasted about two weeks - the same as my remaining two do now.

    If I had the room I'd have a lot more. With my space restrictions they are just tokens - but they do bridge the late spring - early summer gap.