Woodland Gems, a talk given by Dr Andrew Ward at the meeting of Saturday 8th March 2008
This was our new Chairman’s first meeting. Linda had a full house and a splendid speaker for her debut.
Dr Andrew Ward and his plants were welcomed with open arms - and purses - by Hardy Planters like bees round the honey-pot.
There were many treasures which found homes under our chairs long before he began to speak, and even more joined them after we had learnt about them.
He had long wanted to grow woodland plants and about fourteen years ago bought a clay field on a slight slope facing south, near Newark. He was not aware that it was also a frost-pocket recording temperatures as low as 16° most winters. Along the bottom of the field a row of mature poplars provided shade from early morning until tea-time in summer, but one very windy day a branch from one of these 85ft tall trees fell into the car park, narrowly missing a family car. Wanting to increase the shade-cover, he planted some choice trees but the field was so wet most of them drowned despite drainage having been installed across the site. He has since extended the area planted and dug a large pond, and to counteract the soggy clay has made extensive use of raised beds built up from his own compost and edged in bamboo poles with a membrane under bark for paths. He does not incorporate eggshells into his compost since they are not acidic, but adds flowers of sulphur which takes about four years to slowly dissolve and acidify the soil.
He had thoughtfully provided us with a plant list, many of which he grew himself. His talk took us through his flowering year. Most of the plants mentioned had been grown on the raised beds. Those that were sturdier were identified, while good doers and those that hadn’t learnt how to bulk up or seed were also commented on. He began with a tiny treasure which could start or end the list since it was in flower from the end of November to April: Primula sibthorpii with pinky-lilac flowers survives in both raised beds and the soggy clay.
He did not confine himself to small treasures and passed round sprays of the shrub Lonicera fragrantissima which scents their Christmas table each year since the buds will open indoors. Synthyris reniformis looks like blue hyacinths, only 6″ tall with large leaves, is very slow and has not yet seeded. Heliopsis orientalis which has pink flowers with blackberry-coloured centres likes rich soil and could be on several ‘want lists’!
We were treated to slides of a number of meconopsis. His favourite is the red M. punicea with five-inch-long petals, each flower lasting a week. Sadly it is monocarpic. A euphorbia to contrast with dark hellebores is E. ‘Excalibur’ with narrow leaves and lime flowers. In autumn the leaves turn yellow then orange before dropping to leave red stems which resemble cornus although they fade away in December. For dry shade he recommended Symphytum ‘All Gold’ which behaves itself and does not attract slugs and snails. It is slow to clump up and looks good. Ranunculus ficaria ‘Double Bronze’ opens up like a miniature water-lily. We were treated to a number of anemones and one which flew off the table was A. nemorosa ‘Viridiflora’ which has bracts instead of petals and they last for six weeks. Another of these beauties is A. nemorosa ‘Blue Eyes’ which opens pure white but gradually blue seeps through from the back. A.lipsiensis is a soft lemon-coloured anemone. He recommended buying named varieties of erythronium since they flower much more freely. An easy one is E. ‘White Beauty’ which is actually ivory, but these are not typical bulbs and can suffer dehydration, shrivel up and die when not in active growth. To cope with this in dry summers he suggested planting them with other plants which can wilt, like hostas or pulmonarias, thus warning you that you need to tip a bucket of water over them. The easiest is E. ‘Pagoda’ which clumps up even where it is too dry or too shady. A variety of epimediums included some which flower sporadically until the autumn like E. davidii and E. ‘Golden Eagle’ - since it is only 2″ high this name is a bit O.T.T. I didn’t know that dicentras are a shade-loving poppy nor that Sanguinaria canadensis is for retired folk only since its petals have a fragile relationship with the stem and last only a short time, so only the retired have the flexibility to be around for the short window of time that its petals are still attached to the stem! The double one is longer lasting since there are more petals to fall off. As he pointed out, it is worth having something fleeting and lovely than not having it at all!
He concluded with orchids. Dactylorhiza planted in a raised bed achieved three or four spikes. Then he noticed ‘grass’ round the bases which were seedlings and then he found them in the clay around the bed where the mulch covers the clay. He believes this stops them drying out as they develop.
This was a stimulating talk with plenty of plant wisdom along the way, given by a speaker who repeated the name of the plant after telling us about it - which makes him worth his weight in gold.