by Nancy Allison (writer(at)eclipse.co.uk)
Copyright August, 2006 by Nancy Allison -- All Rights Reserved
Before I moved to England, I was unaware of my poverty. Born and raised in America, I was under the impression that I'd seen the world's most beautiful landscapes, smelled its loveliest flowers. True, I had lived at the base of the Rockies and seen the foothills turning gold and brown and blue. I'd collected blazing autumn stars in the Great Smoky Mountains. I'd hiked in the Adirondaks, stood on Pacific beaches, spent hours under the Southern snow of magnolias and dogwoods.
But I had never witnessed an English springtime, or seen the misty splendor of a bluebell wood. There is something magical about the English bluebell (Scilla non-scriptus), its stem of tiny bells sprouting from a clutch of fresh green leaves. The sight of thousands of them rising up in a blue haze under the dappled shade of leafing trees is something even more than magical: it is an event. One, some might say, worth crossing the ocean to see.
You'll need to come in late spring/early summer, which runs from the end of April to mid-May depending on the region. Up north, near the Scottish border, where the weatherman can forecast ground frost even at the height of summer (and often does), the bluebells don't emerge until nearly the end of May. In the mild southwest of England, you might find a woodland carpeted in that tell-tale blue come mid-April--if you're lucky.
Of course, luck hasn't much to do with it, or gardening either. The flowers come and flaunt themselves each year with no help from any green-fingered folk like you or me. For the bluebell is a wildflower, and needs nothing from us but courtesy: simple things like not walking on their heads or digging up their roots will do. Too many besotted gardeners have tried to transport the heavenly things back home, and threatened the native flower's number. So now it is a crime to pick or pluck. And not a minute too soon.
For those of us who must have the bluebell in our gardens there are seeds and bulbs of course, from garden centers. We can raise our own and plant them out in shade, even if we only have a tree or two to our name. I have to warn you that this is never satisfactory, once you've seen a proper bluebell wood. And maybe that is as it should be. Some things deserve a traveling to. If anything is more deserving of a day's drive than a bluebell wood I haven't found it yet.
I don't know if it's lack of blue skies or the passion I feel for bluebells which makes me want blue in the garden, but at the first sign of spring I find myself hankering after it. Since I have never grown bluebells successfully (maybe because I have no trees to speak of) I have sought other blues which will grow happily in pots and the clay mash I call my soil. I have made it a bit of a mission, and from the first buds of spring to winter frosts I keep a bit of blue going somewhere in the garden. It can be done.
In February the blue Anemone blanda peeps out, and if it snowed here in Devon it would even peep through snow. Then in March the most vivid of blues, the gentian, waves its tiny blooms in my rock garden. There too is the iris 'Joyce,' its solitary long blue flower marked with white. In April I spy the bright blue of the grape hyacinth, Muscari aucheri, the sun-lover that looks best in a clump, its blooms like fairy fruits. All of these are low-growing and hard to see, but the blue shrub Ceanothus blazes big, and in no uncertain terms.
May brings the soft lilac-blue of wisteria, their draping flowers an exotic necklace against a wall or climbing up the house. Hydrangea will satisfy the blue craving, if the soil it's growing in is acidic enough (up to 5.5 pH). Then there is the Syringa, or lilac bush. 'Blue Hyacinth' is the bluest, and blooms as May gives way to June. Most people in my neighborhood had campanula blooming by May, rising magically from last year's old sticks. But I had grown mine late from seed and planted them up in boxes with what else? lobelia 'crystal palace,' that striking smoking blue which intensifies the fickle English heat. Anyway, my campanula did not show their faces until mid-July, winding coolly through the hot froth of lobelia and by now rampant fuscia.
August, and blues are still showing up in the herb garden, the lacy frizz of nigella sprouting its funny open face flower, and chive heads are a lilac-blue next to the jam-packed blue-pink buds climbing the pineapple mint. Rosemary has been performing since July and will go on till September. Get close enough to see its pale and dusty blue bloom and you get a lovely whiff of the Mediterranean. Or walk past the border and you're in South Africa, as the sky-blue agapanthus nod their high frilly heads in the sun.
September begins with salvia patens and its dark blue delicate buds. It ends with the Michelmas daisy, the blue aster 'Marie Ballard', with its double mid-blue flower, and the last of the geranium 'Buxton Blue'. Then autumn closes in and rain and wind and the threat of frost keep me from doing much in the garden. Everything there hunkers down and hibernates. For the next few months I'll feel lucky to get a glimpse of blue between the silver and gray and black English clouds. But the thought of spring and all its promise--of blue skies, of trips to see bluebell woods, of the blue clematis I will buy next year--keeps me going through the winter.
About the Author
Nancy is a freelance writer from Maryland, transplanted to England 8 years ago. She writes on the arts, travel and gardening. When not reading or writing about gardening, she is in the garden. When not in the garden, she is on the road looking for gardens to explore--from the glorious Hidcote Garden in Gloucestershire to the tiny Mill Garden next to Warwick Castle.
Every garden can teach us something, she says, whether it's the splendid formal grounds of a stately home or the riotous richness of a cottage potager. Of course, the garden we have labored in with love and wonder is the best garden of all, no matter where we live. But I don't have to tell you that. If you're reading this, you already know.