When a queen is male and a king female: It’s the quirky life of handsome hollies

THE HOLLY and the ivy . . .  in Yuletide language you know the rest, of course, particularly at this time of fun, festivities and Father Christmas.

There’s no doubt that when a holly is full-grown there is a certain crowning glory about it, just like that carol indicates.

Yet this huge and complex race of trees and shrubs holds a few bizarre riddles that surely leave the unsuspecting holly hunters with furrowed brows.

Who, for instance, would think of naming a female holly Golden King and male hollies Silver Queen and Golden Queen?

Well, that’s not all. Edward Goucher, James G. Essom, William Cowgill and Indian Chief fool us all by being “lady” varieties.

Holly Alaska & ivy

With their roots deep in folklore, superstition and religion, hollies are also famed for their “gender bender” quirkiness.

Around Christmastime, ilex – to give hollies their botanical title – are everywhere, both as decorations adorning the house and looking majestic in garden or countryside and in full berry.

Actually, only female hollies bear berries. Unlike many plants, holly is dioecious, meaning there are both male and female plants growing separately.

Many males have vivid variegated foliage in either silver or gold and can look even more striking than those with “berried treasure”.

Yet there’s little doubt that most gardeners prefer varieties encrusted with those familiar berries, or drupes, in red, black, yellow, orange and even white and all in high demand by hungry birds at the tough end of the year.

Most of the “Christmas hollies” are forms of Ilex aquifolium, a clan that includes those magnificent “girlie boys” Silver Queen and Golden Queen, both holders of the RHS Award of Garden Merit. But this pair are not so popular for decking the halls as there are no berries, but the spectacular, creamy-edged Golden King that’s simply studded with scarlet berries is a hard act to follow.

Rosemoor, the RHS garden at Torrington, holds one of the National Collections with more than 170 different species and varieties. Right now the berried beauties will be looking their best in their spiny armoury and vibrant jewels. It makes a stunning hedge too.

Robust, versatile, easy to grow in sun or shade – varietgated varieties prefer full sun – and oozing magnificence on a grand scale, hollies can be thorny or thornless, deciduous or evergreen and contain more than 500 species and varieties. So you’ve got a pretty wide choice!

⏩⏩➡» If you are looking for a good holly-read, I commend the book Hollies for Gardeners, published in 2007 by Timber Press and penned by Rosemoor’s former curator Christopher Bailes. Superbly illustrated and full of fascinating facts and figures, the book’s 287 pages will surely make you something of an Ilex expert by the time you’ve finished.


⏩⏩➡» Top: It’s the holly with the ivy featuring Ilex Alaska; above left – Nellie R Stevens; right – Golden van Tol. All three pictures were taken at Rosemoor.



Qué? Why the curious habit of coal tits reminds me of poor old Manuel

FAWLTY TOWERS fans are sure to smile at the restaurant scene when hapless waiter Manuel runs repeatedly from tables to trolley, picking up one napkin at a time as another crisis mounts.

Basil, you’ll recall, ends up bashing Manuel’s forehead with a sticky spoon as punishment.

I’m always reminded of Manuel’s wasted journeys across the dining floor whenever I watch coal tits helping themselves to supper in our garden.

So what on earth is the connection here?

Coal tits are the only bird to land on feeder or table, peck up one seed and fly off to a tree to swallow it.

Then they’ll return and repeat the routine over and over again, rather than stay awhile, tuck in and enjoy without constantly taking flight and using up so much more energy.

It’s all rather Manuel-esque, don’t you agree?

Oddly, the coals are the only tit – indeed, the only bird, I believe – that behave this way. Their close cousins, the blue tits, great tits and long taileds, hang around the feeders for a while, grabbing what they can in one landing . . . unless, of course, disturbed by an unwelcome crow or gull.

Coal tit

For reasons that only Mother Nature knows, we seem to welcome more coal tits into our garden than any of the others, despite the fact that they are more closely associated with conifers than deciduous trees which we have in our patch.

At a dinky, but tenacious, 4½in from head to tail, they are Europe’s smallest tit, closely followed by the willow and marsh tits that seldom invade suburban gardens.

Being so tiny, coal tits cleverly exploit their near-weightlessness by searching the most fragile twigs for tasty treats.

And they are more fearless of human movement than any other tit, a fact that conflicts with their habit of multi-flights to the feeders, giving the impression they are ultra-cautious. Yet clearly it is not through timidness – more a case of instinct proving a stronger force than common sense!

For those unfamiliar with coal tits, they are dressed in a bright buff underside, white cheeks, black head and bib, a white nape patch and a greyish back.

When in flight – if you are quick enough – you’ll notice two white wing bars on each side, while the others have only one or none at all.

All of which makes this speck of a bird not, perhaps, the most exciting to look at, though a true a personality piece nonetheless.

I just wish they wouldn’t waste so much time to-ing and fro-ing to satisfy their hunger pangs – just like dear old Manuel’s odd antics when the heat’s on in the kitchen!

Coal tit & feeder.JPG

⏩⏩➡» Coal fired: Top – A tenacious coal tit up-close; above – one grabs a seed from a feeder before flying off to enjoy.


A classical number from Bizot – and not a prickle in sight


GRUMBLING about growing roses is usually down to those thorny stems – some wickedly so. Very few varieties are totally prickle-free and a small number are semi-barbed, with a scattering of thorns along the shoots.

But there is one A-lister, smooth-stemmed climber that’s been a popular choice since 1868 . . . yes, eighteen-sixty-eight, when a French breeder called Bizot first introduced it to the public domain.

And that means it celebrates its 150th birthday this year.

Its name: Zéphirine Drouhin, a bourbon climber in a coat of almost iridescent cerise-pink, semi-double flowers that are among the most deliciously scented of any.

It also enjoys prolific flower production – a torrent of them from early summer to autumn, and often later, on a frame that will reach a modest 8ft-10ft.

The oldest horticultural book in my personal collection, Present Day Gardening, published in 1911, hails Zéphirine Drouhin as “one of the most fragrant and charming of garden roses in existence; one, too, which has the great merit of being able to set at naught (sic) the old proverb ‘Every rose has its thorn’.”

Rose Zephirin Drouhin

⏩⏩➡»It’s on the label: A cluster of beautiful pink blooms of Zéphirine Drouhin, a veteran from 150 years ago.

Well, you can’t argue with that level of praise. Old Zéphirine has gone on and on through the decades and is still listed by virtually all nurseries and viewed, pot-grown, in every garden centre.

Indeed, I would rate is as renowned as Peace from 1942, though – for reasons which baffle me – this golden oldie doesn’t trip off the tongue and is on fewer must-have lists compared with the lakes of Peace, Iceberg, Compassion and many others. Maybe it’s all about that name!

Still, if this deadpan colour bothers you, there’s always its sport, Kathleen Harrop, to consider. This shell-pink mutation didn’t make its commercial bow until 1919, courtesy of Dicksons of Northern Ireland.

It is slightly less vigorous than its parent, but also boasts a thorn-free livery and a constant flow of highly fragrant flowers.

Zéphirine Drouhin, especially, will make a fine informal hedge, as well as being an excellent choice for a north-facing wall. There is no bush version of this enduring climber.

Visit your local garden centre for pot-grown Zéphirine Drouhin or Kathleen Harrop. For a cheaper option choose a bare-rooted plant for positioning any time up to March. Handley Rose Nurseries, near Sheffield (www.handleyrosenurseries.co.uk/01246 432921) stocks Zéphirine at an attractive £7.50. You can order this variety at £14.75, as well as Kathleen Harrop (£14.75) and another, lesser-known sport Martha that’s pink with yellow base (£15.50) from Peter Beales of Norfolk (http://www.classicroses.co.uk/0195s3 454707).



Time to shed those happy tears at this peach of an idea!

YOU CAN cry tears of joy at this news – the world’s first edible weeping peach is now all ready for planting – and delivering sweet mouthfuls.

Its apt name, taken from the adjective lachrymose meaning tearful, is Lacrima.

From Devon-based Suttons, this unique debutante will send out cascading branches that bear sweet, juicy peaches.

The yields begin from the second year of planting, so patience here will prove virtuous in the longer scheme of things.

The tree, reaching a height of 8ft-10ft and grown on Montclare rootstock, is perfect for small gardens and will delight by producing lovely pink blossom in spring followed by yellow-fleshed fruit in late summer.

Its other main credential is that it is self-fertile, so no worries about having to shell out for a similar, compatible variety. Lacrima does the job on its own and picking should begin in August.

One bare root tree costs £27.99.

Peaches – and nectarines, come to that – enjoy life in a medium loam with decent drainage and prefer a sunny spot to anything that’s too shady.

Despite fears to the contrary, they are quite hardy, especially in southern Britain, with nectarines ever so slightly less hardy than its better-known, close relative.

From peaches to persimmons, aka Sharon Fruit – not a particularly well-known fruit tree in the UK, though they deserve to be more widely grown.

They are well suited to life in a greenhouse, conservatory or a hot, sunny spot outdoor. Fruits should be picked in late October and allowed to ripen to sweet perfection on a sunny windowsill.

When ripe, eat them fresh by spooning out the smooth, custard-like flesh. You’ll find the taste is sweet and delicious, not terribly different from a mango.

They can also be used in desserts or even dried and will reach an eventual height of around 16ft.

Like peaches, persimmons are hardy and will respond well to a sunny spot. My own plant is probably in too much shade, but it is well clothed in foliage.

I pocketed the stone from a fruit I ate during a holiday lunch in Italy’s Puglia region some years ago, brought it home where it germinated in my greenhouse and was eventually planted out in the big outdoors. No fruits have been forthcoming yet, but there’s always another year.

Suttons persimmon, called Kaki, costs £31.99 for a young bare-root tree.

⏩⏩➡» www.suttons.co.uk or 0844 3262200.

⏩⏩➡» Juicy fruits: Left and above right – two images of Suttons new weeping peach, Lacrima; above right – Persimmon Kaki ready for harvesting.




What a difference one letter makes – or how two plants became one!

AND to think I was certain I’d spotted a typographical error in the plant catalogue.

There it was – Mukdenia Karasuba and, next plant down the page, Mukgenia Nova Flame. Which was correct, the “d” or the “g”.

Well, you can’t blame me for wondering . . . surely?

So now it’s confession time. Firstly I’d not heard of either of these shade-loving hardy perennials and, secondly, both spellings were spot-on and accurate  in Hartside Nursery’s latest booklet.

The reason for this “name game,” as horticultural boffins will recognise, is that one of them is a rare blend of two separate genera.

In this case, Mukgenia is a cross between Mukdenia and Bergenia, the well-known, spring-flowering  Elephant’s Ears.

I gather it’s the first time these two genera have been used in this manner. A nurseryman from Oregon, USA, dusted pollen from Mukdenia to fertilise an unnamed bergenia, knowing that the chances of success were boosted as both plants are members of the huge saxifrage family.

The outcome was dramatic – dark pink flowers from April to June and a mound of jagged, emerald green leathery leaves producing rich autumn patterns resembling brilliant scarlet flames.

Its Chinese parent, Mukdenia rossii, is also a hardy rhizomatous perennial bearing sprays of small, starry, creamy-white flowers and bronze-green, deeply lobed foliage that develops rich claret red tints in autumn.

Hartside stock two named varieties – Mukdenia Karasuba and Mukgenia Nova Flame.

Both relish damp summers and shady homes and both die back in late autumn, so do mark their spot with a white label and watch out for slugs and snails come the spring.

No doubt about it, both look irresistible – and that’s why I’ve ordered one of each!

Hartside is based near Alston, Cumbria, and run by Neil and Sue Huntley. Their plants have to be tough and resilient, growing as they do in the oft-chilly North Pennines, with 2018 a particular year of challenge, courtesy of the crazy weather.

I was immediately struck by the very reasonable prices of Hartside’s plants, most of them entering the realms of “choice,” “desirable” and “uncommon,” as well as many rarities.

Do study the hardy plant collections for even greater savings. Picking out three of these at random, there’s a bundle of eight dwarf rhododendrons discounted to £32; five primula vialii Alison Holland, a chance discovery of the popular “red hot poker” primula in a Northumberland garden and bearing pure white flowers and lime green-tinged buds (£25); and eight autumn gentians to include the sky blue Alex Duguid and deeper Blue Silk and The Caley (£32). There are also ferns, snowdrops and saxifrages . . . and look carefully and you’ll spy our friend the Mukgenia popping up with friends.

⏩⏩➡» http://www.hartsidenursery.co.uk or www.plantswithaltitude.co.uk/01434 381372.

⏩⏩➡» Confused? Top left – Mukdenia Karasuba; above – Mukgenia Nova Flame; above right – Hartside Nursery’s latest catalogue.


GROWING plants from seeds gives me a lot more pleasure than buying them mature and sticking them into the soil.

Why? Because you are there, right from the start, nurturing the tiny seedlings through their crucial, early days until they become stronger and self-sufficient.

In short, seed-sowing offers so much more satisfaction because you’re in for the longer haul and, when that first flower unfolds, you can gaze with pride and declare: “All my own work.”

And it’s so much cheaper!

Plant World Seeds has one of those catalogues that leave me quite engrossed during a spot of bedtime reading. Annuals and perennials from around the globe, from Acaena Blue Haze to Zinnia Purple Prince, followed by climbers, trees and shrubs, grasses and a bounteous array of veg, Plant World seems to have the lot.

Based in Newton Abbot, Devon, and situated on a supreme site overlooking the stunning Teign Valley, the family-run firm has produced a lively, 72-page catalogue for 2019 and – in a generous touch – only charges £2 per order for postage.

Now 33 years old, Plant World has often been dubbed Devon’s Little Outdoor Eden, reflecting the four acres of landscaped gardens being constructed as home to the five continents, while the nursery itself contains a wealth of rare and exotic plants seldom seen outside their native lands.

Among PW’s long-term work is that with erysimums, previously known as cheiranthus.

These are best-known as biennial wallflowers, normally planted out in autumn to bloom the following spring and then pulled up.

Plant World’s owner Ray Brown and his team have developed varieties that live for several years and come in all colours and sizes from 6in to nearly 3ft high. Jumbo Orange is the lofty one, long-lived, evergreen, shrubby and bearing fragrant bright orange flowers.

Other 2019 debutantes: Dahlia Autumn Dazzlers – a new generation of tall, elegant dahlias hybridised at Plant World. Hardy, single forms with the occasional dark-leafed specimen, make solid, almost shrubby, plants, flowering endlessly until the first frosts.

Erigeron alpinus Mauvette: Recently developed is this beautiful dwarf alpine (4in), adored by butterflies and bees, with golden-eyed mauve daisies that are darker than the species and happy to bloom from late spring to early summer.

Tomato Sweet Valentine: A well-branched bush F1 patio-type with a compact self-mounding or cascading habit full of attractive heat-shaped fruit and growing to between 12in-16in.

Sweetcorn Incredible: A sugar-enhanced mid-season variety, also an F1 hybrid, this is a reliable heavy cropper with a fabulous flavour. Plants show good tolerance of common rust which is a boon in wet summers.

For anyone new to seed sowing, the important lesson is: Don’t lose patience just because germination hasn’t happened.

Many hardy perennials can be notoriously slow to break dormancy, some will take several months, while others even need a spell in the fridge, paradoxically to wake them up.

Follow carefully the instructions on the packet and you’re sure to . . . suc-ceed!

⏩⏩➡» Plant World’s website has been drastically overhauled for increased mobile-friendliness and now features around six times more items listed than on paper. Go to www.plant-world-seeds.com

⏩⏩➡» Seed specialities: From top and clockwise – Erysimum Jumbo Orange, dahlia Autumn Dazzlers, erigeron Mauvette, the new catalogue, sweetcorn Incredible, tomato Sweet Valentine.

It’s still only mid-November yet Christmas has been with us a month!

NOTHING irritates my eyes and ears more than wandering around a superstore or garden centre in the first week of October and coming face-to-face with Santa and tinsel and having to listen to carols or some ghastly plastic creation suddenly bursting forth with “We wish you a merry Christmas”.

Believe me, it does happen. I could name a few prem-festive establishments but won’t be tempted if only to spare their blushes.

In other words, Christmas gets earlier and earlier each year as the retailers resort to desperate tactics to woo customers and sell their seasonal wares ahead of their arch-competitors.

Next Tuesday it will be five weeks before Christmas Day – still too early,  I reckon, to start winding up those Christmas jingles, but to save me from the “Bah, humbug, courtroom” here are a few ideas for gardeners to tick off their lists, courtesy of seed and plant people Mr Fothergill’s and Johnsons.

For anyone new to gardening Mr Fothergill’s offers patented GroBox (RRP £6.99) and GroMat (£4.99) ranges of easy-to-grow, pre-sown products. GroBox is a bio-degradable cardboard box containing four varieties of pre-sown vegetables or herb seeds in compost, which is planted, covered and watered in the garden or in a container.

The range also includes a children’s flower and veg garden.

GroMat is a two-metre, bio-degradable mat pre-sown with a mix of either flower or veg seeds and can be rolled out as it is or cut to fit any size of plot, border or container.

There are four windowsill kits (£7.95 each), each consisting of a galvanised metal container, seeds, compost and instructions.

Eye-catching grow kits in the caricature form of various animals would make perfect stocking-fillers to encourage youngsters to take an interest in growing from seed. The ceramic egg cup-style planters, known as Munakuppi – Finnish for egg cup – Hair Grow Kits are just £3.95.

Each Munakappi includes two sachets of seed – basil for short “hair” and ryegrass for longer “locks” plus compost and instructions.

For chilli lovers, there are Chilli Pepper grow kits (£4.99) for classic, great tasting, fiery red chillies or juicy medium-hot alternatives.

From Fothergill’s to sister company Johnsons – and for educational and entertaining presents for kids who like to get their hands dirty in the garden, the firm offers its Little Gardeners range. Starting from just £2.50, there’s plenty of choice, from seed starter pots and complete grow kits to flower mixes and activity kits.

There’s even a fully-functioning mini-greenhouse for them to construct.

The new Kitchen Seed Sprouter (£11.99) is a fanatstic gift for someone with little space outside. It’s a fuss-free way of producing fresh and tasty sprouts and microgreens all year round – and all from a kitchen windowsill.

Johnsons Microgreens Growing Kit (£4.99) is a simple way of producing baby leaves. Loved by chefs, microgreens are the closest thing yet to “instant” veg and add a fresh and punchy flavour to just about any savoury dish. They can be harvested with MicroSnips, mini-shears which can be bought from the Johnsons range for £3.99.

For that extra prezzie under the tree, the Johnsons Sarah Raven seed collections are a range of gorgeous cut flower and wildlife-attracting varieties. There’s rudbeckia Sahara with its delightful mix of soft coloured flowers (£2.60) and allium cernuum (£2.80) which bears blooms resembling a delicate chandelier.

⏩⏩➡» Both Mr Fothergill’s and Johnsons range of seeds and kits are stocked at garden centres, supermarkets and leading DIY stores as well as online at http://www.mr-fothergills.co.uk and www.johnsons-seeds.com

⏩⏩➡» Happy Christmas gardening: Above – a selection of Mr Fothergill’s and Johnsons gifts. Right – Fun with Munakappi, the happy hair grow kit which I sprouted in my kitchen.