Cycling around York over the last week has been a complete pleasure. The sunshine and steadily rising mercury have really lifted the spirits after what felt like a never ending winter. I couldn’t help feeling that Spring this year looked a little grey and colourless with plants that should normally be flowering not showing themselves. Then something seemed to happen, the daffodils on the city walls exploded into life and put on one of the best displays I’ve seen in years. It wasn’t only the daffs, everything seemed to suddenly wake up. It was as if the alarm had just sounded and the whole of nature bolted up, blinked and said ‘is it that time already ?’
Among the fashionably late to the party this year have been magnolias. Their flowering is brief but dramatic, a classic harbinger of spring. It’s been lovely to see so many finally reveal themselves from winter anonymity not least in my clients’ gardens where the consensus seems to be that they’re around three weeks later than usual.
They’ve developed an undeserved reputation over the years as something of a suburban staple and (like lilac) possibly a bit dull even downright naff. Fashions in gardening come and go and what most people who dismiss them don’t realise is just how long and fascinating their history is.
They were named in honour of the 17th/18th century French botanist Pierre Magnol at a time when there was only one type of magnolia grown in Britain the Magnolia virginiana which as its names suggests came from North America via a botanically minded missionary called John Bannister. It was later discovered that the Chinese have been cultivating magnolia type plants since at least the 7th century principally for medicinal use. But the plant itself traces its roots back to the cretaceous period a longevity that explains its distinctive large flowers and robust carpels. At the time bees were yet to evolve instead the ancestors of the magnolia were pollinated by large clumsy beetles.
In fact the oldest fossil of a flowering plant ever found suggests the ancestor of most of the plants in our garden probably resembled a magnolia some 140 million years ago.
Given that kind of history shouldn’t every garden find room for one ?
And in the wood, where often you and I, Upon faint primrose-beds were wont to lie…
William Shakespeare – A Midsummer Night’s Dream
My Spring/Summer timetable began with rain, biting cold winds and a winter that has felt like it would never end. At times like these as a gardener you keep faith in the turning seasons and the inevitable pull of summer. It might be cold, the pace of things in the garden might currently be slow but it’s the calm before the storm. Give it a few weeks and the pace will be hectic, everything bursting with life and demanding attention. Despite the cold over the last few weeks the sun that’s broken through the clouds has sometimes had real warmth in it. I ended last week in shirt sleeves for the first time this year.
I also ended the week planting primroses. The wild British primrose – Primula vulgaris – has suffered over the last few decades as its traditional habitats in woodlands, on verges and beneath hedgerows came under threat. Also, its increased popularity led to people helping themselves to the wild variety – a definite no-no. Traditionally they would be picked as gifts for parents at Easter and used to decorate churches. It takes its name from the latin, Prima Rosa ‘the first rose’ despite being as far from a rose as you’re likely to find. In different counties of England it is also referred to as butter rose, early rose, Easter rose, golden rose and lent rose. And lucky old Devon has it as the county flower.
The market in cultivated garden varieties in all kinds of colours and degrees of flowering longevity is vast but to my mind nothing really beats the warm, buttery sunshine of the wild variety on an early Spring day when other flowers are still thin on the ground. Because they flower through to the beginning of June they serve as a bridge between winter and the profusion of summer.
The wild varieties themselves appear in a variety of shades from pale cream to deep yellow. If you allow them to establish themselves in your garden over time you’ll begin to see variations appearing.
One thing I really like about the wild primrose when its planted in a domestic garden is how it serves as a thread between the green spaces beyond the garden wall and the cultivated patch. Wild varieties of daffodils do the same and here in York the banks of the city walls are currently coming alive with them. Often when I’m out and about at this time of year I’ll glance down and see a patch of primroses appearing in the least promising of urban locations. It’s always a pleasure to plant them in my clients’ gardens and even more of one to see them naturalise.