Wednesday, 21 May 2014

Showtime for Wildflowers

Dr Trevor Dines
Plantlife Botanical Specialist

I was a botanist on a mission: find as many native plants as possible. With show gardens, a massive Floral Marquee and loads of nurseries, the RHS Malvern Spring Festival appeals to both the ordinary gardener and the plantaholic. It’s a good way of seeing what, horticulturally, is in vogue each year and I was there to discover how our native flora fares against the rest of the world.

A few years ago, there was a trend for native plants in “wildlife” gardens. Designers were using them as statements in their gardens, a way of challenging the norm. These days, our native flora is finding more of a natural home in the designs, being woven through the tapestry of the garden rather than a tick-box “this is our wildflower bit”.

So, winner of “Best Festival Garden” was an exquisite little formal garden by designers Ana Mari Bull and Lorenzo Volpini of LSV Gardens & Associates. Striking cloud-clipped hornbeam bushes lined a central path flanked by geometric blocks of planting, with native box alternating with softer ragged-robin, white wood crane’s-bill and tufted hair-grass. Mixed in with these were non-natives including dame’s-violet and snowy woodrush. I loved the way natives species featured strongly, but as an integral part of the design and not as a gimmick.

Ragged-robin (pictured left) was actually a bit of a star of the whole show. In the floral marquee, I found it featured it many nursery displays, the wild pink form sitting alongside the sublime white variety ‘White Robin’ and the double ‘Jenny’ (this one rather garish to my eyes, but fine if you like bright pink pom-poms). White was a theme too; Hardy’s Cottage Plants paired frothy woodruff with a white herb Robert under a canopy of solomon's-seal with its hanging ivory bells (pictured below right).

Not surprisingly, the fern nurseries drew heavily on our native fern heritage. In Fibrex Nursery’s bold display, it was good to see magnificent native royal ferns holding their own alongside tropical tree ferns. Beneath them grew a plethora of varieties of male fern, soft shield fern and lady fern, the latter including ‘frizelliae’ with its bizarre, tiny, alternating fronds.

I was particularly pleased to see the Alpine Garden Society display, one of their competitive events in which members growing skills are put to the test. Among the various categories I spotted dwarf birch ‘Glengarry’, several stunning pots of Dickie’s bladder fern (which originates from a single cave in Aberdeenshire) and, my personal highlight, a large clump of lady’s slipper orchid with a dozen pristine blooms.

For me, the show encapsulated the many ways in which gardeners engage with native plants. I loved the common alongside the rare, the formal alongside the informal, and the perfect alongside the imperfect. All were welcome and all had a part to play alongside plants from around the world.

We had a plant of bastard balm on the Plantlife stand at the show. It really drew an audience, its flowers looking like rude faces with pink tongues sticking out. Those that knew it were often surprised to learn it’s a rare native species and of our work to conserve it. This is the aim of The Wildflower Garden, to celebrate our native flora and make connections between gardens and wild flowers. Many of them are rather wonderful garden plants.

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