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Looking at a Snowdrop

Annuals and Biennials

by Roger Phillips, by Martyn Rix
London: MacMillan, 288 pp., £19.99

The Genus Galanthus

by Aaron P. Davis, illustrated by Christabel King
Royal Botanical Gardens/Timber Press, 297 pp., $39.95

My Garden (Book)

by Jamaica Kincaid, illustrated by Jill Fox
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 229 pp., $23.00

Small Books of Great Gardens: Alhambra: A Moorish Paradise Enchantment, each volume, 79

photographs by Claire de Virieu, text by Gabrielle van Zuylen, by Gilles de Brissac, by Pierre Bergé, by Madison Cox, by Lauro Marchetti, by Esrne Howard
Vendome Press, Apremont: A French Folly; Majorelle: A Moroccan; Ninfa: A Roman pp., $18.95 each

1.

Much garden wisdom can be turned on its head. “The wise gardener,” say Joe Eck and Wayne Winterrowd in AYear atNorth Hill,

faced with an undeveloped plot, will begin from the edges and work inward, planting shrubs and trees to create a frame for the garden and perhaps to separate it off from the visual distractions and the flurry of the world that lies beyond. He will see first to its structuring plants, the hedges, bays of shrubbery, and small trees planted along borders yet to be. He will cultivate ground covers and perennial plants…. He will lay down the paths of the garden…. He will contrive terraces and seating areas, usually near the house as transition to the garden…. All this is a lot of work, leaving little time (or money) for annuals, which do not assist in the steady development of the garden.

My italics. The wise gardener will have done himself a grave disservice if he exhausts his garden budget before investing in a few packets of seed. Indeed the wise gardener, were circumstances so to dictate, could dispense with all the preliminaries set out above, and make himself a garden entirely composed of annuals.

Imagine a plot of ground, rectangular and devoid of any permanent planting, dug roughly in the autumn and left to the beneficial action of the frost. Next spring it is dug again and the annual weeds are left to germinate before being hoed away. In May it is sown with the seed of annual flowers, and sown for the most part directly into the ground. By June we are beginning to see results. July and August are a riot, September sees a falling off, and in October the whole thing is cleared away, redug and left.

I saw such a regime in action last summer in the Botanical Garden in Edinburgh, and very exciting it was too—a long, broad border devoted entirely to directly sown plants which will germinate, bloom, and set seed, all in the course of one season, and which will then die if left to the frost. This is a surprisingly rare sight in Britain, although the planting regime would suit many people, including those who expect to move house before long, and those city dwellers who satisfy their need to garden by renting a small plot called an allotment. Indeed the regime is much like that of the typical vegetable allotment. Nothing is permanent. Nothing on an English allotment is normally allowed to be permanent (unlike the Schrebergärten in Germany, where summerhouses are built, and fruit trees planted, and one can do everything short of sleep over there in the summer months). A garden of annuals would seem perfect for such a space.

In my own garden last year we tried to re-create, in one bed no larger than six paces by two, a wheat field with its traditional wildflowers. The flowers did better than the wheat: we had a superb micro-meadow of annuals. As Roger Phillips and Martyn Rix point out in Annuals and Biennials, “Poppies, cornflowers, corn-cockle and Nigella, combined with some grasses, umbelliferae and white daisies, will make a fine scheme to recreate a neolithic Mediterranean cornfield.” This was (minus the umbelliferae) exactly what we created last year without knowing it—a neolithic Mediterranean cornfield! The authors continue:

White and pale orange Osteospermum, combined with blue Heliophila and Felicia, yellow Nemesia and yellow and white Dorotheanthus, will recreate the sunny valleys of Namaqualand.

California annuals include the wonderful blue and purple Phacelia and the pale blue Nemophila, as well as the different colors of Californian poppies. Lupins, clarkias and white Oenothera complete a grouping which could occur in California.

These I have marked down as future projects.

There is still something distinctly transgressive about the extensive use of annuals. When I first invited visitors to my garden, I remember groups of elderly ladies shrieking with laughter at a particularly flamboyant and successful planting of a double red opium poppy. Others, turning a corner only to be confronted by a bed in which the clearest orange California poppies had been allowed to self-seed, made their disapproval absolutely clear. A faux pas had been committed. But, as Blake put it, “If the fool would only persist in his folly he would become wise.” I persisted in growing striking, pure orange flowers: California poppies, Iceland poppies, and, best of all, the Mexican torch flower, Tithonia rotundifolia. My reward will be to find these fine plants among the clichés of the future garden.

Although there have been good books about the culture of annuals, including one by the already mentioned Wayne Winterrowd,1 there has been a lack of a comprehensive, illustrated volume on the subject. The publishers, no doubt correctly, call Phillips and Rix’s book the most comprehensive work on the subject ever published, and the first major illustrated work on annuals for over 150 years. This is to claim Mrs. Loudon’s The Ladies’ Flower-Garden of Ornamental Annuals (1840) as one’s immediate predecessor—an extraordinary state of affairs. Over the last few years Phillips and Rix have produced a series of books which together make up a garden encyclopedia, one of the most useful reference works available.2 Every flower is photographed for identification, and there are many illustrations of the flowers both in a garden context and, most inspiringly, in the wild. Annuals and Biennials is the best volume in the series so far.

2.

Galanthomania, the insane pursuit of the snowdrop, is a common disease of the English February gardener (in New England snowdrops flower in March). Nothing much else is happening in the garden, and so the mind tends to concentrate on this one flower, with its elegant drooping blossoms (designed with bad weather in mind), and its symbolic role as herald of spring. According to Eck and Winterrowd,

One must go down on one’s knees before a snowdrop in order to appreciate it fully; it is an uncomfortable posture, with one’s limbs still stiff from winter and one’s knees blotting up moisture from cold, slushy snow. Still, at this season at least, it is worth the discomfort, for one can see within a snowdrop marvelous things.

I’m not so sure about this going down on one’s knees in the slush business. I would prefer a squatting on the haunches, and would permit myself to turn the flower upward, the better to observe its shape and markings. I knew of one woman who used a mirror on the end of a stick for this purpose—a miniature version of an instrument with which the East German border guards would search beneath the trains at Friedrichstrasse. And then there is the option of picking a few snowdrops and bringing them indoors—an option discounted by Eck and Winterrowd, but one which I would urge them to reconsider.

It is true that snowdrops, which last four weeks in bloom out of doors, will not stay fresh long in a centrally heated house. The heat, and not the light, causes the flower to open, as if for pollination. Above 10 degrees centigrade (50 degrees Fahrenheit) the flower will open; below that temperature it will close again. The warmth of a house rapidly desiccates the blossom. Nevertheless, it is worth examining at leisure, and it has been justly observed that the best way to get to know a flower well is to bring it indoors. In the case of the rarer garden varieties, this may seem like a reckless extravagance. The gardener must ask himself why, if he is so keen to acquire and cultivate these flowers, he is so reluctant to get to know them better. And who is in charge here—human being or snowdrop?

The range of variation among the garden varieties of snowdrop is not large. There are singles and doubles; they are all white and their markings are either green or a much-prized, but not necessarily healthy-looking, yellow. The leaves, generally glaucous, can be a surprising, fresh grass-green. Some of the doubles are very double indeed. “Lady Beatrix Stanley” has been wittily compared to a molar. One of the largest of the singles, and most beautiful, is the expensive “John Gray.” A beautiful species, which in my garden has multiplied faster than any other, is Galanthus gracilis, with its distinctive rosettes of twisted leaves.

People steal snowdrops. They go not only to the woods to dig them up from the wild, but also to gardens such as the Royal Horticultural Society’s at Wisley, and they dig up and pocket a clutch of bulbs. They probably consider most other forms of theft wrong, but they make an exception in the case of snowdrops. The flower seems to trigger an anxiety to possess it. For my part, I have learned patience. Every year, I would order half a dozen bulbs each of a few varieties. Then I ran out of the cheaper ones to buy, and I bought three each of the more expensive varieties. Last February I started buying them in ones, since I now have what you might call a balanced portfolio—over sixty different species and cultivars. With the curious exception of the autumn-flowering varieties (which mice enjoy), they seem to have no predators, nor do they suffer from any diseases I have noticed. Aaron P. Davis’s excellent monograph, The Genus Galanthus, is—one can never say the last word on such a subject, but it is the first since 1956, and the last most sane people today will expect to need.

3.

I am strongly of the opinion,” wrote Gertrude Jekyll, quoted with approval by Jamaica Kincaid in My Garden (Book), “that the possession of a quantity of plants, however good the plants may be themselves and however ample their number, does not make a garden; it only makes a collection.” Well, I have to say that my garden is a collection—or rather a collection of collections—and that’s the way I want it to be. Of course I want the plants to look well together as an ensemble, if that can be achieved, but the underlying ambition is to assemble a living encyclopedia of plants.

Some things we ignore as being unsuitable to our soil, but where a genus grows well for us, and is interesting and beautiful, we like it to be represented in depth. Roses, irises, and lilies I took to be the most important groups of garden flowers, and this was where we began. The roses grow mostly in a rose garden, which doubles as a snowdrop garden. There are two borders (exactly as one would find in a botanical garden) devoted to the family Iridaceae, and we aim to have an iris in bloom pretty much on any day of the year. The lilies, however, and the peonies tend to be dotted around. The maxim “Choose the plant for the place and not the place for the plant” is one I despise. If I acquire a plant it is for its intrinsic interest. I then ask myself where it can best be accommodated.

Some garden wisdom really is worth attending to. A man was visiting the garden of an expert plantswoman (I forget who) and admired a certain shrub (I forget which). The woman said: “Would you like to take some cuttings?” The man said: “Is this the right time of year to take cuttings?” The woman replied: “The right time of year to take cuttings is when you’re offered them.” I think that’s true. And a saying which has great moral charm as well as wisdom is “The best way to keep something is to give it away.” (This means: When you have an unusual plant, propagate it and give it to friends; should a disaster occur and you lose your plant, you will at least know where to look to find more of it.)

Jamaica Kincaid’s book takes its place in an agreeable tradition of garden literature, in which the personality and general concerns of the author are of just as much interest as what is actually being said about gardening. The work it most resembles is Onward and Upward in the Garden, by E.B. White’s wife, Katharine S. White,3 and this is not only because it derives largely from New Yorker articles. Katharine White’s pieces were all about reading garden catalogs—or that was their point of departure. There is a great deal in Kincaid’s book about shopping, and it is clear that the shopping sometimes gets out of hand:

On our way home, my friend was annoyed at me. I had bought too many things, she thought. She didn’t say so. I could see it on her face. But only in very rare circumstances must plants be bought in ones. The minimum is three, preferably five, then up from that. To me, in a garden almost everything by itself is wrong. If it is very beautiful, more of it will do. If space limits it to one, then you must just say so. The feeling against planting only one must be widespread. When you plant only one of anything you are told to regard it as a specimen; but a specimen is so unfamiliar, so unwarm, so ungardenlike. One of anything, children, plants, is so tight-fisted I could cry.

Well now, I have already admitted to buying singleton snowdrops: I’m no longer in a hurry. In a couple of years I will have two or three of each, and after that the increase is geometrical. But it also seems to me that this passage misses out on, or denies, a particular kind of pleasure. Some plants are so singular that one will do—they’ve already made their point. I have a strange shrub from Uruguay called Colletia paradoxa, with flat, triangular spines that grow at right angles to each other. The only reason to propagate it would be fear of losing it to the frost—once it’s there, its presence is so insistent, so scary, that to have two of it, let alone five, would indicate incipient loss of marbles. And there is something deeply satisfying in viewing certain plants as unique objects, as in a botanical garden. But this is not to deny that, with other kinds of plants, generosity is to be welcomed, as in the drifts of annuals and perennials that seed themselves in my rose garden—the white navelwort, Omphalodes linifolia, the black Viola “Bowles’s Black,” and the pink Linaria “Canon Went.”

Kincaid has the courage of her prejudices. “I have learned as much through my own conceitedness,” she tells us, “and from my own mistakes as I have from all the great gardeners I have met.” Coming from the Caribbean, she hates the Vermont winter to such an extent that she believes others only affect to find beauty in what there is on offer:

People will go on and on about the beauty of the garden in winter: they will point out scarlet berries in clusters hanging on stark brown brittle branches, they will insist that this beauty is deep and unique; people try to tell me about things like the Christmas rose (and sometimes they actually say Helleborus niger, but why? the common name sounds much better, the way common names always do), and this plant in bloom in December is really very beautiful, but only in the way of a single clean plate found on a table many months after a large number of people had eaten dinner there….

This is strikingly expressed, but, in the end, where does it get us? It does not convince us to like a flower less (a surprisingly common vice among garden writers is a desire to put people off plants they thought they liked). It does warn us not to expect Kincaid on her knees in the slush, paying obeisance to a hellebore, let alone to a snowdrop, so at least we know where we stand. But it does not meet the case as I think it would be put by Daniel Hinkley (of whom more in a moment), namely that the hellebores are all part of the puzzle. If we think of any species as representing one demonstration of how to cope with the problem of being a flower, then the hellebores have their own strengths, their own individuality and beauty. (I seldom call them Christmas or indeed Lenten roses, any more than I would call Helleborus foetidus Setterwort or H. viridis Bear’s Foot, although it is always possible to give one’s prose a rural-revival zing by lacing it with common names of flowers.4 )

The affectation that has been identified by Kincaid—the affectation of seeing more beauty in the winter garden than seems on the face of it likely—is perhaps more easy to fall into (and less of an affectation) in England than in Vermont. Wayne Winterrowd tells us in My Favorite Plant (a miscellany edited by Kincaid) that in his Vermont garden “there are scarcely 100 frost-free days between the last cold snap in spring (May) and the first of autumn, early September….” Our winters, for the last decade, have all been mild, this year somewhat eerily so—it has been overall the warmest year in history. As I was writing this article, in the first week of December, other hands and other feet than mine were digging and lifting the dahlias and cannas, as always on the day after the first sharp frost. And already some of the snowdrops are showing white. So there is a point in treating winter as a season worth attending to: a part of the puzzle.

Kincaid is so keen to share her setbacks and anxieties with us—and she does this so engagingly—that it is possible not to notice that, having taken to gardening, she has clearly decided that nothing but the best will do; she has set about informing herself what the best is and then involved the rest of the world—family and friend, neighbor and stranger—in the great drama of her attaining it. At the end of My Garden (Book) there is a vivid account of a plant-hunting trip to China, full of details of the filth of the accommodations, the dangerous driving, the food, and above all the tense dynamics of the group. She says: “I had by then had many of my nervous breakdowns (this is how I characterize my monumentally rude and truly insulting behavior—a temporary lapse in sanity).” This is as if to say: I behave like this because I am a star. Well, she is a star. The best of these essays is the one called “The House.” Here, in a loosely constructed but carefully controlled sequence of thoughts, Kincaid tells us how she and her husband acquired their present house, the significance of it for her and for its previous owner, a certain Robert Woodworth, about whose life and character she has pondered much. The details, in themselves, are unremarkable, but they build toward the essay’s climax, which surprises us with its earnestness:

Oh, how we wish that someone, but perhaps Robert Woodworth in particular, had given us the recipe for how to make a house a home, a home being the place in which the mystical way of maneuvering through the world in an ethical way, a way universally understood to be…the way we would all want it to be, carefully balanced between our own needs and the needs of other people, people we do not know and may never like and can never like, but people all the same who must be considered with the utmost seriousness, the same seriousness with which we consider our own lives.

This is an unexpected passage to find in a garden book, although the subtext of many such works is precisely this: the attainment of happiness.

Kincaid’s traveling companion in China was Daniel Hinkley of Heronswood Nursery near Seattle. His The Explorer’s Garden is an extremely desirable book about a range of perennial plants chosen because they have not been widely written about elsewhere. To judge from photographs, Hinkley’s garden is strongest on woodland, and many of these are woodland plants deriving from high altitudes, from China, Japan, Korea, and the Himalayas—plants requiring “moist and rich edaphic5 environments.” Rare herbaceous (as opposed to shrubby) hydrangeas, astonishing blue woodland poppies (impossible to please in the wrong climate, let alone edaphic environment), variations on the theme of Solomon’s seal, sinister versions of jack-in-the-pulpit—subtle things, for the most part, and quite the opposite of the annuals with which I began, many of which come from semi-desert environments. Hinkley tells us that his nursery database lists 9,000 plants, so it must be that these woodland perennials form only a part of his range of interest. I recently received a seed list from a French company offering 40,000 varieties,6 and the RHS Plant Finder lists over 70,000 plants available in British nurseries. The encyclopedic gardener has plenty of scope.

Small Books of Great Gardens, a French series in origin, offers photo-essays with good short texts and a handy map at the end of each volume. Ninfa, the garden cultivated on the ruins of a medieval village between Rome and Naples, is the one I should most like to visit—but to visit alone. It is hard to achieve solitude in any of the great gardens these days (at Sissinghurst they sell timed tickets, as for a blockbuster exhibition). So the photographer, Claire de Virieu, is offering us what amounts to a fantasy—the Alhambra, and all for me alone! Ninfa, without the guided tour! It is, in color, like the old Alinari photographs of city views in Italy, in which there are no cars and no people, or, if there are people, they appear as a smudge in the long exposure—as if the only people had disappeared into thin air.

  1. 1

    Annuals for Connoisseurs (Prentice Hall, 1992).

  2. 2

    Published in the US by Random House as the Pan Garden Plants Series, including, among other books, The Random House Book of Perennials: Early Perennials and The Random House Book of Perennials: Late Perennials.

  3. 3

    First published in 1979; currently available from North Point Press.

  4. 4

    The OED cites a good example: “The tender green of the setterwort does not own the power of the frost by a single black spot.” Daily News, February 25, 1907.

  5. 5

    Pertaining to the soil.

  6. 6

    B&T World Seeds, rue des Marchands, Paguignan, 34210 Olonzac, France.

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