In the garden

JUST now and again a woman needs a new winter coat. Having recently acquired a tomato red wool mini skirt in a Boden sale, I decided that my new coat had to be black, slightly fitted, knee length, and with a collar that could button up right to the chin. The problem was where to find just such a coat? Much to my delight, my dream garment walked into the room during my late September stay with Lily, the Supreme Illustrator. My goddaughter Lydia was wearing it, and looked stunning in it.

There was just enough time to rush up to Princes Street the next morning, and I was about to board a 22 bus when that damn pine interfered. It isn’t even a proper pine, and this is rather a complex story, so please bear with me.

On September 10th 1994 a park ranger called David Noble decided to abseil into a deep, narrow canyon in the Wollemi National Park, a 500,000 acre wilderness near Sydney, Australia. As he descended he found himself in a time warp – he’d reached Gondwana, the era when the Australasian continent was still fused to Antarctica. There he discovered a stand of about 40 tall conifers with leaves reminiscent of a stegosaur’s back, and with black, bubbly bark. His find turned out to be the botanical discovery of the 20th Century. Not only had he found a new genus, consisting of just one species, but he had tracked down a tree that had been thought extinct many millennia ago.

Until that day in 1994, Wollemia nobilis, the Wollemi pine, had only existed as a fossil, the oldest dating back 200 million years, but there it was, having survived the dinosaurs and several ice ages. How had it managed to pull this off? The clues lie in its behaviour: it is self-coppicing, and can shed branches at will, thus developing multiple trunks and a shorter stature, perfect defences against bush fires and climatic harshness – such as an ice age perhaps? It also does something called polar capping: it covers its resting bud in a wax coating before the onset of its dormant season.

Conifers, with a few exceptions, usually take a significant number of years before they are capable of reproduction. The Wollemi pine can set viable seed at the tender age of eight or nine years. Even if the parent dies – let’s say during an ice age – seed can lie dormant for ages, and germinates as soon as conditions are favourable, thus ensuring the long term survival of the species.

Wollemia nobilis is a member of the family Araucariaceae, yet bears scant resemblance to its close relative, the monkey puzzle tree displaying strong contrasts to that species with its soft, broad, long, and bright green needles. It is for sale at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Edinburgh – at a price – and comes complete with detailed cultural instructions and a sachet of mycor­rhizal fungus to aid establishment. It can also be bought at

Prices range from £85 to a £1,000, and include a levy towards con­servation programmes. The latter will secure you a four to five foot specimen, and would make a perfect Christmas present for the gardener who has everything, or for yourself for that matter.

While I’m not (yet) affected by the credit crunch – nobody in their right mind would give me any credit. No way could I afford a new winter coat as well as a (modestly sized) living fossil or Lazarus taxon conifer (both are valid botanical terms in this context but I prefer the latter biblically descriptive one). It was a toss-up between the two, and the tree won hands down, despite the fact that it’ll be somewhat difficult to wear and is bound to clash hideously with that tomato red skirt.

Few gardens are at their best in autumn, but the best bring inspiration at any season. My own patch, I’m sad to say, failed in that department as far as some recent visitors were concerned, but one of my favourite gardens rose to the occasion splendidly. Entering the gates and driving through the meadows at Froehlich – this time filled with white colchicums instead of summery martagon lilies – always makes my heart leap.

The Scottish garden of my friends Maurice and Clement is as enchant­ing in autumn as it is during spring and summer. The exceptionally wet season had been perfect for keeping large ferns in pristine condition and bringing out the best in some monocarpic meconopsis, which displayed almost indecently large and furry leaf rosettes. The evergreen climber Schizandra rubra was hung with long chains of red berries, and the whole garden had a lush, tropical feel with fabulous touches of autumn colour, and hidden treasures everywhere.

Such gardens don’t come about by chance, and the air of playful effortlessness at Froehlich belies all the careful planning and sensitive intervention that goes into keeping the balance in such complex plant­ings from year to year. I love this garden’s relaxed and generous atmosphere, where plants are allowed to arch over, even obscure paths, something that, sadly, can’t be allowed in a garden such as mine. In a place that’s open to the public anything that spills over or trails onto paths is soon trampled underfoot.

There’s something magical about Froehlich and its residents. Much of it lies in their harmonious and symbiotic partnership, but there is more to this than meets the eye. I firmly believe that Maurice has managed to clone himself, and James, who was there with me, agrees. The three of us – Clement’s interests aren’t of a horticultural nature – strolled around the magical acres in a leisurely fashion, taking pictures, discussing plants and plantings, making notes – until lunch was ready. During this walk, Maurice excused himself twice for precisely five minutes at a time, to see to the food, then presented us with a perfect seafood risotto accompanied by braised fennel, and followed by cheese and homemade bread. How on earth had he pulled this off without cloning himself?

He’d returned the night before from a visit to Great Dixter in East Sussex, another garden close to my heart. Following Christopher Lloyd’s death two years ago, there’s still uncertainty regarding its long-term future. All, as always, depends on raising enough money, but the plantings, safe in the hands of Fergus Garrett, Christopher’s head gardener, are superb according to Maurice, which is comforting to know.

There’s always a lot of plant talk during my visits to Froehlich, and the most exciting ones are those concerning the placing of plants. Soon after our arrival Maurice told me he wasn’t at all sure about having naturalised large numbers of Colchicum “Waterlily”, and I agreed with him. This fully double cultivar was the least likely subject for naturalising and, to my mind, a plant best grown as a front row component of an autumn border, mingling with low growing asters and such like.

How very wrong I was. He grows them in two places to stunning effect. One colony is spreading over an area of mown grass, along the drip lines of silver-leaved willows. The other rises amid rough, natural vegetation on the raised bank of the stream that runs through the garden, a touch of pure genius.

Colchicum ‘Waterlily’ is the only double cultivar I grow and a very easygoing plant. It is happy in just about any soil and aspect and should be in every Shetland garden, as a single specimen in a pot, or in generous, naturalised drifts, Froehlich-style.

Rosa Steppanova


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