Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Where oxlips and the nodding violet grows

Primrose (top) then Cowslip, 'Oxlip' (third from top) and (bottom) from the left, the arrows show plants of cowslip, primrose and 'oxlip' (over on the right) by the gate at Doorus

Our land and climate is obviously ideal for primroses. I’ve already blogged about Primula juliae 'Wanda' which is taking over all the dank, shady, inhospitable bits of the garden, but the wild primrose is everywhere – particularly on the old field banks. In this part of Ireland stone walls are rare and most fields are bounded by banks of soil, rocks and anything else that comes to hand - including lots of domestic rubbish. They're up to five or six feet in height, often with thorn hedges along the top. We’re in the process of clearing a lot of these banks and making them features in the extended garden we’re creating, and the primrose love the new freedom they've got to spread along these banks.

We’ve also got a handful of cowslip plants, but I got really excited last year when we were clearing a patch of rough grass near our gate and there was what I thought was an oxlip. The flowers had almost died down and I couldn’t be sure, so I’ve been waiting and watching this year to see what appeared.

I knew the oxlip was pretty rare, but I hadn’t realised just how limited it was in the British Isles – just a patch around Essex, Cambridgeshire and Suffolk – and certainly none in Ireland …. so far.

But the books kept stressing that, as well as the true oxlip, there was also a false oxlip – a natural hybrid between the primrose and the cowslip. Perhaps that’s what I had. An imposter!

Now the long wait to find out is over. The primroses came out first and then this week, the cowslip and the ‘oxlip’.

I’ve compared the pictures and I don't think we’re going to be able to re-write the botany of Ireland. It’s almost certainly the hybrid – the false oxlip. As you can see in the picture the chances of the hybrid cropping up are pretty strong as the primrose and cowslip are only a few feet apart and the ‘oxlip’ is only a few feet away from both of them.

Mind you, I can take comfort from the fact that no less an authority than Charles Darwin struggled to distinguish the oxlip and the false oxlip and did numerous experiments to try and sort them out.

And long before him the Bard threw a potential botanical spanner into the works in Oberon's famous speech from Act II of A Midsummer Night's Dream:

“I know a bank where the wild thyme blows, Where oxlips and the nodding violet grows.”

"The wood outside Athens", in which most of the action takes place, would seem to be an English wood, but if it had the oxlip growing it would have to be in Essex, Suffolk or Cambridgeshire. But most scholars consider the woods are based on the Forest of Arden. If the location had moved to the eastern counties it would tell a rather different story about Shakespeare and his influences.

However, the answer is probably that the Bard was also referring to the more widely distributed false oxlip.

But it wouldn't be quite the same if Oberon said:
“I know a bank where the wild thyme blows, Where that imposter, the false oxlip, and the nodding violet grows.”

Friday, April 10, 2009

Dandelions .... Mick says it all

I've had a snatch of a song running round my head all day

"Dandelion don't tell no lies, Dandelion will make you wise"

Must have been the sight of all the dandelions that have popped up in the lawn - just as I described in my blog of a few weeks ago about this plant we gardeners love to hate.

But isn't it infuriating when you've got a bit of a song in your head, and you can't remember any more or what the song is or who recorded it.

I felt pretty stupid when I realised it was a Rolling Stones track from 1967 - and I was a big Stones fan.

I said in my blog that the dandelion reminded me of happy times as a child blowing the seed heads to find out if "she loves me, she loves me not". But others commented that they only connected this with the daisy and not to blowing the dandelion clock.

Well now we have it on no less an authority than Mick Jagger and Keith Richard that blowing the dandelion can answer no end of questions including the happiness of the one you love.

The Rolling Stones

Prince or pauper, beggar man or king,
Play the game with ev'ry flow'r you bring.
Dandelion don't tell no lies.
Dandelion will make you wise.
Tell me if she laughs or cries.
(Blow away dandelion.)

One o'clock, two o'clock,
Three o'clock, four o'clock, (five).
Dandelions don't care about the (time).
(Dandelion) don't tell no lies.
(Dandelion) will make you wise.
Tell me if she laughs or cries.
(Blow away dandelion.)
Blow away dandelion.

Though you're older now it's just the same.
You can play this dandelion game.
When you're finished with your childlike prayers,
Well, you know you should wear it.

Tinker, tailor, soldier, sailors' (lives).
Rich man, poor man, beautiful daughters, (wives).
(Dandelion) don't tell no lies.
(Dandelion) will make you wise.
(Tell me if she laughs or cries.)
(Blow away dandelion.)
Blow away dandelion.

Little girls, and boys come out to (play), yes.
Bring your dandelions to blow away.
(Dandelion) don't tell no lies.
(Dandelion) will make you wise.
(Tell me if she laughs or cries.)
(Blow away dandelion.)
Blow away dandelion.
Blow away.
Blow away.

And if you want to hear it ..... there doesn't actually seem to be a video of the Stones performing this, but this is the track

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

From Russia with love

Primula juliae 'Wanda' (above)

Primula juliae

We tend to think of plant hunters as intrepid explorer-types who fought natives, deadly insects and tropical diseases to hunt down and bring back exotic species from inaccessible rain forests or remote mountains to satisfy the demands of the lords and gentry for plants to impress their friends … and rivals.

Sure, a few plant hunters were in that mould, but the majority were just enthusiastic botanists who were fascinated by the challenge of finding plants that had not previously been found and described. If they proved worthy of cultivation as garden plants then that, for them, was a big bonus.

With a few additional twists and turns, that’s really the story of Primula juliae ‘Wanda’, a plant we have in great abundance in our garden and one which we love for its showiness in the spring, and its ability to spread and cover some pretty dank and unpromising corners of the garden.

The story starts towards the end of the 19th century with a young Russian girl, Julia Mlokossjewicz, who used to accompany her Polish-born father on plant hunting trips to remote parts of the Caucasus Mountains in south west Russia. She continued to be an avid naturalist into adulthood and, on 20 April 1900, while exploring these slopes of her homeland, she discovered a tiny primula growing with moist mosses alongside a mountain stream.

This charming little species was named Primula juliae in honour of its discoverer, but it wasn’t until 1911 that seeds from this new species were sent to Oxford. The following year P. juliae, was brought to the attention of gardeners when a plant was exhibited at the Royal Horticultural Society show and received an Award of Merit.

What made Primula juliae of such interest to gardeners, apart from its charming little purple-pink flowers, was actually the bit you can’t see – its root system. It’s unique among primulas in having a root system with stolons – these are thickened roots that grow out from the parent plant just under the surface and form a branched network with at intervals along the length of the stolons, buds that produce new shoots and flowers. So P. juliae can quickly spread to form a dense mat covered with a sheet of flowers – very different from the primulas we are familiar with that form tight rosettes of leaves with flowers growing out from the centre. Expansion of these plants to form clumps is relatively slow.

It was pretty soon discovered that the pollen of Primula juliae was compatible with other primulas and the plant breeders got to work. The result was a whole range of hybrids the most well-known of which is ‘Wanda’. This came from a cross between P. juliae and a red form of our native primrose Primula vulgaris.

Like all the most successful hybrids it has the best of both parents …. and a bit more besides.

It has the vigour, larger leaves and flowers of the primrose, it has the spreading root system of P. juliae and the same masses of flowers, but they are more intensely coloured. And, as a plant that came from the mossy sides of a stream in the Caucasus mountains, it loves damp moist conditions – something we have in abundance here in the West of Ireland.

So, it's a plant that may have travelled a long way from home and taken a hundred years to get here, but now it looks as much at home here as any native.