Hellebore x ericsmithii Winter Sunshine is a bushy, clump forming hellebore, flowering for a long period in early spring. Creamy white flowers age with green tints through to a mellow pink, and all the colours seem to blend very well together, nothing muddy about the transitions either. Lots of flowers, though again, spaced enough apart to avoid congestion. My favourites will always be the oriental hybrids, Harvington and Ashwood hybrids, but this whole class is winning me over and in a garden situation, will be an asset, from near and far.
Iris Katharine Hodgkin, with its delicate grey-blue-green shading, is set apart from all of the other reticulata iris flowering in very early spring – no clear bright blues and sapphires – but like all of these diminutive little creeatures, derserving of a closer look. I photographed a large swathe of them very recently at the top of the Rock Garden at Kew (see my most recent gallery post) and they did had presence, though the rain had thrown up a lot of soil which marred the effect. Against the pale colours, this was more marked than with the deeper blues of its companions elsewhere in the rockery. It is a vigorous plant, introduced in 1958 and named for the wife of Eliot Hodgkin, a grower of rare bulbs.
John Hoyland, writing in the Telegraph in 2008, is more a fan than I but writes an interesting piece –
Iris ‘Katharine Hodgkin’: How to grow
John Hoyland with some sage advice on the best way to grow this intriguingly-patterned flower
Winter is a time for looking at plants. Before the brouhaha of spring, with its glut of seeds to be sown, weeds to be hoed and beds to be tidied, there is a brief pause when we can quietly appreciate the beauty of plants.
There are few flowers around at this time of year but all of them repay close study, even if this does involve muddy knees and a sore back. You need to crawl around to examine the complexity of snowdrops, and bend double to appreciate the exquisite flowers of hellebores.
The pools of dwarf irises that are just beginning to flower are impressive from a distance, but it is only close up that they really delight the eye.
Look closely at the flower of the queen of the dwarf irises, ‘Katharine Hodgkin’, and you will see complex and intriguing patterns that resemble a Rorschach inkblot test.
Against the cool pale blue of the petals, darker veins merge into yellow stains and random spotting. This could be the lip of an orchid or the camouflage of an exotic butterfly. Neither Fabergé nor a Meissen painter could fashion anything as beautiful as this: it could only be a creation of nature.
On this occasion, though, nature has been helped by the hand of man, in the form of plantsman and writer EB Anderson.
In the early 1960s Anderson crossed two rare irises, I. winogradowii and I. histrioides, collecting the pollen of the first and storing it in an empty jam jar until the second iris flowered.
Most of the resulting seedlings may well have been miserable plants but one, which he named after the wife of fellow plant enthusiast, Eliot Hodgkin, was a treasure.
Such success is a combination of patience, good luck, hard work and knowing what you are doing. Most of all, it needs the eye of an artist: Anderson knew that the progeny of these unassuming parents might well be plants of special beauty that would enchant gardeners for decades to come.
Anderson and Hodgkin were part of a group of amateur gardeners and plant enthusiasts who collected and bred plants during the 1940s, 1950s and 1960s. They shared their knowledge and enthusiasm as freely as they did their plants.
Anderson passed ‘Katharine Hodgkin’ to friends and nurseries, who grew it on and who, in turn, shared it with other appreciative gardeners, until its beauty became available to everyone.
I first saw it as a single flowering bulb in a yoghurt pot on a charity plant-stall. To grow plants like this is to connect to a thread that winds back through generous and passionate gardeners to EB Anderson himself and to the heyday of British amateur plant breeding.
If this little beauty were to appear today she would have been patented and copyrighted, controlled and marketed by international plant producers quicker than you can say “iris”.
Grow ‘Katharine Hodgkin’ for her beauty, but also for her link to a more gentle time, to generous gardeners and passionate plantsmen.
How to Grow
All the dwarf iris are easy to grow, but to have any hope of healthy plants you need to start with healthy bulbs. As with all bulbs, fat and firm is the rule. Avoid bulbs that are shrivelled and desiccated or soft and squashy.
The ideal growing conditions are a well-drained soil in either an open, sunny position or under the canopy of deciduous shrubs. This will keep the bulbs dry during the summer, which is essential if they are to spread out into large colonies.
Plant the bulbs about 8cm-10 cm (3in-4in) deep in the autumn. If your soil is heavy and wet the bulbs will either rot in their first year or slowly weaken over a number of years until they fade away. The only way to have lots of flowers in these conditions is to plant new bulbs each autumn, as you would tulips. Bulbs are very cheap and you can have an eye-catching display for just a few pounds.
Drifts of early-flowering dwarf narcissi, such as ‘February Silver’, complement the scale and colouring of ‘Katharine Hodgkin’, as do pools of Hepatica nobilis and Anemone nemerosa. I grow them among peonies. The early dark red shoots of the peonies make a dramatic background for the iris.
Where to Buy
Avon Bulbs, Burnt House Farm, South Petherton, Somerset (01460 242177; www.avonbulbs.co.uk).
Broadleigh Gardens, Bishops Hull, Taunton, Somerset (01823 286231; www.broadleighbulbs.co.uk).
Cymbidium Orchid (no cultivar given). I rather liked the graphic nature of the markings and as it is a little overcast today, thought a little exotica would be appreciated.
My last day at Syon yesterday, so I shan’t be taking so many photographs of the House or the River at nearby Isleworth, though I shall, perversely, make time to see inside Syon House this springtime, having singularly failed to do so during the past four years (nor the ten years preceeding them!).
I have joined the excellent Gardening Club – my points/rewards are going to be substantial! People and plants – plenty of reasons to keep going back to the garden centre!