On the first of May here in France, it is traditional to give friends and loved-ones a bunch of Lily of the Valley: a gift of happiness. Legend tells that the plant first appeared where the blood of good Saint Leonard fell when he did battle with the evil dragon Temptation. Bunches of flower and foliage are sold by children at roadside stalls and on street corners for one or two Euros, but this year they are in short supply. The warm weather has advanced the season by at least two weeks and only in the driest, shadiest gardens are any to be found. We managed to find a couple of sprigs under an old Mahonia, to place in a tiny vase on the dining table; commercial sellers are looking to the north of Europe for supplies.
We have a house full of Academy landscape students at the moment and decided to award us all a ‘plant fair break’ as a reward for a week of hard work. The chateau at La Ferté St. Aubin holds its plant fair each year within the moated courtyard of the buildings which have been a private home for more than 350 years. The proceeds from this and the many other events held here are invested in the restoration of the structures, which are gradually being brought back to life after decades of neglect.
We were keen to buy a few more plants for the garden, nothing particularly rare, but fillers for the many new beds we have created recently. Given the shocking price of plants in France we did reasonably well with our purchases and an enjoyable day was had by all. One or two of the nurserymen exhibiting were what I like to call real growers: experts in their field and growing an interesting range of plants to a high standard. There were specialists in Day Lilies, old Roses and many other plant groups and several were exhibiting Peonies. On one stand were three yellow-flowered plants I was delighted to see and I eagerly sought out the lady in charge. She confirmed that they were an example of the rare intersectional Peonies, crosses between herbaceous and tree peonies. This variety was Bertzella, a vigorous plant with an abundance of semi-double to double lemon yellow blooms and small red flares that just glow in the afternoon sun. The large, well-formed blossoms carried high above the lush green foliage also make good cut flowers. It has a lemony fragrance and I have spent the hours since I last saw it regretting that fact that I did not spend 60 Euro to buy one.
Called “Itoh peonies” after the Japanese nurseryman Toichi Itoh, who in 1948 was the first to succeed at doing what many thought impossible, crossing yellow tree peonies with the common garden peony, P. lactiflora. These new cultivars offer gardeners the best of both worlds: compact peony plants with attractive, bushy, deciduous foliage and colourful, large, never-before-seen flowers. Hugely expensive when they first became available, they are still not cheap. I hope I will not have to pay too much more when I buy one at the next plant fair on my schedule: Courson on 13th May.
Plants we did buy are gradually being found a home. By the front gate is a bed, a bank which used to support the roots of a huge Copper Beech, since removed. The soil is dry and starved, the situation hot and the most notable features are currently the tree stump and a telegraph pole. Already it contains a purple Fennel and some Mesembryanthemum (Lampranthus) transplanted from the back garden and a wild orchid which arrived spontaneously. An Artemesia grown from cuttings is waiting to be transplanted, together with seedlings of our Salvia argentea, while a Convolvulus cneorum bought at the show is also earmarked for this area. We have added to this Lavandula stoechas pedunculata and Genista lydia, a great improvement to the entrance to the property to which we will add many more plants over time. The Fremontodendron also needs placing and we are considering hiding the telegraph pole behind it. One of my favourite tall plants for a sunny wall, the bright yellow flowers are produced over a very long period. Given the poverty of the soil in this area, it should be very happy.
We are considering planting a Viburnum opulus Roseum close to the Rosa Paul’s Himalayan Musk and Clematis Alba Luxurians, giving a continuity of white/pale pink flowers over three months against a high boundary wall and the garden of our rental apartment.
I am determined to protect the base of our Mimosa from cold this winter and the Cytisus Lena could be planted close by to do this. It would be within sight of a yellow Cytisus in a hot spot against our new front wall, where the poor soil might suit it. On the other hand the Ceanothus Skylark could be used in the same way, being larger and truly evergreen (as opposed to green shoots on a deciduous bush).