French Christmas garden flowers and Gingko from seed.

It’s that time again; these days I tend to get fewer toys as gifts so while the kiddies are playing with theirs, I have taken myself out into the fresh air, a glass of Vouvray in one hand and a pen and paper in the other, to compile my ‘in-flower’ list for Christmas 2013.

This year is better than last, with 15 plants in flower on Christmas Day compared to 11 in 2012, but cannot compare to the whopping 31 plants seen in 2011. Those of you with larger, more established gardens will not be impressed, but I’m quite pleased. The error I continue to make is not to group some of these plants together, so that real floral impact is never really achieved: I need a winter garden.

Winter flowering Jasmine on the boiler-house wall

Winter flowering Jasmine on the boiler-house wall

The house is a riot of colour with the orchids in particular performing well. Out in the garden several herbaceous plants, grown from seed over the last few years, are also performing: Digitalis, Penstemon, Wallflowers and even Stocks have blooms in greater or lesser quantities. As you might expect, Helleborus nigra, the Christmas rose, is looking good in the bed by the front door. We finally bought a Mahonia media Charity last year and this has rewarded us with its first flower spike. Nearby, Jasminium nudiflorum is showing plenty of colour against the boiler-house wall.

Erica – white Heather

Less probable, Hebe Great Orme is covered in flowers and I found one yellow bloom on our Buddleja weyeriana. The dainty red climbing Rose Amadeus also has a couple of flowers. The white border offers a couple of plants: Erica Springwood White has masses of flowers while Viburnum burkwoodii is putting on a brave show with a handful. Over the other side of the garden our Arbutus, severely cut back by the cold winter of a couple of years ago, has formed a nice evergreen bush with plenty of lily-of-the-valley style blooms. Viburnum tinus, bought last year to hide the bins in the front garden, is covered with flat heads of flower.


Our son graced us with his presence over Christmas and we took the opportunity to pack in a bit of tourism, visiting amongst other things, the wonderful apothecary museum in the 16th century hospital buildings at Issoudun. Outside in the gardens the ground beneath a tree was covered in fruits, which at first I took to be Mirabelle plums. On closer inspection the tree turned out to be a Gingko, beneath which was a huge quantity of off-yellow fruits. I took out a plastic bag and greedily began removing the stone seed from inside the soft, smelly fruit, quickly gathering a few dozen.

Ginkgo biloba is a tree whose leaves increase circulation in the brain. It is a popular herb in Chinese medicine and has been linked to improving memory and cognitive functions. The unique fan-shaped leaves of the ginkgo tree make it a popular ornamental as well. In the autumn these turn bright butter yellow before falling but fruits are only produced on female plants. I have seen in excess of 50 cultivars listed and no doubt there are many more: not bad for a plant which was thought to be extinct until discovered by Engelbert Kaempfer in around 1700.

Ginkgo fruits - Issoudun

Ginkgo fruits – Issoudun

The germination of ginkgo is a little tricky, but there are a few tips that will increase your success. Freshly picked seeds are covered in a somewhat malodorous fruit. The ginkgo fruit contains small levels of urushiol, a skin irritant that is found in poison ivy and poison oak. No-one told me this and my hands were covered in blisters by the end of the day. Ginkgo biloba seeds have a long germination period and a tendency to pick up mould on the outer shell. Carefully cleaning the shells with a mild bleach solution will help.

Germination is encouraged by both stratification and scarification, so seeds are often left in pots of sand for the winter or put in the refrigerator. They are then either chipped with a sharp knife or filed with sandpaper to allow moisture to more easily penetrate the hard outer shell, before sowing in a well-drained compost in the spring.

I’ll let you know how I get on.

In flower this Christmas

As promised, between the champagne and the Christmas duck, I muffled-up warmly and paced about the garden looking for flowers. I have included only those I have found in my own garden; extended to include others in the village, the list might be much longer.

This fine seasonal ritual has been practiced by British gardeners for generations, with the results being posted to the Letters to the Editor section of some of the more serious papers for the education and edification of interested readers. Now that there are no serious papers to speak of, I continue this traditional pastime here, in the Gardener in France blog.

“Dear Sir,

Please find herewith my Floral contribution to the Health and Happiness of the Nation, and may God bless all who sail in her.

Starting in the back garden and moving in a clockwise gyration, we find Jasminium nudiflorum, reliably dotted with bright yellow flowers. Moving on to the side bed, there are Begonias, Petunias and Violas still in flower and extending the summer bedding display to the end of this unusual year. At the far end of the same bed, against the cabin wall, our Daphne odora Aureomarginata is covered in buds and just starting to open. Close by, I found one sky-blue flower of Salvia uliginosa amongst a big, sprawling clump.

Across to the other side of the garden where Rhododendron yak. Sneezy is looking very pretty in pink, next to an Ilex x. meserveae Blue Angel with berries and Skimmia japonica Majic Marlot, permanently in bud. Further along, at the beginning of the white border, Viburnum burkwoodii has started into bloom, with Erica Springwood White covered with blossom and a single flower on Hebe Kirkii. In the herb garden, Rosemary still carries plenty of flowers.

We have a little collection of Semperviviums in hollowed out rocks against the south wall of the house and one variety has been in flower for some time. Moving on to the central bed our two species of Phlomis, P. purpurea and fruticosa are blooming, as is our single plant of Penstemon Melting Candy. I have seen several other Penstemons in flower around the village. A Calendula looks dazzling on this grey day and other bedding in flower including Nasturtium and Dianthus. Finally, Lavandula stoechas Victory has produced buds and flowers following a haircut after its more usual flowering period.

Few of the plants in the back garden have been with us more than three years so I am rather pleased with the progress, but the front is very newly planted. On a bank by the front gate Convolvulus cneorum is in full bloom and there is just one flower on the Campanula persiciflora Coerlea and a few on Agastache Fragrant Mix, grown from seed this year. In the bed against the front wall Abelia Kaleidoscope and the Mimosa are providing the display, while against the Apartment Garden fence, a single pink Rose flower braves this winter morning.

Camellia grijsii - scented white flowers by the front door in Chabris

Pride of place has to go to Camellia grijsii, in full bloom and covered in fragrant white flowers, placed in a large blue pot next to the front door where everyone can appreciate it. On the other side of the step, also in a large blue Chinese pot, Camellia reticultata Variegata sports its last flower of the year. Helleborus nigra, in the border nearby, is quite subdued in comparison.

So there you have it, 31 plants flowering for Christmas and I still haven’t bought a Mahonia media!

I remain Sir, Yours, etcetera,

Colin G. Elliott Esq., Chabris, central France”

A Gardener’s Christmas wish list.


Mahonia x. media

The festive season has arrived at the Elliott household (we found a bottle of port at the back of Mother-in-Law’s cupboard, 40 years old, if it is a day – the port, not the Belle-Mère) and I’m writing my list for Santa.

Naturally, plants are a priority.

We have just passed through the mildest and driest autumn since 1900 and December shows no sign of altering the trend. Roses and Geraniums are still throwing out the occasional flower and spring flowering Rhododendrons and Camellias are already opening. Despite this, with memories of summer excess still strong in the memory, the garden seems to be lacking colour. I am hoping Mahonia  x. media ‘Charity’, ‘Winter Sun’ or ‘Lionel Fortescue’ would bring bunches of scented sunshine into the cool, misty mornings. As an ex-gardener at the Saville gardens, Windsor, I am very fond of Charity and her rarely seen sisters, Faith and Hope, which were bred at the nursery there.

Viburnum x. bodnantense

I already have my eyes on a sucker of Viburnum x. bodnantense in a garden in the village, although I am not sure of the variety. The cross of Viburnum farreri (formerly V. fragrans) and V. grandiflorum was originally made by Charles Lamont, the Assistant Curator at the Royal Botanic Garden, Edinburgh in 1933. He didn’t rate the resulting plants as being any better than their parents, so did not propagate them. In 1934 and 1935, the same cross was done at Bodnant, hence the name. ‘Dawn’ was the first cultivar to be named, ‘Deben’ was another and, after he died, ‘Charles Lamont’ was also named in honour of the original raiser. I am trying to find out if the French have their own hydrids.

Sarcococca hookeriana var. digyna is a great little evergreen shrub that we have grown in several gardens, but do not yet have here in Chabris. It’s the sort of plant you hardly notice until, in December, it produces small, but intensely fragrant white flowers. Our front door faces north and this plant is ideal for these conditions. A small bed, which this summer contained a New Guinnea Hybrid Busie Lizie, awaits.


I noticed a specimen of Chimonanthus praecox poking over the wall of a rather grand house in the village last year. This and Hamamelis are certaining worth growing for winter colour. We already have Hamamelis x intermedia ‘Arnold Promise’ growing amongst other woodland plants near the Sequoias, so a Wintersweet would make a nice addition. Close by, variegated Skimmia japonica Magic Marlot seems to have been in flower forever, Ilex Blue Angel provides a few seasonal berries and further down, a group of Erica Springwood White mark the start of the White Border.

The more you think about it, the more desirable plants come to mind. Then there are books: “Planting the Dry Shade Garden is already on order with Timber Press, a company whose stock list is one of the most desirable for gardening enthusiasts. Two other’s recently published by the same company are on my list: Contemporary Colour in the Garden and Designing with Grasses. A £500 Timber Press gift voucher, if such a thing exists, would be easy to spend.

Richard Ford’s book on Hostas (Crowood Press) is one of the best I have read on the subject and would have been on the list had I not already ordered it via the Garden Design Academy bookshop. I have also been reading “In the footsteps of Augustine Henry”, a recent purchase from the Garden Art Press, which I have been comparing with an original copy of Wanderings in China by Robert Fortune, another 19th C plant hunting hero. I will never tire of gardening books, or of plants, but I realise buying them for me is not easy…..hence the list.

What are other gardening enthusiasts hoping for this Christmas?