April - In the garden this month
Normally spring is in full swing at the end of March, but not this year. The gardens are still waiting for some warmth and sunshine. Spring bulbs will always defy the weather and there are plenty flowering around the Nursery. Narcissus ‘Tete a Tete’ is a reliable performer, with small brilliant yellow flowers on short stems which make it sturdy and weatherproof. It does well in borders or in pots. It copes with being planted in grass where it naturalises well and multiplies.
One bulb we have grown this year which is attracting much attention is the crown imperial (Fritillaria imperialis). You can see these in pots on the terrace. This plant is a member of the fritillary family, native to Iran and surrounding areas. The individual flowers are arranged in a ring around the top of the single stem, and a topknot of leaves sits above them. The flowers are usually orange, though there are yellow varieties. They hang down but it you tilt one up and look inside you can see six little drops of nectar. In Iranian folklore these are described as tears as the plant weeps in mourning for the dead.
Crown imperials have huge bulbs, they flower annually in late spring, and then die down and disappear. They may take a year or two to settle down after planting. They need deep rich well-drained soil and must be planted deep to establish well. Watch out for lily beetle. They are reputed to have a foxy musky odour (not very noticeable) which is said to deter mice and voles.
One little-known feature of crown imperials is that they can be pollinated by birds – ornithophily – which is unusual outside the tropics. It is so far the most northerly species of plant known to be pollinated this way. Blue tits have been observed hanging on to the main stem and reaching into the flower for nectar, making contact with anthers and stamens as they do so. Finches and bumblebees also visit the flowers.
Part of gardening life is coping with the unexpected. All gardeners find fault with the weather, but when a trench must be dug in a brutal straight line through your garden at very short notice you have to deal with it as best you can. Fortunately, Darren was able to save all the plants in the way. They should settle down and grow happily when they are replanted, and the new kitchen will have the power it needs to cook for us all.