Skip to main content

Plants that should be grown more often

We asked our nursery team and head gardener to give us their recommendations for what they would like to see more widely grown in our gardens.

Rob Crowle, Nursery Team: Medlar

Rob has a soft spot for a medlar. These trees have been grown in gardens since ancient times but are less common now. Records show its presence in Greece around 700BC and in Rome in about 200BC. It was an important fruit plant here in medieval times and surely deserves to be planted more often. Medlars are excellent deciduous trees for a small garden reaching around 5m at maturity, and usually grown as a standard where the shape of the twisty spreading branches can be appreciated, particularly in winter. They are happy in most soils except shallow chalk, or waterlogged sites, and have good autumn colour. They are suitable for small gardens and work well as specimens planted in a lawn.

The white blossoms which appear in late May are much larger than most fruit blossoms and can reach almost two inches across. They are single blooms at the tips of the branches and are good for pollinators. The fruits are curious to look at and even more curious to prepare for consumption. Looking like something between an apple and a brown rose hip, they are best harvested after the first frost. They are then stored and allowed to begin the process of decomposition until they are soft, brown and wrinkled. This process, which is known as bletting, reduces the fruit acids and tannin content, increases the sugar and makes the fruit more palatable. They are an acquired taste as a raw fruit, but make good jellies for use with meat or cheese. ‘Royal’ and ‘Nottingham’ are widely available varieties. ‘Nottingham’ has the AGM but Royal is considered to have superior flavour.

There are frequent references to the medlar in literature where its requirement to be rotten before it is ripe is likened to decadence and immoral behaviour. It is also the subject of much bawdiness on account of its appearance. Chaucer refers to it in The Reeve’s tale, and Shakespeare refers to it in at least four of his plays.

Darren Topps, Head Gardener: Aronia

Darren would like to see aronias planted more widely; it is hard to understand why they aren’t more common. Known as chokeberry, these handsome, medium sized deciduous shrubs are hardy, unfussy and tolerant of a wide range of conditions including periods of drought. They are trouble- free, good for birds and pollinators and not prone to disease. They grow in full sun or partial shade and reach about 3m when mature. Clusters of small white flowers appear in spring followed by small black or red berries. Several of the cultivars, notably ‘Autumn Magic’ and ‘Brilliant’, have good autumn colour when grown in sun. These shrubs look comfortable in a garden or a wild setting.

If all that was not enough, chokeberries have value as edible plants, particularly with the recent push for perennial food crops. The berries, especially the black ones, are high in anthocyanins (the same pigment as blueberries and black tomatoes), vitamins and minerals and are claimed to have widespread health benefits . However, they are sour and astringent so are usually processed into jam, syrup or alchoholic drinks, or added to pies and yoghurt, or purchased as a processed nutritional supplement.

Caroline Blick, Nursery Team: Eucharis

Caroline’s choice is a bit of a wild card because it is a tender bulb from Peru which needs to be grown indoors or in a heated conservatory, but don’t let that put you off. It is long lived, reliable, easy to look after, exquisite in flower and the pots can stand outdoors in the summer months. It has glossy dark evergreen leaves and produces up to six pure white drooping flowers on each stem. The stems are strong and upright and about 50 cm tall. The elegant flowers last for several weeks, they have a shallow cup made from the fused stamens with a yellow-green interior and a delicious scent. It looks a bit like a cross between a narcissus and an amaryllis which is not surprising as they are all in the same family. If you can grow an amaryllis, you can grow a Eucharis.

Nick Giles, Nursery Team: Hoheria 'Borde Hill

This is an exceptionally pretty semi-evergreen shrub or small tree. It is of relatively recent origin, the original plant being identified in Colonel Stephenson Clarke’s garden in Borde Hill, Sussex. This is a garden of some distinction containing the best collection of champion trees in Britain. Originally this plant was labelled as H angustifolia but is now thought to be either a clone of H sexstylosa or a hybrid between the two. Whatever, it is an easy to grow, well-behaved garden-worthy shrub. It has fresh green toothed leaves, most of which are retained over winter. It is smothered with small five-petalled snowy white flowers in late summer. These have long prominent stamens from a greenish centre and are fragrant and very attractive to pollinators. It requires a sunny sheltered site away from cold winds.

Ann Wendik-Byfield, Nursery Team: Abelia

Abelias are a group of shrubs flowering in late summer and autumn making a welcome contrast to the ubiquitous hydrangea. Their attractive appearance and ease of cultivation make them desirable garden shrubs and have led to breeding programmes creating ever more varieties. They are evergreen or semi-evergreen, the leaves are small, some forms are variegated and some are golden . Their chief value however is the prolific flush of small pink or white flowers. These stand up well to rain and wind and are very attractive to bees, frequently causing the whole bush to buzz. The flowers last for weeks but after they fall the calyces remain, giving the bush a different but equally attractive appearance and extending the period of interest. New shoots and leaves are bronze tinted.

Abelia x grandiflora is one of the most popular larger abelias, reaching several metres high, and has a variegated form ‘Kaleidoscope’. ‘Confetti’ has silver and green variegated leaves strongly suffused with pink early in the season. The smaller variegated forms are particularly showy in a small garden, and can be grown in pots. Abelias flower best in full sun in a sheltered well-drained site but will grow well in dappled shade. There really is an abelia suitable for every garden.

Liz Blyth, Nursery Team: Cobaea scandens AGM

Liz would like to see Cobaea scandens AGM grown more often. Known as cathedral bells, or the cup-and-saucer plant, this vigorous climber comes from Mexico where it is a perennial woody climber. Here it is usually described in catalogues as a half-hardy or tender annual, but it will often survive our winters if grown in a particularly favourable site which is warm, sheltered and well-drained. It can be grown in a pot and overwintered under cover with a minimum temperature of 10C. However, given its vigour, it needs a large pot to reach its potential and is best grown in the ground. Overwintered plants are generally slow to get going the following spring and may not start to flower until autumn is almost upon us. For the same reason, it is best to sow the seeds very early, in January or February, indoors on a window sill. Sow the seeds on their edges in individual pots and pot on as necessary. It is a determined climber and will need twigs stuck in the pot for support until planted out after the last frost. The flowers open from fat green buds and become purple as they open. Once the bloom is over, the purple cup drops leaving a calyx, the saucer, which is attractive in its own right, and develops a curious double kink in the stem, like a shepherd’s crook. There is a white form though it is not a pure dazzling white but more of a pale green fading to cream. Cobaea make unusual and attractive cut flowers.

Cobaea sticks and clings with fast-growing tendrils which curl elegantly. Charles Darwin was quite taken with this plant and observed “every part of every branchlet is highly sensitive on all sides to a slight touch, and bends in a few minutes towards the touched side …… The branches, after becoming greatly curved from being touched, straighten themselves at a quicker rate than in almost any other tendril seen by me, namely, in between half an hour and an hour.”