National Plant Collections and Night-Scented plants: Julia Grigg's Morrab Miscellany

Julia visits a local garden to see one of the National Collections, and chooses Night-Scented plants for her own house.

N is for NATIONAL, as in Plant Collections.

National Plant Collections are registered and documented collections of a group of plants available for people to view, either by appointment, on special open days or as part of a garden open to the public. Coordinated by Plant Heritage and representing a huge resource for gardeners, nurserymen, garden designers, researchers, plant breeders and those interested in historical gardens and landscapes, the 650 Collections across the UK contain some 95,000 plants.

NEARBY to Penzance at Buryas Bridge is Trewidden House one of the twelve Great Gardens of Cornwall.

Here you’ll find the National Rhododendron (Kurume azalea Wilson 50) Collection.

Rhododendron or azalea?

Firstly, let’s establish the relationship between rhododendrons and azaleas:

  • rhododendron is a genus (a group of plants with shared characteristics.)
  • azaleas are a group within that genus, rather than forming an actual genus of their own.
  • this means that all azaleas are actually rhododendrons but not all rhododendrons are azaleas.
  • both genus members flourish in the same conditions and need the same cultural treatment for healthy growth. Best in partial shade, a site at the edge of woodland is perfect for them.

The Kurume azaleas came in the 1920s to Trewidden, named after where they were found in southern Japan and their discoverer, famed plant hunter Ernest H Wilson (1876-1930.)

How astonishing it must have been for Wilson, experienced as he was, to realise that the vast wealth of choice of specimens of these compact, showy, gloriously-coloured small flowers obliged him to select only the 50 he considered the finest.

Alverne Bolitho, whose family have owned Trewidden since 1850, today follows its passionate gardening tradition and, having opened the Garden to the public, aims for it to be ‘a place of peace and beauty, constant surprise and delight.’

About the rhododendron azaleas he writes, ‘[Since the 1920s] plants have been lost and misnamed. The ‘50’ have most likely been incomplete outside of Kurume for at least sixty years. After more than ten years’ work Trewidden now has 46 of the 50 – and the final four are in the final stages of being sourced/confirmed.’

Within Trewidden’s 23 acres of woodland the Wilson 50 Collection is found in the newly-named Kurume Bowl, adjacent to the Pit, a dell where the Garden’s splendid Tree Ferns are.

The ferns, the ‘champion tree’ magnolias and the 300 camellias (recipients of an award for excellence from the International Camellia Society in 2018) have been under the care of Head Gardener Richard Morton since 2007.

The rhododendrons put on their best show in April but all year round the Garden’s attractions extend, via meandering paths with ponds dotted here and there together with reminders of the site’s industrial mining heritage, to a newly restored walled garden, a rock garden with a collection of Erythroniums and a pond garden.

Perfume wafting on warm air by moonlight

N is for NIGHT-SCENTED flowers – what more delicious perfume than the one wafting on warm air from a garden lit only by star or moonlight? How fortunate we are that these aromatic blooms wait until evening to open, their scent designed to attract night-flying insects.

Four top performers on the nocturnal perfume-producing front for British gardens are jasmine, evening primrose, phlox and stocks.

Researching for a way to cover a bare wall facing my Penzance kitchen window, I’ve selected for myself the beauty commonly referred to as night-blooming jasmine.

The proper name of the highly fragrant climber is night-blooming jessamine, or lady-of-the-night (cestrum nocturnum.) Not a true jasmine at all, in fact, but a member of the nightshade (solanaceae) family, (along with potatoes, tomatoes and peppers!), night-blooming jessamine is a tropical, evergreen shrub. It should survive fine in West Penwith’s mild clime and I can expect it grow 8-10 feet tall and have small, tubular, white-green flowers from spring through late summer. In appearance, the plant is not spectacular – but what I’ll have to look forward to is the sun setting, evening closing in and my courtyard flooded with heavenly fragrance.

“Cestrum nocturnum” by Mauricio Mercadante is licensed with CC BY-NC-SA 2.0.

For the poets however,the night-flowerer reigning supreme is jasmine. In Night-blooming Jasmine Giovanni Pascoli (1855-1912), Italian poet and classical scholar, catches the scent and yearns for his beloved,

 And the night-blooming flowers open,
open in the same hour I remember those I love.
In the middle of the viburnums
the twilight butterflies have appeared.
 The whole night exhales
a scent that disappears in the wind. 

For herbalists and alternative therapists, it’s the yellow flowers of oenothera, the evening primrose, that are favoured. Native to North and South America, many of the primroses have richly-scented flowers. A particularly fragrant one is Oenothera odorata ‘Apricot Delight’ whose flowers gradually shift in colour through the summer from pale lemon, to apricot and finally salmon.

Many health benefits are claimed for medicinal applications of the oil derived from these flowers, amongst them that taking evening primrose oil with fish oil and calcium decreases bone loss and increases bone density in elderly people with osteoporosis.

And which night-scented would the expert gardeners choose?

Sarah Raven places phlox among her top 12 favourite plants to grow for a beautiful cottage garden, all selected based on their romance, subtle delicateness and pretty structure. Sarah calls phlox ‘David’ ‘a favourite reliable and productive plant, one of the best of the white phloxes, with vigorous growth and medium height, with nice bright, light green leaves.’ On her website www.sarahraven.com she writes, ‘The phlox in the oast house garden at Perch Hill fill the whole place with their extraordinary rich and delicious scent. I love their flowers, I love their colours and I love their perfume.’ 

“Phlox-David” by billums is licensed with CC BY 2.0.

And for Dan Pearson it’s stocks. In his The Guardian Gardeners’ Advice column he describes night-scented stocks as having ‘a headiness reminiscent of talc and grandmothers’ bedrooms…despite its strength, never overpowering.’ Dan recommends a packet of Matthiola longipetalaas ‘always worth having in the drawer. Sow the seeds at the base of pots close by the house at three-weekly intervals throughout the summer, as flowering plants are in season for about three weeks before they go to seed. Seed to flower is usually about six to eight weeks, so sow in mid-June for the summer holidays – with the expectation that night-time will bring magic.’

N for PABLO NERUDA

Love
 Because of you 
 In gardens of blossoming flowers 
 I ache from the perfumes of spring

The life of Pablo Neruda (1904-73) was one of passion, politics and above all, poetry. Writing verse from age 13, when only 24 he published the controversially erotic Twenty Love Poems and a Desperate Song (Jonathan Cape 2004), to this day his best-known work. Acclaimed as Chile’s national poet, awarded the Nobel Literature Prize in 1971, Neruda’s also remembered as an ardent Communist, escaping over the Andes mountains on horseback into exile in 1948, and ally of President Salvador Allende before his overthrow in the 1973 coup. Throughout his tumultuous private life, during which he married three times, Neruda rendered the intense emotional anguish of his love affairs into unforgettable verse.

Read more of Julia Grigg’s Morrab Miscellany

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