Botany’s prima donna

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Leisure - HOLLY KERR FORSYTH

WHILE these days many of our flow­ers can be raised suc­cess­fully in glasshouses, en­sur­ing that we can in­dulge dur­ing most months of the year, a bride who must have lily-of-the-val­ley in her bou­quet will need to choose a spring wed­ding date. Among the most cov­eted of the spring blooms, lilyof-the-val­ley ( Con­va­l­laria ma­jalis), is tra­di­tion­ally used in bri­dal bou­quets as it sym­bol­ises pu­rity and hu­mil­ity.

This most el­e­gant of white flow­er­ing lilies is some­thing of a botan­i­cal prima donna, how­ever, and is not al­ways easy to grow. A wood­land plant na­tive to sev­eral coun­tries in the north­ern hemi­sphere, this del­i­cate, frag­ile-look­ing trea­sure will dis­ap­point if you don’t gar­den in a cold cli­mate. They de­mand rich soil and like to be left undis­turbed, to nat­u­ralise in dap­pled shade. In the con­di­tions they love, lily-of-the-val­ley will colonise thickly, spread­ing un­der­ground by rhi­zomes, send­ing up pleated, bright green leaves each spring and short spires of the tiny white bells with their mag­i­cal fra­grance.

If you, too, have no luck with the cov­etable lily-of-the-val­ley, try plant­ing a brick; they love the warmth that the brick at­tracts and holds. So you’ll find them mass­ing out in cold cli­mate gar­dens where they are grow­ing close to a wall, which will have stored heat from the warmer months while the air tem­per­a­ture drops.

Among the few va­ri­eties that have been bred, col­lec­tors will love the pink Con­va­l­laria ma­jalis var. rosea, the dou­ble flow­er­ing C. m. ‘Flore Pleno’ and the va­ri­ety with var­ie­gated fo­liage, al­though these do not grow as strongly as the species. And take care: while the lily-of-the-val­ley may look in­no­cent, the berries that form if you can re­sist pick­ing the blooms are poi­sonous, as are all parts of the plant.

May Day is cel­e­brated in many coun­tries, and takes on dif­fer­ent mean­ings in dif­fer­ent cul­tures. In France it is cel­e­brated with lily-of-the-val­ley, which has been a sym­bol of luck since Charles IX was pre­sented with the bloom in 1561. If you are ever in France on May 1, you will find this lovely bloom be­ing sold on street corners and in mar­kets. Could there be a more charm­ing flo­ral fes­ti­val?

You can say any­thing with flow­ers. From an­cient Egyp­tians, Per­sians, Greeks and Ro­mans to the English of Ed­war­dian and Vic­to­rian times, all coun­tries and cul­tures at­tach im­por­tant mean­ings to flow­ers. They speak clearly of love and friend­ship, say thank you or of­fer sym­pa­thy.

While lily-of-the-val­ley, along with the blue­bell, sig­ni­fies hu­mil­ity, white roses also sym­bol­ise pu­rity, red roses pas­sion; the beau­ti­ful, goblet-shaped blooms of the mag­no­lia prom­ise sweet­ness and beauty. Some cul­tures be­lieve that laven­der warns of jeal­ousy, that nar­cis­sus ex­poses ego­tism and that calla lilies should only be used at fu­ner­als.

If sin­gle blooms each hold cer­tain mean­ings, the tussie mussie is surely a com­plete con­ver­sa­tion: a ro­man­tic poem, a love letter. Pop­u­lar in Eng­land since the reign of El­iz­a­beth I, the tussie mussie was car­ried into court by judges in Vic­to­rian times, ap­par­ently to ward off evil spir­its and disease. They were held also to com­bat the smell of un­clean streets.

This posy of herbs and flow­ers is easy to make. The first task is to choose a ‘‘hero’’ bloom, which could be a per­fect rose or a clutch of lily-of-the-val­ley. Next, ar­range ‘‘lesser’’ flow­ers such as vi­o­lets or laven­der, and then the blos­som and fo­liage of herbs in a cir­cu­lar fash­ion around the cen­tre. Fin­ish with a swirl of fo­liage. Tie it all to­gether with an elas­tic band, add a pa­per or lace frill, and hide your work­ings with a pretty rib­bon: the per­fect to­ken of af­fec­tion and a gift that is sure to be ap­pre­ci­ated. REN­MARK based David Ruston is renowned as a rose grower and lec­turer. His flower ar­rang­ing demon­stra­tions, ac­com­pa­nied by his eru­dite but supremely en­ter­tain­ing ban­ter, are leg­endary, as is his gen­eros­ity. He has re­ceived just about ev­ery award pos­si­ble from the rose in­dus­try and his statue has been erected in his home town. He has now re­leased a book of his writ­ings and musings on flower ar­rang­ing, on pick­ing and keep­ing flow­ers and on their his­tory. The in­dex con­tains a fairly com­pre­hen­sive list of rose va­ri­eties, along with ex­cel­lent de­scrip­tions. The book is also full of the hor­ti­cul­tural world’s per­son­al­i­ties. A Life with Roses is pub­lished by Rosen­berg ($49.95).

It’s time to sow seeds of sum­mer ve­gies such as toma­toes, if you can pro­tect them un­der glass or plas­tic. Per­haps share pack­ets of seed with friends, or swap seedlings. Or join a com­mu­nity gar­den, a great way to make friends and to break down lan­guage and cul­tural bar­ri­ers. Fol­low daily gar­den tips and tricks on twit­­lyk­er­forsyth. Holly Kerr Forsyth’s new book, Sea­sons in My House and Gar­den, is out now.


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