The meek shall in­herit the earth

Lynda Hal­li­nan gives a nod to spring's coy charm­ers – those bash­ful, bell- shaped blooms who shyly hang their heads.

NZ Gardener - - THE GOOD LIFE -

It’s chic to be a shrink­ing vi­o­let. Johnny Depp, Paris Hil­ton, Kim Basinger, An­drew Lloyd Web­ber, Al Pa­cino and Jean-Paul Gaultier are among the many celebri­ties who claim to be nat­u­rally shy. Even The Rolling Stones’ Bill Wy­man, who re­put­edly bed­ded more than 1000 women dur­ing his 30-year stint as the band’s bass gui­tarist, reck­ons he’s not one to seek the lime­light. “I’m al­ways shy in front of an au­di­ence, so I’m al­ways at the back, in the shad­ows, just do­ing it. I don’t like the front, the adu­la­tion,” he’s quoted as say­ing.

Like rock bands, cre­ative gar­dens need a mix of per­son­al­i­ties, from shouty at­ten­tion seek­ers who give everyone the glad eye – think dahlias, lilies, rhodo­den­drons and sun­flow­ers – to a sup­port crew of de­mure types who refuse to even make eye con­tact.

In­tro­verted plants (and peo­ple) rarely get the recog­ni­tion they de­serve but, in spring, there are loads of shy cot­tage flow­ers that hang their heads, forc­ing us to lie down on the ground to get a de­cent squizz at them.

Take epimedi­ums. Also known as bar­ren­wort, bishop’s hat, fairy wings and (I kid you not) horny goat weed, these win­ter-dor­mant peren­ni­als are happy to hang out in shady cor­ners.

Epimedium x ver­si­color ‘Sul­phureum’ causes so lit­tle fuss that it’s easy to for­get you’ve planted it, es­pe­cially as its cop­per-mot­tled fo­liage blends in with other wood­land ground­cov­ers. But in spring, it’s a win­ner, send­ing up sprays of gold flow­ers rem­i­nis­cent of teeny-tiny ‘Tête-a-tête’ daf­fodils that have been shrunk in a hot wash.

Spring seems to be the sea­son when my gar­den’s most bash­ful beau­ties sud­denly stand out from the crowd, de­spite oth­er­wise hav­ing what English gar­den celebrity Carol Klein would call “a quiet de­meanour”. That’s how she de­scribes dreamy

meadow rue ( Thal­ic­trum delavayi), al­though its li­lac sprays don’t steal my heart un­til later in sum­mer.

“Even gar­den­ers whose predilec­tion is for drama can­not help but suc­cumb

If your aqui­le­gias won't look you in the eye, pick their flow­ers to float in a bowl of wa­ter or on a vin­tage plate.

Be still my beat­ing – or bleed­ing – heart! Af­ter a spring fling, it goes dor­mant in sum­mer (or in my case, dies).

to its quiet charm,” says Carol. With buds that un­fold like per­fect pel­lu­cid para­sols (Klein, again), Thal­ic­trum

delavayi looks im­pos­si­bly frag­ile but, like so many wispy plants, it’s not. I grow it at the very back of my rose border so its slen­der stems can lean against the post and wire farm fence when the southerly’s blow­ing.

There’s also a mul­ti­petalled form of Thal­ic­trum delavayi called ‘He­witt’s Dou­ble’, which has the tini­est pink pom­poms – they look like pow­der puffs for a dolls’ house dress­ing table – but I pre­fer the di­aphanous orig­i­nal. Too much pomp, or too many petals, de­tracts from a dainty flower’s charm rather than en­hanc­ing it.

Would silken-haired pul­satil­las, those alpine peren­ni­als from the but­ter­cup fam­ily, look any pret­tier with a bus­tle of ex­tra petals beneath their skirts? No. The alpine Pasque flower’s ap­peal lies in its shy sim­plic­ity; the fringed dou­bles of

Pul­satilla vul­garis look ridicu­lous. Frost-hardy pul­satil­las are mag­i­cal rock­ery plants for cooler cli­mates. They need free-drain­ing, gritty soil and they loathe hu­mid­ity, so I’ve re­luc­tantly con­ceded de­feat here. I’m less will­ing to give up on

Lam­p­ro­cap­nos spectabilis, bet­ter known by its old botan­i­cal name,

Di­cen­tra spectabilis, or its nick­name bleed­ing heart. How apt. It keeps break­ing mine. If this airy peren­nial doesn’t rot out in win­ter, it shriv­els up in the sum­mer heat. Nonethe­less, ev­ery year I buy two new vic­tims – one pure white, one pink – be­cause I love it so much in the shade.

An equally de­light­ful dan­gler, but this time for an open sunny spot in sum­mer, is the an­gel’s fish­ing rod or wand flower, Dierama pul­cher­ri­mum. This grace­ful South African will reel you in – or catch you hook, line and sinker – with its bow­ing stems of pinky-pur­ple bells. It’s an ever­green clumper with messy grass-like fo­liage that suits be­ing po­si­tioned at the edge of a path or along the top of a low ter­race or re­tain­ing wall, so it can

fling its wands out­ward into open air. Again, be pre­pared for it to cark it, as it prefers to stay put and re­sents be­ing re­pot­ted or shifted. (If you lose yours, more suc­cess­ful gar­den­ers of­ten of­fer spare corms for sale on Trade Me.) I’ve had bet­ter luck nat­u­ral­is­ing

cy­cla­men un­der sil­ver birches. The trick seems to be to lib­er­ate gifted pot plants when they fin­ish bloom­ing, tuck­ing them in fairly close to tree trunks where they’re less likely to be choked out by more vig­or­ous shade dwellers such as Ja­panese anemones and helle­bores. Then leave them be. They might sulk for a year, es­pe­cially in their first dry sum­mer, but af­ter that they’ll pop up and down at will.

How I wish lily of the val­ley (the bul­bous sort; we’ll get to the shrub next) would pros­per of its own ac­cord here. When Wil­liam Word­sorth wrote that “the flower that smells the sweet­est is shy and lowly”, he could have been talking about Con­va­l­laria ma­jalis, which ri­vals sweet peas and freesias for sym­bolic spring fra­grance.

Many years ago, I hap­pened to be in Paris on the first of May – a pub­lic hol­i­day – and I had no idea why there were all these street stalls sell­ing posies of lily of the val­ley. Turns out that, in France, Con­va­l­laria ma­jalis is a May Day sym­bol of work­ers’ rights that is worn as proudly as our red pop­pies on Anzac Day.

Why spare the rod when you could spoil your­self with dan­gling bells of Dierama­p­ul­cher­ri­mum?

Not a true bulb but a rhi­zoma­tous peren­nial, Con­va­l­laria ma­jalis spreads cour­tesy of a net­work of snaking stems just be­low the soil sur­face. It rel­ishes moist shade (for at least half the day) and, if it gets too con­gested, will start to flower less freely, though reg­u­lar di­vid­ing does more harm than good.

One of my Amer­i­can gar­den­ing books de­scribes it as “an ag­gres­sive coloniser”. If only. The tricky thing seems to be get­ting it go­ing prop­erly in the first place. In my herb gar­den, I slot­ted in a mixed clump of blue­bells and lily of the val­ley from my aunt’s Waikato gar­den, but now all I have is a mound of blue­bells. Per­haps there is a tip­ping point, as yet un­re­alised at my place, where lily of the val­ley stops be­ing tem­per­a­men­tal and lives up to its rep­u­ta­tion as fra­grant in­vader.

I’ve had marginally bet­ter luck with the dusky pink va­ri­ety, Con­va­l­laria

ma­jalis var. rosea. A few years ago, I bed­ded in a wee patch un­der the last hy­drangea in a row be­side our house. It’s at the far end of a low rock wall, where it can’t be smoth­ered out, but I al­ways for­get to look for it in spring. For the past two years, it has flow­ered nicely – I know this, be­cause I’ve seen the with­er­ing stalks – but both times I missed it in bloom.

The lily of the val­ley shrub, Pieris

japon­ica, is no re­la­tion. I’ve never been a huge fan of its mix of dinky bells and shiny bronze spring growth but, hav­ing spot­ted a big old bush in fam­ily pho­to­graphs of my ma­ter­nal grand­mother Clarice’s farm gar­den, I got all nos­tal­gic and bought half a dozen re­cently re­leased va­ri­eties.

Red-tipped ‘Val­ley Valen­tine’ and dark pink ‘Flamingo’ are ei­ther gar­ish or gor­geous, de­pend­ing on your taste, but ‘Pu­rity’ and ‘Tem­ple Bells’ have so­phis­ti­cated white flow­ers. And if you can bear to cut them off be­fore they open, the clus­ters of tight buds add ex­tra tex­ture to spring bou­quets.

(Add deutzias to your cut­ting list too, even if these fem­i­nine shrubs, aren’t so much shy as sim­ply un­able to stand straight un­der the weight of all those vir­ginal white flow­ers.)

Two months ago in NZ Gar­dener I wrote 1000 words in hon­our of

helle­bores, so I won’t bore you by

Pretty and per­fumed, lily of the val­ley is also a sym­bol of work­ers' rights.

go­ing on about them too much now, ex­cept to say that their ex­otic flow­ers turn heads from win­ter into spring. One of the lat­est to strut its stuff is

Helle­borus foetidus, which has clus­ters of acid-green bells above finely-cut, near-black fo­liage.

Helle­bores are hav­ing their shy­ness rapidly bred out of them, with new va­ri­eties al­most uni­ver­sally boast­ing up­ward-fac­ing, open flow­ers in­stead of nod­ding blooms that cast their gaze at the ground.

Old-fash­ioned aqui­le­gias have un­der­gone a sim­i­lar trans­for­ma­tion to straighten their necks but I’m not con­vinced it’s progress. Some things are best left well alone (see top right).

I’ve pre­vi­ously con­fessed to raid­ing my grand­mother’s aban­doned Raglan gar­den for snowflakes or leu­co­jum bulbs; they were valiantly flow­er­ing in what is now a sheep pad­dock. They also grew around our cow­shed when I was a child, so per­haps it’s easy to dis­miss them as com­mon as muck.

Snow­drops are so much classier, if you don’t mind cran­ing your head at an awk­ward an­gle to ap­pre­ci­ate their minia­ture lamp­shade-shaped flow­ers.

My best show of snow­drops, in this case Galan­thus el­we­sii, can be seen in the un­like­li­est of lo­ca­tions. If you lift up the lanky branches of a scrappy Mex­i­can or­ange blos­som shrub in my white gar­den, and shove aside the

When you suc­ceed with ex­pen­sive or ex­otic bulbs, it feels like a mo­ment of tri­umph – even when that mo­ment is fleet­ing.

lower fronds of the sil­ver fern that looms above it, there they are. How they sur­vive, let alone flour­ish, in such a dank set­ting is be­yond me.

When you suc­ceed with ex­pen­sive or ex­otic bulbs, it feels like a mo­ment of tri­umph – even when that mo­ment is fleet­ing. I’ve fan­ta­sised about

frit­il­lar­ias for al­most two decades, ever since I first saw them bloom­ing in a spring dis­play at the Butchart Gar­dens in Canada.

Fri­t­il­laria per­sica looks like a gothic del­phinium, with 80cm tall spikes of cer­n­u­ous bells that look choco­late brown, black or indigo, de­pend­ing on the light. This Mid­dle Eastern lily is a costly col­lec­tor’s item – ex­pect to pay about least $12 per bulb – but it’s worth ev­ery cent so snap it up if you ever see it of­fered for sale.

I also adore Fri­t­il­laria cam­chat­sen­sis, which is shorter-stemmed (30-40cm) with a top­knot of near black flow­ers, and pointy-petalled yel­low­ish-green and brown Fri­t­il­laria ac­mopetala, which I kept go­ing in a wine bar­rel for three springs. This Turk­ish de­light isn’t easy to grow in the north, so I con­sid­ered that a win!

In my mother’s gar­den, the best spring dis­play comes from arch­ing clumps of Solomon’s seal, whose bal­let slip­per-shaped flow­ers re­mind me of baby booties pegged along a wash­ing line. I strug­gled to es­tab­lish

Polyg­o­na­tum mul­ti­flo­rum in my for­mer city gar­den but it has thrived here, and when­ever I need more to fill a moist, shady gap I sim­ply phone Mum and ask her to up­root a chunk.

It’s silly, re­ally, how much more love we heap on ex­tro­verted flow­ers that be­have like prima don­nas com­pared to their more easy­go­ing com­pan­ions.

For ex­am­ple, I’m for­ever haul­ing out self-sown hon­ey­wort ( Cerinthe

ma­jor ‘Pur­puras­cens’), just so I can plant more finicky things in its place. And I’m a fan of salvias but have lost count of the num­ber of Salvia patens ‘Cam­bridge Blue’ plants that have rot­ted out in my wet soil, yet even though its cousin, bog sage ( Salvia

ulig­i­nosa), is the same shade of pretty pale blue – and ac­tu­ally likes wet feet – I turn my nose up at it. I shouldn’t be such a snob.

Aqui­le­gias are nat­u­rally nod­ding, though newer va­ri­eties tend to have up­ward-fac­ing flow­ers. I let mine self-seed and cross freely.

Epimedium x ver­si­color ‘Sul­phureum’.

Meadow rue, Thal­ic­trum delavayi.

Lam­p­ro­cap­nos spectabilis, for­merly known as Di­cen­tra spectabilis.


Pasque flower, Pul­satilla vul­garis.

Enkianthus cam­pan­u­la­tus.

Con­va­l­laria ma­jalis var. rosea.

SBn­roid­wadl­r­wopresa(tGha, lDaenuthtzuias eclr­we­ne­a­sitia).

Pieris japon­ica ‘Pu­rity’.

It is the leaves (when crushed), not the flow­ers, that give Helle­borus foetidus its un­for­tu­nate com­mon name of stink­ing helle­bore.

Aqui­le­gia virid­i­flora ‘Choco­late Sol­dier’.

Snow­drops ( Galan­thus el­we­sii).

The Per­sian black lily, Fri­t­il­laria per­sica.

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