In the Gar­den

Country Life Every Week - - Contents - Alan Titch­marsh

Alan Titch­marsh con­sid­ers col­lect­ing cacti and other suc­cu­lents

HERE was a time when I was in­dif­fer­ent to suc­cu­lents. They fell into the same bracket as cacti and, although I can ad­mire col­lec­tions of such prickly beasts, their painfully slow rate of growth sug­gests that dust­ing could be the most vi­tal cul­ti­va­tion tech­nique and any form of tac­til­ity is in­ad­vis­able. That does, I sup­pose, give them a cer­tain machismo—‘ cacti: the plants you can’t cud­dle’—but it hardly en­cour­ages the gar­dener to warm to them.

Nev­er­the­less, the first plant name I ever learnt, at the age of eight, was Bryophyl­lum pin­na­tum— the liver-spot­ted plant that bears ‘liv­ing young’ on the edges of its leaves. I bought it for six­pence from my cac­tus-mad ju­nior-school teacher at a church bazaar and grew many of its prog­eny on into adult­hood. The suc­cess in such easy prop­a­ga­tion made me think that gar­den­ing might be a re­ward­ing pro­fes­sion. I wasn’t wrong.

That early af­fec­tion for a sim­ple suc­cu­lent was su­per­seded by a love of more so­phis­ti­cated plants, but, lurk­ing some­where in my heart, was a fond­ness that would even­tu­ally be rekin­dled. My re­newed ad­mi­ra­tion for them came as a re­sult of dis­cov­er­ing that suc­cu­lents are won­der­ful dec­o­ra­tions for gar­den steps in the sum­mer months, grown in shal­low ter­ra­cotta pots and mulched with grit. They can cope with dry­ing out dur­ing our week­ends away and need very lit­tle in the way of care and at­ten­tion.

On the steps of our ter­race, and on a small flight lead­ing

Tto a sum­mer house, I have pots and pans of tough-as-old-boots house­leeks ( Sem­per­vivum spp.) in pur­ple and green as well as frost-ten­der echev­e­rias with their rosettes of glau­cous blue-grey. I planted a few of these out in our Isle of Wight gar­den—mulching them with grit—and was sur­prised to dis­cover that al­most all of them came through the win­ter, although it was, ad­mit­tedly, a mild one. In Hamp­shire, I haul them into the green­house come Oc­to­ber.

Along with the echev­e­rias, whose pink flower stems push up in sum­mer to open flagon-shaped blooms of red and yel­low, I grow aeo­ni­ums— suc­cu­lents that are won­der­fully easy to prop­a­gate from shoot-tip cut­tings of sin­gle rosettes cut off with a cou­ple of inches of stem. These young­sters are a stal­wart of sum­mer plant stalls coun­try­wide and aeo­ni­ums de­serve ad­mi­ra­tion not just for the fact that their name con­tains ev­ery vowel, but also be­cause they are hand­some plants.

The most fre­quently cul­ti­vated is the deep ma­roon-pur­ple va­ri­ety Zwartkop. Granted, when trans­lated into English, ‘Black­head’ has a rather more sor­did con­no­ta­tion, but the plant is won­der­fully stat­uesque if the cen­tre of its one rosettes is cut out with scis­sors, leav­ing a ring of leaves be­hind, when it’s reached a height of 4in– 6in, for then it will pro­duce a clus­ter of rosettes at the shoot tip and turn into a hand­some branched beauty.

Left to grow with­out such in­ter­ven­tion, the sin­gle stem will reach at least 3ft and it be­gins to look weird. I also have a green form with a red edge and covet Aeo­nium tab­u­li­forme, which makes a flat­tened rosette of won­der­fully sym­met­ri­cal leaves.

It does give them a cer­tain machismo— “cacti: the plants you can’t cud­dle”

Flow­ers have been pro­duced on my taller, green va­ri­ety since the end of win­ter and are still dec­o­ra­tive—bright yel­low and car­ried in a vast, branch­ing fire­work above mul­ti­ple rosettes. On the is­land, it’s been out­doors in a pot all win­ter, pulled in against a warm south-fac­ing wall and repo­si­tioned on the ter­race in May when the cold weather was over.

The RHS Plant Finder lists some 35 dif­fer­ent species and va­ri­eties of aeo­nium and, as the pres­i­dent of Plant Her­itage, I was sad­dened to dis­cover at the Chelsea Flower Show this year that there is no Na­tional Col­lec­tion of them. I sup­pose re­ally I should take that as a sign and, in grat­i­tude to the whole fam­ily of suc­cu­lents, which fanned the flame of en­thu­si­asm for plants in my child­hood, I should do my bit and give them all a home. After all, 35 plants can’t take up that much room, can they? We’ll see.

My Secret Gar­den by Alan Titch­marsh is pub­lished by BBC Books (£ 25) Next week: Trum­pet bloom

A gar­den dis­play of suc­cu­lents, in­clud­ing dark-bronze Aeo­nium Zwartkop, un­der­lines their great di­ver­sity and strange­ness

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