Don’t let fa­mil­iar­ity breed cro­cos­mia con­tempt

Country Life Every Week - - In The Garden - Alan Titch­marsh

Y heart sank when I read re­cently in a news­pa­per that mont­bre­tia—cro­cos­mia—should be re­garded in the same light as Ja­panese knotweed, so ram­pant are its habits. What next? Bud­dleja as a de­mol­isher of build­ings? Yes, in both cases, the plants can be­come a prob­lem, but to do with­out ei­ther would leave our gar­dens all the poorer.

We’ve all en­coun­tered old gar­dens in which some an­cient strain of mont­bre­tia has taken such a hold of a bor­der that dig­ging it out has proved to be a task per­haps most suc­cess­fully ac­com­plished by reg­u­lar gym at­ten­ders; pam­pas grass beats all when it comes to im­mov­abil­ity. And yet, cop­ing with plants—the thugs as well as the del­i­cate crea­tures —is part and par­cel of gar­den­ing.

Cro­cos­mias de­serve a bet­ter press. This year, I’ve en­joyed their vi­brant flow­ers in suc­ces­sion through the summer. Cro­cos­mia Lu­cifer is very pop­u­lar and its flow­ers are a won­der­fully vi­brant red, how­ever, it’s not al­ways self-sup­port­ing—the flow­er­ing stems fre­quently topple—and its flow­er­ing sea­son is rel­a­tively short. Plant­ing Lu­cifer to­wards the back of a sunny or dap­ple-shaded bor­der is the best so­lu­tion so that it doesn’t flop over paths.

Both Lady Hamil­ton and George Dav­i­son are won­der­ful yel­lows for July, shorter than Lu­cifer at about 2ft; the first named is slightly more or­ange than the but­tery-golden shade of the lat­ter. I’ve planted both in snaking rivers

Mbe­tween large grey boul­ders in our slop­ing Isle of Wight gar­den and they bring sun­shine to the dullest summer day.

Emily Mcken­zie flow­ers a lit­tle later in the summer, bear­ing bright-or­ange flow­ers that are starry in shape and cen­tred with deeper red. Sol­fatare is also an Au­gust bloomer—golden-yel­low flow­ers and leaves that are bronze. I have to ad­mit a pref­er­ence for those with fresh green fo­liage rather than the darker shades and the fact that the greens are tougher in a hard winter seals the deal. The fo­liage is green on my lat­est ac­qui­si­tion, Jack­anapes, whose small flow­ers have petals of al­ter­nat­ing colours —pale or­ange and scar­let— which give it a jester-like qual­ity.

Our heavy is­land soil seems to suit cro­cos­mias, as they’re less happy in dry and dusty earth and en­joy a de­cent sup­ply of mois­ture at the roots. There’s no need to di­vide them un­til they start to slacken off in their will­ing­ness to flower; then, the job is best done in au­tumn and, like snow­drops, they are al­ways best re­planted ‘in the green’ rather than as dry and dor­mant corms, which may have be­come too des­ic­cated to sur­vive.

Plant the corms so that the up­per­most one is 3in deep—you’ll find that they ap­pear to be stacked one on top of an­other like a pile of small dough­nuts. The older, wiz­ened ones can be re­moved, but I’m happy to plant them as they are, in groups of three or four sheaves, trim­ming off the leaves by half when re­plant­ing.

‘Cop­ing with thugs as well as the del­i­cate crea­tures is part and par­cel of gar­den­ing

The leaves of es­tab­lished clumps will turn brown in winter and can be scis­sored off at ground level, although I pre­fer to leave them alone un­til spring, be­cause, in a hard winter, they can of­fer a de­gree of frost pro­tec­tion to the corms be­low. The rus­sety winter fo­liage is also not with­out its dec­o­ra­tive qual­i­ties.

So es­tab­lished are they in our gar­dens now that we tend to think of cro­cos­mias al­most as na­tive plants, for­get­ting that they hail from South Africa. Fa­mil­iar­ity has bred con­tempt, but I think that the genus is worth ex­plor­ing. The hardi­est va­ri­eties, when planted in snaking swathes rather than in clumps, cre­ate spec­tac­u­lar ef­fects, form­ing late-summer rivers of bloom.

My Secret Gar­den by Alan Titch­marsh is pub­lished by BBC Books (£25)

Rosy em­bers: Cro­cos­mia Wal­ber­ton Red glows in a bor­der at Marchants Hardy Plants nursery in East Sus­sex

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