Don’t let familiarity breed crocosmia contempt
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