Mining for gold
Nurseryman Joe Sharman is known for his snowdrops, but winter aconites are also in his sights
IT may be midwinter, but it’s not necessarily bleak when swathes of winter aconites burst forth, bringing us the illusion of warmth and sunshine. Like a scattering of golden pennies, they illuminate the grassy banks, churchyards and old gardens of our countryside. Amid the masses, there’s the occasional naturally occurring but unexpected deviation, just the sort of thing that plantsman Joe Sharman seeks out.
The cultivar Orange Glow is one of the early ones, flowering in January, its colouring a rich orange. ‘This was my first unusual Eranthis. It was brought by a fellow galanthophile, Reverend Blakeway-phillips, from a colony he was growing in his garden and sold to me at an RHS show,’ he recalls.
Mr Sharman noticed marked differentials in the quality and colour intensity of its selfsown seedlings and made carefully considered selections, which he propagated, further isolating and reproducing only the best offspring, improving and strengthening the original cultivar.
In Euan Bunclark, the acid-yellow petals are so deeply cut and divided that they resemble aconite foliage. Mr Sharman unearthed this one via a customer at a Belvoir Castle plant fair, who was desperately trying to rid them from her garden. He named the cultivar after the lady’s nephew, Euan, who had died tragically.
Doubles most certainly differentiate, but then they, too, can become very similar. E. hyemalis Flore Pleno covers a multitude of sins, almost an umbrella grouping of doubles, as if this were the only defining factor. However, Mr Sharman has a sharper, more determined selection of double-flowered cultivars: Clare Swales is a garden-found, semi-filled, buttercup-yellow form with 10–12 elegant, long narrow petals; Noel Ayres has a fully ‘filled’ two-tone form, its rich butter-yellow inner is almost entirely encased in green outer petals.
The latter is a wonderful old find, shown to Mr Sharman by Anglesey Abbey’s head gardener, Richard Ayres. His father, the former head gardener, discovered the gem on the estate and tucked it away in an off-limits area. Ayres Jr felt the now sizeable colony merited a place in the wider garden and in the public eye, so he gave Sharman a generous pot of blooms to present and expose at the RHS early-february Show 1994.
Mr Sharman’s most recent, personal ‘foundling’ is Steffi, ‘a completely new break-
through,’ he enthuses. ‘I’ve not seen anything like it before: a pure, completely double cultivar in which all the reproductive organs have been transformed into layers of bright-yellow petals.’ More of a triple than a double, it’s a form he’s seen in other members of the buttercup family: ‘I knew it was possible, but this is the first ever seen in Eranthis.’ Although the majority of new varieties remain chance garden finds, he also seeks out new introductions via the trade. Lady Lamortagne, for example, came from his aconite wholesale supplier, who showed him a taller, more vigorous form, which, unusually for doubles, is fertile.
Doubles fascinate Mr Sharman—they’re more difficult to propagate, they rarely come true from seed and many are sterile, so a fertile double is worth its weight in gold.
Eranthis hyemalis and its cultivars are widespread, but, of the other seven species, yellow-flowered E.cilicica, named after its native habitat in Cilicia, Turkey, is not unlike it (some say it’s too similar to warrant species classification). Its late-appearing flowers are even more golden and the young, more finely dissected foliage emerges bronze before turning green.
Unsurprisingly, E. hyemalis and E. cilicica have been deliberately hybridised to create a number of garden cultivars, including Eranthis x tubergenii Guinea Gold. This well-known selection flowers as late as March/april and bears single, really deep-yellow flowers, which are uniquely scented.
The remaining Eranthis species comprise a third yellow one, E. longistipitata, and four white-flowered eastern/asian species that are less suited to our climate.
Mr Sharman’s focus is on propagating and breeding really good plants for British gardens and, over a dozen years or so, he has quietly gathered a choice and varied Eranthis collection, which presently amounts to some 25 named species and cultivars. Jacky Hobbs Visit www.monksilvernursery.co.uk for information and plant and seed sales. Joe Sharman will be showing at Myddelton House, Enfield, Middlesex, on Saturday, January 28, and at the Alpine Garden Society Fair, February 4, at Ford Hall, Lilleshall National Conferencing Centre, Newport, Shropshire