The charms of meadow rue

Country Life Every Week - - In The Garden -

STRUCK by the way a group of herba­ceous peren­ni­als shot up in late spring, the An­cient Greeks called them Tha­lik­tron, from thallein, to bloom, sprout or flour­ish. The Ro­mans La­tinised this as Thal­ic­trum, which re­mains the botan­i­cal name of these plants, at­tached to a genus that now con­tains as many as 200 species world­wide, found mostly in cool and temp­per­ate re­gions and be­long­ing to the but­ter­cup fam­ily (Ra­nun­cu­laceae).

We termed our na­tive species Thal­ic­trum flavum, or meadow rue, from its habi­tat and its di­vided blue-grey fo­liage, which was thought to look like rue’s. How­ever, the prize for de­scrip­tive la­belling must surely go to the Amer­i­cans who called theirs ‘maid of the mist’.

This name en­cap­su­lates what it is that makes Thal­ic­trum uniquely valu­able in the gar­den. The ‘mist’, I pre­sume, is the fo­liage, which, in many species, is im­pres­sive in vol­ume, but gauzily translu­cent in ef­fect, as in­tri­cately cut out as a maid­en­hair fern’s and in soft tones of sea green and pearly grey. In its midst and ris­ing above it, the ‘maid’ is the finely branched in­flo­res­cence.

For grace, poise and fi­nesse, no other sum­mer-flow­er­ing peren­ni­als can compare with Thal­ic­trum. Hap­pily, the taller kinds are ro­bust and long-lived clump­form­ers, flour­ish­ing in full sun or part shade in any fer­tile soil as long as it’s moist from early spring un­til high sum­mer. Here are a few of the best.

T. aqui­legi­ifolium: to 4ft, grey­green leaves, flow­ers a froth of sta­mens from May on­wards, typ­i­cally rosy mauve, but bril­liant white in the sub­limely gauzy Splen­dide White and luminous lilac in the dark-stalked Thun­der­cloud.

T. Black Stock­ings: 4ft–6ft, a mound of soft-green fo­liage over­topped by cap-like in­flo­res­cences of wis­te­ria-mauve flow­ers on near-black stems.

T. delavayi He­witt’s Dou­ble: to 5ft, leaves finely cut, flow­ers dou­ble, warm laven­der, minute but as­ton­ish­ingly beau­ti­ful.

T. Elin: to at least 6ft, with deep-pur­ple stems, blue-green leaves and lilac-pur­ple flow­ers from mid to late sum­mer.

T. flavum subsp. glau­cum: to 6ft, steely-blue-grey leaves, fluffy lemon-yel­low flow­ers in June and July.

T. flavum Il­lu­mi­na­tor: fo­liage emerg­ing glowing gold with ter­ra­cotta tints, slowly turn­ing to char­treuse.

T. Splen­dide: to at least 8ft, with aubergine-tinted stems, midgreen leaves and vivid-mauve flow­ers in broad and soar­ing sum­mer-long sprays.

These bring vi­tal ethe­re­al­ity to clas­sic herba­ceous bor­ders, bridg­ing and har­mon­is­ing stronger and more solid tones with their per­lu­cidus clouds of colour. Theirs is the danc­ing light­ness that can make a mas­ter­piece of an oth­er­wise air­lessly heavy and rich com­po­si­tion.

A few ob­ser­va­tions, if I may. They tend not to ap­pear above ground un­til spring is warm and far ad­vanced, so don’t as­sume that a no-show is a loss. They sel­dom need the heavy stak­ing to which they’re of­ten sub­jected: sim­ply tie the lower por­tions of de­vel­oped stems to short, dis­creetly in­serted canes or do noth­ing. They pro­duce just one ma­jor fo­liage flush a year, so cut­ting down the leaves in sum­mer is likely to leave a last­ing gap.

Most im­por­tantly, don’t give herba­ceous bor­ders the mo­nop­oly of these taller meadow rues. They ex­ult in New Wave plant­ings, prairies and lightly man­aged long grass. There are few bet­ter foils for pur­ple al­li­ums than T. Il­lu­mi­na­tor’s phos­pho­res­cent new fo­liage. And cul­ti­vars of T. aqui­legi­ifolium and T. delavayi are a joy in­ter­planted in beds of shrub roses along with shim­mer­ing-plumed grasses such as Cala­m­a­grostis Karl Fo­er­ster.

Three elfin species work sim­i­lar magic else­where. With dain­tily cut sage-green fo­liage and 1ft-tall sprays of small, white anemone-like flow­ers, T. tubero­sum is for sunny spots on welldrained gritty soil, say with pinks and other grey-leaved alpines.

Cooler, moister and more hu­musy con­di­tions suit T. kiu­sianum, which is, at most, 6in high, but a minia­ture of mas­sive charm. It does best for us in dap­pled shade on the edge of an acid bed full of aza­leas and slip­per or­chids, where it forms lacy pea-green hum­mocks over­topped by wiry­palest-mauve pow­der puffs.

Fi­nally, T. ichangense Evening Star, another shade- and damplov­ing dwarf to trea­sure. Re­sem­bling an epimedium’s in shape, its leaves emerge in olive and cop­per and harden to dark choco­late webbed with sil­ver veins. The flow­ers are equally lovely, massed in rose-tinted con­stel­la­tions that car­pet our bam­boo grove and fern­ery. Al­though of­ten no more than 8in high, this maid of the mist has the same pre­cious qual­ity as her taller cousins: ethe­re­al­ity. Mark Grif­fiths edited the RHS Dic­tio­nary of Gar­den­ing Next week: Plant for old age

T. delavayi’s minia­ture mauve flow­ers are a mid­sum­mer mar­vel

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