There’s a thrill in the air
Driving around Britain recently, there was plenty of flora to admire in the countryside – the hedgerows were heavy with May tree blossoms and I caught tantalising glimpses of woodlands carpeted with bluebells.
I’ve not been involved in the Chelsea Flower Show this year but I was reminded of it when I observed the roadside verges full of cow parsley which has long been a favourite of show garden designers at this time of year.
This wild plant has delightful ferny foliage and is topped with sprays of white flowers.
Look more closely and you will see the flowers are at the end of tiny stems splayed like an umbrella.
This tells you it’s an umbellifer and its relatives in the plant world include carrots, parsley, parsnips, angelica and celery.
It’s a useful plant because it belongs to a group of herbaceous plants that are best described as “floaty” – they drift delicately through the border, their wispy white flowers appearing as if to float magically in the air.
Recently I wrote about store cupboard perennials – the hardy foot soldiers such as geranium and alchemilla, who are as tough as old boots, work hard and never let you down.
The floaty plants are more like chiffon and organza, their fragility adding an ethereal touch to the garden.
There are other umbellifers that provide a light elegance. Also flowering in May is Orlaya grandiflora, the white lace flower, a very pretty hardy annual which will keep flowering through the summer. Direct sow in spring, or this autumn for earlier flowering next year. Or you can direct sow Bishop’s weed, Ammi majus, into the ground now and have lovely lacey white flowers later in the summer. For a touch of pink frothiness, try Chaerophyllum ‘Roseum’, hairy chervil, which has lovely umbels of pale pink flowers. It’s perennial but with umbellifers you don’t lift and divide to propagate. Like their carrot cousins, they have a tap root which can’t be split apart.
They’re not fond of being moved anyway so your best bet is to collect seed in autumn and sow while fresh.
Much later in the summer and into early autumn you can have Selinum wallichianum, the milk parsley which has lots of lacy white flowers atop sturdy green stems. It’s great for providing late summer nectar for bees and butterflies – in fact, all umbels are great for attracting beneficial wildlife such as hoverflies.
But it’s not just umbellifers that do this job. Other frothy or wispy plants you could include in your border are Valeriana officinalis which I used in my Harrods garden at the Chelsea Flower Show last year.
It caught the public’s attention – everyone kept asking “what is it?”.
It’s a tall native wildflower, commonly known as valerian or all heal and is commonly used as a medicinal herb to aid sleep.
It has very fragrant white to pale pink flowers, is loved by butterflies and bees, and is lovely in an informal or cottage garden.
Gypsophila or Baby’s Breath is widely used as a cut flower in bouquets to provide an airy contrast to more solid flowers and can perform a similar function in your borders by creating soft clouds of thousands of tiny white flowers. It’s drought tolerant so could be a good choice if we’re in for a long hot summer.
Towards the end of the summer you could enjoy Sanguisorbas which have soft pink or white bottlebrush flowers atop stems a metre high.
So, if you think your borders looked a bit flat last year or you want a more romantic dreamy effect, introduce some frothy glamour this year!
Moo-tiful: Cow parsley Lace of spades: Gypsophila adds froth to the ground
Dream fields: Valerian brings a floaty romantic feel to a garden