Short and sweet

Shrubs are such du­ti­ful an­chor plants, it’s all too easy to for­get that they don’t live for­ever. For those with short but bril­liant lives, Frank has an in­surance plan

Gardens Illustrated Magazine - - Contents - WORDS FRANK RO­NAN IL­LUS­TRA­TION RACHEL VIC­TO­RIA HILLIS

We think of shrubs as per­ma­nent gar­den fix­tures, but for colum­nist Frank Ro­nan the best are those with short but bril­liant lives

We like to think of the trees and shrubs in our gar­dens as per­ma­nent fix­tures. We call them an­chor plants and they are ex­pected to re­main, du­ti­fully, hold­ing the gar­den to­gether. If we change our minds about one and, won­der­ing what made us plant it in that spot to be­gin with, wish it dead, we tend to de­lay the ex­e­cu­tion, de­spair­ing of what to do with the aw­ful gap it will leave. For­tu­nately, some things, by their ten­dency to a short and bril­liant life, do the dirty work for us, and pro­vide the les­son that it is good to move your an­chors from time to time.

It is im­pos­si­ble to think that any­one has ever tired of their Cean­othus ‘Puget Blue’. There are over­whelm­ing spec­i­mens (if not of ac­tual ‘Puget Blue’, some­thing sim­i­lar) in Lon­don squares, of a height and breadth that we provin­cials with our wind and frost could never dream of. I give my cean­oth­uses ten years and if they make it to fif­teen would ex­pect a tele­gram from the Queen.

But then, this not be­ing Cal­i­for­nia, it was al­ways as­ton­ish­ing and de­light­ful that they would con­de­scend to re­main with me for any length of time at all. When I did get to live in Cal­i­for­nia it was a great dis­ap­point­ment to see how shabby and un­re­mark­able the wild cean­oth­uses were com­pared to the hy­brids we know in our gar­dens. And more dev­as­tat­ing to dis­cover, on a trip to the Puget Sound in Wash­ing­ton, that ‘Puget Blue’ doesn’t like it there at all. We have the best of it, and you only have to re­mem­ber to plant an­other cean­othus ev­ery few years to have one com­ing along, one in full fig and one on the way out. They will last longer with the drainage and heat of a wall, so long as you can give them el­bow room – for a hard prun­ing is cer­tain death – but look best, I think, freely stand­ing and thor­oughly staked in a bor­der, where the elec­tric mop of fire­works can have full ef­fect.

The death of my first Elaeag­nus ‘Quick­sil­ver’ was a bit­ter blow. It was an early tri­umph in its bor­der and I had been rec­om­mend­ing it by de­fault to any­one who asked for any kind of ad­vice. Luck­ily, I have my own higher or­a­cles to con­sult and they all as­sured me that that was what ‘Quick­sil­ver’ did, and that it was as un­pre­dictable as it was in­evitable. More for­tu­nate still I had been pot­ting up some of the prodi­giously pro­duced suck­ers to give away.

Thought to be a hy­brid of the old world Elaeag­nus an­gus­ti­fo­lia and the new world E. com­mu­tata, but some­times spec­u­lated oth­er­wise, its chief joy comes from the flow­ers which you’ll smell be­fore you see them. The scent can fill the gar­den on a good day, leav­ing the unini­ti­ated be­wil­dered by the near in­vis­i­bil­ity of the flow­ers. The sec­ond glory is in the grace of the sil­ver fo­liage, su­pe­rior, in my opin­ion, to the more of­ten lauded sil­ver pear. The suck­ers give you plenty of scope to play with new lo­ca­tions. I have even put a few in the bound­ary hedge. The dry­ness and com­pe­ti­tion there may just en­cour­age them to live a lit­tle longer.

Daphnes are more no­to­ri­ous for death than opera hero­ines. Daphne bholua, which be­gan flow­er­ing soon af­ter Christ­mas and is only just now fin­ish­ing, has be­come in­dis­pens­able to me. It is not so easy to prop­a­gate and has only re­cently be­come pass­ably avail­able. Still, when­ever I see it for sale I tend to buy three, if they are good. Two are planted, of which one will prob­a­bly ex­pire soon­ish while the other thrives for the mo­ment. The third is sen­tenced to a pot as back-up. By this strat­egy I can have two or three de­cent-sized plants in the gar­den at the same time, which is the min­i­mum for de­cency. Other daphnes, if you can grow them, should have the same in­surance pre­mium paid. It may seem like at­tri­tion, but the scent is worth the price.


Frank Ro­nan is a nov­el­ist who lives and gar­dens in Worces­ter­shire.

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