Tuesday, 17 July 2012


Beth Chatto, Christopher Lloyd and Defending my Beloved


One man’s meat might be another man’s poison, but when it comes to gardening, there are few things more likely to make a placid gardener’s blood boil than somebody maligning one of their best-loved plants.



Think of Beth Chatto when she read The Well-Tempered Garden and discovered that Christopher Lloyd had no time for bergenias. Beth, of course, grows hosts of bergenias, using them to great effect in creating breathing spaces after more complex planting. So troubled was she by his comments that she took the time to write and tell him.


Several years ago, I was watching a gardening programme on television and the presenter hacked one of my favourite plants from a border, peppering the slaughter with less-than-sparkling asides about my beloved. I was furious! I should have written in. Of course, I never got round to it because of my old friend, procrastination. I am still incensed about the televised butchery and character assassination of a choice plant, so today I am going to set the record straight.


A member of that distinguished cohort, the deciduous year-round interest brigade, Leycesteria formosa is a plant with many common names - Himalayan honeysuckle, Pheasant berry, Flowering nutmeg and Granny's curls to name a few. New shoots with a bluish bloom emerge in spring to form arching bamboo-like fresh green stems from which burgundy bracts drip from early summer to mid-autumn, carrying white flowers and later, raspberry coloured berries which ripen to a deep claret.  



The green tapered leaves are red where they join the stem and as summer progresses, they become red-edged with hints of wine-coloured veining flooding through the leaf.


The flowers are abuzz with bees in summer, then in winter, plump berries provide food for birds. In the dormant months, the skeletal bamboo-like stems make a hauntingly beautiful contribution to the winter garden. It is a plant that I would not want to be without and I am planting six of them in the farmhouse garden here in Norfolk.

Beth Chatto’s letter provoked an invitation from Christopher Lloyd to meet him for lunch, which in turn led to a long-lasting friendship and a collection of their inspirational letters to one another in Dear Friend and Gardener. That is how it should be done. I have learnt an important lesson today. I feel better for defending my beloved Leycesteria formosa and if anyone speaks ill of one of my cherished plants ever again I will not stew furiously for years and do absolutely nothing about it. I will speak out with confidence... immediately...

... just let me weed the borders first... pick some beans... and courgettes... feed the chickens.... eat some chocolate and gather my thoughts for a year or two.



* You will probably have guessed that the first photo was taken in Christopher Lloyd's garden at Great Dixter; the second, of Bergenia 'Silberlicht' was taken at The Beth Chatto Gardens.

20 comments:

  1. I have never seen Leycesteria formosa before, probably because it wouldn't be hardy enough here, but it looks lovely, providing year-round interest. I often feel some plants are given a hard time by gardening programmes - bergenias and heucheras for example are frowned upon by many here! (I adore heucheras!)Nice post

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    1. I think plants suffer from going in and out of fashion. A few years ago everyone was all over heucheras. Leycesteria formosa is hardy throughout the British Isles. It is a shame you can't grow it.

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  2. I don't think I have ever seen bergenia OR leycesteria formosa. But I do love the field of zinneas, which I think is a much overlooked annual because it's less fancy and exotic than some others. But it is so cheering to see all that color!

    Thanks for the note and the welcome back. :-)

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    1. If you love colour, may I recommend the book, "Colour for Adventurous Gardeners" by Christopher Lloyd, a man not scared of using lots of colour!

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  3. I am unfamiliar with Leycesteria formosa, but any plant with such lovely bracts that attract bees and provide berries for birds is a winner to me. I suppose we all have our opinions. The world is wondrous with unfathomable variety, something for everyone!

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    1. It is a winner, Debs. Thank goodness for that variety!

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  4. Understand the sentiment completely even if the actual plants might not grow here.

    I do plant zinnias because they are the most tolerant annuals for our climate and add a needed spot of color in the summer dormant season. So many bloggers love to hate annuals, but they work for me.

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    1. I don't know why people don't like annuals. One or two well-chosen varieties can be used throughout the garden to fill gaps when other plants have gone over. By using a small selection - such as you using zinnias - there will be a level of repetition in the garden which helps with cohesion - and all for very little money.

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  5. A great post - made me chuckle. I love the first picture of zinnias - mine have done terribly this year - so just looking at the picture is upsetting. Luckily everybody has different likes and dislikes - if we all liked the same thing all our gardens would look the same.

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  6. I'm pleased it made you chuckle, Elaine, especially as I started off by reminding you of how this year might have been, but for the weather.

    Speaking of which, we have just had a 15 minute deluge. I've never seen anything like it. The newly seeded lawns are giant puddles - I suppose the seed will germinate somewhere it shouldn't now! Thankfully the surface water started to drain away as soon as the rain stopped.

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  7. I love this plant too... and my chickens can't get enough of it when they escape from their enclosure! There's no chance of this at the moment, however, as there is a moat around the pen!

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    1. i didn't realise that the chickens would love it too! Mind you, our chickens aren't getting a look-in on the Leycesteria formosa at the moment as the blackbirds are getting the best pickings.

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  8. Oh, one of my favourite shrubs. I'm so glad you're growing it in your Norfolk garden. Took a few attempts to get it into my garden, but it's growing happily now, and I wouldn't be without one. I didn't see the TV programme, what had they got against it ? Which programme was it, and who was the presenter ? Shame on them.

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    1. Shame indeed! It was a few years ago so hopefully time and experience has taught them to recognise a great shrub when they see one.

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  9. And it grows well even up here in Aberdeen. Thoroughly enjoyed your post and it lifted my spirits no end.

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  10. Great blog enjoyed it!!!! Cam

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  11. Leycesteria Formosa is an attractive plant with with pretty flowers, i havn't seen it before, does it have a perfume? Sometimes people bag other peoples plants because they have nothing better to say, and that doesn't say much about them.

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  12. Hi Karen, it doesn't have a perfume, but it has just about everything else!

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