After a day of strong winds and a nasty, cold, wet morning the sun finally made an appearance this afternoon, but it was not enough to tempt those spring flowers, that need the warmth of the sun to convince them it is safe to open, to unfurl their buds. Crocus stayed as shut as a pub on Good Friday (in Ireland) and daffodils had their open blooms smashed against the soil to tease the slugs. But Corydalis solida, with its tubular flowers above ferny leaves, was shaken but never stirred and was as pretty today as it was yesterday.
Corydalis solida is a great little plant. I first make its acquaintance decades ago when it was in a garden I was looking after. It grew in a wet meadow and had seeded into wet and dry parts and in spring was glorious, covering bare soil and growing in grass in sun and shade. It is a wonderful plant for naturalising and the smoky pink flowers above greyish, delicate leaves are a perfect combination.
Sadly, corydalis suffer the same fate as some other plants where the family contains a black sheep that gets all the attention! Often these ‘bad ‘uns’ are not really bad at all – just misunderstood – and the ‘bad’ corydalis is C. lutea. This short-lived perennial from Northern Italy has spread around the globe and it can seed itself into every nook and cranny of your garden which has not yet been invaded by Alchemilla mollis (they look good together actually). Growing in sun or shade, it blooms from spring to autumn, each yellow flower making seeds to grow elsewhere. So do not plant it where its 30cm height and width may be a problem. But elsewhere, enjoy it because this is a really beautiful and easy plant and every garden needs a few plants that grow themselves and can be pulled out if they get too vigorous. With delicate, ferny leaves it is a great mixer and is the perfect partner for hostas and ferns and looks wonderful on and in walls.
The recently popularised C. flexuosa clones, with amazing blue flowers but rather odd and rude dormancy habits, often disappearing underground when you least expect it, have given the genus a boost but I can still imagine the conversations at the garden centre: ‘Oh I must have one of those. It is so pretty and such a lovely shade of blue’. ‘Yes, dear? what is it?’ ‘Ahh the label says it is a – how do you say this – cory – coryd – corydalis. I have never heard of that’. ‘Oh no, put it down. I had one in my garden once and it went mad. That Mrs. Davenport from Andover gave me a pot of it and I regretted it immediately. It grew everywhere and we had to concrete the whole garden to get rid of it!’
And Corydalis solida will seed around but it is so pretty and so refined, plus it dies down in May to leave room for other plants, that you must get some for your own shady spot. This species is native to Northern Europe and is a natural woodlander. The round tubers should be planted in autumn about 5cm deep in any soil as long as it is not waterlogged. The stems appear in early March as are in bloom in a few weeks after that. I have planted it in beds and in grass. The typical colour is smoky rose but there are a couple of commonly available cultivars or strains that are worth seeking out and a lot more, newer, seriously gorgeous cultivars that are worth paying big bucks for. But start with something cheaper first! Apart from the standard species the two you may find easily are ‘Beth Evans’ and ‘GP Baker’ (‘George Baker’). ‘GP Baker’ is one of those plants you cannot miss in the garden – the colour, so often described as ‘brick red’ screams at you. They must be red hot bricks straight out of the kiln. My only concern about it is that it is so bright it is hard to find a good partner for it unless you go for the default option in all these cases and plump for good old black ophiopogon!
‘Beth Evans’ is much easier to fit into the garden, with bright pink blooms. Apparently ‘Beth’ arose as a clonal selection of a German strain raised by Wilhelm Schact called Speciosa. I am not sure who Beth was but her namesake is a real beauty.
‘Beth Evans’ and ‘GP Baker’ are widely available though not as cheap as straight C. solida. You may find them now, as growing plants, in garden centres.
For a superb range of amazing cultivars look at http://www.rareplants.co.uk but get someone to hide your credit card first!