This blog is usually filled with plants that excite me or dazzle or mystify me. But today is different because I have come over all sensible and I am going to focus on three plants that are useful but are not the sort of things that have you running for the beta-blockers! In fact they are all pretty soporific but they have their uses and sometimes their moments of glory and that reflects life really – lots of unmemorable moments studded with highlights – a bit like picking the green triangles out of a tin of Quality Street.
Warning – lots of words ahead
First of all (above) we have the ‘useful’ Viburnum davidii, (which, in this photo, looks as though it is waiting to jump out and mug a passing daffodil). This is a wonderful shrub on paper – just it is not quite as good in person. It was introduced from China by EH Wilson in 1904 and it is a low, spreading, evergreen shrub. The opposite leaves are deep, green and leathery in texture and have three distinct veins along their length. The leaves can be 15cm long and have attractive red petioles (leaf stalks). It is no beauty in flower when you consider how gorgeous some of the other species can be. The small clusters of white, scentless, tubular flowers are almost an embarrassment. But the shrub is saved from ridicule by the berries which are deep metallic blue and lift it from being a so-so shrub to a real event in the garden.
But there is a problem.
This viburnum is dioecious, meaning that plants are male OR female and if you only have a male plant or a single spinster sitting there for decades looking as fulfilled as Miss Haversham you will not get even a glimpse of this potential beauty. And what makes matters worse is that I have never seen ‘sexed’ plants for sale. The horticultural industry does some good things but why oh why, when the whole point of this plant is the berries, do we not get the chance to see them?
Anyway, without berries this is a dull old thing, especially when planted in shade, which it will tolerate. It can then be a bit loose in habit- almost scrawny – and look as unloved and dusty as that spare loo roll on top of the bathroom cabinet. The plant above was growing in full sun and is as good as it gets really – neat, shiny and very effectively covering the ground with permanent cover. It prefers acid soil (so why not plant a rhododendron or azalea) and will not tolerate waterlogged soils. If I have not quite discouraged you yet then you could try V. cinnamomifolium which is similar but bigger and it grows a bit faster. The leaves are also a bit shinier and although it also has blue berries these are as likely to be seen as a happy drinker after a budget.
Something else that I find curious is that viburnums, along with loniceras and sambucus, used to be happy members of the family Caprifoliaceae. But they have now been moved to the family Adoxaceae. I am usually compliant when it comes to the machinations of bored botanists who, having come back from their sardine sandwiches and chamomile tea on a Friday lunchtime suddenly realise they have to do something before clocking off for the week and come up with some ridiculous name changes. The changes, these days, are usually the result of some DNA analysis and not obvious to us mere mortals who lack the visual acuity of Superman. But why oh why have these shrubs been moved to a family that has, as its type genus – Adoxa moschatellina – the five-faced bishop (I didn’t make that name up)! This inconspicuous plant has green flowers but is noteworthy for its flowers being arranged rather like ‘Big Ben’ (yes I know that is the bell but I really mean the ‘clock tower’ or St Stephen’s Tower, now called the Elizabeth Tower). There is one green, four-petalled flower facing upwards and under that four, five petalled flowers facing at right angles to make a strange green cube. How this is even vaguely like a honeysuckle or viburnum is quite beyond me.
And so I move on to another green plant and one that can be a nuisance and has also suffered from a name change, though a bit longer ago. It used to be Euphorbia robbiae and has the common name of Mrs. Robb’s bonnet, which was nice since it was said to have been brought to the UK in Mrs. Robb’s hat box. I am not sure who Mrs. Robb was but I assume she looked resplendent in her hat as she travelled – or like Worzel Gummidge when she put her hat on when she got home. But now we have to call it Euphorbia amygdaloides var. robbiae. Like many shrubby euphorbias it has biennial stems. In the first year they grow to about 20cm high and make attractive whorls of deep green, lustrous leaves. In spring the second year the centres erupt in a fit of excitement and the reddish stems more than double their height and are sprinkled in lime green bracts. The contrast is beautiful. As the flowers fade, aphids move in and sticky honeydew coats the leaves, making them even more shiny. At this stage, if you have time, it is worth cutting all the flowered stems out, taking care with the white, irritant sap of course. If you don’t, the bracts change to brown, through yellow, but then the dead stems spoil the effect the next spring, as you can see in the photo above.
This is an easy plant that will grow in sun or shade and it makes excellent ground cover, even in dry soils and under trees. It creeps along the soil and sends up stems in wide swathes. It could be considered invasive but it is too slow and too attractive to be a nuisance.
And lastly, ivy (Hedera helix) which I will not pontificate about. It is one of the few native evergreens in the British Isles and is so often seen as a villain. It is extraordinarily variable and, in my youth, I used to collect forms with different leaf shapes but I discovered that they nearly always changed to more or less plain ivy when I grew them on. Even so there are dozens of ornamental ivies that are useful in the garden. Some make good ground cover in dense shade but if they get a chance and find something vertical they always make a dash for the sun. Gardeners often loathe ivy but like so many plants it is not the plant that is bad, just the way it is used.