What makes a good plant? Certainly a good plant can be judged by different sets of standards. For a nursery, a good plant is easy to propagate, quick to reach a saleable size and cheap to produce. If it appeals to the buying public then all the better. For a garden centre a good plant is easy to look after, looks presentable for the longest time and, ideally, sells so fast it does not have to be watered or have dead flower picked off! But for the gardener, none of these matter as much, apart from the plant looking good. Which brings us to one of the Garden Centre dilemmas: how should you arrange plants? When I had dark hair, in the garden centre I worked at*, the plants were in alphabetical order. The plants were easy to find. But only if you knew what you wanted. So it is tempting to have benches with ‘plants for uses’ such as ‘fragrant’ or ‘good for wildlife’ or‘clay soils’ or ‘chalky soils’ to guide customers to the right plant. The big trouble with this is that most plants, thankfully, straddle two or more of these groups. Buddleia davidii could go on any one of these benches. So how does a customer find the plants? And at this time of year, when garden centre customers are more interested in coffee and biscuits shaped like pumpkins** and it is hard to get them to venture outside. Anything with a hint of a flower or berry is placed at the entrance for fear of customers having to burn off any calories venturing out. Packing all your colour in one place can leave not much for the rest of the benches, though it undoubtedly boosts sales among those who still have a free hand after lugging their pumpkin around.
So what has this to do with Lonicera nitida ‘Baggesens Gold’? Well here is a shrub that nurseries must love because it is so easy to grow and propagate – branches will even root where they touch the soil. It is easy to look after in garden centes and could be placed on almost any sales bench without fear of contradiction. And yet it is seen as incredibly dull.
Quite how an evergreen with bright yellow leaves and translucent purple berries can be described as such seems incredibly unfair yet it is how a colleague described it – yes you Peter. But it is not really the fault of the plant, rather the way it is used.
Plain Lonicera nitida is a good, reliable evergreen with pairs of oval, dark green leaves with a glossy surface (nitida means shining). It throws up long shoots from the base with sidehoots, of decreasing length, along the whole stem. If left unpruned these sideshoots produce pairs of tiny cream flowers that are recognisably honeysuckles and they are followed by bright purple, translucent berries that we would all get excited about if they were twice the size (they are just 6mm across) or if the leaves fell off to expose them. It was introduced from its native China by Wilson in 1908.
It will grow on almost any soil, in sun or part shade, making a lolloping lump 2m high and wide. Often planted as a hedge, Lonicera nitida, is a good choice if the ultimate height is 1m or so. Because the stems are pliable and not rigid it can lean and be unable to support itself if much taller. The other big problem is that it does not know when to stop growing so needs trimming three or four times a year to keep it neat. On the plus side, if it gets bare at the base or damaged you can prune it down to 10cm in spring and it will bounce back to 1m in a season.
‘Baggesens Gold’ has all these attributes plus bright foliage colour. It has a slightly lower habit than the species and was introduced by Niels Baggesen of Pembury, Kent. Just one yellow shoot appeared in his rows of Lonicera nitida and it was propagated, sometime between the Second World War and 1967. He apparently proposed it to the RHS for an AGM but was always turned down. Hos two sons joined him on the nursery and it was only after the nursery closed in 1970 that the plant became popular and it was not until 1993 that it finally got its AGM.
In shade it will be lime green, in full sun bright yellow and, if too sunny and dry the leaves get bleached creamy white – not altogether unpleasant but I hate to see a plant distressed. The habit of the plant is to throw its arms willy and nilly and make an erratic shape, the older stems eventually succumbing to gravity as they are weighed down by ever more sideshoots. It is inevitable that the ‘tidy’ gardener then goes out and clips it into a ball, or cube. Regularly trimmed back to the same shape, the bare middle is exposed and the plant no longer shows the promise it once had. It is far better to hard prune every few years, let it think it has its way, then control it. You then get a feathery outline, brightest leaves and minimum work.
But not every plant has to win and Oscar – supporting rolls are just as important in the garden.
I think it is when it is used as a foil for other plants that it is used to its best. Having a rather undefined outline and with tiny leaves, it is the perfect companion plant. This is enhanced by it being yellow all year round – what better plant can there be to set off red and orange flowers or pure blues. Whether orange geums, dahlias in summer or red berries and hips in autumn (Rosa glauca would be nice), there are endless possibilities.
Use the plant as the frame to set off your most skillful artistry. Plant a clematis at the base. To make life as easy as possible, plant a late-flowering ‘viticella’ type that will fling itself up in early summer and relax over the top in August to bloom in the sunshine. If your soil suits, how about Tropaeolum speciosum with ridiculously vivid red flowers in August.
Of course, it is all in the growing. In the photo above, our subject is used as a background for orange roses but just because the lonicera will grow anywhere and with little attention it does not mean that everything else will. Good soil, feeding and lots of mulch would help these roses shine.
* The garden centre was Knights Garden Centre near Oxted, Surrey. Next year is their 75th anniversary and I am going to be involved in some way, having been asked to help by Richard Knight who kindly reminded me that I was there almost at the beginning!
** I know I am being ridiculously optimistic here – they are already after mince pies and baubles.