As gardeners here at Chartwell we are always available to field any queries while we work that our visitors have for us as they spend time in Churchill’s gardens. There are also certain questions that we have accepted we will be asked on a regular basis, often several times a day. These range from location-based inquiries about parts of the garden such as ‘where is the wall that Churchill built?’ (Answer: it surrounds the Walled Garden where a plaque about it can also be found) to general questions about the garden itself such as ‘how big is it?’ (92 acres) or ‘how many gardeners are there?’ (5 full time, 3 part time, 2 trainees plus our many valuable volunteers). We also get asked advice about garden techniques from lawn care to watering to mulching, but probably the most common questions are usually about the identity of a particular plant that is looking good at that moment.
Any gardener working in the Walled Garden recently cannot failed to have noticed that one of those plants that is attracting many questions, along with plenty of admiring looks, right now is our Alstroemeria patch in the cut flower area. More specifically known as Alstroemeria ligtu ‘Hybrids’, they are among the showiest of perennials as they flower over a long Summer period. Their common names include Peruvian Lily or Lily of the Incas so you won’t be surprised to hear that they are native to South America.
As well as their long flowering period and amazing display of colour, our Alstroemerias don’t take up much of our time and so are very easy to manage. There is a myth that they need a lot of water but ours sit in full sun every day and we never sprinkle a drop of water on them all Summer long. They are also hardy enough to withstand everything that the harsh Kentish Winters have thrown at us over the last few years with nary a complaint. They are happy in a wide range of soils from sandy to heavy clay and can reach up to 60cm in height with an individual spread of up to 75cm. They flower equally well no matter what aspect they are facing, whether they are sheltered or exposed or what the pH of the soil they are growing in is. All you have to do once flowering is finished is pull away the old stems leaving the tubers in the ground and wait for a repeat performance again next year. Perfect!
Alstroemeria are described by the RHS as “fleshy rooted herbaceous perennials forming spreading clumps of erect stems bearing narrowly lance-shaped leaves, with umbels of showy funnel-shaped flowers in summer” but that doesn’t really do them justice. I see them as an explosion of floral fireworks or a pack of surreal Chinese dragons that cannot fail to brighten up the garden, looking almost good enough to eat in fact! They have the wow factor from a distance but also amaze the viewer when you get up close and personal for a better look too. As the only real problem might be one of minor slug damage in wet years there shouldn’t be much to spoil your view either.
The Alstroemeria genus was named after the Swedish baron Clas Alströmer (1736 – 1794) by his close friend and important botanist Carolus Linnaeus. It was an English man of Dutch origin however, named John Goemans (often cited as ‘the father of Alstroemerias’), that first started breeding them in 1948.
When planting Alstroemerias from scratch you should plant the tubers quite deep, up to 20cm in late Summer or early Autumn. Young plants are best left undisturbed to form clumps. It is advisable to mulch for at least the first two Winters to protect and nourish the tubers below. Established clumps can be divided in Autumn or very early Spring. Once you have them established in a spot it might be tricky to remove them again so make sure you pick your location carefully. They spread very slowly and so are not invasive but it is very hard to completely remove them from an area as new plants will grow from small sections of root left in the soil. Seeing as they are so beautiful however, I don’t see that as being too much of a problem!
Not only do they look good in the ground, they also make fantastic cut flowers which last for a couple of weeks in the vase. If you pull them as you would a rhubarb stem rather than cutting them they will continue to produce more flowers and therefore dazzle for even longer. They also don’t drop their pollen or stigmas like many cut flowers do so there is no real reason not to grow them in my book! Make sure you pay a visit to us here soon where you can enjoy them for yourself in the gardens and the house alike…