Tag Archives: National Trust

Do You Dig Our Digitalis?

Take a good close look inside a Foxglove flower to glimpse its true beauty

Take a good close look inside a Foxglove flower to glimpse its true beauty

With the weather really hotting up right now, it feels like Summer is certainly doing its best to take a hold here at Chartwell. This means that most of the Spring flowers and blooms like Tulips, Daffs, Bluebells and the like have done their turn and given way to the huge array of Summer colour that will soon be completely filling Churchill’s gardens. There are a few plants however that straddle the seasons and one of the best at doing that at the moment is the humble Foxglove, or Digitalis purpurea.

White Foxgloves reach for the sky from the aptly named Foxglove Bed!

White Foxgloves reach for the sky from the aptly named Foxglove Bed!

Foxgloves are classed as a short-lived perennial or more commonly as a biennial. We sow ours indoors in the Summer, grow them on, prick them out and pot them on before planting them out in the Autumn where they happily overwinter before blooming the following Spring. The resulting plant can self seed freely if allowed to but when the resulting flowers are as pretty as they are, who cares?! As you can see from the picture above, we actually have a small area of the garden behind the Golden Orfe Pond actually called the Foxglove Bed that is filled with gorgeous spires of white Foxgloves every year. They really sing out from this dark, shady spot but they are certainly not the only examples within the Chartwell boundaries as you will see throughout this blog post.

The Bomb Crater in the Chartwell woods looks even better studded with Foxgloves

The Bomb Crater in the Chartwell woods looks even better studded with Foxgloves

Digitalis purpurea was named by the Swedish botanist Carl Linnaeus in 1753 in his important publication ‘Species Plantarum’. The Genus name Digitalis comes from the Latin for finger (digitus), referring to the shape of the flowers. The species name purpurea simply refers to the colour of the flowers of the wild form, which are frequently purple (although a white-flowered form is also fairly common). OK, so Digitalis purpurea is the latin or botanical name and Foxglove is the common name but were you aware of the sheer number of other common names by which this plant can be known as?

Bloody bells
Bloody finger
Cow flop
Dead man’s bells
Dog’s lugs
Dragon’s mouth
Fairy bells
Fairy fingers
Fairy gloves
Fairy thimbles
Fairy’s cap
Fairy’s petticoat
Fairy’s thimble
Finger flower
Flap dock
Folk’s gloves
Fox finger
Gloves of Mary
Lady’s fingers
Lady’s gloves
Lady’s thimble
Lion’s mouth
Lusmore
Lustmore
Pop dock
Thimble finger
Thimble flower
Throat root
Witches’ bells
Witches’ fingers
Witches’ gloves
Witches’ thimbles

Blimey! I’m not sure what the World record is for number of common names but that’s got to be up there, surely?

In the Cut Flower area of the Walled Garden you will find this 'Apricot' variety...

In the Cut Flower area of the Walled Garden you will find this ‘Apricot’ variety…

...and this glorious 'Pam's Choice'

…and this glorious ‘Pam’s Choice’

Foxgloves are a source of digitoxin, a chemical used in the drug ‘Digitalis’, which has been used as a heart stimulant since as early as 1785. Although normally made using Digitalis lanata leaves, D. purpurea use is not unknown. They are also well-known for their toxicity, and ingestion of the leaves can result in severe poisoning. Despite this toxicity, they have been widely used in folk-medicine throughout the ages. Foxglove Tea (an infusion of the leaves) was taken for colds, fevers and catarrh, and compresses were used for ulcers, swellings and bruises. The Foxglove’s most common use however was as a diuretic against dropsy (an accumulation of fluid in the tissues), for which it was sometimes effective, but occasionally proved fatal! William Withering, an 18th century botanist and physician, discovered that an infusion of the leaves of Foxgloves could slow and strengthen the heartbeat, which in turn stimulated the kidneys to clear the body and lungs of excess fluid. He also showed that Foxglove leaves could be used in the treatment of heart failure, but that high doses could also stop the heart!

More white Foxgloves loom majestically at the back of the Herbaceous Border

More white Foxgloves loom majestically at the back of the Herbaceous Border

Van Gogh is said to have taken Foxglove tincture as a treatment for his epilepsy and art historians believe that the yellow haze that this could cause in the sight of patients for this type of treatment may be responsible for the appearance of many of his yellow dominated paintings. Back in 1554, Nicholas Culpeper (an English botanist, herbalist, physician, and astrologer) said that “foxglove was one of the best remedies for a scabby head”! So now you know! In Roman mythology, Flora, the Goddess of fields, crops and flowers, placed a foxglove blossom on Juno’s stomach causing her to instantly conceive. She went from Flora’s garden to the shoreline and gave birth to Mars. In Scandinavia, they say that foxes were saved by the fairies from extinction when the fairies gave them the secret of how to ring the Foxglove bells to warn other foxes of approaching hunters. The foxes were also said to put on these flower gloves so that they would tread more softly among the chicken roosts to capture an unsuspecting hen or rooster. In Wales, Foxgloves were called Goblin’s Gloves and was said to attract the hobgoblins who wore the long bells on their fingers as gloves that imparted magical properties.

Paths in the Chartwell estate are lined with purple Foxgloves

Paths in the Chartwell estate are lined with purple Foxgloves

So whether you believe any of that Foxglove folklore or not, be sure to hurry along to Chartwell soon to catch this year’s crop before they disappear again until next Spring…

Jamie

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Ellie & Agnes Who?

Elaeagnus 'Quicksilver' along the entrance path at Chartwell

Elaeagnus ‘Quicksilver’ along the entrance path at Chartwell

Although here in the gardens of the Churchill family we are rightly proud of all of the plants in our collection, at various times of the year, us gardeners will be asked by our visitors for the identity of a core group of recurring plants. During the Summer it might be the Phytolacca americana in the Herbaceous Border with its corn on the cob-like purple fruits. During mid Spring it might be the masses of white flowers of our Exochorda macrantha bushes on the Kitchen Garden banks that catch the eye. And in the depths of Winter the alien seed heads of our recently introduced Cardiocrinum giganteum might be stealing the show. Right now however, the delightful vanillary scent of the yellow flowers of our Elaeagnus ‘Quicksilver’ plants are grabbing a great deal of the horticultural headlines.

It really is a shame that scratch and sniff computer screens haven't been invented yet!

It really is a shame that scratch and sniff computer screens haven’t been invented yet!

Also known as the Silver Bush or Wolf Willow, this Elaeagnus originated in England as a chance hybrid seedling, recognized and named by celebrated British plantsman Roy Lancaster. Roy actually suggests that he thinks it may be a hybrid between Elaeagnus angustifolius and Elaeagnus commutata.

Popular with bees as well as human Chartwell visitors!

Popular with bees as well as human Chartwell visitors!

E. ‘Quicksilver’ displays striking silvery foliage on this deciduous, fast-growing shrub. It likes a fertile, well drained soil in full sun, and works well as a specimen plant, or in a shrub border. It can tolerate open or sheltered sites and grows just as well in clay, sandy or loamy soils of virtually any pH. It is considered drought resistant and also thrives in salty coastal conditions, requiring little or no maintenance, although it can reach up to 8ft in height and spread if left completely to its own devices.

We have another group of 'Quicksilver' bushes near the Croquet Lawn overlooking our Orchard

We have another group of ‘Quicksilver’ bushes near the Croquet Lawn overlooking our Orchard

‘Quicksilver’ has none of the hazardous spines of E. angustifolia and it is sterile which means that won’t seed itself about like other Elaeagnus shrubs. Although it can sucker itself, it doesn’t do this too vigorously and so doesn’t run around where it isn’t wanted. If I may keep singing its praises, it is also deer-proof, fixes atmospheric nitrogen and can also be pruned back hard to form an attractive silver dome!

The silver leaves are matched only by the golden hues of the young stems

The stunning silver leaves are matched only by the golden hues of the young stems

Anyway, don’t take my word for all this, come and have a look and a smell for yourselves and enjoy one of the unsung heroes of the gardens of this country…

Jamie

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An Azara Amongst The Azaleas

The oft-overlooked Azalea Banks at Chartwell

The oft-overlooked Azalea Banks at Chartwell

Everyone who comes and pays us a visit here at Chartwell will have their favourite part of the gardens, probably depending on what time of year they dropped in. For some it might be a walk in the woods or a mooch around the Kitchen Garden while for others the blooms within Lady Churchill’s Rose Garden or the views from the Top Terrace might be highlighted. But not many people will perhaps put forward the Azalea Banks which at this moment especially is a great shame. As you leave the driveway in front of the house via the far roadside corner and head down towards the Croquet Lawn, most peoples’ eyes will be drawn by the Croquet Lawn itself and the sweeping views of the Kent Weald beyond. But turn your head 90 degrees and you will see the part of the garden I’m talking about. The grassy banks don’t lead anywhere, apart from our dark and dingy long-term compost bays which are chained off from the public (don’t worry, you’re not missing much!) but a little amble around this area might just be worth your while.

Rhododendron 'Magnifica'

Rhododendron ‘Magnifica’

Of course, the name ‘Azalea Bank’ itself throws up the old question, “what is the difference between a Rhododendron and an Azalea”? Well, all Azaleas are actually Rhododendrons BUT not all Rhododendrons are Azaleas. Confused? Rhododendron is a genus (a group of plants with shared characteristics) and Azaleas are a group within that genus, rather than forming a genus of their own. To clarify a little more, an Azalea has 5 stamens (pollen-producing reproductive organ of a flower) while other Rhododendrons have 10 or more. Furthermore, Azaleas are often smaller and may be deciduous or evergreen while other Rhododendrons are all evergreen. Either way, the Rhododendrons in the Azalea Bank beds are looking blooming marvelous right now as you will see above and below…

Rhododendron 'Daviesii'

Rhododendron ‘Daviesii’

Rhododendron 'Irene Koster'

Rhododendron ‘Irene Koster’

Stunning as they are though, it wasn’t these Rhodies that prompted me to write this particular blog entry. No, there is another plant in this area that is just as pretty, just as interesting and a lot less well known. The other day I was in the gardens with a visiting friend of mine, a gardener from nearby National Trust property Scotney Castle and he asked what the yellow flowered shrubs against the wall here were. And the answer was Azara serrata. Heard of it? If you have, well done! But if you haven’t I wouldn’t be surprised.

Twin Azara serrata shrubs on the Azalea Banks

Twin Azara serrata shrubs on the Azalea Banks

The name may sound like a Harry Potter spell, but these shrubs originally from the also lesser known Flacourtiaceae family but now re-housed in the Salicaceae family, come originally from Chile, not Hogwarts! Also known as the Saw-toothed Azara, these shrubs may look fairly innocuous for most of the year, but right now they are flowering their South American socks off, covered in masses of fragrant, intricate bright yellow blooms. In fact, the sweet chocolatey scent can be smelled from some distance away.

Blue and yellow.  Good colour combo!

Blue and yellow. Good colour combo!

One of the few fully hardy South American shrubs, Azaras are in fact reasonably common in large collections of plants open to the public but virtually unheard of in private gardens. Which is a shame because after hot summers these shrubs can also have a show of round white berries to extend their season of interest. They prefer moist, fertile, humus-rich soil where possible and even grow with their roots permanently in water in their native Chile where they are called ‘Corcolén’ or ‘Aromo de Castilla’. They tolerate full sun but are equally happy in part or full shade, mimicking their woodland habitat of origin.

Our Azaras are offered good shelter from the Chartwell roadside wall

Our Azaras are offered good shelter by the Chartwell roadside wall

In 1794 the genus of Azara was named after Félix de Azara (1742 – 1821), a Spanish geographer and naturalist who did fieldwork in South America from 1781 to 1796. Azara serrata was discovered and named in the same year by Hipólito Ruiz López and José Antonio Pavón Jiménez who are jointly cited as the authors of many botanical names. Between 1779 and 1788 these Spanish botanists (together with the French botanist Joseph Dombey) visited Chile, Peru and other South American countries, discovering many new plants. Why not do some plant hunting of your own and come and discover us here at Chartwell soon…!

Jamie

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How The Mighty Have (Nearly) Fallen

Down but not out

Down but not out

Regular readers with an elephantine memory may remember a post I produced back at the start of January about some of the damage the gardens here at Chartwell had suffered as a result of the Christmas storms. Well, although one of our more treasured trees managed to survive that festive battering, it did unfortunately fall foul of some high winds a little later on in the Winter. The constant heavy rain we’ve experienced over the last 12 months certainly wouldn’t have helped either, but a few weekends ago an ancient Field Maple tree (Acer campestre) in the Parkland on the other side of the lakes sadly lost some major sections.

Our Field Maple in all it's glory last Summer

Our Field Maple in all it’s glory last Summer

Sir Winston Churchill himself would have enjoyed the view of this tree during his tenure at Chartwell. In fact we think that the tree was probably introduced by the previous owner, John Campbell Colquhoun, who was a keen planter of trees as you can read about in this here blog from January 2013. Because of the historic nature of it, we are keen not to lose the tree entirely. With this in mind we have decided to try and preserve the old girl, instead of removing the remaining sections as perhaps we might have done in another instance. Steve, our Estate Supervisor, is particularly fond of it and wants to make sure that our visitors can keep enjoying this Field Maple for years to come.

Our Acer campestre in the Parkland has been fenced off

Our Acer campestre in the Parkland has been fenced off

The Estate team of Steve, Ben and Georgie together with some help from a bunch of hardy volunteers have therefore been spending quite some time erecting a permanent fence around the Acer campestre, constructed themselves out of spare and coppiced timber. The benefits of this are that it keeps our visitors safe from any further falling branches as well as protecting the tree itself from any undue human (or indeed bovine when the field is used to graze cattle) intervention.

Steve, Ben and Georgina, our Estate team here at Chartwell, hard at work building the new fence

Steve, Ben and Georgina, our Estate team here at Chartwell, hard at work building the new fence

Two of our volunteers, Chris and Howard, doing their bit

Two of our volunteers, Chris and Howard, doing their bit

The tree itself doesn’t appear to have split because of any disease that we can see. It seems as though it is simply old age combined with the accumulative effects of the nasty weather that has done for the poor old Maple. It comes to us all I suppose! We plan to plant some young Acer campestre saplings in and around our exisiting specimen so that when it does finally fall there will be a new generation waiting to take its place. In the meantime, the area inside our new fence will be planted up with wildflowers to make a feature of the site that plenty of visitors will walk past on their way up to the woods.

This split in the trunk was observed and noted as part of last year's tree safety surveys

This split in the trunk was observed and noted as part of last year’s tree safety surveys

This picture clearly shows the extent of the rotten trunk

This picture clearly shows the extent of the rotten trunk

The name Acer means “sharp” or “pungent” and campestre means “of fields”. Acer campestre is actually the only native Maple tree in the UK. Also known as the Cat Oak or Dog Oak, the Field Maple can reach up to 90ft in height in an ideal situation. Good for wildlife and easily grown, this vibrant native tree has autumn foliage which turns a beautiful clear yellow, or sometimes flushed with red. A good foraging tree, supporting over 50 species of wildlife, the small flowers are attractive to bees and insects, whilst the seeds are eaten by mammals such as wood mice and bank voles.

This shot of the grand old trunk was taken before the recent damage

This shot of the grand old trunk was taken before the recent damage

In folklore the Field Maple is associated with the heart and love and is said to bring contentment to those with heavy responsibilities. Carrying a child around this tree or passing it through the branches was also believed to bring long life to the youngster. In Alsatian folklore it was said that bringing branches of field maple into the house would protect against bats and keep nesting storks safe from disturbance! Very handy, I’m sure you’ll agree. The wood of the Field Maple is traditionally used to the turning of masers, or mazers, the ceremonial drinking bowls associated with the ritual of wassailing. In fact, Acer campestre is sometimes called the Maser Tree.

This new fence should help preserve the poor old Acer for years to come...

This new fence should help preserve the poor old Acer for years to come…

...and keep our visitors safe from further falling branches

…and keep our visitors safe from further falling branches

In medicine a concoction made from the sap of the Field Maple has been used to treat sore eyes, and the astringent bark used to cure gallstones and high cholesterol. Like all Maples, the sap contains sugar, which can be concentrated into a syrup or used as a sweetener for food. It can also be used to make wine. I’ve not tasted it but if anyone wants to offer me some I’ll certainly give it a go! The wood of the Field Maple is fine-grained but the trees are too small to supply large pieces of timber. It takes a high polish however, so is valued by cabinet makers and wood turners. It has an attractive curving pattern of growth rings and has long been used to make musical instruments, such as violins and cellos. Harps have been made from it since Saxon times and in fact a harp frame made from Field Maple was found in the Sutton Hoo ship burial. Field maple is efficient as firewood and also makes good charcoal while the roots of the tree are sometimes used to make snuff boxes or pipes.

Jamie

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Question Time

green-question-mark

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.

The sun sets over our cut flower area

The sun sets over our cut flower area

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.

One of the first things you see as you enter the walled garden...

One of the first things you see as you enter the walled garden…

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!

Awesome in orange

Awesome in orange

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.

Pretty in pink

Pretty in pink

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.

Super in Salmon

Super in Salmon

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!

Even the bees love it!

Even the bees love it!

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…

Jamie

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