Taxus baccata

Yew hedge at Warwick

Yew hedge at Warwick

The Yew tree is an easily recognisable plant of gardens and the countryside, being one of the few native British plants to be widely grown as an ornamental plant. It is a very adaptable plant growing in most situations with the exception of water logged ground and it responds very well to cutting. This, with its dense evergreen foliage has made a very popular material for hedging and topiary. It is also said it is slow growth is an advantage as it reduces the amount of cutting needed but it is not nearly as slow as is sometimes made out. Young plants can make 20 to 30 cm of growth a year; only slowing with age, as we all do!

Taxus baccata foliage

Taxus baccata foliage

Many selections have been made of Yew including fastigiated and variegated ones but it is still at its most impressive as a green hedge where it does an excellent job of defining spaces and providing a foil to the more colourful occupants of the garden. If planting it as a hedge make sure to prepare the site well, necessary with any hedge, and make sure the soil drains freely; even if this means installing drainage. Its dense evergreen foliage forms a very long lived hedge even in the shade and it has been said a yew hedge has a longer working life than a brick wall. The other advantage over a brick wall is its adaptability; creating a new opening in a wall is difficult and will always show up while with a yew hedge a saw and hedge clippers is all that is needed. Once the new opening is made the plants will soon break away as it happily forms new shoots from the old wood and so heal the wound made.

Taxus baccata 'Fastigiata'

Taxus baccata ‘Fastigiata’

It is remarkably good at growing away from old wood, I’ve seen yew trees cut down to ground level and shoot away from the stump. Hawthorn is the only other plant I know with such a strong regenerative ability. This is a very un-conifer like characteristic, but yews are not very conifer like though there appears know doubt that it should be classed as one.

Though now the yews are seen mainly as garden plants; it has been an important plant to humans for a long time. The Yew combines great long levity with a valuable wood which was prized was making bows, the most valuable weapon for most of human history. The ancient Greeks called the yew τόξο (or toxo) and the Romans called the yew taxus. As with any plant with such an important and long history with humanity a lot of superstitions have grown up around it, and this can be seen in its importance to druids and its presence in church yards. The Fortingall Yew at over 2000 years old is believed to be the oldest tree in Britian and grows in the churchyard of the village Fortingall in Perthshire.

Taxus baccata 'Elegantissima'

Taxus baccata ‘Elegantissima’

In 1753 Linnaeus named the Yew Taxus baccata L. in the second volume of “Species plantarum” the Taxus from the Latin for yew and the baccata from the Latin for berry after the distinctive red fleshy arils which enclose the black seed and look like berries.  It is only this red fleshy fruit-like part of the yew which is not poisonous as all other parts of the plants can kill humans if sufficient is eaten. Yew exists as separate male and female plants and so these colourful arils are only found on the female plants. The species Taxus baccata can be found as both male and female plants its cultivars will be only one sex and this should be considered when choosing one.

Fatsia japonica

Fatsia japonica

Fatsia japonica

One of the classic garden plants for shade Fatsia japonica is much admired for its large, glossy, evergreen leaves and easy temperament. It grows happily in any reasonable garden soil and does particularly well in shade, though not so well in dry shade. It is also tolerant of a maritime garden though its large leaves will need some shelter from strong winds. The large fleshy leaves evoke the image of lush tropical rain forests but the plant is reliably hardy, though the result of crossing it with ivy produces the less hardy x Fatshedera lizei. Quickly forming a medium sized shrub with flowers borne on the end of the shoots. The flower buds and white flowers look a lot like a scaled up version of Ivy flowers, appearing in autumn. This late flowering means though the buds are reliably formed in the UK the flowers are often damaged by frost.

Fatsia japonica leaf

Fatsia japonica leaf

Known by a variety of common names including Japanese aralia, castor oil plant, fatsi, fig-leaf palm and glossy-leaved paper plant; F. japonica was originally described by Carl Peter Thunberg in 1780. This followed his trip to Japan where it grows wild and he named it Aralia japonica. It was re-named in 1854 by Joseph Decaisne and Jules Émile Planchon, two botanists working in France. They took it out of they genus Aralia and created the new genus Fatsia for it; so the name is now Fatsia japonica (Thunb.) Decne. & Planch.

In the wild Fatsia japonica is found from central Japan south along the Japanese islands almost to Taiwan and in South Korea. It is sometimes described as a monotypic genus, meaning that there is only one species init, but in fact there is at least two other species of Fatsia, Fatsia oligocarpella Koidz. and Fatsia polycarpa Hayata.

Fatsia japonica 'Variegata'

Fatsia japonica ‘Variegata’

It was introduced to western horticulture in 1838 and though the plain green Fatsia japonicais the one most often seen in gardens others are available and the variegated form Fatsia japonica ‘Variegata’ which has splashes of white on the leaves is worth looking out for.

 

Hydrangea aspera

 

Hydrangea aspera

Hydrangea aspera

The rough leaved Hydrangea is one of the less commonly grown examples of this important genus in our gardens, but makes an excellent addition to the garden. The large velvety leaves provide an attractive display all summer covering this medium sized bush. And come June and July this is topped with dark lilac “lacecap” flowers. As is typical of Hydrangeas Hydrangea aspera D.Don is easily grown and need a shady location, making it ideal in front of a north facing wall or fence, or in the shade from trees. It is a very variable species and some people have questioned its hardiness but I have seen it grown successfully all over the UK. That said it probably benefits from some protection, particularly from strong winds which would damage the leaves, though this protection could easily be provided by the fences around most gardens or by a woodland aspect.

Hydrangea aspera flower

Hydrangea aspera flower

An oriental species it is found growing wild in the Himalayas, West and central China,Taiwan and Myanmar (Burma). It was first described by the Scottish botanist David Don in his 1825 flora of Nepal, placing it in Linnaeus’s genus Hydrangea L. In gardens it is often represented by Hydrangea aspera D.Don ‘Macrophylla’ a sterile selection with large leaves and flowers.

The variability of Hydrangea aspera D.Don, probably due in part to its wide geographical distribution, has lead to a degree of confusion regarding the different subspecies, cultivars, etc. The RHS database lists about 38 different entries under Hydrangea aspera D.Don including several subspecies. I it is doubtful how many of these are valid as the International Plant Names Index (IPNI) does not recognise any valid subspecies of H. aspera,raising them to the level of species.

Hydrangea aspera foliage

Hydrangea aspera foliage

Why do they keep changing plant names?

“That’s right!” shouted Vroomfondel, “we demand rigidly defined areas of doubt and uncertainty!”   

The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams

The argument often made for using scientific plant names is that it provides consistency. If you ask for Alchemilla mollis that is what you’ll get. The problem is you keep finding different people referring to the same plant with different names. The exact opposite of what is wanted and causing confusion and irritation to many gardeners – what we want is clear stable names with no grey areas. Unfortunately “grey areas” are hard wired into the system of naming livings thing.

Wild scottish heather

Wild Scottish heather

The names of all living things, plants, animals, bacteria, politicians (possibly), etc are an attempt by mankind to order the world around us. To look at the state of things that may not seem to obvious a human obsessions but our history is littered with mans attempt to bring order and explanation to the world around him. To this end biologists try to group things in collections of related examples. This lead to plants and animals being divided into separate kingdoms and these were further divided and subdivided so like species were grouped into genera and like genera into families and so on. As this was going on it became clear that the range of species around us had changed over time, or evolved, and so it made sense to reflect these ancestral links in the arrangement of species, etc.

This hit two major stumbling blocks. The first and most obvious was the lack of

Sempervivum cultivar

Sempervivum cultivar

information about these ancestral forms. The vast, vast, VAST majority of species are extinct and lost forever. It needs a very unlikely set of circumstances for a plant or animal to be preserved as a fossil and even then the amount of detail preserved is still very limited. The other problem was how species evolve themselves. Initially it was believed that species were distinct with clear boundaries of some sort separating different species. Then came; Charles Darwin and Alfred Russel Wallace. Few people cannot have heard of Darwin but Wallace deserves his share of the credit for the theory of evolution Darwin explained in his book “The Origin of Species”. What the 50 year old Darwin wrote about was a bloody life and death struggle between all living things. This was the driving force behind the gradual change from one form into a new one. No longer were species entirely separate entities but a snap shot on their evolutionary journey.

So we find ourselves in a situation where it is impossible to have a clear definition of what a species is and nearly all the information we need to arrange the extant species in their places in the evolutionary map is lost for ever. I can best describe the situation thus: imagine you photograph everyone walking down you local high street one Saturday, lay all the pictures out and with only the pictures to go on try and work out not only who is related to who but how closely. I can guarantee you will disagree with who ever you are working with and have to frequently change your mind.

Now for the next question – why don’t we end up changing plant names more often?

The Concise British Flora in Colour by W. Keble Martin

William Keble Martin was an amateur botanist in the must noble tradition of amateurs. That is to say he was not employed as one but was every bit as skilled and dedicated as any “professional” botanists. He was formally trained as a botanist but instead of following this path chose to be ordained and spent his entire working life working as a parish priest.

Throughout his life though he maintained his keen interest in botany and over a period of over sixty years studied and drew over 1400 native British plants in exquisite detail. It was not until he was 88 years old was this collection first published. These days the work of botanical illustrators is over looked, having been pushed aside by the ease, speed and ultimately cost of photography. The draw back of this is that a photograph can only ever be one example of a plant on a particular occasion, but plants are far more viable than this. The blunt tool of the camera can never isolate and capture the spirit or soul of a plant in the way a skilled artist can. Therefore the simple skilled illustrations in this book gives the reader a far clearer understanding of what a plant actually looks like than a “modern” glossy book ever can. I don’t know what lead Rev. Martin t to paint all these plants but I very much doubt anyone will try to repeat his work partly because he has already done it and partly because as he working away, colour photography was evolving from a laboratory experiment into mainstream use.

What he left us was though a remarkable tool for identifying British plants. Some of the names have moved on but still the modern alternative can readily be found by cross referencing with new publications. Sadly this book is no longer in print but can be found ridiculously cheap on the second-hand book market. . In a perfect world a publisher would take these illustrations and re-publisher them with up-to-date names but I don’t imagine the economics of the book world would make this a practical proposition.