Yesterday at the nursery in which I work a small group of locals had congregated for chat, in a socially distanced outdoor space for Covid times . Knowing one or two within the group I joined in, especially as they were talking plants . By way of introduction I was referred to as a collector. I bristled. Yes, I collect plants but I garden! Never a week goes by without further indulgence, but I am in no way tempted to have every Cyclamen, every Fritillaria, every Erythronium; every anything!
One overriding pursuit influences my collecting, and that is to garden; to experiment, to explore, to see what flourishes and what doesn’t; to create interest and glorious pictures.
A newly planted garden is inherently simple. After thirty years curating the same patch of land my garden is anything but simple. It’s always interesting, and hopefully could be considered artistic. Maintenance demands intimate observation and involvement. Yet what joy, what recompense, to see ones creation evolve, assuming its own personality, offering constant surprises.
This is a long preamble to my choice of Epimedium ‘Amber Queen’ as Plant of the Week. Epimediums are currently very popular, indeed fashionable. Antique Perennials nursery offers close to 60 varieties – an opportunity for true collectors. Initially I was reluctant to grow any other than those varieties I was very familiar with – those growing in long-established gardens in the Macedon Ranges – including E.xperralchicum ‘Frohnleiten’, E.perraldianum, E.pinnatum and various cultivars of E.versicolor. These old reliables grow in large swathes, colonising difficult areas of dry shade under umbrageous trees in mature woodland gardens, providing a carpet of constant, fresh green.
There is nothing like a rare plant sale to further tease a collectors trait. Some years ago I bought Epimedium ‘Amber Queen’ from Antique Perennials at such a fair. It was October, and from memory a very dry spring so I decided to keep this treasure in its pot until autumn, rather than planting it out to perish in the full onslaught of the oncoming summer.
My woodland garden at that time was, in all honesty, colonised by many thuggish plants. Not that I am deriding their contribution in any way but my minds eye was beginning to envisage something different – a quieter tapestry – more subtle, stable and persistent, and less water hungry. So my foray into epimediums began. Now I have planted a dozen or so, and they are all doing well mingling with woodland bulbs. They are stoic and charming.
E. ‘Amber Queen’ is one of the most floriferous, and often flowers again in the autumn. Its new foliage is briefly mottled and splashed and spotted brown, and is as playful as the abundant, long-arching flowering stems that hover above, an orange toffee colour.
With the older varieties mentioned earlier, I tend to cut back last year’s foliage in July so the late winter/spring flowers sit proud above the emerging flush spring growth. Up until now I haven’t done this with Epimedium ‘Amber Queen’ as it is reliably evergreen. But next year I may try, in order to make a feature of that ephemeral, curious new foliage.
Cathy Newing left a career in Microbiology to pursue a passion for gardening, eventuating in head gardener roles at both Hascombe (Mt Macedon) and St. Erth (Blackwood). She now enjoys working at a nursery in Kyneton where the emphasis is on plant choice and local knowledge.