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December 2008

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Christmas flower counting, Algerian iris and delicious scent indoors

Every Christmas Day, or shortly afterwards, I do a flower count in the garden. This, I must confess, has great potential for cheating. Does one squinny little bloom on a hebe count as a flower? Can I still count something that has finished flowering like Mahonia lomariifolia but has one raceme of a flower left that's ready to shatter in the first puff of wind? Can Pulmonaria rubra, which has the common name ‘Christmas cowslip', showing just a few tight flowerbuds be included? Then there are the containerized primroses, violas and ‘Miracle' cyclamens usually bought at the beginning of December in a garden centre. And the dandelion of course. There's nearly always a dandelion flowering somewhere in the garden grinning cheerfully up at me.
 
Last year there were ‘Rijnvelds' Early Sensation' daffodils in full bloom at Christmas; their yellow buds had been showing since November 3. Even better, there were small clumps of Narcissus ‘Cedric Morris'. Only 15cm tall, these had been in bloom since early December. In sunnier climates than ours, where they haven't had a sodden summer, Iris unguicularis, the Algerian iris can be flowering from early November. A year ago I got Andy, who works here sometimes, to make me a raised bed out of railway sleepers just for these. It's in a corner where south-facing and east-facing walls meet. Sniffing at their delicate scent is so much easier in a raised bed and it also gives a good opportunity to look out for slugs and snails. Slugs munch through the flowers as soon as they appear at soil level among the leaves and snails clamp on to the leaves like so many brown stud earrings. Two slug pellets per plant are all it takes to dispatch the slimy little beasts. 
 
I arrange small posies of garden flowers in the house and they bring in a breath of fresh air among the clobber of Christmas even though it is only for a day or two. A few stems of some December-flowering shrubs can scent a whole room. Mahonia ‘Lionel Fortescue' and Mahonia ‘Charity' are usually in flower. Hamamelis mollis ‘Pallida', the Chinese witch hazel, doesn't usually bloom here until January but, if a few short stems are cut, their knobbly buds open up in the warmth of a room and release their delicious scent. However I'm sparing with the pruners because Hamamelis mollis is reluctant to make new shoots from old. The scent of Daphne bholua (shown) is the most beautiful in the garden although it only starts to flower after Christmas. Like the hamamelis it will open in a warm room. Viburnum x bodnantense Dawn' is pleasantly scented outside but is too sickly sweet in the house. 
 
Here the average Christmas flower count amounts to around thirty six plants, not counting the garden centre cyclamens, violas and primroses, the Australian sub-shrubs that are kept indoors and the dandelion. I once read a piece written by the Marchioness of Londonderry who created the magnificent gardens at Mount Stewart in County Down. Long before global warming was heard of she did a flower count on Christmas Day 1939 and amassed the amazing number of 78 different flower types - please note it was types of flowers not individuals. The centrepiece of the Christmas table was a huge bowl of roses cut from the garden. Then apparently there was a vicious frost in January 1940 which blackened everything overnight. I always dread that happening here.

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