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July 2007

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Californian tree poppy, ‘Jane Philips' and the Siberian iris

This July there won't be any Romneya coulteri, the Californian tree poppy, flowering in my garden. Believe me, it's not for want of trying to cultivate this beautiful plant because, over the last twenty years or so, I've had four of them. All of them, like delicate Victorian ladies, have gone into decline and then just disappeared off the face of the earth. I had already lost three when, some years ago, I saw a glorious specimen in the garden at Killruddery in Co. Wicklow. It was easily two metres tall and as much across and covered in large flowers with white silken petals and a central boss of golden yellow stamens. These are often described as resembling huge fried or poached eggs but forget that very unflattering analogy because no eggs ever had the sweet fragrance of tree poppy blooms.

After the Killruddery visit I decided to try one more time and planted No. 4 in the white garden, which is the most sheltered part of the garden and has a raised, well-drained border. The tree poppy didn't do much the first year but in its second there were several blooms and again in the third. I had read somewhere that it's a good idea to cut back the stems in autumn and empty the contents of a used cat litter tray over the base. The semi-feral cats that live in the defunct farm buildings don't have such refinements but I substituted with pelleted chicken manure mixed in a bag of litter. Obviously not good enough.

The tall bearded irises also do a disappearing act in my garden.

In subsequent years the flowers have become fewer and fewer and this spring there was only one pathetic grey-leaved stem showing above ground. I am not going to try again. As a native of southern California, Romneya coulteri enjoys basking on sharply drained soil among sun-drenched rocks and there aren't many of those round here. But then I can grow the beautiful, tenderish rhododendron ‘Lady Alice Fitzwilliam' with highly scented, bell-shaped blooms in the white garden. It probably wouldn't last a week growing in the conditions where wild tree poppies thrive.

The tall bearded irises also do a disappearing act in my garden. I was greatly taken with a large clump of the vivid sky-blue iris ‘Jane Phillips' growing in the garden of friends in Edinburgh. Being generous people they gave me enough of the iris to fill half the boot of the car and back home I planted them carefully in the sunniest well-drained spot I could find. I even added lime to the soil which these irises are supposed to like. As advised by the experts in gardening books I divided them after three years but they were clearly not thriving.

Flowers became scarcer and scarcer and, in the end, I got so fed up with their sulkiness that I dumped the lot. Ivor Coburn, an artist who lives in mid-Ulster, has done some exquisite paintings of bearded irises that he imported from France. When I asked him how he managed to have such success with their cultivation he said that the only way he could keep them was to grow them in the greenhouse. I am not prepared to go to such lengths for plants that obviously dislike me and my soil. The Siberian iris, Iris sibirica, on the other hand, enjoys the moist soil here and spreads into large clumps. Iris chrysographes (a form of Siberian iris) has almost black flowers with gold markings and is far less bother than the bearded irises. Iris ensata, which used to be called I. kaempferi, the Japanese water iris, is another damp-lover and has sumptuous, large velvet-purple flowers this month. These two irises don't appear to be attractive to slugs which the bearded irises certainly are.

The moral of all this is to grow plants that are happy with the soil and microclimate of one's garden but, like many gardeners, I am a perverse creature and want to meet the challenge of growing beautiful plants - however unsuitable they are.

 

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