It’s once again the time of year when aquilegias earn their reputation as cottage garden favourites – and sometime show-garden stars.
I have been watching the regrowth of our aquilegias this year with my heart in my mouth, after hearing earlier this spring from Carrie, holder of the National Collections at Touchwood Plants, which have been devastated this year with a new and fatal form of downy mildew.
To date, our plants appear untouched, but the disease is spreading fast across the country, threatening the survival of this stalwart of our spring gardens. It is a bittersweet pleasure that I take from our plants this year, knowing that the wonderful collections that I so enjoyed visiting two years ago have been absolutely decimated by this virulent disease.
The first aquilegias into bloom here are reliably the over-the-top pale ruffled pinks in the long border, all flounces, frills and short skirts, and the dark pinks and purples in this and the field border that I prefer. These are soon punctuated with a rash of Lime Sorbet whose pale ivory-green skirts are a little slower out of bud, and a single plant of Red Hobbit, whose spurred flowers are large and well-defined.
The wonderful long spurred flowers of palest lemon suffused with a blush of apricot on the tall elegant plant I bought at Touchwood two years ago must be my absolute favourite in the garden, and this year the plant has several flowering stems all bursting now from bud to bloom.
I am particularly fond of yellow varieties of aquilegia – perhaps because they are in the minority here – the A. longissima that I grew from seed shone for just one brief season never to return, although the A. chrysantha raised from seed the same year continue to perform in the front garden.
I just love those long narrow spurs, which will always make me think of a jester’s hat. The plants are well suited to the more exposed position in the front garden, only reaching a foot tall.
The deep colours, particularly dark purples, are also favourites, whether single-colour or displaying the white ring of inner petals demonstrated by A. caerulea and A. ‘Red Hobbit’, below, which did not make it into my opening portraits.
The kitchen border is home to more than a dozen Ruby Port plants, which are among the last into bloom, only just beginning to unfurl their dark red stars, an example of which can be glimpsed in the opening photographs. One of these plants, many of which are self-sown seedlings from the original plant given to me by my Mum, has particularly attractive flushed foliage, and I am watching to see whether the flowers have the expected form.
Each year brings fresh surprises, as their abundant self-seeding nature and complex genetics give rise to unpredictable variety. Indeed I am watching one seed-raised plant this year with anticipation; the buds just beginning to open already look rather unusual in both colour and form, appearing to be a spiky-looking succession to our native A. vulgaris rather than the longer spurred forms.
Surveying the subset in our own humble garden with more than a touch of wonder at the rich assortment of flower and form that this genus contains, with the very real possibility that they could all be wiped out tomorrow, I feel particularly sad for Carrie Thomas, whose tireless passion and enthusiasm for these plants has been dealt an insurmountable blow by the sudden loss of her collections. Who knows whether she will ever be able to build these treasuries back up again? I fervently hope so, as their loss is also a blow to our nation and indeed the whole gardening community.