February has arrived and with it further signs of Spring emerging, despite the persistent dampness that prevails. The Walled Garden is awash with snowdrops (Galanthus spp.) carpeting the Fern Border and filling many of the borders beneath the trees. On the Rock Garden look closely and you will find not only a number of different species but also cultivars and varieties. To many of us there may only seem to be a few types of snowdrop (the tall one, the short one and the slightly yellow one for example) but look more closely and you will begin to see intricate variety that incites many people to become passionate about these plants.
Galanthus 'Lady Elphinstone' Galanthus nivalis 'Sandersii' Galanthus x allenii
But not only are these plants beautiful with their delicate nodding heads but they are also a source of an important active substance called galantamine, also naturally occurring in daffodils. Galantamine is an anticholinestarase (a substance that helps to increase the stimulation of receptors in the central and peripheral nervous system) that, although not a cure, can help to alleviate the symptoms of Alzheimer's disease.
On the Fern Border, the snowdrops are accompanied by the beautifully veined foliage of cyclamens and the yellow, ruffed flower of Eranthis hyemalis or winter aconite, a sight that never fails to cheer on a dull, wet day.
Although the signs of Spring are still few and far between a stroll around the Garden will yield surprises such as the exceptionally early flowering Clematis cirrhosa var. cirrhosa, growing on the Geographical Beds just along from the Exhibition Room. An evergreen climber preferring a sheltered position, this clematis has delicate, nodding cream heads that later in the year will be succeeded by silky seed heads. If you are lucky enough to visit on a warmer day then you might even be rewarded with its fresh, citrus-like fragrance. Then, nestled at the base of the Garden wall by the Ticket Office, there are the floriferous clumps of purple Iris unguicularis 'Mary Barnard'. This is a plant that thrives on sun and poverty but as Vita Sackville-West wrote in her weekly column in the Observer in 1950 '..they are most obliging planters, even if maltreated, but a little extra kindness and understanding will bring forth an even better response. As is true of most of us, whether plants or humans.'
Clematis cirrhosa var. cirrhosa Iris unguicularis 'Mary Barnard'
The bad weather need not deter you from visiting the Garden. You can always find warmth and shelter in the Glasshouses where the orchid collection is distributed throughout the houses, ranging from the large showy flowers of the cymbidiums to the delicate coelogynes and dendrobiums. If you step into the Conservatory you will be hit by the heavenly scent of dozens of blue and white hyacinths.
Cymbidiums Hyacinthus 'Aiolos' Coelogyne flaccida
Elsewhere in the Glasshouse range, the Alpine House is a constant source of delight with pots of unassuming but never-the-less beautiful Pterostylis curta, a curious green-flowered member of the orchid family; the delicate, yellow Narcissus asturiensis and the lip ferns Cheilanthes eatonii and C.myriophylla, rock-dwelling ferns that are drought-tolerant; and of course more snowdrops!
Pterostylis curta Cheilanthes eatonii Narcissus asturiensis Galanthus icariae
In the Arid House and corridor just outside there are a number of plants in flower that are pollinated by birds. Bird pollinated flowers tend to be red and provide their pollinators with a lot of sugar-rich nectar as a reward. The first of these plants, Barnadesia caryophylla, is a member of the daisy family and it has an elongated daisy flower well suited to the bill of a visiting bird. The aloes, Aloe thraskii and A.cryptopoda, in the Arid House have red/orange tubular flowers held high on single or branched stalks suitable for birds to perch upon whilst probing the tubular flowers for nectar. The spectacular bird of paradise or Strelitzia reginae has a more ingenious method, providing a perch formed out of two fused blue petals, a structure that also holds an arrow-like nectary. When the birds sit upon this perch in order to drink the nectar it forces apart the two petals to reveal the anthers which then smother the birds' feet with pollen ready for their visit to the next strelitzia plant.
Barnadesia caryophylla Aloe thraskii Strelitzia reginae
And finally, following a conversation I have just had with a very excited two year old in the Conservatory, I feel that I must point out the oranges growing in the Conservatory. In the child's considered opinion they are the highlight of the visit - well, that and the fish in the Lily House!