It may seem a bit early to come out into the Garden in search of blooms, but some plants make an early start, flowering just after Xmas. The witch hazel, Hamamelis mollis, lights up dark afternoons with its starbursts of twisty yellow petals. They look amazing next to a clear blue sky. Yes, this is witch hazel as in healing witchazel gel, extracted from the sap of the tree.
The winter flowering jasmine, Jasminium nudiflorum also provides a flurry of pretty yellow blooms, trained against walls. The winter flowering cherry, Prunus subhirtella 'Autumnalis’ joins in with a deceptively delicate spray of white blooms. What is lovely about all three of these flowering trees is that the flowers are at eye level and you can get up close to admire their fresh beauty.
However, my favourite flowers at this time of year needs a keen eye to spot. They are the very demure flowers of the Persian ironwood tree Parrotia persica, found near the fountain. Take a look and all you really see is a small cerise pom-pom nestling inside its protective sepals. Technically the flower doesn’t have any petals; it’s the stamens that make up the pom-pom. They look even more lovely because the branches of the tree are still without leaves. As the name suggests the wood is incredibly hard.
Another tree that we think of flowering without leaves is the magnolia, magnolia X soulangeana. Its too early for it's flowers at the moment, but all the better to see the woolly sepals that encase the flower bud. Take a gentle stroke of them, close your eyes, they feel like kitten’s ears!
A fascinating tree to see without leaves is the honey locust Gleditsia triacanthos, in the Walled Garden, next to the huge black pine. You can really appreciate the brutality of the thorns and can see how these would deter any animal from climbing the tree or nibbling the leaves.
Along with the highs of seeing the Garden at this time of year we have already had challenges along with many parts of Oxfordshire. The River Cherwell crept into the Lower Garden last week, inundating the drought tolerant Merton Border as well as the Bog Garden. This has happened in previous years and we hope the plants will dry out quickly and bounce back as they did last year. However, the Hardy team were able to complete a rescue mission to harvest the remaining kale, sprouts and purple sprouting broccoli from the vegetable beds.
Once the Christmas tree was taken down from the Conservatory the Glass Team moved in a display of zingy flowers to lift our spirits. Behind the scenes they have been growing some eye catching Calceolaria 'Dainty mix' and Cineraria 'Jester mixed'. Come in from the cold, admire the blooms and then check out the huge citron fruit on the Citrus medica tree, it's about 25cm long. This is thought to be the first species of citrus grown in the mediterranean, brought back from the middle east. Disappointingly it's all skin and pith, so not a good one for popping into your gin and tonic!
Finally, although Christmas is over and we have been busy packing away our decorations for next year, there are some plants that appear to defy this convention and look like they are still decorated for Christmas! A colleague pointed out the bauble-like nature of the fruits of the handkerchief tree, Davidia involucrata.