What’s In A Name? Ophiopogon planiscapus ‘Nigrescens’

Ophiopogon planiscapus 'Nigrescens' (2)

Ophiopogon in my gravel front garden

Ophiopogon planiscapus ‘Nigrescens’, also known as black lilyturf, black mondo or black dragon, is an evergreen perennial native to Japan. Despite having a grass-like appearance, it is a member of the Asparagacaea family, as is the similar grass-like Liriope muscari. ‘Ophiopogon’ comes from the Greek ‘ophis’ meaning ‘serpent’ and ‘pogon’ meaning ‘beard’. The name presumably alludes to the linear leaves being the beard of the snake or dragon. ‘Planiscapus’ refers to the flattened scape or flower-stalk ending in a loose raceme of lilac flowers and ‘Nigrescens’ to the black colour of the foliage and scapes. In summer, after the flowers fade, blue to deep purple berries develop leading to the French name ‘Herbe aux Turquoises’ also referred to as the ‘barbe de serpent noire’.

Ophiopogon planiscapus ‘Nigrescens’ can be a tricky plant to use in a garden situation. Its deep purple/black foliage when used sparingly or dotted through planting can look straggly and disappear into the undergrowth. At its best, en masse, it is an attractive groundcover plant adding a deep saturation of colour to a design and setting off brighter, lighter colours well. It makes a pairing with plants with silver foliage like Stachys byzantina or, in my garden, Lychnis coronaria and Snow-in-Summer (Cerastium tormentosum) and looks stunning alongside plants with orange foliage such as Libertia peregrinans and Carex testacea.

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Used as an edging plant in Regent’s Park

Ophiopogon also works well in erosion control, binding soil with its rhizomatous roots, and it thrives in containers. I’ve used it successfully in pots with dogwood (Cornus alba ‘Sibirica’) and white violas as a winter combination and last year I underplanted my French lavender (Lavandula stoechas) with ophiopogon, then dog violets also colonised the pot. A rather random combination, but the silver and black foliage alongside the purple flowers looked attractive and the ophiopogon is increasing, a sure sign that it’s happy in its environment.

Containers with ophiopogon in my garden in autumn, spring and summer

Ophiopogon prefers full sun to partial shade, moist but well-drained soil and likes neutral to acid soil (but it seems to do fine in my alkaline front garden). So whether you want some foliage interest in a container or larger scale groundcover impact, the black serpent’s beard with flattened scapes is a good way to add some lustre to your garden this year.

More images of ophiopogon in Regent’s Park border designs

Book Review: Around The World In 80 Plants

Rock samphire, eternal cabbage, wild garlic, Woburn perennial kale, cabbage thistle, stinging nettle, Bath asparagus, our wild heritage mapped out in salad greens. How did we come to accept mediocrity, the anodyne, now endangered, iceberg lettuce, the tedium of endless cos hearts, the apologetic slack round lettuce? In restaurants, the epithet ‘side salad’ is a precursor to gustatory disappointment. Will my baked potato come surrounded by a rainbow of salad greens, cucumber, pepper, celery, radish, chives, lightly dusted with edible petals? I’d champion any establishment that offered fresh ideas in a fresh salad, or even old family favourites: a mix of grated carrot, beetroot and apple softened with a dash of cider vinegar. All fairly basic ingredients, surely that’s not too much to ask?

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Now that’s what I call a salad, harvested from my garden last summer

Stephen Barstow’s homage to world salad history fights back, detailing the part perennial leafy greens have played in our culinary past and their potential for our future. Around The World In 80 Plants is a fascinating book, documenting the hidden variety of leafy edibles and their uses across six continents from Australia to the author’s own garden in Norway, not far from the Arctic circle. The journey begins in Western and Central Europe with Crithmum maritimum or rock samphire. Once a commonplace leafy green in London, it is now a little known edible, protected from commercial harvesting on UK coastlines. Stephen’s own location (near Trondheim) adds another element to his study as all the plants he trials are grown close to 64°N where mean monthly temperatures range from -3°C in January to 15°C in June. Rock samphire, he notes, began appearing along the Southern coast of Norway around 2000 – a strong indication of climate change. So we follow ‘death samphire’ (so called because its habitat on sheer cliff-faces has caused the swift death of many foragers) from its appearance in King Lear as part of a ‘dreadful trade’, through its use in the 17th century as a popular pickle ingredient, to its colonisation of new areas, creating fresh opportunities for harvesting and eating.

 

Rock Samphire (images courtesy of Stephen Barstow)

The next five chapters range through Southern Europe and the Mediterranean, the Caucasus to the Himalayas and Siberia, the Far East and Australia, the Americas and Norway (and Scandinavia). Many of the plant descriptions developed my knowledge of edibles I’m planning to include in my perennial vegetable allotment bed (Daubenton kale, sea beet, chicory, mallow, sea kale, Egyptian onion) and plants I already grow (hostas, wasabi, horseradish, oca, garlic chives). I’m astonished that I’ve not yet tried dandinoodles (dandelion flower stalks cooked in boiling water for 5 minutes with a knob of butter), or that my hankering for hosta shoots hasn’t yet led me to raid my pots for a quick sushi supper. Although I was aware of the edible history of both plants, my knowledge was sketchy at best. Stephen’s descriptions of edible plant histories alongside his own growing and cooking experiences have fed my obsession with edimentals – plants offering a combination of beauty and practicality which enables small gardens, courtyards and window boxes to offer a combined salve for the stomach and the soul. Nothing pleases me more than designing an ornamental border which leads a double life as a hidden larder. Nothing is more intriguing than a plant, hitherto a delightful, yet one-dimensional ornamental, which I discover to have a sweet tuber which can be baked, seeds which can be sprinkled on homemade bread or leaves with a sharp, lemony tang. These plants really earn their place in my garden.

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I’m looking forward to trying dandinoodles (image courtesy of Stephen Barstow)

I’m unlikely to be attempting to grow or eat Urtica ferox, the New Zealand giant tree nettle at four metres tall with needle-like hairs capable of killing a person. I’m also not queuing up try Angelica archangelica ssp. archangelica var. maiorum dipped in cod liver oil (like the author, I grew up being force-fed the stuff) and I dare not attempt to grow ground elder, even if its absence leaves my botvinya (a cold Russian soup) in need of that special something. But it does grow in the garden margins just around the corner, so I’ll be found one morning, on my knees, hiding behind my neighbour’s hedge, carefully checking my identification before surreptitiously snipping off a few leafy shoots for a real mixed salad.

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Truly terrifying Urtica ferox (image courtesy of Stephen Barstow)

Be warned: Stephen’s engaging plant histories, his propagation, cultivation and seed/plant sourcing information and his accounts of growing edimentals are not likely to restore sanity to anyone already teetering on the brink of a furtive life spent sniffing, rubbing and nibbling unsuspecting plants. In Chapter One, there’s an image of the National Trust property Knightshaye Court in Devon with its elegant lines of Allium ampeloprasum cultivars which is described as ‘an excellent edimental!’ I’ve grown elephant garlic for its bulbs and scapes, but haven’t yet used the leaves in an Egyptian falafel as suggested in the book, so I’m afraid the collection might be in danger next time I’m visiting. Especially if the mixed leaf salad in the cafe isn’t up to scratch…

 

Knightshaye Court – edimentals at their best (images courtesy of Stephen Barstow)

Stephen Barstow (‘Extreme Salad Man’) is one of the world’s great edible plant collectors. His website – http://www.edimentals.com/ – includes a collection of articles by Stephen on a wide range of edimentals, forest gardening, talks, courses and foraging trips, and further information about the book (which can be purchased here).

For more book reviews and further explorations of wild edibles, please see below:

Exploring Wild Flowers: 5 Coastal Plants With Interesting Edible Histories

Nettles Revisited: How Time Removes The Sting

Book Review: The Paper Garden Mrs Delany [Begins Her Life’s Work At 72]

Book Review: RHS Plants From Pips and The Little Book Of Hygge

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Book Review: RHS Plants From Pips and The Little Book of Hygge

A cosy window seat has to be the best place to curl up with a cup of tea and a good book. As a child, I preferred to read near the top of our tall Scots Pine, with a Famous Five and an apple from the garden. Now I favour the cushion strewn window seat in the lounge  which overlooks the front garden. When we redecorated, I wanted to recreate the feeling I had as a child reading endless stories on a little sheepskin covered window seat overlooking the fields and woods in a Scottish holiday cottage. I’ve recently discovered there’s a word to describe that feeling – ‘hygge’ – a Danish word roughly translated as an atmosphere of warmth, relaxation, security and love or even ‘cosiness of the soul’¹. Snuggled in the corner of my window seat, I am connected to the outside world but protected from cold winds and rain (increasingly important with winter looming), there’s room for a selection of books and magazines, and a cup of tea and piece of cake on the window ledge. I have my own secluded nook, a hyggekrog: a place to relax and find inspiration, before re-entering the frenetic, demanding, yet delightful world which revolves around my two young children and my work.

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My hyggekrog

Bookish Hygge

Looking along the window ledge, my book selection currently includes H is for Hawk by Helen MacDonald, The Well-Tempered Gardener by Christopher Lloyd, The Little Book of Hygge by Meik Wiking, The Twins at St Claire’s by Enid Blyton (I’ve been raiding the children’s shelves again), A Christmas Party by Georgette Heyer, The Ash Tree by Oliver Rackham and RHS Plants From Pips by Holly Farrell. The last title was a happy chance find in the library with the kids last week, lost for a while between Harry and the Robots and Emily Prickleback’s Clever Idea and finally resurfacing a few days ago. Its subtitle is ‘Pots of Plants for the Whole Family to Enjoy’ and I like the rustic style of the images, the range of ‘pips’ which can be nurtured into interesting house plants (from avocados to dragon fruit and pomegranates) and the clear instructions, equally suitable for the beginner or the more experienced grower.

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A little light reading

 

Childhood Hygge

My children (4 and 7) enjoyed looking at the pictures in RHS Plants From Pips showing how seeds grow and how they are dispersed. We chatted about which fruits they were familiar with and which new ones we might try (since then they’ve tasted their first pomegranate and both enjoyed it very much.) Several of the pips appealed to them – avocados, olives and lemons, but we decided to start with a peanut in a clear container so we can watch the new peanuts develop beneath the surface. Farrell rates each pip for ‘easiness’ (of growing) and the ‘patience’ required. The peanut scores 1 for each, which is good because the kids are neither patient nor particularly adept at growing plants yet. The method is relatively simple – soak the peanuts in water for 12 hours, sow in pots in pre-watered compost and place in a warm, sunny spot. Germination takes 2-3 weeks. As the kids watch the plants developing, they should be able to see the leaves folding up at night and the flowers growing downwards into the compost where they will produce new peanuts. They will be nurturing a new life and learning about the ingenuity of the plant kingdom.

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Shelling and soaking the peanuts

Botanical Hygge

As well as the chapter on ‘How Plants Grow’, RHS Plants From Pips also has sections on how to grow your pips successfully, how to repot, plant out and what pests, diseases and other problems you might encounter. There is also useful advice on how to restrict growth – particularly relevant as some of the plants would grow to a considerable size in natural conditions. A plant like the papaya (Carica papaya) is suggested as suitable as a ‘novelty plant for a single season’² due to its fast growth habit and full height of 3.5m, whereas mango (Mangifera indica) can be restricted by removing the top bud/leaves and tips of stems to keep it well below its natural height of 2m. By differentiating in this way, it is easy to choose a plant which will suit the position and space available. Most of the plants from pips are unlikely to fruit because their natural habitats differ greatly from household conditions, but they can make unusual houseplants which will give pleasure for many years and the act of experimentation is a valuable and interesting one, especially for children.

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The peanut in its homemade transparent plant pot

Community Hygge

In The Little Book of Hygge, Wiking describes five ways to achieve summer hygge, number three being ‘Join or Build a Community Garden’. This acknowledges the hyggelig (hygge-inducing) aspect of taking the time to tend crops, get together as a neighbourhood and develop a sense of community spirit. Hygge is about relaxing with friends and loved ones after a day’s hard work outside, eating hearty food and having a drink together. These are all things I value about gardening, whether in the community garden or with my own family in the garden or allotment.

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Hygge, when it’s cold outside, is a cup of assam, a stack of novels and botanical books, and some time to devour them…

Family Hygge

Not everyone has access to a garden, allotment or community growing space, but anyone can have a go at growing a plant from a pip – a free resource which would otherwise be thrown away. Everyone can experience the excitement of seeing an embryonic shoot emerge and the seed leaves unfurl. Watching such miraculous beginnings can spark a lifelong passion for plants and establish the foundation for plant hygge in adulthood. When my children experience the natural world as adults, I hope they will have just such a store of memories to draw upon. The call of a buzzard, eating raspberries with red fingers, the smell of apples stewing and the first spring bulbs emerging have all created moments of hygge in my life. In the same way that I get the kids involved in cooking with crops from the garden and allotment so they can share the satisfaction of producing a tasty meal for the family, so I want them to share the pleasure that I get from watching plants grow. Plants From Pips is a great, accessible way to share this experience and create warm family memories for the future.

1. The Little Book of Hygge, Meik Wiking, page 6

2. RHS Plants From Pips, Holly Farrell, page 68

RHS Plants From Pips and The Little Book of Hygge are both available in hardback and The Little Book of Hygge is also available in a Kindle edition (aff. links).


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The Paper Garden: Mrs Delany [Begins Her Life’s Work] at 72

Biography, art history, botanical study – none of these terms do sufficient justice to Molly Peacock’s expansive, lyrical and thoroughly readable account of the life of Mary Granville Pendarves Delany (1700-1788). Over a period of ten years, Delany created nearly a thousand cut-paper botanical images of flowers from all over the world. Living in a period of intense botanical exploration and investigation, Delany had access to Kew for specimens through her friendship with Sir Joseph Banks.

The parallels between Peacock’s contemporary investigation into 18th century artistic life and Delany’s progress towards ‘a new way of imitating flowers’ add depth and a personal warmth to the story. Peacock considers eleven of the botanical collages, including ‘Opium Poppy’ (Papaver somniferum), ‘Magnolia’ (Magnolia grandiflora), ‘Bloodroot’ (Sanguinaria canadensis), ‘Portlandia’ (Portlandia grandiflora) and ‘Winter Cherry’ (Physalis alkekengi) in great detail, relating each to stages of Delany’s personal and artistic development. Occasionally the botanical analogies feel a little strained, the mental contortions necessary to compare human and plant lives a little jarring, but on the whole these parallels enrich the text as they suggest echoes of life in art, in nature. As Peacock writes about the flowers in the Delany mosaics:

Each of Mrs. Delany’s flower mosaicks is a portrait, highly individual, full of personality, the bloom posed as a human figure might be positioned in a painter’s portrait… The flowers are like dancers. Like daydreamers. Like women blinking in silent adoration. Like children playing. Like queens reigning or divas belting out their arias. Like courtesans lying on bedclothes. Like girls hanging their heads in shame. Like, like, like. Along with the scissors, the scalpel, the bodkin, the tweezers, the mosaicks make use of one of the main tools of the poet: simile. By comparing one thing to another, a simile leaves the original as it is – say, just a flower – but also states what that is like, making a threshold into another world.

Art and nature are seen, by Delany and Peacock, as being intrinsically linked. Delany’s eye for detail, her botanical dissections and biological knowledge underpin the beauty and verisimilitude of her art. Science is an intrinsic part her of artistic endeavour and her art reveals the glory and power of science. As Peacock writes ‘The lines between science and art in [Delany’s] day were fluid, but in 1966 [the time of Peacock’s education] they had become as thick as the stays in eighteenth century ladies’ clothes.’

In 1993, when I began my university education, an interest in mathematical and scientific issues within the arts (in my case, English Literature) was still viewed suspiciously in many quarters – as if it somehow diluted the essence of language and art, rather than enhancing it. In 2006 interdisciplinary studies were becoming more mainstream and I wrote an MA dissertation on the ways in which contemporary science profoundly affected the style and structure of the early nineteenth century novel. The tyranny of subject boundaries was dissolving and both the arts and sciences were benefitting from increased integration. This integration continues to develop, with many universities now running courses such as ‘ecocriticism’, ‘digital studies’, ‘interdisciplinary work for policy-making’ and ‘wild writing – literature and the environment’. We are rediscovering the power of connections, of contextual knowledge and mutual respect which an eighteenth century education took for granted.

The Paper Garden celebrates Mary Delany’s life, her artistic endeavours and the way her mosaics reveal a love of both art and science through her minute observation of the plant material. This is a book which offers hope for all of us who feel our best is yet to come. It is a book for art lovers and plant lovers alike. Indeed, when leafing through the Delany mosaics, it’s hard to imagine being one, without becoming the other.

 

The extensive collection of flower mosaics is available to view on the British Museum’s online catalogue – for individual flower mosaics mentioned in the text, click on the links above. Individual mosaics can be studied or the entire Flora Delanica viewed, with 1,005 images held in the catalogue.

If you have enjoyed this post, The Paper Garden: Mrs Delany Begins Her Life’s Work at 72, (Aff. link) is published by Bloomsbury and available as an eBook or paperback. Follow the blog below to get updates on new reviews in ‘Write Plant, Write Place’. At the moment I’m enjoying reading a trio of books about trees…

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