What’s In A Name? Centaurea montana ‘Amethyst In Snow’

Centaurea montana is a useful plant for the late spring/early summer border. It has pollinator-friendly, delicate flowers with feather-like petals and was traditionally used to make a bitter tea to treat dyspepsia and as a diuretic. Originating in sub-alpine woods and meadows, the perennial cornflower has been naturalised in the UK since as early as 1597 when the herbalist John Gerard records growing it in his garden. The name ‘Centaurea‘ originates from the Greek ‘Kentauros‘ as the plant’s medicinal properties were first discovered, according to Pliny, by the mythical character Chiron the Centaur. 

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Centaurea montana

Centaurea as a genus encompasses between 350 and 600 species of thistle-like plants in the family Asteraceaea. Centaurea montana is also known as ‘perennial cornflower’, ‘great blue-bottle’, ‘mountain cornflower’, ‘batchelor’s button’, ‘mountain bluet’ or ‘mountain knapweed’, with ‘montana’  referring to the sub-alpine regions in which the plant originates. 

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Centaurea montana ‘Jordy’ and ‘Amethyst in Snow’ from the garden

Centaurea montana does have a tendency to be an enthusiastic garden plant – it needs to be controlled by removing unwanted sections as it spreads out, but the named varieties are much better behaved in my experience. Although I love the colour of ‘Jordy’ with its deep plum purple flowers, I find they can get lost in a border when viewing it from any distance away. They work well as a cut flower and, as with all Centaurea montana, if picked regularly the plant will continue to produce flowers for a long period. My favourite variety is ‘Amethyst in Snow’ for its ability to create delicate highlights in a border, its contrasting amethyst eye, set in the snowy white petals and the silver-green foliage. ‘Amethyst in Snow’ was discovered in 2002 by Dutch seedsman Kees Sahin and it tolerates a little shade more happily than other varieties. It is supposedly the first bicolor knapweed and is similar (possibly identical) to another variety called ‘Purple Heart’.

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‘Amethyst in Snow’ shining out in a sea of forget-me-nots in my garden border

For a fully white flower there’s Centaurea montana ‘Alba’ and ‘Gold Bullion’ has blue flowers against chartreuse yellow foliage. ‘Carnea’ has soft pink flowers and ‘Violetta’ deeper violet purple flowers. This varied colour range means Centaurea montana has the ability to be combined with soft pastel planting or included in vibrant schemes with deep reds, oranges, blues and purples. A versatile garden plant, Centaurea montana ‘Amethyst in Snow’ combines elegance with a stout heart.

 

Bulbs To Light Up Spring

We’ve had a spectacular spring for bulbs, both inside and out, largely thanks to J. Parker’s who have kindly supplied us with a fabulous selection to trial this year. Bulb anticipation began in January when we planted the Hippeastrum with awed respect for the size of the bulbs. By late February, paperwhite daffodils were filling every corner of the house with their captivating scent, adding a sparkle to our late winter days.

‘Premier’ starting to unfurl and paperwhite daffodils

Then the Hippeastrum flowerbuds burst apart and since that moment the house has been a riot of colour. ‘Premier’, ‘Hercules’ and ‘Charisma’ all lived up to their auspicious names and graced the kitchen table with their majestic flowers throughout March and April. ‘Premier’ reached 80cm tall and all three Hippeastrum had two rounds of flowering. The children were fascinated by the way such mammoth flowers could be contained within the modest buds, escaping and inflating to such monumental proportions. Our favourite was ‘Premier’ for the depth of colour, but all three had power and charm – it was rather like having a pet on the kitchen table for a few weeks.

 

‘Charisma’, ‘Premier’, ‘Hercules’ and a small person who loved her gigantic floral friend

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The first bunch of ‘Gigantic Star’

As the Hippeastrum were fading, the allotment cutting patch stepped up to the mark. I wrote last year about beginning a cutting patch by planting rows of spring bulbs and the hours of soggy digging were worth the effort. First out was Narcissus ‘Gigantic Star’ with its yolk-yellow trumpets and another delicious scent. It took over from the paperwhites and carried the show alone until the tulips began. Its flowers are long-lasting in a vase and once their golden glow is cast over a room, you know spring is here to stay.

 

‘Slawa’ is perhaps my favourite of the tulips with its deep purple and red markings standing out against the double flowered Narcissus ‘The Bride’ and delicate Narcissus  ‘Thalia’.

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‘The Bride’, ‘Thalia’ and ‘Slawa’ at their best

Then came Narcissus ‘Piper’s End’ – another new one for me – its dark centres ringed with green, a softly fringed corona and offset white perianth segments. 

Mesmerising centres of ‘Piper’s End’ and ‘Shirley’

Tulipa ‘Carnival de Rio’ and ‘Hollandia’ create a vibrant display together as does Tulipa ‘Attila’ with one of my old favourites ‘Shirley’. Tulipa ‘Jimmy’ is a soft orange with red-tinged centres to the petals and it softens the deep crimson glow of ‘Ronaldo’ in an arrangement.

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‘Slawa’, ‘Carnival de Rio’ and Narcissus ‘The Bride’

Planting complementary colours in the allotment has allowed me to arrange the flowers singly or in mixed bunches and the ploy of moving the cutting patch to the allotment has been a success. Now that my flower crop is no longer visible from the kitchen window, I have only the merest reluctance about wielding the scissors.

The cutting patch ready for picking

Anyone helping with my allotment this spring has returned home with bunches of flowers in makeshift vases – old milk bottles which double up as cane toppers – and the kitchen and study haven’t been with cut flowers since February. 

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Narcissus ‘Piper’s End’ and Tulipa ‘Attila’, ‘Shirley’, Hollandia’ and ‘Carnival de Rio’

Right at the end of the show, the vidiflora tulips ‘Spring Green’, ‘Artist’ and ‘Groenland’ and the beautiful triumph tulip ‘Mistress Grey’ have joined the party, adding a smoky, subtle touch to my spring arrangements.

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‘Mistress Grey’

I’d definitely recommend daffodils and tulips as good cutting material and I’m hoping many of the tulips (all planted on a gravel base) will be perennial and crop for several years. I’ve been buying bulbs from J. Parker’s for years as they have a good range with new varieties each year to try out. All the bulbs we received were healthy and all flowered well for us. Now I’m off to the allotment to plant out my gladioli and collect the next tulip assortment. And come autumn I’ll be scouring the catalogues for a few exciting new varieties to add sparkle to my arrangements in 2018.

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Nothing better than a cup of assam and fresh flowers to create a relaxing atmosphere (‘Shirley’, ‘Attila’, ‘Groenland’ and ‘Spring Green’)

What flowers perform well for cutting in other allotments and gardens? I’d love to hear about bulbs which I could add to my list for cutting and combinations which look attractive in a vase. Happy gardening 🙂

If you’d like to follow the cutting patch throughout the year, you can subscribe below:

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More information about the cutting patch and our favourite tulips can be found in the following posts:

Banish the September blues with my top 10 tulips

Planning a Cutting Patch: Bulb Time

Planning a Cutting Patch: Annual Choices

How To Grow Your Own Thai Curry

I’ve been interviewed in the May edition of Vegetarian Living Magazine on how to grow your own curry paste, so I thought I’d repost the article exploring how I grow and cook with Thai Curry ingredients from the allotment, the garden and with my house plants. The magazine is available in shops now 🙂

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Dogwooddays

Kaffir lime leaves from India, chillies from Zambia and lemongrass from Thailand – although I love cooking food from all round the world, I’m sometimes dismayed at the air miles which an international meal requires. So last year I decided to have a go at providing most of these ingredients from my own garden and allotment, without resorting to lots of produce from overseas. I’ve had fun growing lemongrass and chillies from seed, trying Kaffir lime and vanilla grass as house plants, substituting lime balm and lemon verbena for lime juice and experimenting with Vietnamese coriander, garlic chives and vegetables for the base of the curries.

DSC_0046.JPG Home grown ingredients ready for blending into a green Thai curry sauce

Here’s the recipe for aromatic Thai green curry which serves 4 people, to prove that anyone can grow their own Thai curry at home:

Ingredients

1. Kaffir lime leaves – 2 leaves

I’ve been growing…

View original post 1,663 more words

Book Review: James Wong’s ‘How To Eat Better’

On Tuesday evening, David’s Bookshop in Letchworth hosted a talk by botanist, writer and broadcaster James Wong on his new bestselling book. As usual James gave a lively and interesting talk in which he demonstrated a broad knowledge of the scientific data behind the ideas in the book. How To Eat Better is a cookbook with a difference. Inspired by scientific data, James discusses how to SELECT, STORE and COOK food in ways which maximise its nutritional value. The recipes are fresh and simple with old favourites like ‘One-Pot Mac and Cheese’ and new ideas such as ‘Blueberry and Chilli Cheese Toastie’ and ‘Double Sweet Potato Pie’. I rate my recipe books based on how many pages display the evidence of the meals I’ve made with them. So far for How To Eat Better it’s looking good – not only has it been fascinating reading outside the kitchen, but at least two pages are now indelibly marked with tomato juice and mustard – not bad for a book I bought this Tuesday!

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I wasn’t that impressed with purple sweet potatoes last time I tried them, but this orange and purple sweet potato pie looks delicious and I’ll definitely be trying it (image from the book)

Coming from a family of scientists (although I sit on the fence with a literary and horticultural background), some of whom work in science communication, I find James’ evidence-based approach to nutrition refreshing in a world where ever-changing sensationalist headlines inform many people’s food choices. Rather than beginning with nutritional rules and then searching for data with which to support these ideas, it seems sensible to start with the data and see what it tells us. I particularly liked the table explaining ‘The Hierarchy Of Nutritional Evidence’ which explores systematic reviews, clinical trials, observational studies, animal studies and test-tube studies considering the methodology of each type of research and the strength of the evidence each provides. This knowledge allows a greater understanding of the ways in which scientists reach conclusions, helping people ‘sift through fact and fantasy in the next nutritional headline’. I was also impressed, although not surprised, by the non-dogmatic approach to the selection, storage and cooking of the foods studied in the book. James explained that the methods suggested should be viewed as ways of ‘tweaking’ what we already do in the kitchen – small, practical changes rather than a radical overhaul of how we view our food.

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Choose red chillies and peppers over green and yellow to up carotene and polyphenol levels by up to 5 times

The kids were fascinated by the idea that fruit and vegetables are living organisms which are affected by the chemical changes initiated by different storage and cooking methods. Although this seems like a rather obvious point, we do have a tendency to consider these foods as somehow unaffected by their environment once they are no longer growing on the plant or in the ground. I already keep our tomatoes out of the fridge as this allows the fruit to ripen, become sweeter and develop twice the levels of lycopene, but I wasn’t aware that the shape of a tomato is important in terms of its phytonutrient levels too. These chemicals are largely concentrated in the skin of the fruit, so baby plum tomatoes with their high ratio of skin to flesh, pack a denser phytonutrient punch than beefsteak tomatoes. The book also explains that lycopene levels almost double again upon cooking – another easy way to increase the nutritional value of these popular fruits.

The colour of fruit and vegetables is another interesting topic explored in some detail in the book. I love growing different varieties of colourful crops (‘Green Zebra’ tomatoes, ‘Purple Dragon’ carrots, ‘Kohlibri’ purple kohl rabi), so the fact that most colourful varieties (the book discusses pink grapefruit, purple cauliflower and black rice among others) contain higher levels of nutrients than their white counterparts means that growing these types of fruit and vegetable makes good nutritional sense as well as being engaging for both children and adults.

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The darker the carrot, the more polyphenols it contains

Cooking is another area where science offers interesting data about our food and whether nutrient levels are higher (and more available for our bodies to absorb) when fruit and vegetables are eaten raw or cooked in different ways. Broccoli, for example, is better eaten raw if you are after higher levels of beneficial isothiocyanates as cooking destroys the enzyme responsible for producing these chemicals. However, a team at the University of Reading found that adding a tiny amount of powdered mustard seeds can reverse this process as they contain a heat-resistant form of the enzyme which allows the reaction to occur. Magic! And raw broccoli chopped finely and left for a couple of hours contains more isothiocyanates, making it even better for you. Unlike broccoli, evidence suggests that blueberries are more phytonutrient rich when lightly cooked in the microwave for 3 minutes.

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Purple Sprouting Broccoli is best as fresh as possible

Some sections of the book confirmed what I already do in the kitchen (like rushing the purple sprouting broccoli in from the garden and lightly steaming it) whilst other information challenged my preconceived ideas about food (that buying local always means fruit and vegetables are better for you). But what is most refreshing about How To Eat Better is that it isn’t an instruction manual on better eating, but a way of transferring ideas based on scientific research into practical advice for the kitchen. To what extent you choose to adopt changes to selecting, storing and cooking food is up to you, but you’ll end the book more knowledgeable about the biology and chemistry behind your food. You’ll have a range of tasty, healthy recipes to inspire you to eat more fruit and vegetables however you decide to select, store or cook them and because James is donating all the royalties from the book to UNICEF, you’ll also have helped fight hunger across the world too.

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Green tomatoes like ‘Green Zebra’ contain high levels of tomatine which may inhibit cancer cell growth

The book is currently available on Amazon for £7.99 for the Kindle edition or £6.99 for the hardback (a good discount on the £20 RRP) – to order a copy, click on the image below…

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If you’d like to read more of the book reviews in Write Plant, Write Place, you could take a look at the following articles:

Around the World in 80 Plants

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

RHS Plants From Pips and The Little Book Of Hygge

Of Swings And Daisies

What is a garden? An ever-changing expanse of blue, lightness, the rush of air, freedom and energy. Swinging aloft, earthly concerns forgotten in the airborn joy of movement. In childhood days I thought little of seasonal changes, of buying plants or raising vegetables from seed, of compost, plant labels and copper tape as hosta protection from the ninja slug brigade whose mucilaginous forays even surmount the uppermost greenhouse shelving. There was no thought of gardens as outdoor rooms for entertaining, no knowledge of how to design herb wheels or construct fruit cages as I picked fresh peas, discarding any maggoty pods as I went. Behind the vegetable beds a shed, no pots or tools committed to memory, only scratched legs from wading through a sea of raspberry canes to emerge, variously reddened at the shed door with its rain-softened label marking the secret meeting place of myself, my brother and our friends.

The garden was a place of physical intensity and a portal to other realms – the immeasurable expanse of sky or the miniature world beneath my feet. Hours spent stretched on the grass amidst the daisies, reading, eating, revising and playing with the cat, grass blades tickling my feet, the whole world buzzing and vibrating with insect turmoil. Flower borders mattered little, but the mesembryanthemums fringing the beds, opening and closing their candy petals marked the passing of summer days in a wash of colour.

These peripheral details seem outside my adult experience of the garden as I hurry from shed to greenhouse, from washing line to flower border proceeding along task-oriented lines. Or as I view the garden from an upstairs window whilst watering seedlings, writing articles on how to extend the strawberry season and when to plant new potatoes. From my elevated vantage point I can appreciate the developing maturity of the fruit trees, the seasonal highlights of bulbs, blossom or annual flowers, but distance and haste detract from my physical relationship with the garden. 

I don’t have time to swing with the kids for as long as I’d like, watching the sky with the childlike fascination which contemplating the immeasurable so easily engenders, but I would do well to remember my childhood experience of a garden and pause for a while in wonder. Just to be, in a garden, at times should be enough.

Mesembryanthemum