Bergenia ‘Balbithan’

Bergenia ‘Balbithan’

One of the contributions to our plant display in February was just two leaves of Bergenia ‘Balbithan’ brought by Karin Proudfoot. The accompanying description told us that she had bought it at Great Comp last year but could find nothing else about it except that it is listed by The Plantsman’s Preference nursery. She added that it is a good doer with upright, well-coloured foliage, impervious to extreme weather.

I definitely liked the look of this plant and wanted to know more. We found out about Balbithan House in Scotland and Mary McMurtrie, who lived and gardened there, but we couldn’t confirm a link. I contacted William Dyson at Great Comp to see if he had more information. “Not guilty,” he said, “I don’t grow it.” Back to Karin, who explained that she had bought it at the Great Comp Snowdrop Sensation from one of the visiting nurseries. Purely by chance I found a list of the nurseries that had attended that event. I discounted all those that I knew were selling snowdrops, which left me with just a couple of possibilities.

At the first one I called I only got an answering machine but my second try, to Rose Cottage Plants in Essex, was much more productive. I spoke to Jack Barnard, the charming and very helpful owner. I explained my predicament and he was very understanding but his is a bulb nursery and he doesn’t grow bergenias. Just as I was about to ring off I remembered something that Karin had told me; the stall where she bought it was across the bottom of the courtyard at Great Comp. Might this help identify the nursery? “Oh, that was Joe Sharman.” I knew Joe was there, (well, he wasn’t, he was in Germany but his snowdrops were) but his stall was at the side and, as far as I could remember, only had snowdrops. Jack explained that another nursery had offered to house Joe’s non-snowdrop plants so this was looking promising. A phone call to Tim Fuller at The Plantsman’s Preference confirmed the source as Joe Sharman of Monksilver Nursery. Bingo!

I left Joe an email message and, true to his word, he rang me back one evening soon afterwards and, yes, he did grow Bergenia ‘Balbithan’. “Can you tell me any more about it?” I enquired. He explained that he had visited Angela Whinfield of Snape Cottage in Bourton, Dorset, where he saw the bergenia and, being an experienced plantsman, realized what a good plant it was. He must have been given a division, which he has propagated and distributed to discerning gardeners. Angela had had it from Mary McMurtrie of Balbithan House. We had the link!

Mary McMurtrie was a Scottish botanical artist and horticulturalist. She wrote and illustrated several books of wild flowers and became internationally recognised for her botanical art.

She was born Mary Margaret Mitchell in 1902 in Skene, Aberdeenshire. After leaving school she became one of the first female students at Gray’s School of Art in Aberdeen. She married Rev John McMurtrie in 1924 and the couple had four children but he died in 1949 leaving her to raise the youngest two children alone. She used her love of gardening to set up a nursery in the garden of the house that she bought in Aberdeen. It became a thriving business. In 1960 she bought the 16th century Balbithan House in Kintore in Aberdeenshire. She restored the house, transformed the garden and opened a nursery, which she ran until into her 80s. She also became a well respected botanical artist, exhibiting her watercolour paintings locally, in Scotland, at the Royal Horticultural Society in London and internationally. She published several books of illustrations and was invited to illustrate a number of other publications. She completed the illustrations for her last book, Old Cottage Pinks, shortly before her death on 1 November 2003 at the age of 101.

In her obituary published in The Scotsman, she was described as, “a delightful person, totally devoted to botany, flowers and her family, and extraordinarily modest. She was remarkably unassuming but a gifted painter.”

So, there we have it. I really like knowing the history of a plant, the person who raised it or first selected it and all the small details. For me it makes a plant special and adds greatly to my enjoyment.

However, despite all my sleuthing I didn’t actually have a plant. I had aranged with Joe to bring one to the plant fair at Great Dixter. “So long as it’s not cancelled,” I said. This was at the time when everything was being called off because of the Atlantic storms raging across the country. “A volcano is the only thing that will keep me from going to Dixter,” he assured me. Who can possibly have imagined that the volcano would take the form of a pandemic with us all staying at home and all events cancelled?

But I’ve had good news! Joe has been in touch and arranged to send me plants in the post. How about that? In years to come, when the plants are thriving, as I’m sure they will, I’ll be able to think about their history and all those people who have played a part in me being able to enjoy them.

Ipheion ‘Alberto Castillo’

Ipheion ‘Alberto Castillo’

I took some stems of Ipheion ‘Alberto Castillo’ to our February meeting and was reminded that, although I had had this plant for a long time, I had never found out how it got this name or any more about it.

I can remember hearing about it from Jack Elliott. He was a very good judge of plants and if he said something was good you knew it probably would be. He wrote in his ‘Bulbs for the Rock Garden’ published in 1995, “‘Alberto Castillo’ is an excellent recent introduction with larger, more glaucous leaves and larger flowers of pristine white. In a brief experience of it, it has increased well and been undamaged by winter weather.”

It was found by Alberto Castillo, owner of Ezeiza Botanical Garden, in an abandoned garden in Buenos Aires in the early 1980s and was introduced to Britain by Broadleigh Gardens of Somerset in 1992. Jack Elliott must have been one of the first to grow it in this country.

When it was introduced it was named I. uniflorum ‘Alberto Castillo’ but has now lost its species attribution. Compared to the species, it has larger bulbs, heavier textured and more glaucous leaves, and larger, more substantial flowers. The flowers are about 4cm across, pure white with a yellowish-green throat, the segments having a darker midrib. My experience is that it is more clump-forming and doesn’t wander over vaste areas as some other forms tend to do.

I greatly enjoy ‘Alberto Castillo’. It flowers as the snowdrops are fading so forms a bridge between them and the huge range of spring flowers still to come. What else does this genus have to offer?

Ipheion uniflorum, spring starflower, in the family Alliaceae, is the only species in general cultivation. It is native to Argentina and Uruguay and was introduced to Britain in 1820. It is a bulbous perennial, which, in late autumn, produces narrow leaves that smell of onions when bruised, followed in spring by solitary, upward-facing, scented flowers on stems up to 20cm. The flowers are star-shaped and each of the six segments has a line of darker colour down the centre. Described as pale blue, they are often said to be wishy-washy so named cultivars with stronger colour are more often grown.

Ipheion uniflorum ‘Wisley Blue’named after the RHS garden, has flowers of clear lilac-blue.

Ipheion uniflorum ‘Froyle Mill’ This cultivar has a rather lovely story.

Writing in The Bulletin of the Alpine Garden Society in 1982, Mrs. D. Taylor-Smith extols the virtues of Ipheion uniflorum. It has great merit, she says, is easy to grow, hardy and flowers for two to three months, increases prodigiously and has beautiful flowers.
She then tells of a plant collecting expedition to the Nepalese Himalayas in 1973 that she and her husband joined. They found one or two exciting plants but in that inaccessible area anything can happen. On the trek, her husband nearly lost his life. “The search for rare plants can have great joys but also cost dearly”, she wrote.
The story continued a few months after their return home. Passing a large clump of Ipheion uniflorum ‘Wisley Blue’ in full flower in her garden she noticed one flower of a deep violet-purple. Hardly able to believe her eyes, she rushed indoors and phoned Patrick Synge. With great excitement she told him what she had seen. After a long pause he asked if she really meant violet-purple. After being assured that that was correct, he told her to dig it up and pot it up because it could be an important new addition to the colour range. How right he was!
In 1975 she showed it under the name Ipheion uniflorum ‘Froyle Mill’, which was the name of their house at the time. It then received the RHS Award of Merit when shown at Vincent Square in 1981.
She concluded, “Having flown half round the world and climbed to 4250m. in the Himalayas and nearly lost my husband there, all for the sake of new, rare plants, to find a very exciting new flower in our own garden was an amazing and subtle twist of fate.”

It was awarded the RHS Award of Garden Merit and is now available from many nurseries throughout the country.

Ipheion uniflorum ‘Charlotte Bishop’ was a chance seedling that appeared amongst a long-established clump of the selection ‘Wisley Blue’ in the Kent garden of John Clark. The flowers are pale pink with a darker pink centre line.

Ipheion ‘Rolf Fiedler’ was grown from two or three bulbs given to Brian Halliwell of Kew by Rolf Fiedler when they both attended the ‘Alpines 1981 Conference’. It was originally identified as Ipheion uniflorum but was superior to any other form in cultivation so was given the cultivar name ‘Rolf Fiedler’ and has now had the species attribution removed. There is some disagreement as to whether or not it belongs to this species or another one altogether but there is no disagreement that this is a fabulous plant and well worth growing.
The leaves are broader and more grey than other forms. The floral parts are also broader and oval, of a pure sky blue, fading to a white throat with a dark line on each. It is also sweetly scented. However, it would seem that it might be less hardy than other forms and a little more difficult to grow.

Ipheion ‘Jessie’ was raised from seed of ‘Rolf Fielder by Tony Hall at Kew and named for his late sister, Jessie. It is similar to its parent but has a much deeper blue colour. 

Ipheion ‘Tessa’ A new form released in 2011, it has dark pink flowers with a darker midrib.

They should all be grown in sun or light deciduous shade in a well drained, sheltered position. They can be propagated by division of the bulbs during their dormant period in summer or by seed – you might even find an exciting new cultivar!

Having found out so much about ipheion I went to have a look at my small patch, the name of which I don’t know but might well be ‘Wisley Blue’. As I studied the flowers, I realized, not for the first time, that looking closely brings rewards. I understood the structure of the flower and, even though very small, its great beauty. And then I noticed that some flowers on the edge of the clump were paler in colour, almost white with purplish midribs. Admittedly, not good enough to send me dashing for the phone but interesting, nevertheless. Perhaps I will save seed and see what I get and, certainly, I will search out some other forms to add to my collection. But most of all I will enjoy the flowers of this South American native that’s found a home in our gardens.


Sir Harold Hillier Garden

Sir Harold Hillier Garden

I recently visited the Sir Harold Hillier Garden in Hampshire to see the Winter Garden and was lucky to have one of the very few lovely days we’ve had this winter. The garden is very impressive – not as awsome as, say, Anglesey Abbey, where there are large plantings of winter colour, but it has many more different and unusual plants and, what’s more, they were nearly all labelled! There was quite enough to keep me, and my camera, happy for some hours


You are greeted at the entrance by a planting of white-bark birches amidst a red and gold sea of Cornus alba ‘Sibirica’ and Salix alba var. vitellina ‘Yelverton’.

The theme continues with various cultivars of Cornus alba, sericea and sanguinea around the garden.
Cornus sanguinea is our native common dogwood, a plant of chalk soils, with greenish, red-flushed stems and rich purple autumn colour. It grows in most of Europe and western Asia.

Cornus sanguinea ‘Midwinter Fire’

Cornus sanguinea ‘Magic Flame’

Cornus sanguinea ‘Green Light’

Cornus sanguinea ‘Anny’s Winter Orange’

By far the most popular cultivar is, of course, C.s. ‘Midwinter Fire’, which found its way into our Top 30. See more about it here. C.s. ‘Green Light’ is more subtle in its colouring and would appeal to those who find the bright colours a bit garish. The RHS website tells us this is an accepted name but I couldn’t find any more details. C.s. ‘Magic Flame’ is very well named for its bare winter stems coloured orange-yellow with bright red tips. It has the Royal Horticultural Society’s Award of Garden Merit. C.s. ‘Anny’s Winter Orange’ has also received this accolade and is said to be one of the best cultivars for vigour and winter colour. It has orange-red flushed stems and I certainly have never seen a brighter one.

Cornus sericea, red osier dogwood, comes from north America. It is a vigorous, suckering shrub with dark red winter stems but is rarely grown in gardens, gardeners preferring its cultivars. The one I noticed was C.s. ‘Bud’s Yellow’, which has yellow-green stems – somewhat unusual, I thought.

Cornus alba, from Asia, is also a vigorous shrub with red winter shoots. It has many cultivars and it was C.a. ‘Sibirica’, with bright red stems, that greeted me at the entrance.

Cornus sericea ‘Bud’s Yellow’

And now I have a bit of a problem. These two look very similar but had different labels. Unfortunately, I couldn’t find out much about either. Cornus alba  Red Gnome is the preferred name for this plant, described as being of compact growth to about 1.2m, which seems reasonable considering its name, with foliage that colours well in the autumn. Cornus sanguinea ‘Viridissima’ is an accepted name but I couldn’t find any other details. I like them both, for their colour and their cross-stemmed texture so will be looking out for them. Does anyone grow either or know anything more? Do please add a comment below to let us know.

Cornus alba Red Gnome (‘Regnzam’)

Cornus sanguinea ‘Viridissima’

Salix is another genus that provides winter colour and I noticed two very different cultivars. The first, Salix alba var. vitellina ‘Yelverton’, has bright gold stems – vitellina means ‘like the yolk of an egg’. The other, Salix ‘Blackskin’, a name only tentatively accepted by the RHS, has very dark stems, which look good with a light background as here againt pale grasses.

Salix alba var. vitellina ‘Yelverton’

Salix ‘Blackskin’

White can also be very striking in the garden. I saw three different species of Rubus, all from Asia, with prickly stems covered with white, waxy bloom.
R. cockburnianus is a strong-growing species with arching stems. This one is the cultivar ‘Goldenvale’, which has fern-like yellow leaves in the summer.
R. biflorus is semi-erect species with especially white stems.
R. thibetanus is another semi-erect species with purplish stems covered with white bloom.
They all have the Royal Horticultural Society’s Award of Garden Merit and need considerable space so can be seen at their best in a large garden like the Hillier Garden. 

Rubus cockburnianus ‘Goldenvale’ with Ophiopogon planiscapus ‘Nigrescens’

Rubus cockburnianus ‘Goldenvale’ with Ophiopogon planiscapus ‘Nigrescens’

Rubus biflorus

Rubus thibetanus

There are also many birches with white bark and I particlarly admired a fine Betula utilis var. jacquemontii ‘Jermyns’, which is a form selected and named at the Hillier Nursery.

Betula utilis var. jacquemontii ‘Jermyns’

And, if we’re thinking about white, we can’t ignore snowdrops. There weren’t many in the garden but I did notice an unusual one, Galanthus ‘Mrs. W.M. George’, which was named after the wife of the Head Gardener at the Hillier Nursery. It’s a beautiful, strong, tall and very robust-looking cultivar. 

Galanthus ‘Mrs. W.M. George’

Getting back to colour, several plants stood out because of their red colouring.

Bergenia cordifolia ‘Purpurea’

Camellia sasanqua ‘Crimson King’

Hamamelis x intermedia ‘Rubin’

Nandina domestica Obsessed (‘Seika’)

Bergenia cordifolia ‘Purpurea’ is a very common plant, disliked by many, but who can argue with this beautiful red colouring picked out by the winter sunshine?
Camellia sasanqua was introduced from Japan and has many cultivars, most of which do not do very well outside in this country. However, ‘Crimson King’ bucks this trend and is one of the most reliable and prolific flowering. Small, single, fragrant flowers are scattered over a large open shrub. It has the Royal Horticultural Society’s Award of Garden Merit and I thought it was a wonderful sight.
Most of the hamamelis were over but Hamamelis x intermedia ‘Rubin’ was still stunning so I wasn’t surprised to find it had been awarded the Royal Horticultural Society’s Award of Garden Merit. It forms a rounded shrub or small tree with leaves that colour yellow and orange in autumn but is only slightly scented so, even in the sunshine, I didn’t get a waft of perfume.
Nandina domestica has often been recommended by members but I don’t have one. Having seen this one showing such a glorious winter colour, which could be seen from some distance, I will certainly rectify the ommision. N.d. ‘Seika’ is a compact form, reaching about 75cm, which can be grown in sun or partial shade in a well-drained border or in a pot. I look forward to finding one.

Daphne bholua ‘Jacqueline Postill’

Sarcococca hookeriana var. hookeriana ‘Ghorepani’

The other thing we look for in the winter garden is perfume and I certainly found it in these two shrubs. Daphne bholua ‘Jacqueline Postill’ is another plant raised at the Hillier Nursery. It is very popular with our members and was placed at No. 2 in our Top 30. You can see all about it here.
I noticed the sarcococca from quite a distance for its fragrance and distinctive flowers. There is a post in our blog about sarcococca here but it doesn’t include this cultivar. According to the Sarcococca National Collection holder, it was named after the village in Nepal where it was discovered by plantsman Christopher Grey-Wilson in 2000. It will grow to about 1m in height and needs a well-drained soil in shade. It has been awarded the RHS Award of Garden Merit. I think it too will have to be added to the wants list.

There were so many more plants: hellebores, bamboos, ash, conifers, magnolia, tilia, prunus, mahonia oak – the list goes on and on. I really enjoyed my visit to a very interesting garden and hope you like sharing it with me.

You can see a gallery of all the images here.

Heather Baker

Heather Baker

We have recently heard the sad news that fellow member Heather Baker has died. She and Roy had been members for over twenty years but, he tells me, she didn’t actually like flowers very much. She just wanted the garden to be neat and tidy and pleaded with him to stop digging up bits of lawn to plant his latest acquisition. What she enjoyed most was the social side of our society and she joined Roy at many Kent Group events especially, and most memorably, our wonderful garden tours. We will miss her company.

We send our condolences to Roy and look forward to seeing him back among friends on the garden trail in the near future.


If you would like details of Heather’s funeral please get in touch using the button below and we’ll let you know as soon as we have them.

A Sarcococca Selection

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