31: Spring 2013

Author: John Hudson

A really useful plant

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A really useful plant
John Hudson

I was rude about the term ‘a useful plant’ in an article I wrote recently, but some plants really are useful as well as beautiful. One of the best in my garden is the spurge Euphorbia characias. It has two sub-species, wulfenii from the eastern Mediterranean with clear yellow centres to the ‘flowers’, and characias from the western Mediterranean with a dark eye. There are numerous named garden forms. Many years ago I bought a plant of wulfenii ‘Lambrook Gold’, named after Margery Fish’s famous garden. It lived for at least twenty years in the corner of a bed adjacent to the patio, providing a foil to a clump of ‘February Gold’ daffodils and a background to a pair of bronze geese. It also produced seedlings, which were spread around the garden. Some time later I imported a cutting of a black-eyed plant growing as a roadside weed in Majorca. It didn’t do very well, making a small and floppy plant, but its genes must have mixed with those of my original race, because I now find seedlings with both characteristics.

It is the seedlings that prompted this article. Not many plants that have structural value in our gardens also self-seed. E. characias, especially the wulfenii forms that are generally the larger, forms clumps of arching evergreen (bluish green) leafy stems that have character throughout the year. In early spring it produces terminal clusters of typical spurge greeny-yellow flowers that in the best forms elongate into great columnar heads that last until mid summer. It brings strength to what might otherwise be a formless assemblage of plants. Last year I placed three of them for just this purpose in a replanted border. But you might not have thought that you needed a spurge under a pine tree, or leaning against the greenhouse, until one popped up there. It is surprising how often self-sown plants put themselves where they look right. Unlike some self-sowers, this spurge does not become a nuisance. Small seedlings are obvious, easy to move, pot-on as gifts, or to discard. It is worth observing them though, because they do vary, and selecting the best for use in prominent places. I now have at least 20 in various parts of the garden. This obliging plant is unfussy about soil or aspect. A friend in north Lincolnshire lost his in the 2010-11 winter, but mine have survived the last three hard winters unscathed. Eventually the centre of the clump becomes crowded with old woody stems, and you need to start again; not, as I have indicated, hard to do.

First published in the Rutland Group Newsletter, April 2012
and subsequently in Cornucopia Issue 31.
© Copyright for this article: John Hudson

This article was taken from a copy of Cornucopia that was published in 2013. You could be reading these articles as they are published to a national audience, by subscribing to Cornucopia.

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