Shade Monthly
Shade Monthly 2015

Author: Joe Sime

Shade Monthly: January 2015

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Welcome to the first edition of what is hoped will be a regular, monthly magazine of the Shade and Woodland Plant Group. To achieve this objective we need you all to send us items for inclusion. These don’t need to be great works of literature. A sentence or two on any relevant subject such as: your plant of the month; a horticultural problem or solution; your experience of a shade garden you have visited; a plant you want to grow well, or which you have discovered how to grow well; a nursery you have experience of; or simply a note of any subject you would like to know more about. Pictures will be particularly welcome. Please send anything to

Well, enough of the pleading, let get on with this month's items.

Plant of the Month: Arum italicum

Winter in the shade garden depends heavily for form and interest on evergreens, both herbaceous and woody. I think some of the best of these are the summer dormant plants that put up fresh new growth in late autumn that lasts through the winter, and of these in its various varieties and hybrids is particularly useful.

It occurs naturally throughout much of southern Europe, the UK, Ireland, North Africa and the Canary islands. It is a plant of moist, shady places and likes a deep, fertile soil. There are four recognised subspecies. The UK native is subspecies neglectum, but this is an uncommon garden plant, having only one listing in the Plant Finder. Most of the garden forms are from the subspecies italicum or its hybrids. The most common is ‘Marmoratum’; however I think many of the plants sold under this name are seed grown and do not have the leaf patterning of the true form. There are also an increasing number of other selections becoming available. I include pictures of three that I grow: ‘Chameleon’, which is a hybrid and ‘Tiny’ and ‘Angelique’ which are both varieties. I also include a picture of subspecies albispathum. What it lacks in leaf markings it makes up for in vigour and in the long lasting fruit spikes.

I have read that a good trick is to interplant Arum italicum with hostas. The theory is that the hostas are in leaf whilst the arums are going dormant and the arums take over as the hosta leaves die down. I haven’t tried this myself, but it seems a good idea.

Arum italicum ‘Angelique'

Arum italicum ‘Tiny'

Arum ‘Chameleon'

Arum italicum var albispathum

Nursery Notes: The Koen Van Poucke Nursery Belgium

I am a self-confessed epimedium addict. I have more or less exhausted all those offered by UK nurseries except for some of the Japanese grandiflorum hybrids which in the past I have found all very similar and not too keen on life. Koen's nursery came to my notice via the Plant Finder and I spent an hour or so drooling at his extensive plant list before realising that he will only do mail order for epimediums. Furthermore the minimum order is €100, payable by bankers draft and the plants would be sent bare rooted. For me this presented three areas of risk. It took me a while to take the plunge. This autumn I did. I went through his list. There was no problem reaching the €100 minimum, even though the prices are reasonable. I forced myself to stop once the list had reached 20. I e-mailed Koen to confirm availability and price, including shipment costs. One nice surprise was that he now accepts payment by credit card, and I arranged to phone the nursery and give our card number over the phone (I don’t trust e-mail with such details). The phone was answered by a young lady with perfect English, payment was taken and 3 days later a small parcel arrived by post. It was only about 2ft x 1ft x 4ins. Difficult to believe that it contained 20 epimediums unless they were micro-herbs. However, my wife took away the box and potted the newcomers up. In their pots they looked just as good as most plants bought by mail order in the U.K. They are growing away well (see photo). One of them (E. borealiguizhouense) has been fooled by the mild winter into flowering. It has a spike of over 100 tiny white flowers just as described in Stearn's monograph. I will probably not plant them out until next autumn or, perhaps the following spring, but that is just my natural caution. If any of you fellow sufferers of the epimedium mania are hovering on a decision about ordering from Koen, take the plunge. It works.

Epimediums from Belgium

Problems and opportunities: Pleioblastus pygmaeus

The first problem is to identify which plant I am talking about. I bought it under the above name, and this is still the name used by the Plant Finder. However, ‘Flora of China’ says it is P. distichus. ‘The Plant List’ says it is really P. fortunei, but we can rule this out as the plant is not variegated and P. fortunei is. To confuse things even more The Plant List says that P.distichus is really a Sasa. So much for botany.

The plant itself is a rhizomatous bamboo with short (2ft) stems bearing bright green leaves. The opportunity is that, once established, it thrives in dry, deep shade. It is useful for planting at the base of trees to give a green back drop to the more interesting plants that need a slightly less shady spot towards the edge of the canopy. In the winter the chlorophyll at the edge of the leaves degrades, giving a white and green striped effect which can be quite attractive.

Now to the real problem. The rhizomes are strong and vigorous and extend at least a foot beyond the apparent edge of the plant. They do not go deep, staying within 4 inches or so of the surface, but they intertwine with the roots of the trees and can be difficult to remove. I have two patches of the plant, both now twice the size I wanted them to be. If I was starting again I would still plant it, but I would surround it with a buried barrier about 6 ins deep to keep it in bounds.

Pleioblastus pygmaeus

Wish list: Healthy Hepaticas

They don’t die but they don’t thrive. Can anyone tell me the secret of big, healthy hepaticas?

Job of the Month: Mulching

The reasons for mulching open borders, in order of importance are: to suppress weed growth; to maintain moisture levels; and to improve soil condition. The same reasons apply in shade, but the order is reversed. In nature the annual leaf fall constantly adds decaying organic matter to the top of the soil, and woodland plants are adapted to this. If your shade beds do not get natural leaf fall, you will need to mulch to replace it. In summer the main loss of water is through the canopy, not direct evaporation, but a layer of mulch does help retain moisture. And finally, weeds do grow in shade but not to the extent they do in sunny borders.

In practice I divide my shade into two groups. Where there is a good deciduous canopy, most years I leave it up to the leaf fall, and only mulch occasionally when I have surplus material available. However I also have some raised shade beds which have no natural canopy, and these I mulch annually. I think the best mulch by far is leaf mould. A good alternative is garden compost, although if you are a lazy compost maker like me this will introduce some weed seeds. An adequate choice is garden shreddings, but these should be allowed to compost down for a while before spreading them. The bacteria that break down the wood chips use quite a lot of nitrogen, and woodland soils are, by their nature, low in minerals, so fresh shreddings make too big a demand. If you have a small area of shade and money to spend then mini-chipped bark is excellent! As weed suppression is not the prime objective, I tend to mulch thinly to only an inch or two, but perhaps I am too stingy.

Shade Charades

Guess the genus – Six syllables

  • First syllable … opposite over hypotenuse
  • Second syllable … an expression of surprise
  • Third syllable … a river in Italy
  • Fourth syllable … raw pastry
  • Fifth syllable … perhaps Tufnell, perhaps Collins
  • Sixth syllable … machine noise drops its haitches.

‘Christmas Cheer’

Finally an antidote to the January blues. Our secretary Diana Garner has sent in a photo of Rhododendron ‘Christmas Cheer’. This beauty is a hybrid of R. caucasicum which is also known as the ‘snow rose’. The young leaves of the basic species are used to make a tea that is supposed to help with weight reduction. Just the ticket after Christmas excess!

Rhododendron ‘Christmas Cheer'

Joe Sime

Please note that any recommendations in this column are made by the author and NOT by The Hardy Plant Society.

The HPS Shade and Woodland Plant Group is open to all members of the Hardy Plant Society. Please follow this link for more information.

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