Let's continue our musings on the great garden of Hidcote, which you recall is one of the fine gardens of England and which is notable for being divided into 20-odd separate gardens linked and divided by hedges.
The hedges themselves are curious and effective. Some are of solid yew, others of plain beech, and still others comprise two or three kinds of yew mixed with box, or several kinds of holly, or green and purple beech mixed. When these are formally trimmed, you get a tapestry effect from the different colors and textures of the several plants used in the hedge, but this novelty is not carried to excess.
In the courtyard garden is Viburnum burkwoodii, Schisandra grandiflora rubriflora, the Hidcote lavender, varieties of Clematis alpina, Robinia kelseyi, a creeping ceanothus and a climbing hydrangea. On house walls, a Chinese wisteria, Delavay's magnolia, Mahonia lomariifolia, Hydrangea serrata, Hydrangea macrophylla 'Veitchii,' Phygelius capensis and Clematis alpina, along with some of the roses discussed last week.
Of these plants, we should more widely plant the blue form of Clematis alpina, which blooms before the large-flowered clematis and is adorned with numerous hanging many-petaled flowers that suggest (to those who like everything to look like something else) ballet tutus. There are pink forms, too, which I do not like but which you might.
Magnolia delavayii is not a plant I would grow even if I had space for it. Its claim to fame is its glaucous bluish leaves. It takes as much space as our native M. grandiflora, a far more beautiful tree. The English do not grow either one very well, since they of necessity grow them against protected walls (they do not flourish in the open garden) and as a result the magnolias are somewhat butchered. Our native magnolia does not flower well in England because it is too chilly and sunless there. It is a terrible mistake to grow either of these magnolias on a wall. I remember in a garden by the Mississippi River somebody grew one on his house to remind him, I suppose, of Merrie England, and the effect was as troublesome (continual trimming) as it was asinine.
The phygelius is one of those plants suddenly very fashionable in every garden in England. It has spikes of red flowers and looks nice but is not worth bothering with.
The climbing hydrangea is a glorious climber if you have room for it. Nobody does. It is handsome on the cyclopean retaining wall that keeps the Rayburn House Office Building from sliding down into Independence Avenue (a superb wall for a dubious purpose) and there the hydrangea is irresistible.
The wall is so beautiful that the hydrangea ought not to be allowed to cover too much of it. In ordinary city gardens this plant might be allowed to cover an old brick stable. If you have an ordinary house on an ordinary lot, as I do, and lack large old brick or stone stables, you should go slow before trying this vigorous climber, which reaches 60 feet or so in damp Asian forests. But if, say, you have a big ugly old house with a side wall with no windows to speak of, the plant would be glorious.
This may be the place to say we never learn not to tuck in plants that will be a continuing worry because they cannot be kept in bounds in the sites we have chosen for them. I have already cited the magnolias of England. I need not have gone so far for an example. My great hybrid trumpet vine is now blooming on the terra cotta tiles of my roof. It must be got off the roof, the tiles of which it will pry off as easily as a teen-ager opening a pop-top can. I could cite other examples from my own garden, but that is the worst.
A native plant we ignore, largely because American nurserymen ignore it, is Robinia kelseyi from our eastern mountains. It is one of the pink locusts. It likes to sucker about and make a small grove or thicket. It has the usual locust foliage and a sort of red fur, or red hairs, on its young stems. The flowers are deep madder pink in little clusters about May, followed by seed pods covered with red hairs. When the setting sun shines through them they are pretty. In a previous garden I was crouching about (the locust only grew about seven feet high with me) to get the effect of these pods when the telephone repairman arrived. Unlike some repairmen he was not blind and admired the little trees too, and went off with a few I dug up for him. He also fixed the phone. That was years ago, of course.
In England they grow this and other locusts against walls, because they think the locust branches are brittle as glass. Here they are not brittle, and are better grown in the open.
Now the whole tribe of ceanothus, or California lilac as they are often called, do not like me. I do not say they are all tender, though I do not know anybody that grows them. I have tried several times. They are one of those plants that should be hardy with a bit of shelter here, but which seem to die in the winter. If you plant them, expect to lose them.
Rambling full steam ahead at Hidcote we come to Davidia involucrata vilmoriniana, the handkerchief tree. This has large white bracts that hang down like handkerchiefs in late spring. People have fits over it. E.H. Wilson collected it early in the century in western China, almost losing his life in doing so. For this reason, I often think, he thought davidias were pearls of great price, and people who grow them are proud as a dog with two tails. Rarity apart, the davidia seems to me an ordinary routine sort of tree with quite undistinguished foliage and little ornamental value. I'd rather have a common black locust or any of a number of ordinary willows, as far as beauty goes. It grows well enough in Washington, however, and it has a curious fascination for many.
The flowering cherry commonly seen in good English gardens (it is a fasionable cherry) is the yellowish-green-flowered one called 'Yukon,' stunning in bloom but like most cherries very ordinary looking most of the year.
Another plant in this part of the garden that I greatly love is a kind of Virginia creeper, Parthenocissus henryana, from China. It has a bronze cast to the leaves, with a lighter stripe running through each. I have failed with it twice, but would not hesitate to try it in Washington if I had a place for it now. It should be grown on a wall facing north, it does not like blazing sun, and it is not so rampant as most of the other creepers of its genus.
I acquired some very soft cuttings of a wonderful climber this summer at a famous garden of Philadelphia. The plant is Actinidia kolomitka, with large leaves, many of them snow-white. The growth was so soft there was no reason to hope they would root, but under my wife's superb care one of them did. When you see this plant in gardens it is usually the form with rosy-puce leaves or white leaves muddled with rose and green. Those give a messy unwholesome effect. The best one has the occasional solid white leaf, without green or anything else. The English, for some reason, do not know or at least do not grow the white form which is far superior to theirs.
If my rooted cutting, which has two very small leaves at the moment, grows along and if the Philadelphia garden gives me permission, I'd like to propagate it eventually. When a dazzlingly beautiful form of a garden plant exists, it is unfortunate for far less beautiful forms to be propagated in commerce.
The English do not universally seek out the best forms of plants. They are like us, and grow what they can find in the nurseries, but since their nurseries have wider selections than ours, they fare better. But I mention this actinidia as an example of poor forms being grown.
A plant seen in almost every garden of England is the mock orange 'Belle Etoile,' which is also popular in America. Its virtue is that there is less of it (it does not grow more than about six feet) than most mock oranges, and it has a lovely scent, as well as a light-purple blotch in the center of the flower. Mine, I see, is somewhat swamped at the moment by an all-conquering grape that somehow revived and got loose after being cut to the ground in April. If you love the smell of mock oranges and want one that does not get too big, this is a good one, though all the mock oranges are pretty ordinary looking and should have handsomer things near them to take off the curse, so to speak.
Of course these judgments are subjective. At Rosemary Verey's garden in England I almost broke my neck waddling over to see a clump of irises in bloom peering from beneath a low hedge. A lovely clear lavender form of Iris japonica. Mrs. Verey said yes, it had once been planted elsewhere, in a place too good for it, and later moved to its present spot where a first-rate plant was not really required. Ha. What a notion. No flower is more elegant. It does illustrate, though, that one man's first-rate plant is another woman's also-ran. And vice vice vice versa, too, I assure you.