Plant of the Month - March
Spring is now really starting to stir: bulbs and blossom are irrepressible. The spring equinox marks the official start of spring.
Anemone are corms rather than bulbs and less tasty to wildlife so I find them easier to get established than, say, tulips. They are native to southern Europe and naturalise easily. First to appear are Anemone blanda which prefer some shade and have white and blue flowers.
Then Anemone coronaria (although these sometimes show up earlier in a mild winter) which self-seed on the breeze - hence their name ‘wind flower’ - in a rainbow of colours. Also in the wild is the lovely mauve-pink Anemone hortensis.
Chaenomeles japonica - Japanese Quince
An ‘ordinary’ shrub that is anything but. Carl Peter Thunberg, the plant hunter who brought us Forsythia, also ‘discovered’ Japanese Quince (or Japonica); when you look at the flowers closely they are rather oriental and special. Italian gardeners like to trim Japonica into tight round shapes, but if let loose it becomes an exuberant shrub. There is a great thicket of Japonica in full bloom in an abandoned garden on the Pievaiola near the prison.
Native to the Mediterranean region, these very useful shrubs will grow in sun or partial shade. They will thrive on the edge of woodland and self-seed easily around the garden, being resistant to both drought and cold. Flowering right now, and since perhaps as early as January, the strong yellow of Coronilla glauca lights up the shrub border. It is an evergreen that reaches 1m tall and about the same wide. The leaves are a pleasing bluish green tone and rounded vetch-type shape. If you don’t like such a bright colour (and I don’t know why you would be so choosy - isn’t it nice to have a cheerful colour after the long grey winter?) then the variety ‘Citrina’ is a paler, sophisticated shade and perhaps blends more readily with silver and grey leaved plants. If you are gardening on clay soil and perhaps in shade - both of which are difficult conditions to deal with in the dry garden - then Coronilla emerus is able to cope. It doesn’t grow quite so densely as C. glauca and is a little taller but a welcome addition nonetheless. Trim Coronilla back after flowering in spring to keep it a good shape and especially if you don’t want it to set seed.
Tree Heather grows wild in the edge of the bosco - despite requiring acid soil - and is extremely resistant to drought and cold. It is a tall shrub with white flowers and deserves to be used more widely in gardens.
Nowadays considered ‘common’, but imagine the excitement when the first Forsythia arrived from Japan in 1833 on a ship of the Dutch East India Company: it was considered most exotic. Indeed, take a close look at the flowers and you will see how beautifully shaped they are.
A delicate looking little plant that in fact is really tough: it can survive in rocks on mountains and resists extremes of heat and cold. Native to the Mediterranean it is ideal for early blooms in the dry garden.
Originating in the Far East, Loropetalum is a well-behaved shrub with attractive bright pink flowers in early spring. The form of the flower is reminiscent of witch hazel - and is from the same family. The dark red leaves are particularly cheerful in low light of autumn. Grows to around 1.5m high and withstands cold weather but may need a little water in a very severe drought.
Native to the Mediterranean, this shrub ought to be more widely grown. The orange-yellow pea-like flowers start to appear as early as February. It is very resistant to drought and cold, growing to about 1.5m tall.
Narcissus - Daffodil
The arrival of daffodils is the real herald of spring and I always associate them with Easter. Choose a range of varieties and you can enjoy their cheering yellow flowers right through from February to April - even earlier if you plant them in pots indoors. Some types of Narcissus are native to Italy including the miniature, scented ones which you can find in the fields in Sicily and the taller Narcissus poeticus. There is a wide range of colours: for those of you who hate yellow, my favourite ‘Cheerfulness’ is a double white flower that blooms late in the season. The main thing about daffodils is to be really generous with the planting – more is more – and not to cut back the foliage until the bulbs have had a chance to regenerate.
For most of the year, Photinia is a rather humdrum hedging shrub but now is its moment when the red shoots appear and set the plant ablaze. Trim after the shoots have lost their colour - but watch out for nesting birds.
The photo at the top of this page shows the sweet almond tree which always comes into bloom on the first day of March
Many of these articles first appeared in the Castiglione del Lago monthly newsletter “Qua e là” edited by Priscilla Worsley
All text and photographs © Yvonne Barton unless stated otherwise