Bridal Silk and Crapaudine: The beauty and the beast of the seed world

IMAGINE a rose, a rhododendron or a peony being christened Crapaudine. Not very flattering, I’m sure you’ll agree, and a name, surely, to prove the ultimate customer turn-off.

But what about a beetroot? Not the most elegant of veg, they are nonetheless loved by many – myself among them – for adding another colour to salads and for their health-giving properties.

The essential with beetroot, of course, is to avoid spilling the juice down your brand new white shirt or across the pale blue table cloth! Eradication is one of life’s near-impossibilities.

thumbnail_Beetroot, 'Crapaudine' 1710T

⏩⏩➡»  Beautiful beetroot? Introducing Crapaudine, all set to grace your salads.

Among the many additions to the Chiltern Seeds’ newest catalogue is one of the oddest looking beets I’ve known.

More closely shaped like a carrot, Crapaudine gets its name from the French word for toad – crapaud – and, like our amphibious friends, it has a tough, rough skin resembling tree bark the root, but once you peel back the root you’ll discover beautifully rich-coloured, dark flesh and a superior flavour favoured by chefs.

Chiltern, perhaps unsurprisingly, wonder why Crapaudine is not more widely grown. It is possibly one of the oldest beets of all and Chiltern reassure us by saying: “It tastes better than it looks.”

Crapaudine: Remember that name but be careful how you say it!

As always, the Chiltern handbooks – one for flowers, one for veg – fall into the difficult-to-put-down category.

With  combined total of more than 200 pages, the detail is thorough and informative, whether your interests are annuals, perennials, shrubs, cut flowers, meadow, pond and woodland mixtures or green manuring plants, as well as a bounteous assortment of veg, with many like our friend Crapaudine featured in comedy pose.

In this 43rd edition, there are no fewer than 230 newcomers alongside hundreds of tried and trusted varieties, so being spoiled for choice is routine down Chiltern way.

Among debutantes that caught my eye:

Echinacea Paradiso Mix: Superb, brightly coloured daisies for mid-summer to autumn blooms in pink, yellow, white, rusty-orange and dark red, some with contrasting cones. 2½ft.

Antirrhinum Madame Butterfly Dark Red: A real dazzler of an award-winning snapdragon in the recently introduced double series. Flowers are long-lasting and look like double azaleas, reflecting their alternative name, azalea snapdragon. 2½ft.

Delphinium consolida Salmon Beauty: This is larkspur, the annual delph, so no second season unless you sow more seed. Tall spires of unusual salmony-pink, papery flowers, maybe to grown alongside Splish Splash, a fun and distinctive newbie with white blooms splashed purple and pink. 4ft.

Papaver rhoeas Bridal Silk: A huge Chiltern choice in poppies, this one is among the most elegant, bearing in summer silken flowers of pure sparkling white. 2ft.

Next year Chiltern will be supporting two worthy charities. They will donate £1.50 from every packet of Antirrhinum majus Ruby sold to the charity Thrive which celebrates its 40th – ruby – anniversary.

Chiltern are also supporting a new venture in 2019 – Life at Number 27 (

Annabelle Padwick, the inspirational founder – and an ambassador for Thrive – is launching a non-profit organisation which aims to use gardening and grow-you-own as an alternative therapy for mental health illnesses.

The firm are donating 50p from each packet sold of five different vegetables – beetroot Boston, carrot Sugarsnax, pea Alderman, salad rocket Astra and tomato Black Cherry.

  ⏩⏩➡» 824675

⏩⏩➡» Fabulous flowers: Top – Echinacea Paradiso Mix; above left – Antirrhinum Madame Butterfly; centre – Larkspur Salmon Beauty; right – Poppy Bridal Silk.


⏩⏩➡» Front to back: The Chiltern Seeds 2019 catalogue featuring Digitalis Pam’s Choice and chilli Etna which will live up to its name for heat so mind how you eat!



David Austin: Rose pioneer and genius with the pollen brush

THOUGH I never knew David Austin, I grow several of his roses and am left with one abiding thought: Without him our gardens would lack an extra layer of sumptuous beauty.

David, who died this week at the grand age of 92, turned the traditional and delicate art of rose breeding on its head with a stroke of genius.

And the millions worldwide who cherish his special race of this special flower will thank him for so doing.

Quite simply – well, not so simply, really – David blended the charm, fragrance and health of old-fashioned roses with the vigour and free-flowering ability of modern varieties.

Breeding roses requires a bottomless pit of patience – light years away from sowing seeds one summer and selling plants the next!

It takes years to produce those perfectly formed blooms that the public demand and, in the meantime, thousands of seedlings have to be cast aside at the expense of just one or two that make the grade.

It’s rather like a botanical pearl in the oyster. Yet, over time, it was to prove a masterstroke for the indomitable David.

From the early 1980s to the present day hundreds of English Roses – as they have become to be known – were honed to perfection, with the result that few garden zealots up and down the country fail to grow at least one or two.

My collection includes the soft pink rosette-bloomed Rosemoor, named after the Devon RHS garden, the rich yellow Molyneux, after the Wolves Football Club which lies close to his family firm at Albrighton, the similarly coloured Graham Thomas, after the late influential gardener, and the climbing form of James Galway, a warm-to-blush pink choice and named after the celebrated flute maestro.

Many of David’s roses have ancient and colourful handles, such as Eglantyne, The Mayflower, William Shakespeare, Jude the Obscure, Winchester Cathedral, Anne Boleyn, Blythe Spirit, Falstaff, Charles Darwin and Edward Elgar.

But he never named one after himself, such was the modesty of the man.

David Austin, OBE and holder of the coveted Victoria Medal of Honour from the RHS – rose pioneer, innovator, dedicated man of the soil and quiet genius.


Rose MolyneuxG

Rose Rosemoor

⏩⏩➡»David’s delights: Two of my English Roses: Top – Molyneux; above – Rosemoor.

When a queen is male and a king female: It’s the quirky life of handsome hollies

THE HOLLY and the ivy . . .  in Yuletide language you know the rest, of course, particularly at this time of fun, festivities and Father Christmas.

There’s no doubt that when a holly is full-grown there is a certain crowning glory about it, just like that carol indicates.

Yet this huge and complex race of trees and shrubs holds a few bizarre riddles that surely leave the unsuspecting holly hunters with furrowed brows.

Who, for instance, would think of naming a female holly Golden King and male hollies Silver Queen and Golden Queen?

Well, that’s not all. Edward Goucher, James G. Essom, William Cowgill and Indian Chief fool us all by being “lady” varieties.

Holly Alaska & ivy

With their roots deep in folklore, superstition and religion, hollies are also famed for their “gender bender” quirkiness.

Around Christmastime, ilex – to give hollies their botanical title – are everywhere, both as decorations adorning the house and looking majestic in garden or countryside and in full berry.

Actually, only female hollies bear berries. Unlike many plants, holly is dioecious, meaning there are both male and female plants growing separately.

Many males have vivid variegated foliage in either silver or gold and can look even more striking than those with “berried treasure”.

Yet there’s little doubt that most gardeners prefer varieties encrusted with those familiar berries, or drupes, in red, black, yellow, orange and even white and all in high demand by hungry birds at the tough end of the year.

Most of the “Christmas hollies” are forms of Ilex aquifolium, a clan that includes those magnificent “girlie boys” Silver Queen and Golden Queen, both holders of the RHS Award of Garden Merit. But this pair are not so popular for decking the halls as there are no berries, but the spectacular, creamy-edged Golden King that’s simply studded with scarlet berries is a hard act to follow.

Rosemoor, the RHS garden at Torrington, holds one of the National Collections with more than 170 different species and varieties. Right now the berried beauties will be looking their best in their spiny armoury and vibrant jewels. It makes a stunning hedge too.

Robust, versatile, easy to grow in sun or shade – varietgated varieties prefer full sun – and oozing magnificence on a grand scale, hollies can be thorny or thornless, deciduous or evergreen and contain more than 500 species and varieties. So you’ve got a pretty wide choice!

⏩⏩➡» If you are looking for a good holly-read, I commend the book Hollies for Gardeners, published in 2007 by Timber Press and penned by Rosemoor’s former curator Christopher Bailes. Superbly illustrated and full of fascinating facts and figures, the book’s 287 pages will surely make you something of an Ilex expert by the time you’ve finished.


⏩⏩➡» Top: It’s the holly with the ivy featuring Ilex Alaska; above left – Nellie R Stevens; right – Golden van Tol. All three pictures were taken at Rosemoor.


Qué? Why the curious habit of coal tits reminds me of poor old Manuel

FAWLTY TOWERS fans are sure to smile at the restaurant scene when hapless waiter Manuel runs repeatedly from tables to trolley, picking up one napkin at a time as another crisis mounts.

Basil, you’ll recall, ends up bashing Manuel’s forehead with a sticky spoon as punishment.

I’m always reminded of Manuel’s wasted journeys across the dining floor whenever I watch coal tits helping themselves to supper in our garden.

So what on earth is the connection here?

Coal tits are the only bird to land on feeder or table, peck up one seed and fly off to a tree to swallow it.

Then they’ll return and repeat the routine over and over again, rather than stay awhile, tuck in and enjoy without constantly taking flight and using up so much more energy.

It’s all rather Manuel-esque, don’t you agree?

Oddly, the coals are the only tit – indeed, the only bird, I believe – that behave this way. Their close cousins, the blue tits, great tits and long taileds, hang around the feeders for a while, grabbing what they can in one landing . . . unless, of course, disturbed by an unwelcome crow or gull.

Coal tit

For reasons that only Mother Nature knows, we seem to welcome more coal tits into our garden than any of the others, despite the fact that they are more closely associated with conifers than deciduous trees which we have in our patch.

At a dinky, but tenacious, 4½in from head to tail, they are Europe’s smallest tit, closely followed by the willow and marsh tits that seldom invade suburban gardens.

Being so tiny, coal tits cleverly exploit their near-weightlessness by searching the most fragile twigs for tasty treats.

And they are more fearless of human movement than any other tit, a fact that conflicts with their habit of multi-flights to the feeders, giving the impression they are ultra-cautious. Yet clearly it is not through timidness – more a case of instinct proving a stronger force than common sense!

For those unfamiliar with coal tits, they are dressed in a bright buff underside, white cheeks, black head and bib, a white nape patch and a greyish back.

When in flight – if you are quick enough – you’ll notice two white wing bars on each side, while the others have only one or none at all.

All of which makes this speck of a bird not, perhaps, the most exciting to look at, though a true a personality piece nonetheless.

I just wish they wouldn’t waste so much time to-ing and fro-ing to satisfy their hunger pangs – just like dear old Manuel’s odd antics when the heat’s on in the kitchen!

Coal tit & feeder.JPG

⏩⏩➡» Coal fired: Top – A tenacious coal tit up-close; above – one grabs a seed from a feeder before flying off to enjoy.


A classical number from Bizot – and not a prickle in sight


GRUMBLING about growing roses is usually down to those thorny stems – some wickedly so. Very few varieties are totally prickle-free and a small number are semi-barbed, with a scattering of thorns along the shoots.

But there is one A-lister, smooth-stemmed climber that’s been a popular choice since 1868 . . . yes, eighteen-sixty-eight, when a French breeder called Bizot first introduced it to the public domain.

And that means it celebrates its 150th birthday this year.

Its name: Zéphirine Drouhin, a bourbon climber in a coat of almost iridescent cerise-pink, semi-double flowers that are among the most deliciously scented of any.

It also enjoys prolific flower production – a torrent of them from early summer to autumn, and often later, on a frame that will reach a modest 8ft-10ft.

The oldest horticultural book in my personal collection, Present Day Gardening, published in 1911, hails Zéphirine Drouhin as “one of the most fragrant and charming of garden roses in existence; one, too, which has the great merit of being able to set at naught (sic) the old proverb ‘Every rose has its thorn’.”

Rose Zephirin Drouhin

⏩⏩➡»It’s on the label: A cluster of beautiful pink blooms of Zéphirine Drouhin, a veteran from 150 years ago.

Well, you can’t argue with that level of praise. Old Zéphirine has gone on and on through the decades and is still listed by virtually all nurseries and viewed, pot-grown, in every garden centre.

Indeed, I would rate is as renowned as Peace from 1942, though – for reasons which baffle me – this golden oldie doesn’t trip off the tongue and is on fewer must-have lists compared with the lakes of Peace, Iceberg, Compassion and many others. Maybe it’s all about that name!

Still, if this deadpan colour bothers you, there’s always its sport, Kathleen Harrop, to consider. This shell-pink mutation didn’t make its commercial bow until 1919, courtesy of Dicksons of Northern Ireland.

It is slightly less vigorous than its parent, but also boasts a thorn-free livery and a constant flow of highly fragrant flowers.

Zéphirine Drouhin, especially, will make a fine informal hedge, as well as being an excellent choice for a north-facing wall. There is no bush version of this enduring climber.

Visit your local garden centre for pot-grown Zéphirine Drouhin or Kathleen Harrop. For a cheaper option choose a bare-rooted plant for positioning any time up to March. Handley Rose Nurseries, near Sheffield ( 432921) stocks Zéphirine at an attractive £7.50. You can order this variety at £14.75, as well as Kathleen Harrop (£14.75) and another, lesser-known sport Martha that’s pink with yellow base (£15.50) from Peter Beales of Norfolk ( 454707).