Symbols of love

Just now, our pinks and carnations (Dianthus spp.) are flowering well – quite an achievement considering that the midday temperature is hovering around 40C these days.

They were grown from seeds brought from London a few years ago and have thrived both in the borders and in pots. The potted ones are a great addition to the garden – I move them around every so often to create a new feel to a tired spot and they cheer me no end.

The flowers bring an eye-catching splash of colour to the edge of our beds, from soft pink through salmon-red to deep crimson. Some varieties have red flecks; others are pure white. All share a sweet scent, pretty rather than luxuriant, often with overtones of cloves, especially Dianthus caryophyllus. The Arabic name is qaranful – a word that means both carnation and clove.

Dianthus have been cultivated and treasured for millennia. The Greek dianthos means “flower of God” and in ancient Greece the blooms were woven into garlands for festive occasions. For two thousand years, the properties of carnations – especially D. chinensis – have been tapped in Chinese medicine to treat a whole range of conditions from high blood pressure to urinary tract infections. Used externally, this species can help in the treatment of eczema and skin inflammations.

And there’s another aspect to these multi-faceted plants: art. As a symbol of love, both divine and earthly,  the “flower of God” was often associated with the Virgin and child in the European tradition of painting; it also appeared in betrothal and marriage portraits. Further east, carnations were made to arc gracefully around Ottoman Iznik ceramics and to bloom gloriously in their textiles. Dianthus has been part of the fabric of our lives for centuries.

In the Jasmine garden we have a white flowering variety in the new herb bed (more on the expanding empire next post). This is a nod to Dianthus’ role in herbal medicine – although it isn’t the right variety – as well as a way to add interest to the bed.

Moving the white carnation

It may be somewhat wide of the mark, but I tend to think of Dianthus as a particularly English flower. Partial to alkaline soil, and thus happy in the chalk-lands of southeastern England, pinks and carnations seem to cope well with unpredictable weather, producing copious flowers for weeks on end and scenting the air on hot sunny days.

I’m never quite sure if I should cut them, however. As each new flower unfurls from a tight, grey-blue bud, full of youthful life and purity, I think it better to leave it be: too precious to cut.

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Border clearance and a close encounter

For the past two weeks I have been clearing and cleaning the herbaceous borders. It’s about time: the job hasn’t been done properly for two years. They were quite overgrown.
Overgrown border 1.16
So in this sometimes sunny, sometimes chilly winter weather, I have cut the roses (R. sinensis) and the plumbago (P. capensis), both white and blue, right down. Most of the hibiscus (H. rosa sinensis) received less drastic pruning, especially my favourite with the deep pink double flowers.

The white bougainvillea, which was overarching an entire section, also needed attention. It had gone into overdrive after we cut the hedge back severely during the summer.

Bougainvillea overgrown 1.16
Now, it has been cut down to size. In my experience, bougainvillea (B. x buttiana) is an unpredictable shrub: it can grow to enormous proportions, covering whole walls with cascades of papery bracts in unforgettable shades of magenta, yellow-to-orange, or white. But young plants may also resolutely refuse to thrive, having perhaps taken umbrage at the manhandling they received when transplanted into position. I have watched specimens sulk for several years in a row, then suddenly take off. After that, there’s no stopping them!

Over the past two years I have spent much time trying to persuade our pinks and carnations (various Dianthus), which have a tendency to sprawl and to lose potential blooms as the fragile stems break, to develop more compact – or at least tidy – habits. To no avail, for the most part. One, with white flowers, is a fine exception: it both covers the ground and offers up dozens of sweet smelling blooms all year round. Now I have added a companion plant, one with the sweetest fragrance, keeping it in its pot but sinking the pot into the border.

This brings me to the touchy subject of lifting pots with their resident plants out of one bed for transfer to a more suitable spot. My experience has been a torment, to say the least. Without fail, the Engineer or gardener yanks them up without a jot of sensitivity; as I hear the roots tear I feel the plants’ pain. Better to do it myself.

Scilly Isles plants 2.16

The aeoniums (A. arboreum), which my husband brought as babies from the Scilly Isles, are sited among the white carnations. Odd plants, native to Morocco, they have been working on relocating themselves, either by falling over and taking root in the sunnier spot just in front, or by presenting new growth about 30cm away. The deep purple-red variety (“Atropurpureum“) continues to tower over the others, but it has lost foliage and looks weak, certainly by comparison with its relatives on the island of Tresco.

As I worked, I discovered the Arabian jasmine (J. sambac) had obligingly layered itself to form two new plants. A welcome bonus! But the big surprise on Friday was encountering a praying (or is that “preying”?) mantis sunbathing among the cannas (C. indica).

Praying mantis 2.16

Intrigued, I got up a bit closer. After eyeing me back for a while, she turned aside, assiduously engaged in her morning grooming, first working her way up and down a fore-limb with her mandibles, and then raising the limb to rub over the side of her head again and again – just as our dog would do! I was spellbound: there are many times when you sense a kind of pattern or template in nature, but it’s enthralling to see it in action across entirely different parts of the animal kingdom.

Perhaps irritated by my intrusion, she serenely moved off, demonstrating the advantages of those oh-so-long legs as she balanced delicately between stem and leaf.