Alan Titchmarsh: The bright, cheery flower which fired my childhood dreams of becoming a gardener

Gardener, writer and broadcaster Alan Titchmarsh tells of his love for the irresistible yet unfairly overlooked aubretia.

In spring, a young man’s fancy may lightly turn to thoughts of love. A gardener’s fancy, however, turns to thoughts of primroses and daffodils, of cherry blossom, celandines and snake’s head fritillaries. Yet there is one spring flower that seldom gets a mention. Bright and cheery, we take its presence for granted and smile indulgently at its lack of pretention.

In that case, why does no one champion aubrieta? Is it because it is common? Or rather too garish in its purple or carmine livery? Or because it grows so freely on deeply unfashionable rockeries or the stone-studded banks that the legendary alpinist Reginald Farrer called ‘plum puddings’ or ‘dogs’ graves’?

The plant is named after the French botanical artist Claude Aubriet, whose life spanned the 17th and 18th centuries, but rarely do we refer to his namesake as we should pronounce it. We prefer to call it ‘or-bree-sha’ — a rather more friendly sounding name, well suited to the country cottages whose boundaries it enlivens at this time of year.

Oh, how I love it. I love its ability to grow in the most inhospitable-looking terrain — tumbling banks of boulders or spoil heaps studded with lumps of concrete that someone thought to disguise with a few rock plants. Over a couple of years, aubrieta turns itself into flower-studded pillows that cannot fail to raise a smile.

Originally hailing from an area stretching from the mountains of south-east Europe to Iran, the plants are opportunistic travellers that will settle happily anywhere they can find well-drained soil that’s neutral to alkaline, rather than acid.

Perhaps this is why I find myself admiring their cheery countenance. As someone who has gardened on chalk for the past 40 years, I am delighted to encounter plants described thus, rather than ‘preferring acid soil’, which usually gives rise to a harrumph and a turning of the page of the plant catalogue.

Aubrieta is frequently grouped with arabis, another mat-forming crucifer that is not very often praised. The plants are similar, but, for me, aubrieta is the more endearing of the two and offers a neater habit and a greater colour range.

Most varieties are described as being forms of Aubrieta x cultorum (a name that indicates a complex mixture of bloodlines). You can forget that; simply ask for varieties such as Bressingham Pink, J. S. Baker or Kitte Rose, purple with a white eye, or Joy, which is mauve. There are variegated varieties, too: Swan Red, pink turning to magenta with age, or Doctor Mules Variegata, whose purple flowers are shown off well against the cream-edged green leaves.

As the plants age, their thick rugs can die out in places and turn the plants into shaggy mats rather than plump cushions. Don’t try to divide them, the operation will drive you nuts and you will end up with loose hanks of straggling stems. Instead, take shoot-tip cuttings after flowering, or even later in the summer, and root them in sandy compost. The resulting young plants will have far more vigour than their aged relatives, which can be pulled up and consigned to the compost heap.

You can keep the plants youthful by clipping them over lightly with a pair of garden shears once flowering is over. This cutting back will encourage the formation of more young shoots and a denser habit, keeping the plants going for a few years longer than they would otherwise.

If you are starting afresh with aubrieta, make sure that the spot destined for it is in full sun and that drainage is good. These are the reasons why it seems so happy in vertical rock faces and perilously steep embankments. If you are building a dry-stone bank, take the opportunity to plant them while the wall is being constructed, slipping them out of their pots and squeezing the rootballs (well soaked beforehand), so that they can be inserted into cracks, crevices and fissures. Space them two or three feet apart, as they can easily spread out to cover a foot or more in each direction.

Together with arabis and aquilegias, hollyhocks and lavender, pot marigolds and wallflowers, godetia, clarkia and love-in-a-mist, aubrieta is a plant of cottage gardens, of childhood memories that first fired my desire to be a gardener. Sixty years on, it still makes me smile and be grateful for the arrival of spring.

It has been a long, wet winter, but now, the aubrieta is tumbling over the rocky bank and the retaining stone wall, all’s right with the world and everything in the garden is lovely.