Memories are made of... Agapanthus ‘Catharina’—still blooming in the writer’s garden and now older than his grandchildren
‘Comfort food’ is a term familiar to anyone who enjoys a good meal. ‘Comfort flowers’ has yet to make its way into the public consciousness as a means of describing those blooms with which we feel most at home, especially those that give their all in the height of summer. This is a time rich in memories of holidays past and, to this particular gardener, floral associations can be every bit as potent as that first bowl of pasta on arriving in Italy or a hand-raised pork pie in a Yorkshire pub.
I write this on the Isle of Wight, surrounded by flowers, among which my children grew up and beside which many a glass has been drained and many a meal savoured. The surrounding blossoms do much to contribute to my summer enjoyment and, as with food, nostalgia and sentiment play a large part in their appeal.
As with the simplest of meals, it is often the least sophisticated flowers that exert a pull. Take hydrangeas. For several decades, when my daughters were young, we took a week’s holiday with friends on the Sussex coast. There was nothing between the garden of the sparsely furnished villa in which we were billeted and the sea, except for a rough pebble ‘promenade’, to give the rustic track an undeserved upgrade.
The border that ran down the side of the equally rugged lawn was stuffed solely with ‘Esther Read’ daisies, but it was the banks of pink and white hydrangeas in the garden of the house next door that always lifted my spirits when they hove into view as our old car — packed with baby buggy, nappies and the rest — rounded the final bend in the lane.
“Hanging baskets have taken a lot of flak recently… What a shame. If you spot a pub replete with bountiful hanging baskets, you know you are in for a good pint.”
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They seemed to welcome us with their late-summer show and, unlike many of the begonias and other summer bedding plants growing in gardens further along the ‘prom’, they never succumbed, during our stay, to salt-laden gales. When the onshore winds decided that summer must come to an end prematurely, they had the capacity to turn a vibrant display of tender annuals to blackened mush overnight.
In our Hampshire garden, I have a similar fondness for agapanthus, which were in full bloom at the time of our elder daughter’s wedding in late July, 13 years ago. The variety ‘Catharina’ is the one I had planted several years before that in two raised brick-built borders on either side of a flight of steps leading to a sunken lawn, where a round pool sported a boy-with-a-dolphin fountain at its centre. ‘Catharina’ is a deep sky blue and, at about 2ft tall, offers sufficient impact without ever needing additional support, as its stems are sturdy and upright.
Call me an old softie if you like, but I muse on the fact that these plants, which have never been dug up and divided, pre-date my four grandchildren and are still going strong.
Other flowers take me back even further. Pelargoniums I grew in the greenhouses of Ilkley Parks Department nursery when I was 15. I still call them ‘geraniums’, as I did in the 1960s. I love them still and they fill my greenhouse and my heart with their bright flowers.
Some cavil at the brashness of those scarlet ‘geraniums’ that fill the flowerbeds outside Buckingham Palace. For me they will always be a reminder of a less sophisticated — or less pretentious — time, when we grew flowers for their colour, rather than their cachet.
Then there are the pot marigolds that grew in our back garden as a child, to which were added mesembryanthemums (who grows these Livingstone daisies now?), tobacco plants (Nicotiana ‘Lime Green’ was a real favourite) and petunias — always reliable if you want to be hit between the eyes by day-glo pink trumpets.
Hanging baskets have taken a lot of flak recently — especially if you live in Salisbury, Wiltshire, where they have been replaced by something akin to mossy lampposts in the name of water conservation. What a shame. If you spot a pub replete with bountiful hanging baskets, you know you are in for a good pint. Visit a town that is decorated with them and you can be sure you are entering a community that values beauty as a raiser of spirits, rather than condemning it as a depleter of finances.
The problem with economists is that, as Oscar Wilde said of cynics, ‘they know the price of everything and the value of nothing’. I cannot put a price on summer flowers. They enrich my life beyond measure and remind me of times when beautiful flowers were appreciated for their ability to lift our spirits and brighten our lives.
‘Chatsworth: The gardens and the people who made them’ by Alan Titchmarsh is out on August 31 (£35, Ebury Spotlight)
Charles Quest-Ritson's adventures with agapanthus.
Alan Titchmarsh has always loved coastal gardens, but it wasn't until he ended up with his own a few years