Beware the Rose that will Engulf Your Garden

June 22, 2006

I’ve always loved Lilium candidum, an inevitable passion in anyone keen on paintings of the Annunciation, where Gabriel often arrives clutching one, or the lily is in a vase in the Virgin’s room. And, although I’ve tried over the decades to get it going, I’ve never succeeded. In that context, it has always irritated me to read of Gertrude Jekyll being able to get it to thrive almost on sight. On the whole, I find her an irritating read, only exceeded by Vita Sackville-West’s Bloomsbury condescension, which is even more infuriating. But Shaun has proved to have a nifty hand with L. candidum and so here it is, for the first time, and there’s every hope that we can get it to multiply.

He planted some in front of banks of mophead hydrangeas, which this year decided that their flowers would be blue. So many visitors to the garden have remarked on this enchant-ment, again a painterly one, as the blue is an exact match for those Mediterranean skies in quattrocento Tuscan paintings. Which goes to show that you can only look at any garden through the repertory of your own vision. I wonder how many gardeners recognise that fact? This summer has seen the apotheosis of the rose. The Rose Garden, only in year two, has been an astonishing spectacle, with branches shooting up to 6ft of heavy clusters of pink flowers, underplanted with the lime-green of Alchemilla mollis, in a planting scheme owed to the late John Fowler.

Beware of the Wickwar rose. In retrospect, perhaps, it was a little foolish to have let it loose in the garden. Peter Beales writes of this ravening beast: ‘An unusual and pleasing rose which should perhaps have received more attention in the 25 or so years since its introduction’. Well, I can tell you that once you’ve got it, there’s no lack of attention seeking on its part. It’s one of those roses that grows by stealth. You go to bed and when you get up next morning, you find it has sprouted 4ft overnight. But I love its chalky blue-grey foliage and creamy white flowers. And it is fragrant.

In the Birthday Garden, Wick-war engulfed a yew hedge, eating it up. We hatcheted it back 20ft. In the Nutcracker Garden, it shot 100ft horizontally and killed off one side of another hedge. So sentence was passed, and it was reduced to a solitary stem which now climbs to the top of a large Prunus lusitanica and has begun its descent downwards, forming what we hope will be an annual waterfall of blooms. It has also scrambled up a silver birch tree that soars above the Rose Garden hedge. But the effect, it cannot be denied, is ravishing at least, it is at the moment. Perhaps that’s its ploy. It seduces you with its beauty and then moves on to make the kill, smothering everything in sight.

The Plantation Garden on the outskirts of Norwich is a hidden jewel. I came across it simply because a decade ago, I made a radio programme on the city, and was booked into a hotel that had previously been the house to which the garden had belonged. It is in an abandoned chalk quarry which a mid-Victorian businessman, Henry Trevor, transformed into a highly idiosyncratic garden with dramatic changes of level and an endearing if naïve folie de grandeur. He died in 1897, after which it was downhill all the way, until rescue came. The restoration, which began in the 1980s, was done entirely by volunteers, whose enthusiasm I found irresistible and I agreed to become their patron.

All of this may seem a far cry from The Laskett but, on its 25th anniversary, here they came. It was a happy day, and I was touched to be presented with a very special plant: Queen Victoria’s hebe. It is a descendant from the original, which started its life as a sprig in her wedding bouquet in 1840. Cuttings, I was told, were given to the present Queen in 1977 on the occasion of her Silver Jubilee, to The Princess of Wales for her wedding bouquet in 1981, and, finally, to The Queen again for her Golden Jubilee. What a history. I decided that somehow or other a place must be found for it in the vicinity of my Victoria & Albert Museum Temple, near Victoria’s bust.

This article first appeared in COUNTRY LIFE magazine on June 22, 2006