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Irarely mix a cocktail of plants without adding a Russian olive. This is the common name of the deciduous shrub or small tree formally known as Elaeagnus Quicksilver (E. angustifolia var. caspica). Small, starry and produced in summer, its flowers are the colour of honey, and usually smell of it, too. But it’s the leaves that make it such an invaluable mixer-soft, oval and coated with a glittering, mica-like meal.
There is no other silver plant to touch it, at least not at its size, which may be anything from a 4ft shrub to a 15ft tree: the choice is entirely yours, to be imposed by pruning, which Elaeagnus Quick silver graciously accepts. It’s untroubled by cold (it’s not a true olive) and by site. It flourishes in damp shade. It absolutely relishes dry, stony soil and burning sun.
This thirst for drought makes it ideal for gravel gardens. There’s the warm south in microcosm in a lyrically pruned Elaeagnus Quicksilver, its dark trunks emerging from behind a boulder or two and its crown shimmering over golden clouds of Stipa gigantea and purple flights of Verbena bonariensis. But we also use it in more traditional contexts.
By ‘we’, I mean my family. We’ve had the same Russian olive for decades, bought as E. angustifolia var. caspica and allegedly from western Asia. We’ve propagated it (it’s easy: 6in cuttings of semi-ripe growth in summer; cut below leaf axil; no heel; plenty of rooting powder; moist gritty soil; overhead dousings in hot weather), given it to friends, and planted it wherever we garden.
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My mother grows hers against a stone wall. She keeps it trimmed to about 6ft so that it remains leafy from top to bottom. Beside it is Rosa Guinée, a magnificent old climber that has two drawbacks-sparse, often disease-disfigured foliage and flowers of a dark red so abyssal they can seem to vanish.
By lolling over and into the Russian olive, it manages to disguise its shabby branches and show off its blooms. I also use Quicksilver with roses-beside the shell-pink Rosa Fantin-Latour, for example, and in company with bronze fennel and the white-striped blades and chinchilla plumes of Calamagrostis x acutiflora Overdam.
Threading its way through my Elaeagnus is Clematis viticella Royal Velours. It’s hardly noticeable until the rose finishes blooming, whereupon it festoons the Quicksilver’s crown with bells of amaranth in a display that continues until autumn. Pairing Clematis viticella with shrubs is an idea that I associate with the 1980s and 1990s and painterly gardens of the kind photographed by Andrew Lawson, but it may be older.
John Gerard was growing Elaeagnus angustifolia in the 1590s. He also loved Clematis viticella, which he named Ladies Bower from its ‘aptnes in making of Arbors, Bowers, and shadie covertures in Gardens’. He grew a purplish-blue variety and a red one, probably very similar to Kermesina, a cultivar that’s still available.
Three decades later, John Parkinson described another form of viticella, ‘flore purpureo pleno’ or ‘Double-flowered purple Ladies Bower’. Its flowers consisted of a dense cluster of small inner sepals surrounded by four that were ‘much broader and larger’, and ‘all of dull or sad blewish purple colour’. This treasure is still with us, often sold under the name Mary Rose, a mock-Tudor appellation for a demonstrably Stuart plant.
As Parkinson said, there is something sad about its individual flowers. They’re ragged little tutus in washed-out taffeta, but produced in such abundance that the overall effect is like a shower of candied violets. For a cultivar that’s at least 384 years old, it’s astonishingly vigorous-too vigorous, I think, for running through shrubs. Ours is making a great job of turning an old privy into a bower of bliss. Of more recent vintage, we have the plum C. viticella Black Prince in a clinch with alabaster Rosa Boule de Neige, and, mid border, C. Betty Corning decking obelisks with lanterns of icy lilac-blue.
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All of these viticellas are easy. Treat them as large herbaceous perennials that happen to need a climbing frame. In February or March, cut the old stems back to about 1ft from the soil at a pair of bonny-looking buds-unless you, too, have an outhouse in need of camouflage, in which case, let them romp.
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