Are you not dancing?’ asks Lord Warburton at a ball in Henry James’s The Portrait of a Lady. ‘As you see, I’m a wall-flower,’ replies Isabel Archer, sphinx-like as ever. And that, really, is the problem with wallflowers: not that they don’t dance, but that we don’t invite them courteously enough. We tend to treat them as the unsung infantry of bedding plants-bought bareroot and bundled in damp news print, mass-deployed in ways so expendable that it’s hard to see them as anything other than filler.
Not that many gardeners do even that anymore. The days are long past when Oxford undergraduates could share Charles Ryder’s spring-has-sprung enchantment as he savoured their blooms beneath his college windows in Brides-head Revisited. Of late, the wallflower’s dance card looked doomed to remain blank.
But there is hope. I’ve just seen wallflowers used brilliantly in four private gardens. In the first, Classical stone urns were capped with Erysimum cheiri Vulcan, a low and bushy cultivar in red so dark and sultry that it brings to mind drapery painted by an Old Master. The chilli-coloured E. cheiri Scarlet Bedder will do the same trick with more zest. In the second, a Modernist scheme, rectangular verdigris planters held E. Aurora, in subtle shades of faded salmon and peach.
In the third, the voids of a box parterre were turned into a dazz-ling hoard of gold, ivory, amber, cinnabar and ruby, planted with E. Monarch Fair Lady Mixed, and nothing else. Finally, demure E. x allionii Siberian Mixed created a carpet of lemon and tangerine for flame-coloured tulips in borders that, before long, will be cleared for summer bedding.
All of these wallflowers are wonderfully textured, robed in velvet or satin. All exude that unmistakable scent-warm, embracing, with notes of vanilla and spice, and as potent as good Marsala. With Isabel Archer, Henry James’s enigmatic heroine, the issue was not inducing a wallflower to dance, but finding a match and a setting that would allow her to shine.
The same applies to these beautiful but undervalued plants. It seems we are finally succeeding.
Once lumped under the name Cheiranthus cheiri, these varieties are the wallflowers or gillyflowers of traditional English horticulture. They have changed little since the 17th and 18th centuries, even if we temporarily lost the knack of appreciating them.
They’re treated as biennials, their seeds sown between now and midsummer directly outdoors onto loamy and preferably alkaline soil. An empty slice of vegetable plot is an excellent place to produce them in bulk, but do bear in mind that they’re susceptible to the same pests and diseases as their cousins in the genus Brassica. Come autumn, they should be transplanted to their final positions. For some wallflowers, the dance never stops.
The genus Erysimum includes several shrubby perennials that flower chiefly in spring and early summer, and at intervals thereafter if deadheaded. The best known among them is Erysimum Bowles’ Mauve, an essential component of dry and silver gardens, exulting in drought, scorching sun and starved soils. Second in popularity is Walberton’s Fragrant Sunshine, with lustrous leaves and sweetly scented saffron flowers opening from maroon buds. My own favourite is E. mutabile, smaller and sadder-looking, shifting from buff to smoky lilac.
Alternatively, you could discover your own cultivar by sowing the seed mix Erysimum Plantworld Rainbows, a mélange of winners-in-waiting in shades of apricot, tan and crimson. With all these perennials, avoid wet and acid soils, and be prepared to replace plants should they grow tired and leggy. It’s easily done by taking heeled and twiggy cuttings at any time. Whichever you choose, do it now and you’ll soon discover that the wallflower is, in fact, the belle of the ball.
Mr Fothergill’s Seeds (0845 371 0518; www.mr-fothergills.co.uk)
Chiltern Seeds (01229 581137; www.chilternseeds.co.uk).
Seeds of ‘Erysimum’ Plant-world Rainbows (www.plant-world-seeds.com)
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