The’New Wave’ perennials movement which mixes herbaceous perennials and ornamental grasses – was forged in Germany and the Netherlands and perfected in Britain, but the raw ingredients are largely American, and the effect this planting style aims to reproduce is akin to prairie. Some grumble that we have grown too close to the US, but I am not one of them. Tempered by Old European grace and flair, this latest American revolution has given us new plants to play with, a new aesthetic that adapts to modernist or manorial, and even a new season an Indian summer of shimmering blades and spangled daisies that faces down winter’s approach.
It is also only the most recent phase of a special relationship. In the 17th century, the Tradescants introduced our gardens to American plants that included the Michaelmas daisies that are now popular once more, as well as swamp cypress, Virginia creeper and, of course, Tradescantia. In the 18th century, the Quaker merchant Peter Collinson, based in the then sleepy hamlet of Mill Hill, brokered scores of species sent to him by such pioneers as John Bartram and Mark Catesby. So prolific was the Anglo-American trade in plants at this time that it became known as The Great Exchange and the aristocracy queued up to participate.
In about 1750, a grandee’s garden was as Appalachian in the prizes it contained as it would be Himalayan 150 years later when Victorian plant collectors foraged in the Far East. For an example of how that would have looked, go to Painshill Park in Surrey where the 18th-century American plantings that helped reduce the Hon Charles Hamilton to penury have been brilliantly restored by the garden historian Mark Laird. Back then, the most coveted items of Americana were trees and shrubs.
And it is to the woods that the special relationship will probably return when we need a breather from frolicking in the long grass. We have the guide to take us there: Rick Darke’s epiphanic The American Woodland Garden (Timber Press, 2002). It was Rick who first introduced me to US native plants in Pennsylvania back in the 1980s. Some of those selections, such as the steely Panicum Heavy Metal, sultry Eupatorium Chocolate, and smouldering Itea Henry’s Garnet, have since gone on to become winners on this side of the Pond.
But it is others, the quiet woodlanders, that I remember most bloodroot, Sanguinaria canadensis, like a miniature alabaster peony; rivers of sky-blue Phlox stolonifera and foaming Tiarella cordifolia; Allegheny spurge, Pachysandra procumbens; and others. For a concentrated sample, travel to Bressingham in Norfolk where this summer Adrian Bloom opens Britain’s latest and largest tribute to the flora of North America.
He started Adrian’s Wood as long ago as 1963 with a group of giant redwoods that he had brought back as seeds from California. Four decades later, they stand more than 260ft tall, forming a small forest that links
Bressingham’s two famous older gardens: The Dell and Foggy Bottom. In 2001, Adrian began clearing the redwoods’ surroundings to create a landscape of mixed woodland and prairie, pond and swamp. Into this, he has introduced thousands of North American natives for all seasons and garden uses.
Some, such as heleniums and rudbeckias, are plants that the Bloom family nurseries pioneered decades ago, and which are now smart once more. Others are modern bestsellers such as the white mop-headed Hydrangea arborescens Anabelle, the towering rhodamine Eupatorium Gateway and those most valuable of US grasses, Panicum Warrior and Squaw. Then there are rarities such as lilac bottle-brush-flowered Synthyris missurica, destined to be launched on the gardening public soon. Although young, Adrian’s Wood is dazzling in the late summer and autumn with the daisies and grasses at full throttle. And it will be again next spring, when the meadow runs blue with camassias among the more delicate woodlanders.
This article first appeared in COUNTRY LIFE magazine on August 24, 2006