In praise of blue

Words by:
Steffie Shields
Featured in:
May 2014

Steffie Shields ponders the power of blue in our May gardens.
Of all the colours in Nature’s palette, there is one that heightens feelings more than any other – and this month of May is when blue is at its most effective, in amongst darling buds and blossom. At the sight of English bluebells growing wild in the woods, immediately our minds go back to childhood jaunts when time stood still as we explored perfumed, dappled clearings.

‘Their beauty unlocks a woodland door’ according to poet David Wood. Don’t get me wrong: Spanish bluebells are beautiful too, but native bluebells have narrower leaves, are a deeper blue (sometimes white, rarely pink), and have narrow, tube-like flowers, with the very tips curled right back.

Traditionally, May is the month of Our Lady, the Virgin Mary, and pure blue has long been associated with her. I wonder why? Perhaps artists used this passive colour to convey her story and suggest her humble acceptance of God’s will. Perhaps there is an association with this month’s bluebells en masse under beech trees, just as their twigs turn fresh lime-green with new leaves unfurling; for many an emotional and uplifting experience, for some spiritual. As if blue skies had found a reflective echo, bluebells offer a glimpse of what we imagine heaven might be like. At a distance, they appear almost like the waters of an inland sea. So the poet Gerard Manley Hopkins in his ‘May Magnificat’ included the lines:

‘And azuring-over greybell makes
Wood banks and brakes wash wet like lakes.’

May is a perfect time to visit Grimsthorpe Castle, a traditional English landscape garden with ornamented lawn right near the house. To the south, gravel paths and great stone torches recall eighteenth-century enlightenment and lead the way to the dappled ‘Groves’ beyond; the ‘pleasure grounds’ along the ridge between park and gardens. There the dewy, grass under the fresh canopy of trees peppered with spring flowers, tulips, narcissi, and cowslips is enchanting and memorable; a living tapestry as intermittent glimpses of the great lake in the valley below sparkle in sunlight. A fragrant carpet of delicate bluebells unites the scene, adding that extra frisson of ‘blue-remembered’ pleasure.

Blue is calming, even serene, and makes us feel secure. Interestingly it lowers the pulse rate. It is also useful in offices, ostensibly making people more productive! In the garden, May is definitely a time for action, and a good time to study how nature combines colours in one species; in blue and white aquilegia, or Lupinus arboreus tree lupin.

Last May, at Easton Walled Gardens, New Zealand heritage iris ‘Polar Cap’ caught my eye. Apparently it took many years of breeding to develop this combination. Its domed standards of snowy white work well with the falls of softly cool, pale lavender blue. Here it has been effectively paired with blue catmint. With blue being a cool colour that recedes, it requires thought as to where you use it effectively. Better to place a single, special blue plant, or a pot of blue flowers in the foreground as a punctuation point to please and soothe the eye; to cool down other contrasting warm and hot colours nearby.

I must go back to walk the ground and survey meadow views at Saxby House gardens, which must be maturing and evolving magnificently. My last visit was a masterclass in wildflower planting. It is worth going to see how blue waves of camassia and Siberian iris cascade like streams down the hillside. Notice how nectar rich blue cornflowers – annuals grown from seed and beloved by bees, once a common country sight in rye fields – Centaurea cyanus, give depth and variety to sugar pinks and whites, dancing in the wild, pictorial meadow.

A perennial variety of blue cornflowers, Centaurea montana, is easy to grow, and will keep flowering for a long period if you dead-head regularly – and sets off vibrant crimson or orange tulips. One combination I tried, attracted to the thought of a blue tulip, was ‘Blue Parrot’. I planted some beside ‘Apricot Beauty’ interspersed amongst self-seeded forget-me-nots, those little heart-warming blue and pink-tinged treasures, faithfully re-appearing every year where the mood and wind takes them. However, to my eyes, the name’s somewhat of a con: this tulip is more purple than blue.

Lately, I have leaned towards Dutch Iris; now there’s a real blue; together with Escholzia, Californian orange poppies, to pick up and complement its orange-gold stripe, again with a sea of forget-me-nots.

If you follow the fashion for prairie gardens, and Chelsea Flower Show ideas, you might like to try planting pale blue Amsonia tabernaemontana as punctuation marks to arrest the eye amongst drifts of billowing grasses. If you’re seeking a touch of the exotic, try planting Paulownia tomentosa.

Introduced from China, this unusual, flowering tree that is seldom seen in the county, grows best in open ground, away from the competition of other trees, to a height of thirty to eighty feet (ten to twenty-five metres). It can be pollarded to suit the scale of your garden. I remember first coming across this showstopper in the grounds of Fulbeck Hall. Sometimes called the empress tree or princess tree, it is better known as the foxglove tree, with its spectacular foxglove flowers on bare branches, before large, catalpa-like leaves emerge, particularly effective against an azure blue sky on a sunny spring day.

Flag Iris, or Sword lily, the symbol of both France and Florence, is linked with Mary in paintings. The deep blue colour is said to symbolise her fidelity, with the blade foliage recalling the sorrows that pierced her heart. May is a super month to see the stunningly rich iris collection in Doddington Hall gardens and then take a walk amongst the bluebells in the pleasure grounds beyond. A gardening friend gave me a clump of elegant, pale blue iris that I planted in a sunny location where the gravel drive ends by the house. It makes an arresting feature in the foreground, with the village church spire beyond.

Blue is of course sometimes linked with sorrow, especially in music. So I cannot let this month pass without a mention of Lincolnshire’s ‘Beth Chatto’. I was deeply saddened to hear of the death of superb plantswoman and naturalist, Gwen Grantham, recently, aged eighty-three. Admired for many years by fellow members of most of the county’s diverse gardening societies, she gardened all her life and almost to the end. For many years, she opened her Walcott garden, Park House and latterly her Woodhall garden, annually for the Yellow Book National Gardens Scheme, including last summer.

I owe Gwen more than I can put into words. She inspired me with her garden, and into volunteering for Lincolnshire Gardens Trust, and encouraged my garden photography. Despite advancing years, she was a driving force in creating the special entrance-free community garden, the Joseph Banks Tribute Garden, in Horncastle, researching and sourcing over 3,500 Banksian plants from as far as Cornwall and Essex, and growing some from seed in her own garden. A gifted botanical artist with an eye for delicate detail, texture and tone, she will be much missed; a generous gardener who painted pictures and garden vistas like no other. Blue was Gwen’s favourite colour – from hepaticas to blue hydrangeas, from Chatham Island forget-me-nots to blue aquilegias, and she ensured that there was always a touch of blue to make her garden beautiful and heavenly.

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