Purple moments

Words by:
Steffie Shields
Featured in:
May 2022

Steffie Shields suggests patches of purple, to add harmony to your garden.

“If you go down to the woods today…” chances are you will go looking for bluebells. This celebrated native wildflower draws more attention in May than any other plant, Chelsea Show notwithstanding. True, the magnificent sight of a heavenly blue haze in dappled spring green glades is memorable and uplifting.

How come a purple haze of woodland cranesbill rarely gets a mention, let alone a photograph, in the national press or on modern media? Granted, acres of bluebells, besides being a sight to behold, offer a pleasing fragrance wafting on the breeze. However, even if not quite as romantic, there is much joy to be had looking into the open-faced saucers of cranesbill decorating woods and pastures. Perhaps with all the talk of ‘rewilding’, the pendulum might swing a little in their favour, especially when folks appreciate the many surprising medicinal benefits of their cultivated species in garden borders.

Cranesbill, or wild geranium, is a spreading, enduring, perennial, much-loved by bees and butterflies. A few weeks after they have been pollinated, distinctive capsules form with a prominent extension reminiscent of the beak of a crane, those very large long-legged and long-necked birds. Notice these ‘beaks’ in my photograph of a dainty white cranesbill, Geranium phaeum ’Album’, here with a red oriental poppy, and Geranium ’Johnson’s Blue’.

The latter, once ubiquitous in cottage gardens, seems much more purple than blue to my eye. Perhaps “the answer lies in the soil” or depends on infrared light reflected through the camera lens from its sunny position, a phenomenon which happens incidentally when photographing bluebells!

The Geranium family is derived from ‘géranos’ – the Greek word for ‘crane’. Leaf shape helps to tell their different species apart. Over 400 have been collected, growing throughout the world’s temperate regions and on mountains in the tropics. Please don’t confuse hardy geraniums with those bright, more tender florist geraniums, often grown as pot flowers. Despite a name change to ‘pelargoniums’ as long ago as 1780, most people, mistakenly, still call them geraniums!

When first trying to restore our garden here, I was given some hardy geranium cuttings by the late Gwen Grantham, a wonderful Lincolnshire plants-woman who, like Beth Chatto, followed the maxim ‘right place, right plant’. Gwen taught me how easy they are to grow. They earn their keep by growing with a long season of interest in both full sun and light shade, and in any soil that isn’t waterlogged. Some of their copious quantities of dainty, five-petalled flowers in pure white and various hues of pink, purple or blue, have distinctive veining, and mounds of attractive foliage.

Last year, visiting Stephanie Lee’s Marigold Cottage at Sutton-on-Sea, I came across a fabulous Pyrenean cranesbill, Geranium pyrenaicum, with downy stems and masses of large, deeply-notched, soft lavender blue petals. With her experienced companion planting expertise, she had partnered it with deep blue Cerinthe, together with the dark purple leaves and almost black stems of the cow parsley ‘Ravenswing’. A few stray Welsh poppies added pops of colour. Stephanie’s seaside nursery and garden, open from 2-4 every afternoon until mid-September, is well worth a visit for inspiration, advice and for purchasing healthy plants that appeal.

Hardy geraniums are incredibly valuable to knit a border tapestry together. More and more, I am drawn to the deeper, blue-purple cultivars. Just as maroon shrubs, they add depth in amongst pale spring yellows, lime greens and frothy cow parsley. The bold colour and marvellous presence of a copper beech tree, Fagus sylvatica purpurea, in the south-east corner of our garden has influenced my planting choices. Its new spring foliage is such a cheery sight in late afternoon light. Nearby, a light lemon peony, ‘Molly the Witch’, and my favourite wood cranesbill, Geranium sylvaticum ‘Mayflower’, both come into flower this month, accompanied by bluebells. They make a striking patch together with the bushy, dramatic, purple-leaved shrub, Physocarpus opulifolius ‘Diablo’, and a small mound of purple spurge, Euphorbia ‘Chameleon’, all connecting to the copper beech towering overhead.

Introduced in 1972 by the late Alan Bloom of Bressingham Gardens fame, ‘Mayflower’ deserves its reliable RHS Award of Garden Merit. It has a compact habit with deeply divided leaves, and rounded flowers, about an inch in width, in a vivid shade of rich violet-blue with a small, white centre. This plant packs more of a purple punch than in the wild where the native woodland cranesbill’s flowers are washed-out mauve. For me, it revives a special memory of the celebrated flower-arranger, George Smith, and a visit to his superb garden at The Manor House, Heslington, just outside York.

Having spread cuttings further afield in our garden, I must share it with friends. Its generosity in flowering spreads kindness and, by dancing on the breeze, might make others’ hearts sing as well as my own.

Another fantastic doer, given by a Gardens Trust friend, a ‘dusky cranesbill’ with small, sombre flowers, more plum than burgundy with a white centre, Geranium phaeum ‘Samobor’ made itself at home, suppressing the weeds between two flowering hebes, one lavender, the other white, on our woodland boundary. Several clumps are now established. Its long-lasting leaves are attractive, adding depth, with a dark black-red band. In lockdown, I spotted a different offspring, the leaves much less marked, its flowers almost navy blue. Might it be a new cultivar worthy of a name? I shall keep my eye on it this year.

The view from my kitchen window is showing the benefits of time spent cogitating possible improvements while washing up! The promising young maroon leaves of the not-yet-flowering roses and peonies blend in with a purple dwarf lilac, Syringa patula ‘Miss Kim’, who brings both harmony and delicious perfume to the party. Her flowers become paler as they open, which attracts companiable bumblebees buzzing. Come June, other summer stars, including Geranium ‘Purple Haze’ with dark reddish-purple leaves will continue the theme. Meanwhile, the odd purple allium lollipop rises above brilliant blue borage flowers dotted randomly, reminiscent of a Seurat painting.

You might be amazed to discover that, besides being astringent, and antibacterial, cranesbill is a healing herb that can be used as a diuretic, and will also make a tonic for you and your garden. A hardy geranium leaf poultice will dress a wound to control profuse bleeding by promoting blood clotting. Should you wish to research more, and find a cranesbill to suit your garden scheme, I recommend this online nursery https://hardygeraniumnursery.co.uk with an amusing motto: ‘Keep Calm and Plant a Geranium’!

Remember to send in your entries to the Lincolnshire Gardens Trust Annual Photography Competition, which includes a new prize category: ‘Purple Moment!’ to mark HM The Queen’s Platinum Jubilee. Who knows whether purple will prove the colour at this year’s Chelsea Flower Show, but it wouldn’t surprise me! In this celebratory year, Her Majesty deserves every possible appropriate royal tribute.

Friday 27th May 2022: Lincolnshire Gardens Trust Garden Visit to Woodlands, a late spring woodland garden, Peppin Lane, Fotherby, Louth LN11 0UW. Members £10, Non-members £12 to include tea and cakes. NB: Booking essential. Non-members please contact Elizabeth Bowskill directly by email: elizabeth_ab@btopenworld.com

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