Plant of the month – February

I can’t help it, I’m choosing 2 plants this month, which just happen to go superbly well together in borders or pots – Sarcococca and winter pansies.

Sarcococca, or ‘Christmas box’, is a subtle quiet unassuming little evergreen that really comes into its own in the winter months, when it produces an abundance of small white flowers up each stem – sometimes with pink or reddish tips. Berries follow, varying in colour from black, to purple and red. These persist so that they are present when the new flowers are produced.  And the perfume…just divine as you breeze past.

Sarcococca-hookeriana-humilis

Sarcococca-hookeriana-humilis

There are 11 species from South East Asia, China and the Himalayas, ranging from the largest at 2m tall, Sarcococca confusa, to the spreading ground cover plant S. hookeriana var. humilis, which makes a good alternative to traditional box edging. It suckers, like most of the species excepting S. confusa, but it can be easily controlled.

Other notable species include S. ruscifolia var. chinensis, a slightly smaller shrub than S. confusa which flowers profusely, all the way up the stem. It has nice, thick leaves and red berries which are popular with florists. Another nice species is S. hookeriana var. digyna, which has narrow leaves giving it a graceful look, leading Graham Stuart Thomas to name it “one of the nicest small shrubs of this type that I know”.

There is a form called ‘Purple Stem’ which has reddish purple flower buds and young stems. The less hardy species S. saligna has even longer, narrow leaves. This is one species whose flowers have little or no scent at all.

Sarcococcas can grow on a wide range of soils, including dry, chalky or acid, which makes them very useful. They can therefore cope with tricky spots such as dry shade and under trees with extensive roots. But they can also be planted in full sun, though then they will need more moisture in the soil. The hardiest species are S. confusa, S. hookeriana var. digyna and S. hookeriana var. humilisS. saligna and S. ruscifolia are best suited to southern gardens or need to be given winter protection.

It is happy as a single specimen in pots, in the garden, or it can be used as an alternative to box as a hedge.  It also happens to be very happy growing in dry shade, making it very useful for shady borders and under trees.  It is perfectly hardy, and happy in most well drained soils, chalky or acid, making it incredibly useful.  Paired with pansies or other winter flowering plants, it makes for a very cheery and multi-sensory display.

Winter pansies

Winter pansies, and their smaller sisters, violas, are tough plants that provide a wide range of colours from an almost black purple to oranges, velvet ruby and raspberry pink, and every shade of blue and yellow throughout winter and they’ll cope with the very worst weather.  They’ll often have a blotch or ‘face’ which, combined with their colourful and blousy blooms, make for a heartwarming sight.  This, at a time of the year when most of the garden is hibernating, means every garden should have them (in my opinion!).  They are as happy in pots and baskets as they are planted out in the garden as winter bedding.

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The name “pansy” is derived from the French word pensée, “thought”, and was imported into Late Middle English as a name of Viola in the mid-15th century, as the flower was regarded as a symbol of remembrance.

Pansies, and their cousins viola’s, originate from the Viola tricolour.  ‘Heartsease’, as it is commonly known, is a small plant of creeping habit, reaching at most 15 cm in height, with flowers about 1.5 cm in diameter. It grows in short grassland on farms and wasteland, chiefly on acid or neutral soils. It is usually found in partial shade, and flowers from April to September (in the northern hemisphere). The flowers can be purple, blue, yellow or white. They are hermaphrodite and self-fertile, pollinated by bees.

Traditional uses

As some of its names imply, heartsease has a long history of use in herbalism. It has been recommended, among other uses, for epilepsy, asthma, skin diseases, and eczema.  V. tricolor has a history in folk medicine of helping respiratory problems such as bronchitis, asthma, and cold symptoms.

It has expectorant properties, and so has been used in the treatment of chest complaints such as bronchitis and whooping cough. It is also a diuretic, leading to its use in treating rheumatism and cystitis.  The flowers have also been used to make yellow, green and blue-green dyes, while the leaves can be used to indicate acidity.

Cultivation

In the early years of the 19th century, Lady Mary Elizabeth Bennet (1785–1861), daughter of the Earl of Tankerville, collected and cultivated every sort of Viola tricolor (commonly, heartsease) she could procure in her father’s garden at Walton-upon-Thames, Surrey. Under the supervision of her gardener, William Richardson, a large variety of plants was produced via cross-breeding. In 1812, she introduced her pansies to the horticultural world, and, in 1813, Mr. Lee, a well-known florist and nurseryman, further cultivated the flower. Other nurserymen followed Lee’s example, and the pansy became a favourite among the public.

About the same time that Lady Bennett was busy cultivating heartsease, James, Lord Gambier was doing the same in his garden at Iver under the advice and guidance of his gardener William Thompson. A yellow viola, Viola lutea, and a wide-petalled pale yellow species of Russian origin, Viola altaica were among the crosses that laid the foundation for the new hybrids classed as Viola × wittrockiana, named for the Swedish botanist Veit Brecher Wittrock (1839–1914). A round flower of overlapping petals was the aim of some early experimenters; in the late 1830s a chance sport that no longer had narrow nectar guides of dark color on the petals but a broad dark blotch on the petals (which came to be called the “face”), was found. It was developed in Gambier’s garden and released to the public in 1839 with the name “Medora”.

By 1833, there were 400 named pansies available to gardeners who once considered its progenitor, heartsease, a weed. Specific guidelines were formulated for show pansies but amateur gardeners preferred the less demanding fancy pansies. About this time, James Grieve developed the viola and Dr. Charles Stuart developed the violetta, both smaller, more compact plants than the pansy.

Winter flowering pansies are short-lived perennials, which really means they should last for at least three years but, because of their tendency to get leggy and increasingly less floriferous, they are best treated as annuals.  They often bloom in the autumn, rest briefly whilst the days are darkest in December and early January, and then start to truly shine, blooming away as the days lengthen.  Regular deadheading and a feed high in potassium, such as Tomorite, will keep them at their best and continuously blooming.  They are happy in sun or partial shade, and moist but well drained soils.  Why not treat yourself (and the bees!) this February if you haven’t already?!

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