Roots and Celebrations

Plants can’t survive without their roots, but roots are also vitally important for a species of mammal, as I found out a week or so ago. All human beings need a sense of belonging, a place and a community they feel part of. I have four in all: Shetland, Edinburgh (my second home), a small village in northern Bavaria were I was brought up, and rather more tentative ones in what was once Bohemia and where my family comes from.


where my roots are

Long before I had a circle of friends in Edinburgh, I was a regular visitor to the city’s Royal Botanic Garden; a garden that has delighted and inspired me for over three decades. All of Edinburgh becomes a garden in spring. It’s those flowering cherries. The ones the late Christopher Lloyd warned us against time and time again: “A week, two at the most, is all you get from your Prunus ‘Kanzan’, then you’re left with the dullest tree in the world for the remaining 50 weeks of the year.” Who was I to argue with the great man?

The cherries in Edinburgh’s gardens have changed my mind this spring, and I now realise that my long-held anti-cherry stance was perhaps tinged with just a drop of sour-grape-juice, as I struggle with the genus in Shetland.

Those trees flaunting their myriad frivolous, totally-over-the-top tutus are uplifting and the blizzards of pink blossom confetti give the pavements a fleeting festive air.

RBGE was breathtakingly beautiful with the most glorious magnolias I’ve ever seen – running through parts of the garden like the recurring theme of a symphony.

M. stell.

Magnolia stellata

When – a long time ago – I consulted a magnolia specialist on the most suitable species for Shetland, Magnolia stellata came top of the list because of its modest, easily shelterable size. It never flowered and succumbed after two Shetland winters.

The one I photographed at RBGE was at its peak – a small tree wreathed in white starry blossom – and has re-whetted my appetite to give it another try now that I have a more suitable (micro) climate for it.

But it’s those large, magnificent species that spread their branches against the sky I really hanker for. They looked wonderful against dark conifer green or next to tender, spring-green foliage. Perhaps my dream magnolia, M. denutata, could be persuaded to flower against that south-facing wall earmarked for a fig?

magn. den.

Magnolia denutata

r. ret

Rhododendron reticulatum

I already own a good few rhododendrons, probably far too many for my small garden, but Rhododendron reticulatum took my breath away. This deciduous Japanese species grows into a large, spreading shrub and is smothered in flowers of a sparkling fresh lavender.

Palest blue lavender featured large at ground level. Carpets of the most delightful anemone featured near the lower and middle paths leading into the garden from the west gate. It stopped me in my tracks, and was instantly added to my ever-growing wanted list.

a. nem. rob.

Anemone nemorosa 'Robinsoniana'

Sadly, these days the gardens close at 6pm, rather than, as in the good old days, at sunset. Lily the supreme illustrator suggested a sunset stroll to Stockbridge via Inverleith Park where we met a flock of swans, leisurely cruising, and now and again stretching a black webbed foot against white plumage.

The last time I visited Germany in spring was twelve years ago, but spring passed me by. In March 1999 my younger sister died and my grief blinded me to all nature had to offer.

swans at inverleith park

swans in the evening

I grew up in the Spessart, Europe’s largest continuous forest.  At the time of the Norman Conquest its oldest trees were celebrating their first centenary . Wild boar, deer, hares and foxes roam it to this day, but the last wolves vanished a century ago. Wolfental (wolves’ valley) lies a stone’s throw from my parents’ house and is now a broad walkway, leading through a cathedral of trees, flushed with the spring green of young oak and beech.

Spessart cathedral

The village itself sits in a valley, dwarfed by forest on the east and north and flanked by sandstone-terraced vineyards to the south. The local Spätburgunder (late burgundy) rivals the burgundies of France and is served in every village pub.

Cherries abound, the culinary kind in gardens, and the surrounding woods shine with the white blossom of bird cherries.

sch at sunset

evening light with crane

During April the forest floors are carpeted with wood sorrel and violets, the latter echoed by the sheets of forget-me-nots in my mother’s garden.

For some reason (perhaps they’ve all read Christopher Lloyd) German gardeners don’t seem to be fond of ornamental cherries. Spring pink in many gardens is provided by wild peach blossom. A young tree in my mother’s garden was launching its charming debut, hopefully to be followed by a crop of grey-furred, beetroot red fruit in September.

wilder pfirsich

wild peach debute

The reason for my visit to Germany was a 200 year birthday party; a figure impossible to achieve by one individual, but quite feasible amongst three – my mother, a dear childhood friend, and myself.

Celebrations continued in Edinburgh, hosted by Society Lady and High Maintenance Husband. The guests were Lily the supreme illustrator, Hilary, my favourite botanist, Hilda Mackerel, the famous German physician and her musician husband John Banjo, as well as my husband with his faithful dog Babeen and our daughter Anna.

The terraced, south-facing garden of our hosts featured an apricot and a fig, just setting fruit, a Magnolia soulangiana, and arguably the most beautiful peony in the world, the Siberian Paeonia mlokosewitchii. Its large, waxy-textured goblets are a pale, delicate yellow and are filled with quivering, tarnished gold anthers.

Sadly all photographs taken that night – on the flash-off setting – are blurred; perhaps just as well.

babeen at j and g

all a-blur in Edinburgh

Hilary phoned the next morning to tell me that a bag-full of the desired pale lavender anemone was awaiting  me at the RBGE Science building. Expecting a little polythene specimen pouch, I was delighted to be handed a bin-liner full of what turned out to be Anemone nemorosa ‘Robinsoniana’ and told it was a birthday present from the Queen.

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