According to a fellow Shetland grower of perennial plants, red is the colour of choice for island gardeners, closely followed by orange and pink. Blue is sought after by some, and white sells reasonably well, especially if the plant bearing it is short and bushy, while yellow tends to sit on the shelf.
When I first felt a desire to grow rhododendrons, the old hardy hybrids were recommended as the only option for 60° North. At the time I didn’t realise that the term hardy is all but irrelevant in the context of maritime gardening. My hardy hybrids were capable of sailing through the winters of Vladivostok, but ill equipped to survive an average equinoctial gale in Shetland. The only survivor is Rhododendron ‘Unique’, planted away from sea breezes on the sheltered eastern front.
Twenty years later I was growing rhododendrons in an exposed field for my plant nursery. All, without exception, were yakushimanum hybrids, and all, without fail, sailed through the Shetland winters.
Their, in some cases distant, ancestor R. yakushimanum hails from a windswept Japanese island and is an exceptionally handsome shrub. The undersides of the dark green leathery leaves are covered in a thick fawn indumentum. The dense trusses of clear-pink flowers open from raspberry red buds and gradually fade to white as they age.
R. ‘Ken Janek’ was one of the first crosses and, apart from its larger size, is virtually identical to the species.
There must be hundreds of yak hybrids around to day, with many containing no more than a drop of the original blood. For exposed gardens it is advisable to avoid those with thin foliage, devoid of indumentum.
Yak hybrids tend to be pink; as soon as they come out, parts of the garden tend to look a bit like a Barbara Cartland style boudoir and it comes as a relief when they begin to fade to bridal white. R. ‘Hydon Dawn’ was my first yak love and remains a firm favourite to this day.
There are a few notable exceptions. ‘Golden Torch’ and ‘Nancy Evans’ open a pale, luminous yellow from peach or apricot tinted buds, ‘Dopey’, from the Seven Dwarfs series, is a good cherry red, while ‘Sleepy’ is washed with lavender.
The garden’s yak glory doesn’t end as the trusses shed their cups. A week or so later another great spectacle takes place as the cream or silver felted foliage unfurls. But this is surpassed by an un-named rhododendron where the contrast between new and old leaves is a good deal more exciting than its beautiful white flowers. If you recognise the plant from the photograph, I’d love to know its name.
Another long-term survivor is a so-called woodland hybrid, Rhododendron ‘Winsome’, with loose trusses of bell-shaped flowers in a warm, deep pink.
There’s always an abundance of white and blue as May gives way to June, but reds and oranges are somewhat thin on the ground. There’s the orange version of the Welsh poppy, Meconopsis cambrica; the single form being far superior to the blowsy doubles, and the little tawny pea flowers of Lathyrus aureus.
The large, beefy candelabra primulas around the pond are only just beginning to elongate their scapes, but their minute cousin, Primula cockburniana, already glows pure scarlet in the peat bed. It is a charming plant, its buds covered in silver farina, but it is short-lived and must be renewed from seed every two or three years.
Tree peonies are easily raised from seed, and I have a particularly fine form of the dragon’s blood red Paeonia delavayi. It is a glorious sight just now.
I feel just a trifle sorry for all those Shetland gardeners who can’t abide yellow, for they deprive themselves of many treasures.
Paeonia lutea is arguably one of the best foliage plants we can grow in a temperate climate. The clear yellow, waxy textured flowers are charming but fleeting.
The maize yellow blossom of the deciduous Rhododendron luteum is a feast for the eyes as well as the nose, as the spidery flowers waft a strong perfume, reminiscent of Oriental lilies.
The Spanish gorse, Genista hispanica, is a perfect shrub for Shetland. Fiercely spiky, it grows into a low dome, much wider than high, and is smothered in clear yellow for weeks on end – a patch of sunshine on the drichtest day.
Victor, now two weeks old, is growing into a sturdy little sheep with no less than three mothers, James and myself taking care of feeding, education and socialisation, while Baabin, our border collie, is in charge of the nappy side of things. Victor is particularly fond of Mr. Gentleman, our black and white tom, and follows him everywhere. Incidentally, Victor is “catmogit” – more on that subject next week.