While many plants are still just emerging, a range of early flowers is taking advantage of the light and moisture before the leaves clothe the trees and shade the woodland floor for the rest of the summer.
For a few weeks now, the borders in the Woodland Garden, around the Temple of Aeolus, have been carpeted with blue Chionodoxa but these have now mostly faded, only to be replaced by an equally brilliant blue covering of Scilla bithynica. This small bulb, from Bulgaria and north west Turkey, forms a shimmering haze of blue through which taller plants emerge.
Kew's Woodland Garden in March
A stand of the crown imperial, Fritillaria imperialis, displays clusters of downward facing cups of orange at the top of metre tall, leafy stems. This impressive bulb comes from Asia, with a range stretching from Turkey to the foothills of the western Himalaya. It grows naturally in summer dry meadows and steppe but does well in the Woodland Garden because, when in full leaf, the trees draw excess moisture out of the soil, so the bulbs are never in waterlogged ground.
The impressive crown imperial, Fritillaria imperialis
Two of my favourite woodland plants are among the many others appearing just now: Erythronium, the dog's tooth violets, and Epimedium or barren wort.
Erythronium - the Dog's Tooth Violets
A few species of Erythronium are found in Europe and Asia but most come from North America. They grow best in humus-rich soil and dappled shade. Their elegant flowers, with petals that arch back when fully open, come in colours ranging from white and yellow to pink and lilac purple. They are in the lily family and closely related to tulips. The common name comes from the shape of the bulb, which is like a canine tooth.
Left: Erythronium hendersonii from Oregon and California,
Right: Erythronium oregonum from British Columbia to southern Oregon
The beautiful yellow flowers of Erythronium tuolumnense, named after Tuolumne County in California, the only place where it grows wild.
Epimedium - the Barren Worts
Epimediums also have a broad range in the wild, extending from southern Europe and North Africa to Japan, with their centre of diversity in China. They grow from a mat of thin rhizomes and some species, like the Caucasian Epimedium pinnatum, form dense ground cover. Garden hybrids have been created, including a cross between E. pinnatum and the East Asian E. grandiflorum. It is called Epimedium x versicolor and various cultivars exist with flowers in subtle colours, from soft pink to pale yellow.
Left: Epimedium pinnatum subspecies pinnatum, from the Caucasus,
Right: the hybrid Epimedium x versicolor 'Versicolor''
The ghostly Epimedium x versicolor 'Sulphureum'
Soon these early woodlanders will finish flowering and give way to the summer shade lovers that are only now just poking through the ground, such as ferns, hostas and lilies, so make the most of these delicate ephemerals while they last.
- Richard -