The Garden at Huntercombe Manor in 1882-83.
Of Pæonies— Iris Sibirica— Green Peas— Fennel— Strawberries— Lilies— The Vine
June 24.— "Ere the parting hour go by, quick, thy tablets, Memory," In less than a week July will be here, and June will fade away into the past and be forgotten, while more than half its loveliness is still unnoted and untold. So here on Midsummer night, when the spirits of earth and air have power, let me call back for a moment the dear-worth vision of flowers that were my delight in the gone sweet days of early June. I would try also to fix the remembrance of a few, out of the thousand glories of the day, doomed to die before ever the story of next month begins. And first the Pæonies, which I have as yet scarcely named. Earliest of all came the crimson-pink single Pæony (Pæonia peregrina), with yellow stamens and bluish leaves, like a giant Rose of Sharon (the single red Scotch Rose); then the pale pink double; then the heavy crimson, that pales so quick in sun or rain; then, most beautiful of all, the pure, cold, white Pæony, with a faint tinge of colour on its outer petals. Last of all the large rose-red- rose-coloured, with an evanescent perfume like a dream of the smell of a wild Rose, yet in substance so staunch a flower that I have known rose Pæonies retain their beauty for two full weeks in a glass of water. All these, excepting one or two who here and there outstay the rest, are gone by.
And then the Elder! The hedgerows have been white with it; and there were days when all the air was scented with it, and the country smelt of Elder! The path under our one tree is now a milky way, covered with a myriad little fallen stars. They remind one of the far-away Olives' starry blossoms, when they fall softly among Lady Tulips and Gladioli in May. Syringa (Philadelphus, or Mock Orange) has come and almost gone; three varieties- the old small one, the large-flowered, and the half-double sort. I like most the first, and this has also the most powerful scent. A large old bush of it grows in the grass, just without the glass door in the wall opening into the greenhouse. Dear Syringa! best hated and best loved of flowers. The lovers of it hail its blooming with enthusiasm, and break off sprigs to wear as they pass the bush, whilst others will go the other way round to avoid passing near. And now it suffers still further insult by being denied its own old name, Syringa! Even in 1597, in Gerarde's time, there began to arise some confusion between it and the Lilac, or "Blew Pipe Tree,"
And now, at this very time, has come a new burst of Irises- the narrow-leaved kinds. Not the real Spanish Irises; their time is not yet. We have a few old plants whose flowers are deep bronze, flame-centred, in yellow gold, and a stronger, commoner kind, of full lilac colour. One little plant, growing in a pet corner by the iron gate in the south wall, has a delicate primrose and lilac-tipped bloom. And there is the great white Flag Iris, whose grand leaves stand four feet high. The right place has not yet been found for this fine plant. For three years past he has just borne with us- and he shows it. By the watercourse the yellow Flags are as yellow as possible, in rich contrast with their dark green leaves; and in the Fantaisie, where the China Tulip stood last month, showing bright against the dusky Cryptomeria Elegans, is now a fine root of Iris (Sibirica alba). The blue Sibirica is good, but this white variety is most lovely. One could not pass it without remarking the peculiar whiteness of its small shapely flowers, set on such long slender stalks. How wonderful are the contrasts of white in flowers! Of those now in bloom together, one hardly knows which to call the whitest of them all. This little Iris retains through its whiteness a dim remembrance, as it were, of blue.
There is the kitchen garden, too! The fresh and brilliant beauty that just now it holds within its walls will soon be past, giving place to richer, more sober colours. Looking through the old ironwork of the gate, up the straight middle walk, there is such splendour of brightly blended colour in the flowers on either side! As yet, they are in their prime; the key-note of colour is white- double Rockets, double white Pyrethrums, and white Pinks. Then, bending down over the walk, mixing in with the whiteness, glowing through leaf and branch in brilliant intervals of colour, are Roses- pink, crimson, blush; Annual Poppies, tender or dazzling in their hue; clouds of pale blue Delphinium, with spires of deepening blue over-topping all the rest. Just midway between the pink and crimson Roses, a Briar, wreathed about with small yellow blooms, hangs over the cross walks at the corner. Masses of low blue Campanula fill in below or between the larger flowers. Right at the end, another iron gate lets in the glimmering of cool shades beyond. A little wren's nest is there, ensconced snugly in a bowery Clematis, half-way up the pillar; the nest cannot be seen so far off, but I know well how the small entrance hole is quite filled up with greedy little yellow beaks and gaping mouths! The little mother is hard at work for them, somewhere near- hunting the bark of an Elm, most likely. The golden wrens have brought out their families- two nestfuls. We found the nests hanging in the Yews, and now the garden seems to be full of little elfin scissors' grinders, busy all day long.
I have a fancy to open the gate and go all round the kitchen garden quite prosaically. The other garden will seem still sweeter, after. Here, on the left, is a breadth of wonderful Lettuces, round and close like small round Cabbages, with milk-white middles; and beyond, some taller and tied-up- more like Salad. Near the Lettuces are tall ranks of Peas, hung all over with well-filled pods. I think I like these beautiful green Peas, growing here, as much as when served up with a dish for dinner. There seems always to be something attractive to Art of all kinds in pea pods; from the pods sculptured on the great bronze gates of the cathedral at Pisa, or the raised needlework of the sixteenth century, to the ornaments in the jewellers' shops of Paris or the portraits of Marrowfats or Telegraph Peas in the advertisement-sheets of gardening papers- these last being really pictures, though not meant so. I remember once being shown a white satin spencer of Queen Elizabeth's, embroidered in butterflies and Green Pea pods half-open, to show the rows of peas within.
I think there is Beetroot, and a fine lot of young Cabbages beyond the Peas- in which no one can feel any particular interest; and oh! such a sweet patch of seedling Mrs. Sinkins white pink. I wish that Pink did posses a more poetical name- Arethusa or Boule de Neige! but the thing is done, and to the end of time Mrs. Sinkins will be herself. Nest comes a little square of Japanese Iris, the tall stems tipped with swelling buds whose grand unfolding I long to see. Rows of young Sage plants grow near, quite unlike sage-green, so-called, in colour; and a nice plantation of healthy-looking Fennel. That is for broiled mackerel; but there is to me another interest connected with Fennel, that lies in a lurking hope, always unfulfilled, of finding upon it a caterpillar of the rare Papilio regina. Caterpillars of another sort are only too multitudinous on the Currants growing up the walls. The increase of them, and of the sawflies belonging to them, is not short of miraculous. One may stamp out whole families and clear the bushes, and next morning they will be beginning again. Yet invariably in the act of destroying there creeps in a sort of questioning, whether the caterpillars have not full as good a right to the Currants as we have- except, indeed, that we, and not they, planted them. But the sawflies would seem to have at least a right to live- a greater right, perhaps, than we to have tarts; yet they are spared none the more for such-like uncomfortable reflections. On the south wall the fruit trees seem to be more or less flourishing. An old Nectarine is covered with fruit. Then comes Apricot tree No. 1, on which I find no apricots; Nos. 2 and 3 the same, 4 dead, and 5 with "a good few" on it. Then we come to Peaches, plenty of them; then a beautiful dark-leaved Fig tree; and then the Cherries, well fruited and well netted. And so on round the walls. Near the wren's nest there is another large patch of Pinks, commoner and better than any, with the neatest lacing of purple-madder or lake. And here a powerful fragrance stops one short; it is the strawberries, smelling deliciously. They are littered down with clean straw, and netted close, for the discomfiture of blackbirds. The scent takes me back a very long way- back to an inconceivable time, when this old small of Strawberries, borne across the hedge in the hot noontide of some summer holiday, was reason enough to set us wild vagrants of the garden scrambling through the thorns to seize the exquisite delight of spoiling our neighbour's Strawberries- a joy that was never marred, for we were never found out. Sun and rain have both been kind, and this is our second week of immense red presidents, one of the oldest and best strawberries- the older Caroline being now quite forgotten. The espaliers are showing plenty of Apples and Pears. Three Pear trees, standing at the four cross-ways, are curiously in bloom; the blossoms are all sickly-looking and undersized, but the trees are covered with them up to the very top, while fruit is set at the same time. I dislike this unnatural blooming, for the mind will persist in reverting to foolish sayings and superstitions connected with trees bearing fruit and flower at the same time.
Among the pleasant sights of this midsummertide, perhaps the pleasantest of all is the great thicket of wild roses growing within the wire network that bounds the tennis-lawn on the garden side. The east, shining full upon it every morning, brings forth hundreds of new-blown Roses. Very often, as you pass into their sweet presence from under the Plane trees, the air is redolent of a subtle perfume- not always, though, nor every day, for Roses are capricious of their scent. The yellow-stamened centre of each flower glows like a tiny lamp of gold, and the soft petals surrounding it are rose-pink of the tenderest dye. Were these the canker-blooms of Shakespeare? If so, and if in his day they could be said to "live unwooed, and unrespected die", surely now the tide has turned, for the wild Rose is beloved of all; while we must confess that garden Roses now-a-days do not always "die sweet deaths."
July 22.— ... Roses are gone, and the memory of them is as something too beautiful for words. And Lilies, too, are over; the fairest of them, the tall white Lily, with her shining head —nil candidius—pure as the shining robe of saints in heaven—better than Solomon in his glory. She, too, is past; nothing of her remains but long dismal stems, with down-hanging shrivelled leaves and melancholy pointals undrest of beauty—to tell of her former pride
The character and features of the Lily would seem to be well marked enough; and yet, sometimes, the popular idea of it is certainly a mixed one. In former days flower-hawkers in the streets of London may be remembered crying, "Lilies, fine white Lilies!" with their barrow-loads of white Thorn, or May blossom, from the country. Some botanical reason there must have been for the Lilies in Ferrari's "De Florum Cultura" (1633) being named Narcissus! I have been studying an odd volume of this curious old book, and the unmistakable Lilies represented in the plates are all "Narcissus Indicus." Even the Water-lily-like Blood Flower is a Narcissus. Very likely these remarks may only show my ignorance,
July must in all retrospect, for all is over—or so it seems to me. After an absence of a few days, on returning to the garden, I find there is a change—an almost autumnal feeling in the air, and withered leaves are blown across the lawn. Faint perfumes linger still about the Limes, and though no song birds are there, the sound of bees is heard in the green depth above. But we no longer would breakfast under the Limes, as we did so short a while since, in summer days departed. Wind and rain have done their worst amongst the flowers, and yet there is consolation in all that remains. The best are passed away, but beautiful new things are coming on. The Evening Primrose (Oenothera) already lights up the garden ways. Variegated Maples, with their foliage white as ivory, look their best against the darkening Elms. * (A small branchlet in one of these white Maples has returned to the original green, and this is also the sole bit of the tree that bears a bunch of keys.) The hedge of Sweet Peas is for the moment in beauty. Sweet Peas go off too quickly in our light warm soil, so we try to prolong their blooming to the latest limit by cutting off their pods as fast as they appear.
Purple draperies of Clematis (Virgin's Bower), in many shades from deepest violet softening into grey, make the old brick walls beautiful; or the same Clematis droops from trellises, or clambers up trees in many parts of the garden. Almost always it so happens that the tender green of Vines mingles with the purple. There is something almost unpleasing in the arrangement of the four petals of Clematis Jackmanni! but much more must be forgiven for the sake of such grand colouring. No climbing plant comes near the Vine, perhaps, in perfect grace and beauty of line. The fruitful Vine gives delight to the eye in far greater measure than Virginia Creeper, or any other of our green hangings upon the walls of a house. The Vine is more obedient and yet more free, and its intelligence is greater. Thinking of the Vine as of a person, one would say that her foliage shows all the variety of genius. Scarcely will you find two leaves alike, in shape, or size, or colour. The youngest leaves are half-transparent and golden-green, or reddened by the sun; on some the light lies cold and grey. If the Vine is trained round the window, the leaves seen from within outspread against the light glow like green firs. The very shadiest recesses of the Vine are full of light. And then the tenderness and strength of her slender beautiful tendrils! How they reach out like sentient hands! and when they have found, how strong and firm their clasp! Then, who does not know and love the curious aroma of her small green flowers, bringing back to memory the small of a Southern vineyard? Very soon, now, autumn suns will swell the clustered fruit, and purple bloom will begin to show between the leaves. A Vine is one of the only plants whose every leaf, well nigh, may be planted with care in a picture, and yet not seem too much made out. Yet rarely indeed can human hand give the fine thinness and yielding texture of a Vine leaf!
We are never without Portulaca and Mesembryanthemum (how far more simple is the old name—Fig Marigold) about this time, and the two beds of them now flowering are especially brilliant. Cool colours tell beside the scarlet and orange that mostly prevail, and in this way nothing could be more refreshing than the dwarf Ageratum and blue Lobelia, mixed with honey-scented Koniga Maritima Variegata, near the Carnations and Portulaca. The deep blue, with bronze foliage, of the Lobelia beds in the parterr is almost hot beside the cooler blues beyond. The Sumac this year is not in beauty—not as if a sunset cloud had settled down upon it. The multitude of new green shoots would seem to overpower the crimsoned fluff.
Copyright ©: 2000 Donald Perkins