The Garden at Huntercombe Manor in 1882-83.
Of Daffodils— Coltsfoot— An Archangel— Gold Wrens and little Vedova.
April 9.— The garden is full of Daffodils. Yellow flowers and green leaves form a most beautiful combination of colours when laid on by Nature's hand. Every part of the garden now has its show of single or double Daffodils, and yet there is not one too many. Lovely always, they are loveliest, perhaps, when growing in the grass... our finest Daffodils grow in the cool north border... Soon there will be a blooming of many varieties in the garden, but at this moment only three abound, and of these I hardly know which most to praise. There is the single variety, with rather narrow, almost pointed petals, and trumpet tube of a deeper shade of yellow; I cannot distinguish this one from Narcissus Incomparabilis of the Riviera. Then there is the semi-double (old Parkinson's Narcissus Major, "confined to the gardens of the curious"), which I sometimes think a still more handsome flower, from its rich folded depths of colour. Its prime, however, lasts but a few days; the full tube seems then to overspread and split, and a confusion of doubleness ensues which mars its perfect form. Then there is the old real Daffodil- quite apart from the so-called Lent Lily- with very pale, broad-leaved corolla, and true Narcissus-shaped cup. When this doubles itself there is again a loss of grace. I call it the real Daffodil, because years ago, when that was a flower nor thought so much of, this as I remember, was the usual kind seen in gardens. I believe in those days the Daffodil- whose very name is music in our ears- was considered almost vulgar (!) flower; "it was so very common." Now it is so common in another way, one could half wish that it- with the Sunflower- had remained undiscovered, or only bloomed to grace old cottage garden plots, or as the Lent Lily, in wild woodland ways, for the delight of simple village children. Is it fault or failing in human nature that inclines us to turn from things that all the world admires? I only know that, somehow, one loves one's own love to be for one's self alone! and I do not care to see cartfuls of Daffodils sent up to London. . . .There is a part of the garden on the north side which just now gives me strange pleasure. There we leave the borders to grow pretty much as they will. In summer on one side there is a green forest of Male-fern, Bramble, wild Ivy, and low-grown Berberis; but at this time the scene is different. Great double Daffodils rest their golden heads upon interlacing red-brown Fern and branching glossy Berberis. A few shafts of narrow blue-green leaves pierce through and amongst the brown and burnt-sienna colour; Pulmonaria- taking heart after all the withering frosts- breaks into clouds of flower, all blue and pink, with dusks of mottled leaf between. And among the Pulmonaria crops up by chance, in the humblest way, a healthy beautiful Archangel, or Dead Nettle, set with blossoms downy white.
"More springs in the garden than the gardener ever sowed," is an old saying. Just the other side the walk there chances- who knows how?- a charming little plant which curiously attracts me. Unlike "the small Celandine," it never had a poet, so far as I know, to sing its praise, although the Painter-poet of England- William Blake- disdained not to immortalize it. In his illustrations to the Book of Job it occurs, the character of the flowers unmistakably given by a few master-touches. Yet this little Coltsfoot is full of interest, and the little satiny sunflower that crowns each pinkish fleshy flower-stalk is, in its way, quaintly unique. The specimen (vide Dryasdust) in our north border has rooted partly under and amongst the lowest leaves of an Aucuba, partly in the Box edging. I think it has been in a vague way not known to me for many past seasons, but I have passed it unobservantly, only perhaps remarking to myself, "Ah, there you are again!" One day, however, it drew down my attention to look more closely, and since, it has had sometimes half-a-dozen visits in the day. I wished to see it there were any set hours for its unfolding and closing; it seemed so odd to find the little flowers fast shut at near 8 a.m., with the sunshine bright upon them. Then I found they did not open till between 11 and 12 mid-day. One placed in water, at a south window, opened itself wide before nine in the morning, and at noon the small yellow disc was spread so broad that its rays turned over the other way on any flower's face an expression of more serene content. Then both the growing flowers and the one in the window began to close at precisely the same time- about ten minutes to 4 p.m.; and the closing process with both only came to an end at near 6. This slowness may have been, perhaps, because the flowers were then all rather past their first youth. In grey cloudy weather they hardly unclosed at all. The spot where this Coltsfoot has chosen to grow must be unsympathetic, for after the early morning a light chequered shade of Holly, from over the way, veils in some degree its coveted sun supply. When its time comes the little flower dies very prettily; it only changes to a dull saffron hue, and then shuts up for ever.
The all too brief delight of hearing the birds sing in the evening is not at its best; about seven they begin. The other day, at 6.30, scarce a note was heard through all the garden. The rooks were cawing in a whisper their hoarse good-nights; two wood-pigeons answered each other from trees far apart in the fields, with an interrupted chant- "slow to begin and never ending." Suddenly, a little before seven- about three minutes before- one after another the thrushes awoke into song. The whole air echoed and resounded with their music. It was the same time, precisely, as the day before. How do they tell the hour thus to a minute? Not certainly by the clock; for seven struck from the village church tower just three minutes after the concert began. Can it be the first star appearing that sets for them the moment to begin? Looking up, the pole star shone from heaven right overhead. Does some "wise thrush," sitting on a topmost branch, with full bright orbs turned heavenwards, mark this sudden diamond in the sky, and then at once pour forth his flood of liquid melody, the signal for his fellows waiting round to take up the song? We watched near the Douglas Fir, I and the satin-coated colley dog; he listened too, lying on the grass, rather bored but patient, with ears alert; and twilight deepened, and star after star stole out upon the dusk, while the orange west grew dim and changed, and louder still re-echoed the ecstatic numbers from every bush and tree, and from many a hedgerow in the fields beyond. In all this multitude of bird voices not a discord intervenes; it is an orchestra turned to one key, and the fuller the tones of the unnumbered instruments, the deeper and more entire is the concord. How is it done? There is no conductor with his baton!. . . But the dinner-bell rings, and we must leave the concert and all its sweet-throated minstrels in full song, and the garden, with its refined and lovely influences of perfect harmony, its budding trees and tuneful thickets of Fir and Laurel, to the Daffodils and the stars. The contrast is somewhat gross, of roast mutton and lighted lamps!. . . But to those who prefer their Currant bushes to the songs of "God's poet hid in foliage green," what can be said? I do not believe such persons exist.
The Sweet Briar hedge along the walk leading to the wicket-gate in the entrance-drive begins to scent the air. We do not make enough of such a treasure as Sweet Briar is. Some day we must plant some near the windows, for pleasant perfume after rain...
April 17.— This morning, before 8 o'clock, the whole garden felt like spring. The turf was brightly green and shining with dew, and birds, and grass, and flowers were unconsciously at ease and happy for the moment under the warm sunlight. The unwonted warmth made a robin so bold and confident, that he flew up against me in the most playful way, and then perched on a young Beech, flapping his little wings with a merry twinkle in his eye. All about and in and out the Stone Pine, to them one huge world of insects life, flitted a pair of golden crested wrens, [goldcrests] as busy as possible, the flutter of their tiny wings making just as much sound as might two butterflies. The sun glanced now and then, for a moment, on the cock-bird's golden streak, the hen held a filmy white insect of some kind in her bill, and would on no account show the way to her nest, so long as she was watched. It was unkind, I fear, to tease so minute a creature, and I soon went another way; and then both wrens made a little rush into the brambly ivy-smothered trunk of the tree. We refrain from too curiously searching for the nest, though I think the young family would be worth seeing! In the morning light a host of single Daffodils alone like pale gold; double white Wind-flowers have began to bloom (there grows a yellow wild * not far from us, but I have only seen it after it had been transplanted into a garden), and many kinds of Narcissus. (* Anemone Ranunculoides is alluded to. The gardener of the garden where I saw it assured me it grew wild in a little wood close by, but I did not myself see it wild.) The Pasque-flower has been put out of its reckoning by the unusually early Easter; it is only just in bud. The grass walk in the Fantaisie was too heavy with dew to be pleasant, so I only looked across the gate at the Narcissus and flaming star Anemones. In the clear sunlight, lilac patches of Aubrietia, side by side with clean white Arabis, seem doubly charming.
How eagerly one seizes all possible points of beauty in such a severe trying season! I never before remember our having to water the garden in April; it has been, however, quite necessary, for as yet only two slight April showers have fallen, and the clumps of Narcissus Poeticus were failing. Tulips are flowering with stalks barely one inch long, and Crown Imperials half miss their usual "stately beautifulness." One day of soft warm rain would set all right, and give us an almost Roman spring, so suddenly would the garden become clothed in bloom, and the leaves burst out upon the trees. King-cups begin to glass themselves in our narrow watercourse, and reeds to thicken greenly along the bank. The long line of Primroses along the Allée Verte is a sad failure. As soon as the flowers open they are beheaded by those cruel chaffinches. This is how the little painted traitors behave all the while they are supposed to be gaily building their dainty nests! Such wholesale execution is, I believe, the result of this very dry weather. They cut off the flowers to get at the small drop of moisture or honey in the calyx. I forgive the chaffinches without any difficulty, only wishing that other people could be as easily pardoned; but when the rooks are poisoned and our new hopes of a rookery nearly frustrated, it is hard to be very forgiving! Some short-sighted farmer has done this cruel deed. The poor rooks dropped on our own land on the grass under their nests. Several of their young must have perished miserably, and the deserted nests look very sad. Still we think enough young remain to save the rookery. The Florentine yellow Tulips are in bloom. How far more lovely to the unhorticultural eye are these wild kinds, with their graceful bending stalks, than those the Tulip's cultivation has so well succeeded in stiffening- with all their grand colour! On the 7th appeared, as I know she would sooner or later, the little "Vedova" Iris of Florence. Under the south wall, where we did not think to seek, there she was, for the first time after these eight years' seclusion. And still she wears her weeds of green and black. The roots have increased and thrown up quantities of leaves. These leaves are not rounded like those of the Spanish Iris and other long narrow kinds; they are four-sided, with sharp angles, very strong, and have a sharp point at the end.
Copyright ©: 2000 Donald Perkins