Astrantia major has many common names – Hattie’s pincushion, great masterwort and even melancholy gentleman. One of our volunteers, Sally, remembers it being called “Granny’s Brooch”, due to its resemblance to a piece of old-fashioned jewellery, the kind that an elderly relative might have worn on the lapel of a ‘good coat’ on special occasions. Astrantia, which have been cultivated since the C16th, was described by William Robinson as having ‘a quaint beauty of their own’.
The delicate blue flowers of Forget-Me-Not are holding their own among the strong, wiry stalks of Sweet William in Glasshouse No. 5. Both species (Myosotis scorpiodes and Dianthus barbatus) fit well into our Victorian setting. Much has been written about the symbolism of Forget-Me-Not, stretching back to Medieval times. It is associated with King Henry IV who is said to have adopted the flower as his symbol while in exile from England in 1398.
On these wet and windy days, as we wait for promised sunshine, it’s nice to think about exotic and colourful plants. And as volunteers at the Fota Frameyard we’re always eager to explore other gardens and glasshouses. This one is in Pittsburgh, quite a distance away. Pittsburgh’s nickname used to be “hell with the lid off”, a reference to the profusion of steel-mills that operated in the city. By 1911 it was producing half of the nation’s steel. Now the mills are gone and the air is cleaner. But even when the steel-mill chimneys were spewing out poisonous smoke (or perhaps because of that), the city built these Victorian glasshouses and set up the Phipps Conservatory and Botanic Gardens. A vibrant and colourful oasis in the middle of a dark, industrial landscape.
The spidery, yellow ribbons of the witch hazel unfurl with a spicy fragrance in the Fota Frameyard. This is the Hamamelis × intermedia ‘Arnold’s Promise’, that came under attack from the Fota rabbits when it was first planted. Now it has recovered and is thriving in the herbaceous border. E.A. Bowles, the British horticulturist, called witch hazel the ‘Epiphany Tree’ because some of these shrubs start to flower around the 6th of January and smell like frankincense. ‘Arnold Promise’ flowers somewhat later than others, in February and March.
Ophelia raged through Cork on a day when we usually work in the Frameyard. So we did what we were told and stayed home, hoping that none of the big trees would fall on the glasshouses or that panes of glass wouldn’t blow out. Returning this week, it’s good to see that the Frameyard is unscathed, as peaceful and orderly a place as ever. The orchard was not so lucky, with apple trees that were more than a hundred years old, succumbing to the hurricane. Ian the gardener was philosophical. It’s nature at work.
In fact, it was more than a fair day. It was a beautiful, pet September day for the 2017 Irish Specialist Nursery Association Plant Fair at Fota House and Gardens.
Even on a misty, early-Autumn day, the Orangery is a bright, light-filled space. Growing happily in one corner is a species of Brugmansia, its orange “Angel’s Trumpets” and large foliage bright against the whitewashed walls. And then there’s the fragrance – released at night to attract moths and lingering throughout the day…