At this time of year so full of cheer, rather than linger on the 3 Ds (relevant and on the rise at Christmas time but hardly the stuff of a Yuletide (b)log …sorry…) one can take a single step back to find the 3 Cs lurking and provoking thoughts for gardeners in December. My three Cs include the big C, a clematis because there is ALWAYS a clematis to discuss every month and of course the Christmas C, or should that be an X?
There are two plants that look as good now in December as they ever do: wonderful yews provide deepest Antwerp green blocky structures in a largely dormant garden and mistletoe beguiles with its elusive tangles of wispy green leaves and white berries. A great friend of mine eschewed conventional chemotherapy as a treatment for her breast cancer. Her reasoning was that she wanted to try to use more natural remedies. There are several common chemotherapy drugs all called something along the lines of Taxol and named because they are made from the active ingredient in yew (Taxus baccata) needles and bark. (In the old days people who had miles of yew hedges would donate their August clippings to cancer charities achieving a double whammy of assuaging horticultural and charitable guilt in one fell swoop.) Now Taxus is such a standard part of the medical armoury it has lost its origins as a ‘natural’ treatment and many are choosing to use mistletoe as an anti-carcinogen instead. Mistletoe in the garden is partly parasitic in that it does photosynthesise to provide energy for itself and for its host – often apple, plum, or ash trees – but equally its roots insert deep into the bark of the host tree literally sapping it of vigour.
Mistletoe look gorgeous and evocative on high in a tree but too much of a good thing will eventually compromise the cropping capacity of a fruit tree. The science behind mistletoe as a cancer treatment is still a little vague, although the variety that grows on Ash trees is much used as such on the continent, but if one imagines it draining the vim and vigour from a cancer cell in the way that it does from your apple trees one can see the logic. And have you ever wondered why mistletoe is always just out of climbing reach on a tree and therefore so expensive to buy? The mistle thrush Turdus viscivorus (I promise that is its name and it means Thrush-that-loves-to-devour-Mistletoe in Latin) lives up to its name in more ways than one by depositing its droppings replete with mistletoe seeds on the bark of potential host trees. The unguent stickiness of the mistletoe berry is retained throughout the thrush’s digestive process and so the seed adheres magnificently to the bark from where another mistletoe colony will soon form. But whichever way one’s medical tastes turn, a closely clipped yew hedge tipped with frost on a sunny morning, or a nest like whorl of mistletoe now made obvious in a defoliated deciduous tree are some of the great winter sights in the English countryside.
A more floral winter sight and the clematis du jour could be any of the Clematis cirrhosa varieties and no, I am not continuing the disease theme. Although they may look disappointing in the summer because their leaves just evaporate in the heat, they soon recover in the autumn cool and flower furiously and marvellously between December and February when virtually everything else has given up the ghost. The particular variety that stands out so effectively from the rest that it has been awarded an AGM from the RHS is Clematis cirrhosa var purpurascens ‘Freckles’. Its nodding, cup-shaped flowers are an ivory-cream colour with little splotches of maroon-brown that are just like facial freckles (which in themselves seem to be a rarer and rarer sight with all that suncream we use) and orchids. The markings and the citrus scent give the flowers a whiff of the exotic which are best viewed from below when draped artfully over an arbour or pergola as opposed to climbing a wall where one can rarely stand and look directly up into the flowers. The foliage is less fernlike and jaggedy than other C. cirrhosas and has the enormous advantage of being evergreen. In spite of its penchant for winter flowering this is not a clematis for a north wall or a cold spot; it definitely prefers a protected position - make that a south facing one if you can. Like most clematis, Freckles scrambles merrily for 3-4 metres before petering out and often leaves a slightly bare and leggy base. Planting some tender myrtle (Myrtus communis) or some box (Buxus sempervirens) around the base will disguise the bare bits and has the added advantage of keeping the roots in the shady cool, a necessity for all clematis. A marginally more demanding kneesock plant, simply because its leaves need tidying up in autumn and spring, would be Iris unguicularis or the Algerian Iris which also flowers from Christmas onwards and likes the dryness of the base of a south facing wall. ‘Mary Barnard’ and ‘Walter Butt’ are good varieties to plump for.
And if the idea of a freckled clematis is just too much, Clematis cirrhosa ‘Wisley Cream’ is much loved with a flawless complexion, bell shaped flowers and more fernlike leaves. Once the flowers fade in both varieties you are left with those endearing fluffy seedheads into spring. But before spring arrives, love it or loathe it, Christian or Consumerist, Scrooge or Tiny Tim…Christmas is on its way and what more Christmassy plant can there be than Holly (if you leave out all those Poinsettias). Everyone knows the classic Ilex aquifolium holly, a glossy green and prickly number festooned with scarlet berries beloved of Victorians, Christmas card illustrators and brandy-on-pudding burners but I wanted to draw your attention to some other amazing hollies. With contemporary Christmas decorations in all sorts of non-trad colours there is a persuasive argument for adorning your picture frames with a silvery and variegated holly – Ilex aquifolium Argentea marginata – or even a gold one – Ilex altaclarensis – that doesn’t even have prickles. Both are easy to grow, ornamental and have wonderful berries. And just to tie things in - the other name for a mistle thrush is a holm thrush, named after the old English word for holly. Its second favourite meal after mistletoe is holly berries so if you do want guaranteed berries in your house this Christmas fling some fleece or a net over your female holly bushes before it is too late. A Merry Christmas to you all.