26 Feb 2017

Wisley inspired early spring colour

At the onset of spring, we gardeners navigate towards colour like a thirsty man towards an oasis. We can spot an emerging snowdrop or primrose at fifty paces, swoon at crocus, irises and Hamamelis and can accurately identify a Daphne or Sarcococca from a whiff of scent on the breeze.  Even in a mild winter, deprivation of outdoor time in our gardens and the sight of grey skies can feel endless and leave us longing for spring to begin.

I am not immune to this and for my quick fix antidote I took myself off to RHS Wisley on Valentine's Day -  my gift to myself. That was just over ten days ago and I can't believe how many spring flowers have opened since then. As I set out, I was blissfully unaware that it was half term and the gardens likely to be busy - they were but, strangely, the only clue was that the overflow car parks were in use.  Once in the gardens, all was calm and peaceful, just how I like it.  Families, couples, visiting groups, even schools, were all there but Wisley's 60 acres had easily absorbed them all without anyone's enjoyment being compromised.

Bursts of colour were my motivation for visiting, especially the newly expanded Winter Walk, but first I headed off to see the butterflies in the Glasshouse.  To be honest, the textural planting is what lures me inside but it's still thrilling to see so many colourful butterflies swooping and gliding around. A spotter's guide is available for a small donation so I was able to identify the ones that stayed still long enough for me to photograph, although there were quite a few on the guide that eluded me. And not just because the lens on my camera kept steaming up.

Back outside, it was warm enough to grab a sandwich from the cafĂ©* and sit outside watching the ducks on the Winter Walk lake. Aren't they gorgeous! I'm hopeless with birds, anyone know what kind of duck this is?  His plumage was attracting a lot of attention!

Wisley ducks

Sitting by the lake, I was surrounded by colour. The Winter Walk is just, wow, breathtaking! I promise, it's worth a trip to the gardens to see, it's such a treat for colour starved eyes.  I've been many times in the past when multicoloured stems of dogwood and Rubus lit up the water's edge but this year the planting has been extended to the borders opposite the water.  Rivers of iris against a backdrop of red witch hazel and golden willow - dramatic planting with the look of an impressionist painting. (I know I can be a plant nerd but I swear my heart beat faster at this sight.)

~ Iris histrioides 'Lady Beatrix Stanley', Hamamelis x intermedia Rubin, Prunus serrula (for red bark and spring blossom), Salix alba 'Golden Ness' in background.

Stems of Cornus stolonifera flaviramea (green), C sanguinea 'Midwinter Fire', C. sericea 'Coral Red' (centre front), C. alba 'Kesselringii' (purple/black) and Rubus cockburnianus (white bramble)
Stunning, huh?

I recently met some garden owners whose previous gardener had overlooked the colour and scents available in spring, leaving them with a view of clipped box balls, yew hedges and muddy lawns. Tidy but sterile - what a missed opportunity! The collage below shows a tiny bit of the colour I found on my walk.

Clockwise from top left:  Calluna vulgaris 'Wickwar Flame'. Camellia japonica 'MarguĂ©rite Guillon', crocus, Hamamelis x intermedia 'Aphrodite', Iris histrioides 'Lady Beatrix Stanley', Hellebore (unknown)

I love to be outdoors throughout the year so, for me, a slow meander through the gardens gives an opportunity to fully appreciate spring unfolding. I marvel at the synchronicity of nature's timing, providing for wildlife who then return the favour by providing a service in the garden. Cyclamen seeds have a sweet coating that's irresistible to ants who carry the seeds away from the parent plant to increase chances of germination, while bees love the early nectar they can find from hellebores, crocus, heathers, witch hazel and iris. Even camellias which would appear to be too tightly petalled to be of use, lure bees in.  I spent a happy hour last spring watching bees all over the camellia under my window at home.

A favourite plant that I was delighted to discover in the borders was Hellebore 'Anna's Red', named for garden writer, Anna Pavord.  I last saw these at Great Dixter a couple of years ago; they're a stunning addition to the species, a deep red with marbled leaves raised by nurseryman Rodney Davey over a 12 year period. I really want some of these beauties in the garden at home; as luck would have it, the RHS plant centre has some for sale.  I had to beat the rush hour traffic back so resisted but, next visit ...

Hellebore 'Anna's Red'

My visit was a very successful and inspiring day out, especially as entrance was free as I'm a member of the RHS. The butterflies will be in the Glasshouse until Sunday 5th March, entrance is free to garden visitors.  And I presume the winter walk dogwoods will have to be cut back soon.

(*)  I chose a very affordable kid's lunch bag, choice of 5 items for less than a fiver, which I filled with drink, 2 sandwiches, fruit and crisps. It was all very fresh and delicious.


  1. Hi Caro, the ducks are mandarins which I've always struggled to photograph as the pair at work are very shy. I had the same problem of steamed up lens at the botanical garden butterfly house in Amsterdam - annoying, huh? I've only been to Wisley once and couldn't find a free car-parking space, tried to leave and had to queue to get back out again. One day, I shall try again! Dave

  2. Oh yes, that dark red hellebore is gorgeous. Love the pale pink camellia as well, all those petals! The ducks are mandarin ducks, male (the fancy one of course) and female. Occasionally we see a wild one at the wetlands place which is a treat. As you say, the plumage is amazing. Flowers and scents are so special at this time of year aren't they. My peach tree will be in flower soon, the first thing to open in my garden. I do have a little white camellia but it's still tightly furled at the moment. Hope you have a good Sunday Caro. CJ xx

  3. Dogwood cornus is so often sneered at as a 'supermarket car park' plant but it's fantastic for winter colour. I've got 'Midwinter Fire' planted where I can see it from the study. Lovely to look at but a bit distracting when I'm supposed to be working!

    I think the duck is a Mandarin.

  4. It's a mandarin duck - a pair actually the less colourful is the female.

    That hellebore is a wonderful colour.

    We started with just two cyclamen hederifolium and now they grow wverywhere like weeds. They have even made it to the plot.

    We will make it to Wisley one day!

  5. The duck is a Mandarin; lovely pics! I recently visited the Winter Walk at Anglesey Abbey, near Cambridge - also recommended!

  6. Wow, all that colour is amazing, it was no where near as good when we last visited a few years ago, they have been working hard!
    Your duck is a Mandarin Duck, beautiful aren't they.

  7. A most enjoyable post and lovely pictures.
    A visit like that is always most welcome at this time of year. Flighty xx

  8. Caro, beautiful photographs, the dogwood stems are stunning beside the water - I have many that I need to be courageous and cut down so I get the fiery colour. And the hamamelis, I've not yet splurged and purchased one, perhaps this week. I call the duck a Mandarin duck - not sure that's it's technical name but the Pavilion Gardens in Buxton have 30 or so now after a good couple of breeding years. Hope we get into the garden this week! X

  9. The irises under the witch hazel is a wonderful idea. If only irises would 'do' for me.
    They look like Mandarin ducks.

  10. Wonderful and such clever planting. Note to self to visit Wisley this year.

  11. Oh what a fabulous walk to treat yourself to Caro. Those cornuses look as if they are on fire. One non gardening related question - what did you use to get the band containing the text on your top photo? I've seen a similar effect on other blogs and have been wondering how to go about it.

    1. It's a treat that I look forward to every spring, Anna - the mass of cornus stems always surprises me with vivid colour no matter how many times I go! To get text with a box behind it on photos, I use Photoshop. It's software that not everyone has and I've been told that Gimp is another (free) that is a good alternative. I've never used it so can't make guarantees though. I'll have a go and do a post if I'm successful! Caro xx

    2. Oh thanks Caro. I don't have Photoshop but will look into Gimp xxx

  12. Now that is what I call heaven! How true re an impressionistic painting....those dogwoods are to die for. Mysort of treat to me too! xxx


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