Monday, October 25, 2010

Lavender Is More Than a Romantic herb

Harvesting lavender in Provence

Lavender belongs to and heads an elite list of universally popular herbs including the mints, thymes, sages, rosemary, and basils, all of which find extensive usage and acceptance worldwide,  have multiple virtues, and fascinating histories. No plant with the exception of the rose, a herb in its own right, evokes such universal affection or stirs memory more deeply than lavender. It has been a herb for all ages, and is showing promise of being one of the most important botanicals for the future with modern research now confirming many of its reputed medicinal virtues, aromatherapy harnessing its fragrance to gently ease work stressed bodies, and chefs around the world rediscovering a culinary herb of exceptional quality and breadth of usage that all but Provence had forgotten.

In the USA, lavender’s versatility as a medicinal herb has earned it the name of the Swiss army knife of herbal medicine due to its remarkable range of uses. In Provence it is considered the one essential in the first aid box. Only the true lavender Lavendula  angustifolia finds extensive use medicinally, and it appears to be at its most potent when the oil is distilled from flowers collected in the wild at higher altitudes in its native Provence. The next most potent form appears to be oil distilled from seed grown crops derived from genetically diverse material, and then clonal material, that is material grown from cuttings of a specific cultivar of the species. Certified organic crops attract a premium, and crops subjected to agricultural sprays are difficult or impossible to sell to any reputable firm. As lavender is one of the plants least prone to insect attack and disease, organic production is unusually easy to manage provided the crop is grown in a suitable site in terms of climate and soil, the fields are open, sunny and well drained, and simple rules of crop hygeine followed.

 Wild crafted herbs are universally preferred in herbal medicine, provided they are collected by experienced gatherers, as the tougher growing conditions  favour potency, the plants are less likely to be polluted, and they have been grown without the use of agricultural chemicals. The widely grown hybrid lavenders derived from crosses between the high altitude L. angustifolia syn. L. vera, L.officinalis and the lower altitude L. latifolia syn. L. spica, known in Australia as Intermedia cultivars and in France as lavandin, find  limited medicinal use.

The range of activity demonstrated by  lavender oil derivd from true lavender is remarkable. It is antibacterial, antifungal, and antiviral in action and also useful on first degree burns.It is a powerful soporific as anyone who has ever tried to strip lavender in a poorly ventilated room soon discovers. At the height of early 20th century lavender farming in southern England, cross ventilation had to be ensured  before workers began to strip dried lavender flowers from the harvest or the ladies would be literally asleep on the job. Lavender also has a marked tranquillising effect. Next time World War III is about to break out among the children at home, open a bottle of lavender oil and hear the blessed sounds of peace return. This is a trick well known to French psychologists...and teachers! Lavender is also a very useful soothing agent for the peripheral nervous system. I found it to be very useful in reducing the pain of shingles for my mother who suffered from this very painful virus from time to time over thirty years. For those who find leg muscles aching and twitching in bed after a hard day’s physical work (restless legs syndrome), lavender oil rubbed into the muscles relieves the symptoms for many.

The essential oil distilled from lavender has until recent times been the only form of the plant to be used medicinally. But the water soluble compounds in lavender are found not in the oil fraction but in the water fraction of the distillate. The water fraction is known as a hydrosol and has been found to have its own range of biological activities. Its mildness has also attracted those developing gentle products for facial skin, and for children, and an interesting commercially developed use is as a spritzer to spray on the face during long haul flights. It refreshes, invigorates, and appears to reduce the impact of long distance travel on the body. The finest quality hydrosol comes over in the first approximately 30 % and the last third should be discarded.

In Provence lavender has long held a high reputation as an anti-toxin. Maurice Messegué, son of a famed herbalist and himself one of the greatest herbalists ever produced by France, wrote of  hunting with his father in the mountains of Provence when he was a child. His father’s small hunting dog was bitten by a poisonous adder and the young Maurice was immediately dispatched to gather wild lavender from the bushes on the hillside. The dog was already severely distressed by the time he quickly returned, but his father crushed the handful of lavender flowers and leaves between his hands and applied it to the bite. The dog soon appeared less distressed and by the following morning was well on the way to recovery. The bite of the adder is sufficient to kill small dogs.  Maurice Messegué said that the use of lavender against snake bite was common in Provence where hunting dogs were often were bitten. But I thought it might still be the case that the animals which recovered had  been bitten by snakes that had struck another prey recently and had less venom than normal in their fangs. So I asked Catherine Couttelenc (she has since reverted to her maiden name), a lavender expert and university graduate who comes from a traditional lavender farming background in Provence, whether she had ever heard of such a use. She was not familiar with it, but went on to tell her own remarkable story. 

Her aunt was fond of gathering wild mushrooms and was considered an expert at identification. Perhaps her vision was becoming long sighted with age, but among the mushrooms she gathered was a deadly poisonous form. She prepared her meal from them, ate it, and shared a little with her small dog. Within a minute the dog had succumbed to the toxin and was writhing and foaming on the floor, before dying. Without hesitating, and possibly with minutes or less to spare, she grabbed the bottle of essential lavender oil that was always kept in the medicine chest and swallowed around 4 mls. She developed no more than slight symptoms which wore off almost immediately. Lavender’s reputation as an anti-toxin appears to be anecdotal at the moment, unlike its other substantiated medicinal uses, but the reports are consistent and it may be that a molecular compound in lavender oil binds with active sites on various toxin molecules and renders them ineffective.

Lavender sachets made at Honeysuckle Cottage with freshly harvested and dried  lavender.

Lavender growers often express the fear that their precious natural essential lavender oil will be replaced by the much cheaper synthetic form of the oil. But true lavender oil is much more than the sum of its parts, and synthetic lavender oil does not have the healing qualities of the genuine oil. Nor is it of value to the top end of the perfumery market or the rapidly growing and widely accepted area of aromatherapy. High quality oils derived from organically grown crops are demanded by both sectors. In perfumery, the subtlety of quality perfumes cannot be achieved by using synthetic oils alone which are like a single frequency note, piercing and strident, and difficult to blend. Natural essential oils have a broader frequency band, to continue the metaphor, they are more complex and softer, easier to blend and to create a harmonious whole. Many natural essential oils are literally worth far more than their weight in gold, and substituting a few synthetic oils can keep the price of a quality fragrance within a tolerable price range. To create the necessary complexity, balance, and harmony, however, the fragrance is blended with essential oil of true lavender.

In addition to its use as a complexing and harmonising element in many upmarket fragrances, lavender perfume has enjoyed a resurgence in its own right. Many of the older formulae favoured a scent which was by modern standards ‘snuffy’, with a musky, musty bias. Modern formulations aim for a clean, clear, cool fragrance. The sweet clean fragrance of these new formulations is winning over a whole new generation, and together with the citrus family of scents, is popular with both sexes and all age groups. Modern formulations for personal toiletries usually incorporate the hybrid or Intermedia forms of lavender. An old-fashioned image fragrance has reinvented itself.

Harvesting lavender in the high country of Provence in early July

Aromatherapya is a true discipline in its own right. It is studied at post-graduate level in several medical schools in France, and a Chair of Phytotherapy has been established in the Université of Paris Nord. Aromatherapists demand the highest possible quality essential oil of true lavender, organically grown and preferably organically certified. Synthetic lavender oil is of no therapeutic value, and Intermedia oils are of limited value. It finds widespread use in therapies to reduce stress, relieve insomnia, and soothe the body. It is used as a wound healant in aromatherapy and, possibly because of its ability to relax the mind, it is considered to enhance the immune system and assist in overcoming adrenal exhaustion. Apart from pure essential  oil, tinctures, tisanes, spritzes, atomises, salves, and washes are all used, and hydrosols are gaining popularity with aromatherapists.

Eating lavender has a quaint ring about it, undoubtedly romantic, but seemingly improbable. In reality lavender was at least as popular and used in the same way as rosemary in England in previous centuries. Fashion is a powerful thing and lavender was relegated to the realm of the quaint as a culinary herb in the late 18th and 19th century in England. In the USA and certainly in France however, lavender never completely disappeared from the list of culinary herbs. Despite their obvious modernity, in many ways Americans have retained many old-fashioned ways. Their use of the gentlemanly ‘Sir’ as a form of address is an example. The pronunciation of the word ‘herb’ as ‘erb’ is another instance. This pronunciation was used in Elizabethan England at the time when English settlement first began in Virginia. The English language moved on in England. Dropping the 'h' in front of a word became regarded as distinctly lower class, and 'erb' became ‘herb’. But in the USA the use of 'erb' has been retained.

 Lavender was never forgotten as a culinary herb in the United States. A remarkable number of recipes in parts of the USA included lavender flowers, often in sweet pies, cakes, and biscuits. Lavender was never forgotten in Provence either. In the dried herb mixture known as ‘Herbes de Provence’, it finds traditional use in flavouring meat dishes, baked fish, soups, and in vinaigrettes for salads. The recipe for this herbal mixture is as variable as any traditional recipe can be, and many formulations have been published, but they usually contain various proportions of dried rosemary, sweet marjoram, thyme, savory, and lavender flowers. Lavender is also used extensively in Provençal baking (particularly breads), to flavour wild game in combination with honey, and to add an indefinable something to classic French sweet dishes such as Creme Brulée and  cherry filled Clafoutis. Lavender honey and the almonds of southern Provence are the basis of the enormously profitable nougat industry of Montelimar which draws tourists from far and wide.

The new wave of lavender herbal cookery world wide but particularly in France and the United States, is even more exciting than that of the past.  Fish, venison, and game are smoked with lavender, meats and seafoods are grilled over lavender stalks, lavender savoury butters are melted over steak and fish dishes, marinades for game, meat, and seafoods incorporate lavender,and Asian fusion foods blend the flavours of Vietnamese coriander ( rau ram ), Thai basil, mint, or with garum masala.
While lavender already qualifies as not only the most romantic of all herbs, and the most versatile, lavender is also one of the most mystical of all herbs. Around the Mediterranean region where lavender is endemic, various species of lavender have been attributed with magical properties. It was burned during the summer solstice fires to create a purifying smoke. In Tuscany it was used to protect children from the ‘evil eye’, and in North Africa it was used by women to protect themselves not only from evil, but from violence. It was also believed that lavender conferred the ability to see spirits and, if a handful was carried, to detect the Devil who would appear as a man with a hollow back. Spikenard, oil of spike, derived from Lavendula latifolia, was used in ancient Egypt to anoint sacred sites and purify tools of magic for cleansing rituals. Today, practitioners of mystical religions also use oil of lavender for purification rituals and healing.

Lavender is more than a romantic herb. Today it has reinvented itself to be the most modern of plants. In gardens, lavender is immensely popular around the world, and hundreds of new cultivars for landscaping uses have been released in the last decade. The use of lavender in landscaping is still increasing, and more cultivars are being released than ever before. Lavender as a culinary herb has never been more popular, and its usage is increasing rapidly across the fashionable world. The medicinal uses of lavender are now being confirmed by modern science. Lavender as a fragrance is becoming universally popular, its clean, fresh, cool ragrance perfect for modern lifestyles. Aromatherapy has verified the use of lavender in treating modern problems of stress and immune deficiencies. Lavender is in the forefront of modern herbs and likely to remain  so. It was romantic before, now it has a versatility that is truly astounding.

If you are a lavender lover, you might enjoy my book 'Lavender Sweet Lavender' (Kangaroo Press Sydney)  It was updated to a second edition in 2000 after a number of reprints.  Although it is out print currently you will find second hand copies come up for sale regularly on Happy gardening and reading about gardening.  Judyth  McLeod

© Judyth A. McLeod                                    

Friday, October 1, 2010

Vampires Prefer Red Roses

October 1st launched my latest book 'Vampires: a BITE-sized history'. It is 240 pages long, a small but thick hardback designed by my publishers Murdoch Books to resemble a19th century book, with a black linen cover embossed with a large, shining silver, blood dripping V, silver edged pages and a red satin ribbon marker. Their production values are wonderful. For those interested in the vampire world, this is a history of vampires around the world dating back to Sumerian beliefs and covers more than 5,000 years of vampire stories. The universality of these beliefs is quite amazing and the stories of vampires and their activities, particularly in the medieval period and through to the 19th century are deliciously spine chilling.

Here on our five acre piece of paradise in the Blue Mountains about 11/4 hours from Sydney, spring has arrived - rather fickle with mainly perfect sunny days mixed with rain or wind storms. This is the time when Mother Nature goes mad for all gardeners, but particularly for plant nurseries. Everywhere we turn there is so much work to be done. Our mild winters (usually about 17 degrees C during the day and never plunging quite to 0 degrees C)  means that tiny winter weeds really romp in early spring and look like they are on steroids. Potting-up of plants is never ending and masses of heirloom vegetables for sale are quickly emerging and growing in their pots. Our graceful Japanese Temple Lime is already in full leaf, our huge hawthorn tree Crataegus monogyna (I'm part Irish and part Welsh so many Celtic plants of magic and protection are planted here) is a mountain of scented white snow humming crazily with hundreds of honey bees, the viburnums are bursting into flower, jasmines and wistarias are draped over every willing - and some unwilling - trees, the hellebores are in full flower, the gardens filled with intensely sweet scented Parma and sweet violets, and the old bushes of Indica azaleas, almost all of them white-flowered, are releasing delicious ethereal wisps of fragrance. The camellias are coming toward the end of their winter flowering but some small flowered species and their hybrids are still in full flower and quite a few are fragrant Finishing work in the nursery at 6 pm a few nights ago I turned to walk down to the house past double-flowered cherries and crabapple coming into full flower and was brought to a stop by the intensity of fragrance engulfing me as the evening scented tobacco Nicotiana sylvestris with its large nodding clusters of long slender white trumpet flowers added its own exquisite high notes to the mix.

'Tuscan Lace' Clove Pink - a variety I bred from a cross between two 19th century varieties.

Soon it will be the turn of masses of wonderfully fragrant honeysuckles including the the last of the Winter Honeysuckle Lonicers fragrantissima, huge flowered Giant Burmese Honeysuckle Lonicera hildenbrandiana and pink flowered English honeysuckle (woodbine) L. periclymenum, dozens of different clove pinks (many of them ancient), fragrant old day lilies and irises, the heritage roses and old style varieties bred by David Austin, as well as hundreds of different herbs. It is certainly a time to drown in scents - and be grateful for a large rambling country garden.

Giant Burmese Honeysuckle 

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Nibbling on Roses and Violets


The delightful fragrance of flowers was traditionally captured in Provence by the perfumeries of France's perfume capital Grasse in the hills above Nice. But in a tradition dating to the medieval period, rose petals, violets, mimosa flowers, jasmine, lavender, lemon verbena and mint leaves, and angelica stems have been crystallised, candied, incorporated into nougat confections created traditionally from lavender honey, the new season's harvest of almonds, and candied melon and orange peel. They have been made into violet syrup, jasmine or sweet violet jellies of sparkling clarity, or conserves of rose petals or violets.

Many family firms from tiny to medium in Provence remain true to the ancient art of making nougat, calissons, and superb glacé fruits, and some, like Confiserie Florian, still create delicacies made from flowers harvested from small farms around Grasse. Bee keepers constantly move their hives around the countryside to capture the nectar flows of mimosa, orange blossom, lavender and other flowers, and their honey finds its way into traditional nougat or is sold bottled as single flower honeys.

Florian is situated at Pont du Loup north-east of Grasse near the beautiful perched medieval town of Tourrette-sur-Loup on the Gorges du Loup. Tourrette is famed as a centre of violet growing: the  leaves are extracted for essential oil while the fresh flowers are bunched for sale in Nice or used to make jellies and candied violets. Visitors are made welcome at the confiserie and are happy to show all stages in creating a wide range of products and are greeted in summer with the fragrance of roses as artisand pluck the petals of great mounds of freshly picked roses (photographed above), varieties chosen for their rich fragrance.

Opposite: Candied sweet violets, rose petals, lemon verbena leaves and mimosa flowers at Confiserie Florian

Below: Sweet Violet 'Victoria'
 is the violet of choice for the creation of crystallised violets in Tourrette-sur-Loup

They will not last like the candied flowers of Florian and other Provence confiseries but it is easy to make crystallised violets, violas, rose petals and mint leaves at home to decorate a special cake or dessert. They will keep well for a week in an air-tight container. the recipe has its variants but is many centuries old.

Crystallised Flowers

N.B. A number of flowers are edible but quite a few can cause tummy upsets or worse so violets, garden violas, and rose petals are safe choices. Make sure they haven't been sprayed or contain
 insects. Separate rose petals and remove the bitter heels (unless using heritage roses which lack
 bitterness. Don't be tempted to shortcut by dipping the petals in the egg white. The flowers will take ages to dry, and be clumped with dull sugar globs    
Beat the white of an egg until fully broken up but stop before creating froth. Use a fine point water colour paint brush to paint both sides of the petals. Sift over with fine castor (superfine) sugar. Shake off the excess sugar and row out on wax paper to dry in the sun on hot sunny days. If there are flies around, cover with thin butter muslin cloth or similar. If the weather isn't co-operative, dry them on trays in an oven set at the coolest possible temperature with the oven door ajar. When dry they should glitter like precious jewels.

Judyth McLeod

Monday, June 28, 2010

Flower Carpets

True wild mother-of-thyme Thymus serpyllum growing at high altitude in Provence on Mont Ventoux

No plant really enjoys being trodden on despite the optimistic old saying:

                                   'Like a chamomile bed
                                   The more it is trodden
                                   The more it will spread'

So, despite romantic inclinations and a long love affair with Francis Bacon's Elizabethan essay 'On Gardens' I have never created a path made completely of herbs. I suspect Bacon's description of his dreamed of future pleasure garden never eventuated exactly according to his plans: "I will direct that alleys be planted with fragrant herbs, Burnet, Wild Thyme and Water Mints which perfume the air most delightfully, being trodden on and crushed so that you may have the pleasure when you walk."

A path of flagstones with the spaces filled with gravel and planted with carpeting herbs is a much more rugged option. Herbs thrive in the gravel with their roots running cool beneath the flat stones just as they are found in nature. Two other options are a densely woven raised carpet for sumptuous summer reclining, and a raised herb covered seat known as a 'turf seat', a favourite in late medieval and Tudor times. (My book 'In A Unicorn's Garden' about medieval gardens, plants and those who used them gives a description of how they are made).

My favourite carpeting herbs are the thymes. Thyme species fall into two broad types. Some are little subshrubs like lemon thyme (T. x citriodora), mastic thyme (T. mastichina) which is perfect for barbequed meats, 'Oregano' Thyme (T. pulegioides), 'Broadleaf English' (a hybrid of T. vulgaris), 'Fragrantissimus (T. vulgaris)  and common thyme (T. vulgaris) The other group are spreading thymes that knit the earth with a dense fragrant very low-growing carpet. The thymes flower in summer, and a mixture planted about 50 to 60 cm apart will soon meet and mingle to produce a medieval tapestry of gentle colours.

There has been a taxonomic revision of the genus Thymus in recent times. Most of the named varieties of spreading thymes have been assigned away from T. serpyllum, the true and actually rare mother-of-thyme to  T. pulegioides, and T. praecox subsp. arcticus so you might find them in nurseries under any of these names The flower colours range from white to variations on pink to rich crimson and purple and all have scented foliage. Among the prettiest of the carpeting thymes are 'Pink Chintz' with mid-pink flowers, the ancient white flowered'Alba' or 'Albus', 'Snowdrift' (also white) 'Coccineus' (crimson red), 'Woolly' with furry grey foliage, slightly variegated 'Mayfair', 'Annie Hall' (pale pink),  'Lars Hall' with pink flowers, 'Aureus' with golden foliage and pale pink flowers, and intensely lemon scented 'Lemon Curd'  and tiny leafed 'Minus' (all now designated T. praecox subsp. arcticus). 'Pink Chintz' has soft grey-green foliage and clear pink flowers while fragrant 'Doone Valley' is dark green generously speckled with gold. Caraway thyme T. herba-barona is another spreading very low growing thyme with a strong sweet caraway seed scent and rose-lilac flowers. 

Variegated 'Doone Valley' Thyme (left)

Creeping Corsican mint Mentha requienii forms a dense carpet of tiny emerald green leaves which are intensely scented of fresh mint. It prefers a moist lightly shaded area and will not take much foot traffic, so I prefer to plant it in wide shallow pots in moist semi-shade. At least the odd elf will be able to roll around on it. But pennyroyal Mentha pulegium, while needing moist soil, is happy in full sun and will take light foot traffic. It is at its best forming a tight emerald carpet between flagstones The flowers are a pretty lavender and are born in whorls up the flowering stems By the way pennyroyal is poisonous to dogs so avoid using flea treatments involving collars impregnated with pennyroyal oil and the use of a pennyroyal tea. Pet pillows containing dried pennyroyal are safe. The oil was used in the past as an abortifacient but it is dangerous, having a high toxicity and causing liver damage to the mother. Generally speaking, there are much better mints to flavour food and pennyroyal is better kept for ornamental use, for its delicious refreshing mint 'hit' in the garden, and as an ingredient in pet pillows.

Deliciously scented Caraway Thyme Thymus herba-barona (right) takes its name as a flavouring for the vast roasted Baron of Beef (a double sirloin of beef)

  The perennial matting Roman Chamomile Chamaemelum nobile makes a delightful fast spreading, fresh green, dense lawn for a sunny position. The soft finely divided foliage is scented strongly of fresh green apples. For those not wanting to tangle with bees as they dream sunny hours away on their turf seat, the form 'Treneague' is a non-flowering strain. The prettiest form is 'Flore Plena' with prolific very double white flowers. Prepare the ground before planting in the same way as for turf, making sure that it is weed free and evenly smoothed over. Regular weeding and watering is vital while establishing these fragrant carpets. 

If you share my love of antique plants and garden history you may like to look for one of my latest books 'In A Unicorn's Garden' (gorgeously produced by Murdoch Books covering the history of medieval gardens, their plants and those who tended them, lavishly illustrated in full colour, 288 pages) on Amazon sites at (in the UK) or (in the USA) or in your favourite bookstore. My book 'Heritage Gardening' (published by Simon and Schuster, illustrated in full colour throughout, 256 pages ) is available through my website as is 'Country Thyme' (above, sent to the USA, UK, and NZ for AU $20 total). Click on the Products and Gifts button on the home page. You can also link to my author site with blogs, and my cottage blogs, using the links on the home page.
Happy gardening!

© Judyth McLeod


Monday, June 21, 2010

The Medieval Rose Plantain

The thrill of growing and holding ancient plants that gardeners for centuries before me have loved never leaves. Unlike other antiques such as furniture and pottery and jewellery, these are living antiques, rare and exquisite. My current pots of ancient Rose Plantain are thriving, the bright green rosettes of leaves already about 10-12 cm across, doing their winter bulking up before showing their perfect very double 'green roses' in summer. The ideal companion for them in posies are diminutive pale pink fragrant 'Cecile Brunner' roses with their perfect furled Hybrid Tea form (or lookalikes 'White Cecile Brunner', 'Perle D'Or', and sweet pea scented 'Mme Jules Thibaud).

The Rose Plantain is a form of the Broadleaf or Greater Plantain Plantago major The common form may be weedy but it has been dignified as one of the nine sacred herbs of Anglo Saxon medicine, mentioned in the ancient Lacnunga. It was, and still is, used for treating burns, sores, skin ulcers, and inflamed and raw skin. The Anglo Saxons and later herbals also recommended it to treat diarrhoea, undulant fevers and for use as a diuretic. The rose flowered variation has been known since the medieval period, and is a form in which the spike is compressed when young and the bracts are much enlarged to resemble petals. Medieval gardeners were always delighted by quaint variations on wild plants, frequently introducing them into their gardens, and Elizabethan John Parkinson wrote in that most delightful of all garden books Paradisi in Sole Paradisus Terrestris (1629): "The Rose Plantaine hath been long in England". It certainly pleased Tudor and Elizabethan gardeners who delighted in quaint plants.

The Greater Plantain has another claim to fame. It became known as 'Traveller's Foot', and later 'Englishman's Foot' as it travelled with entusiasm wherever English colonies arose and naturalised there, earning the additional common names of 'Englishman's Foot' or 'Whiteman's Foot'. Older common names included Poverty Grass, Healing Blade, Canary Food, and two names derived from the old Anglo Saxon, Great Weybreed and Waybread (from 'weybroed').

Unlike the Greater Plantain, the Rose Plantain is not weedy and I am grateful for its very gentle seeding. Summer would not be the same without this reminder of  medieval, Tudor and Elizabethan gardeners who delighted in the curious.

If you share my love of antique plants and garden history you may like to look for one of my latest books 'In A Unicorn's Garden' (gorgeously produced by Murdoch Books covering the history of medieval gardens and plants, lavishly illustrated in full colour, 288 pages) on Amazon sites at (in the UK) or (in the USA) or in your favourite bookstore. My book 'Heritage Gardening' (published by Simon and Schuster, illustrated in full colour throughout, 256 pages ) is available through my website (click on the Products and Gifts button on the home page. You can also link to my author site with blogs, and my cottage blogs, using the links on the home page.

© Judyth McLeod

Sunday, June 20, 2010

Living Willow Fences


I've been having a love affair with living fences for years. A few Floriade festivals ago in Holland, a magical two story house and long winding tunnel arbour were created from basket woven living willow, taking the idea far beyond that of simple fencing. Somehow a kind of alchemy takes place inside these living structures; walking through them, sitting in them, has an other-worldly feeling.  The current fascination with all things medieval from banquets and weddings to mock battles and tournaments, very much including medieval gardens in which I tend to spend a lot of time, has seen a revival in many ancient crafts including the art of making living willow fences. Nowhere are they more widely seen than in France where many authentically recreated or restored medieval gardens have been constructed  around ancient monasteries, abbeys, and chateaux. The one pictured on the left is built around a lavender garden at Le Jardin de l'Alchimiste (The Alchemist's Garden), a stunning medieval re-creation at Mas de la Brune in Eygalieres-en-Provence.

These living fences were originally constructed for less than romantic reasons, to exclude wandering livestock (and thieves) from vegetable and herb gardens. But the medieval gardener also created ornamental open woven diamond patterned fences and tunnel arbours for pleasure gardens.

There are various ways of creating living willow fences, so this is the way I make them. Nothing roots more easily than willow cuttings. The white willow Salix alba is the willow of choice for fences. Cuttings of most plants get progressively more difficult to root the greater their length, but not the willow. Provided it is in moist soil, well firmed down and given some support to prevent root rock, even long branches will take quite easily.

  Before starting, a trellis in the form of posts with wire strung taut between them needs to be constructed to provide support while the fence becomes established. I like to use three levels of supporting wire, the top one at the final fence level. The more rustic the supporting posts, the better the fence looks. Whatever height fence you choose, you will need to allow extra length for the willow cuttings as the base of each is buried in soil for the first 20 cm of its length and is inserted at a slope of 45 degrees rather than vertically. But no advanced Pythagorean calculations are needed. Just insert the bottom of an experimental length of willow at 45 degrees so that the bottom 20 cm are covered by soil. Mark off where the cutting intersects the top wire of the support fence. Add 7.5 cm (3 inches) to allow for the interweaving of the cuttings and to be on the safe side. Cut the stem at this final length and use it as a template to cut all the willow branches. If you plan to make a few willow fences, it is worth marking a length of wood dowelling to indicate the cutting lengths needed for a 1.0 m, 1.5 m and 1.8 m willow fences. (Don't worry if the cuttings are not of even thickness - it really doesn't matter.) Measure out the length of the fence to ensure you have enough cuttings including one to complete the row. I leave gaps of 20 cm (8 inches) but some use a gap of 25 cm (10 inches). If you would like to have turf grown up to the fence, lay an unobtrusive mowing strip similar to that in the image above.

Begin constructing the fence by rubbing off all the leaf shoots and buds from each cutting leaving two or three intact at the top. Nip out the tip of the cutting. If you have good deep moist soil, the willow cuttings can be inserted directly into the soil. I haven't got the perfect willow soil so I start bundles of willow cuttings in a deep bucket half filled with water and take them out for planting when white roots just begin to emerge. The image above makes it fairly clear I think how to plant the fence. Water the soil thoroughly the day before planting. Start by pushing a row of cuttings in at the chosen interval and at an angle of 45 degrees, making sure they are inserted well into the soil.  When the fence is completed in one direction, go back and insert cuttings close to the same positions but angled at 45 degrees in the opposite direction. Weave the cuttings in and out (some stouter pieces may defy being woven but that doesn't matter). Now use soft ties (I've yet to find anything better than strips of old tights) to hold the woven fence against the three support wires, making sure each tip is securely fastened to the top wire.

Spring will get this project off to a quick start in milder climates provided the soil moisture is maintained. In Mediterranean climates, latish winter is ideal. The tops will begin to grow and leaf out if your hedge is successful but check for any side or bottom shoots that you may have missed (there are a few coming from the base in the lower image) and remove them quickly. Check that no ties are biting into the stems. Give the top growth a quick lop over once or twice a year to keep it green and lush. The support wires can always be removed once the fence is well established (usually about three years).

One day I just have to build a willow house. Being short sighted, I will pretend to be Mole as I listen to the wind in the willows.

If you share my love of medieval gardens, you might like to look for my book on medieval gardens and gardeners In A Unicorn's Garden (Murdoch Books) on Amazon in the UK at or the USA at or in your favourite bookshop. Please do check my author website blogs and cottage blog by following the links on the home page of

© Judyth McLeod

Thursday, June 17, 2010

The Single Roses

Single roses appeared constantly among the seedlings rowed out for testing in rose breeding programs, and just as regularly they were discarded. Despite their often exquisite appearance, they did not conform to the idea of a 'modern' rose, high pointed, large and fully double. We lost so many, dumped ignominiously for their wild looks. It is true that in formal rose beds from the 1860s onward, they looked totally wrong beside tall cabbage-headed Hybrid Perpetual roses and the emerging Hybrid Tea class. It was not until the idea of roses as shrubs to be used like camellias or lilacs was popularised that they found their way more frequently into gardens. They are also perfect choices for cottage gardens with their innocent looks. and many such as Mrs Oakley Fisher, Dainty Bess, Golden Wings and White Wings are rarely out of flower from mid spring to the end of autumn.

Single roses, like the exquisite very repeat flowering 'Wildflower' bred by David Austin (above), often resemble porcelain roses and seem as delicate as butterfly wings. Despite the carnage in rose breeders' experimental beds for a century and a half, some single flowered new seedlings touched the heart to such a degree that they were saved. Their continued survival, sometimes for more than a century on the world's rose lists, prove not only their charms but their toughness. These are a few of my own favourites:

Climbing Roses
Mermaid (1917) This is a hybrid of the Macartney Rose of Chia, a climber to 9m,  in bloom for many months with quantities of very large clear golden yellow single blooms each with a boss of golden-brown stamens. Mrs Richard Turnbull, bred by Alister Clark in Victoria, is in the same style, constantly re-flowers in the season and is a pure creamy white. 
The Cherokee Rose or Laevigata This vigorous climber was discovered in China and is exquisite in bloom with huge pure creamy white flowers of great substance with a boss of yellow stamens. It is deliciously scented of rose and carnation. Once flowering.
Francis E. Lester This once flowering Musk Hybrid climber is a glorios sight in full flower, with huge terminal panicles of small, single, milk white flowers blushed with pink, resembling apple blossom. The intense fragrance is of bananas and oranges. It is very healthy and grows to around 3.5-4.0 m. The flowers are followed by large sprays of tiny deep apricot heps that are perfect for posies and flower arrangements.
Wedding Day Bred by Sir William Stern at 'Highdown'  in Sussex, this variety is perfectly named. It is a very healthy moderate to larger climber, once flowering, with huge dense trusses of pure white small single flowers richly fragrant of oranges.
Filipes 'Kiftsgate' is only suited to large and country gardens. This world famous rose was raised in the beautiful garden of 'Kiftsgate' (located across the road from 'Hidcote', another famous English garden.) It easily climb into trees forming a spectacular waterfall of single superbly fragrant white single flowers followed by thousands of tiny heps.
Himalayan Musk Rose Another rose strictly for larger and country gardens, free standing like a clump of bamboo with arching branches and drooping, almost willow-like grey-green foliage and huge trusses of delicate, milky-white, small roses intensely fragrant of sweet pure musk (which bears no relationship to those choking, hayfever-inducing cheap 'musk' perfumes).
Gigantea This gorgeous Burmese and southern Chinese rose was introduced into Europe in 1888. The saucer-like very large single flowers are cream and very fragrant. They are followed by huge edible pear-shaped orange heps (which are sold as fruit in Indian markets). It repeat flowers lightly after its first luscious early summer flowering and can reach 10 m making it ideal for larger pergolas.
Altissimo There is no hiding this flaming beauty with large crisp single blooms of clear rich red and golden stamens. It is one of those happy-hearted roses, perfect for climbing over the garden gate or wreathing around an entrance or verandah.
Climbing 'Meg' This stunning old rose bears large pale pink single blooms in abundance throughout the season, spreading a sweet old-fashioned fragrance.
Gwen Nash bred by Alister Clark in Victoria, this glorious climber bred from Gigantea has a profusion of large exquisite mid pink flowers with waved petals and a delightful sweet fragrance.
Nancy Hayward This famous old climbing rose bred by Alister Clark in 1937 is breath-takingly elegant. It bears profuse huge fragrant single flowers of glowing tomato red with gold stamens and constantly r-flowers.

Bush and Shrub Single Roses
Golden Wings This is simply one of the most beautiful roses ever bred and fortunately was appreciated. It is a repeat flowering hybrid forming a neat shrub withvery large flowers which are lemon yellow suffused with golden yellow with a boss of rich deep gold stamens and a sweet wild rose fragrance.
Lord Penzance An all-time favourite, bred from the Eglantine Rose, the wild rose of England, by Lord Penzance of Goldalming in Surrey. The foliage is intensely scented of fresh green apples while the profuse pale to deeper lemon single blossoms are faintly blushed with pink and have a wild sweet rose fragrance.
Dupontii syn. Rosa moschata nivea  Bred in 1817 and named after the head gardener Andre Dupont for the Empress Josephine at Malmaison near Paris, this glorious rose smothers in large single milky white perfect blooms which shade to gold in the heart and have a richfragrance of ripe bananas.Many rate it the finest shrub rose ever bred, despite the magnificent display lasting only 4-6 weeks a year. It was bred from a cross between the Damask rose and the True Musk Rose R. moschata.
Sally This stunning shrub rose bears small clusters of deliciously fragrant, large white flowers unfolding from elegant apricot buds. Repeat flowering. It forms a spreading shrub to around 1.5m x 1.5m.
Dainty Bess Bred in 1925, this is one of the most loved single hybrid tea roses with a profusion of large single clear light pink flowers with wine red stamens. It is constantly in flower throughout its long season, and is vigorous and healthy.
White Wings This exquisite single old hybrid tea rose is one of the most elegant roses ever bred with medium to large, airy, purest white flowered roses and a delicate delicious scent. Like Dainty Bess, it is particularly sturdy.
Mrs Oakley Fisher Bred by Cant in 1921, this is now one of the most sought after old roses, a gorgeous single Hybrid Tea in pure silken apricot with a delicious fresh scent. The new growth is a rich crimson. Simply beautiful. 
Mutabilis syn. Tipo Ideale Although this rose from China was introduced into European cultivation in 1896, it is thought to be very much older. It is unique and remarkable, forming over the years a large shrub. It is never out of flower other than in mid-winter, smothering in airy panicles of large single flowers that open from deep apricot, slenderly furled buds to cream, then apricot, coppery pink and finally crimson so that the bush seems to be covered with multi-coloured hovering butterflies.
Fruhlingsmorgen A gorgeous shrub rose from the 1930s. The arching canes bear a profusion of large single pale pink flowers, each with a cluster of deepest crimson stamens. Fruhlingsgold is its near twin with very fragrant large pale golden single blooms.
Bloomfield Dainty and Irish Elegance are also well worth including in the garden.

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Happy meandering and gardening,  Judyth McLeod

  © Judyth McLeod