The journey of maturing horticultural taste can be every bit the equivalent of the culinary one. A bland cheese with the texture of soft plastic was all very well when I was young but now only a really blue Stilton or oozing Brie will do. Early on in my gardening career I held on to the naive belief that gardens were only really interesting – and plants only worth their salt – when in a state of permanent floral fecundity. As my horticultural palette matured I began to appreciate the beauty in the subtleties of plants as they waxed and waned through the seasons.
By the time I reached my gardening middle age I had learnt that the most exciting, dynamic gardens are those composed in much the same way as a piece of theatre or music. The solid, reliable performers are a must but so are those that are fleeting and ephemeral. A garden needs its divas as much as the third spear carrier on the left.
If there is one plant that has educated my appreciation of the diva more than any other it is Eremurus robustus, the foxtail lily. Specifically the massed planting of Eremurus robustus at Hyde Hall, the Royal Horticultural Society garden in Essex. Depending on the season, they come into flower in mid to late June and last for little more than a couple of weeks. Stout flower spikes comprising hundreds of small, pale pink blooms with yellow centres rise up to a height of two metres and more, some topping out at three metres in a good year. The individual flowers – faintly and pleasantly fragrant – open from the bottom of the flower spike up like a floral ripple, and by the time those at the top of the spike have opened the flowers at the base have gone over. Bees love them, especially honey bees. The common name of foxtail lily derives from the dense, tapering flower spike’s tendency to not always shoot up arrow straight, instead wandering either a little or on occasion quite a lot off the vertical. Sometimes the resulting deformations can be comical as stems take right angle turns half way up their length before righting themselves again in a last drunken lurch upward. The foliage forms a clump of sword-shaped, fleshy leaves to a height of around one metre. It is formed early on in the season and can be a martyr to sudden, hard frosts, although damage to it does not seem to inhibit flowering and by the time the flower spike has formed the foliage is already beginning to fade. Within a few weeks of flowering there is no trace left at all, so planning is required to provide something to plug the resulting gap. It is for this reason that Eremurus are often grown “through” other plants.
Fourteen summers ago, in my first year as curator of Hyde Hall, I experienced for the first time the full impact of these gloriously fleeting flowers. The Eremurus there were first planted in 1969 by Helen and Dick Robinson, the enthusiastic and knowledgeable founders of the garden. They bought half a dozen crowns of foxtail lily from one of the RHS London Flower Shows and planted them in the one part of the garden where, by design or merely good chance, they were certain to thrive. On a site with heavy, slow-draining clay soil, the west facing border the Robinsons selected has a band of gravel running through it that helps to aid drainage and encourages early warming of the soil in spring. The protection of an established conifer hedge and the westerly aspect further helped to create the right microclimate for the plants to thrive. And thrive they did, to the extent that by the time I arrived at the garden in 2000, the half dozen crowns had merrily reproduced to become 656 (diligently counted) plants. I’m not aware of anywhere else, aside from in their home range, where Eremurus have so thoroughly and efficiently colonised a piece of ground.
There are about 40 species of Eremurus, of which fewer than 10 are grown in gardens. Their other common name, the desert candle, gives away the typical conditions of many of their home ranges – exposed, often dry with very high light levels, hot by day and frequently cold at night. E. robustus can be found in parts of Central Asia’s Tien Shan and Pamir mountains, which extend from Afghanistan and Uzbekistan in the west through to China in the east, the bulk located in Kyrgyzstan. Here, they grow in open, tundra-like conditions among grasses and plants such as species tulips.
Eremurus are equipped to cope with the cold and exposed conditions, but what they cannot tolerate is poor drainage and the killer of wet and cold combined. The roots are thick and fleshy, like a cartoon of an octopus, with a plump crown in the centre. What is fascinating about the self-sown plants at Hyde Hall is how high in the soil the crown sits; almost out of the ground, with the roots splayed out around it. Given that these seedlings are thriving and have found their own level rather than being planted, it follows that this must be how they like to grow. I now apply exactly the same principle when planting, with the addition of a layer of sharp grit under the crown and roots to further guard against winter rot. I also prefer to buy my plants as bare roots from mid-summer to autumn, rather than potted, as they are easier to plant at the correct depth this way. On the occasions when I have bought them as potted plants I have ended up removing the crown and roots from the pot, knocking off all the compost and planting them as if they were bare root.
At Hyde Hall the effect of so many of these flowering giants massed together in a fairly small border – the spikes rising up through the collection of old roses that predate the planting of the Eremurus and their subsequent self-seeding – makes for a Lilliputian experience and a jaw-dropping one at that. That first year, having waited with much anticipation for their arrival, I was awestruck when they finally came into flower but somewhat disappointed by their brevity. I wanted to carry on being lost in my foxtail forest for weeks to come. But when they were gone I began to understand that with these, as with all the other diva plants I’ve come to cherish, I derive almost as much pleasure from the anticipation of their arrival as the reality. Rather like the journey home from the delicatessen with a really good, ripe Brie.
Matthew Wilson is managing director of Clifton Nurseries in London
Eremurus varieties: Heightened effect
E. robustus is the largest garden-worthy Eremurus, but its size means it is not for every garden. The smaller E. himalaicus was introduced from Kashmir in the 1880s and is very hardy with white flowers on slender stems to an overall height of 1.6 metres to 1.8 metres. More compact still is E. stenophyllus, with yellow flowers and narrow leaves, which grows to about 0.8 metres.
In recent years plant breeders have been busy with Eremurus, breeding in colour variation and greater longevity of flower. Eremurus x isabellinus “Cleopatra” gets to 1.2 metres and has flowers of apricot or burnt orange (depending on how you look at it). “Pinocchio” reaches a similar height but with lemon yellow blooms. E. “Romance” is the closest in colour to E. robustus, possibly a slightly deeper pink, but again much smaller at 1.2 metres.
All need well-drained soil and full sun, and while they will grow through other plants just as the E. robustus at Hyde Hall, they need enough clear space around the crown for the sun to get to them in spring.
Get alerts on Life & Arts when a new story is published