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Plant writings, gardening thoughts & observations of Paul Hervey - Brookes, Award Winning Garden Designer & Plantsman.
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Wednesday, 15 July 2009

A Quick Tour of a Most Useful Plant.

I start with an apology that this may be slightly short, and as summer seems to have passed us by leaving a rather dreary, damp relation with a relentless appetite for wind in its place, so I am left struggling to keep the plants at the nursery upright today.

One of my all time favorite plants is Melissa, yes it sends it's copious off spring rioting across the garden like the hoards attacking the Bastille, but I wouldn't be without it , and a lot of it at that.

It’s native to southern Europe but was introduced to England very early and as such was for a while thought to be native to the southern counties. Melissa is highly attractive to bee’s and its from the Greek for bee that their name is derived. The common name of Lemon Balm or older, Sweet Balm comes from an abbreviation of Balsam. One of its oldest reputed properties is as a restorative and elixir of life.

Paracelsus believed it would, ‘completely revivify man’, and it was often used in treatments of the disorders of the nervous system. In the London Dispensary of 1696 it says, ‘An essence of balm, given in canary wine, every morning will renew youth, strengthen the brain, relieve languishing nature and prevent baldness’. John Evelyn believed it to be an aid to strengthening memory and ‘chasing away melancholy’.

Llewelyn, Prince of Glamorgan, lived until he was 108 and breakfasted on sweet balm tea, as did a gentleman called John Hussey who reportedly lived until he was 116. Carmelite water, of which balm was the chief ingredient was drunk by the Emperor Charles V daily. Carmelite water is made with a mixture of spirit of balm, lemon peel, angelica root, and nutmeg.

Gerard and Dioscorides both stated that it helps in the healing of wounds, Pliny wrote, ‘Balm, being applied, doth close up wounds without any perill or inflammation’, and this is now recognised by modern science as the balsamic oils of aromatic plants are used to make surgical dressings.

Lemon balm will propagate readily from seed and cuttings in late spring through to early summer. I tend to sow the seed ripe however as I find this gives better germination rates. In our herb garden I tend to grow the plain green leaved plant, Melissa officinalis and Melissa officinalis ‘Aurea’ as this tends to be used a lot in salads in our house as each leaf is irregularly splashed with bright drops of golden sunshine like colour. However, both the variegated form and pure golden, or yellow form, tend to suffer from the harsh mid-day sun so offer them partial shade.

Historically melissa was always grown near bee’s and not just because of there attractiveness in terms of it flowers, Gerard stated that, ‘It is profitably planted where bee’s are kept. The hives of bees being rubbed with the leaves of bawme, causeth the bees to keep together, and casueth others to come with them’. Pliny echoes this theory by stating, ’When they strayed away they do find there way home by it’.

Apart from drinking teas made with it and eating its leaves, melissa gathered in a bunch, tied and hung under a hot tap makes for a wonderfully invigorating bath. As the hot water runs over the leaves its oils are released, giving you a renewed sense of cheer and energy after a long tedious day.

Recently we started growing Melissa officinalis ssp. altissima, this wonderful balm has fast become my favorite, the leaves are slightly thicker, darker, and more pubescent. It is fast growing making a dense mound of foliage, however its best quality it the strong lime fragrance it emits either by brushing against it slightly or simply with the sun on it for a few moments. I find myself strangely addicted to its fragrance and when at the nursery, I repeatedly go over to it for another ‘hit’.

Being native to Crete I wonder if its strange lime fragrance is more evocative of the warm seas and recipes belonging to Patience Grey than just the sum of its parts. I am yet to plant one of these new found glories as I am waiting for the Autumn and a new ‘show’ border of plants at the nursery. Sean has worked fairly hard tracking down plants we are interested in trialing and we hope that the new border will be a trial bed of the new and exciting at the nursery.

Lemon Balm Bread on Foodista

Thursday, 9 July 2009



You may ask when I fit the time in to write about these plants, and in honesty I spend brief moments almost snatching the words onto my macbook.

Recently I heard someone say, ‘A gardens not complete without a geranium’ and I thought, ‘what plants would I not want to be without?’. I don’t think I believe any gardens to be incomplete without the addition of a certain plant but I think as a designer I tend to have a backbone of plants I use and rely on to help construct a planting

scheme or use to achieve drama and scale.

Fennel, be it giant, bronze or green to name the most obvious, is one of those such genus that adds so much. Freely growing in most temperate parts of Europe and self-seeding along riverbanks it seems to have left its more native mediterranean and migrated almost with the Roman conquests to now stretch from North Wales across mainland Europe to Russia, India and parts of what was Persia.

Foeniculum was the named used to describe this plant by the Romans, derived from the Latin word for Hay, which for those who studied latin will come as no surprise. Foenum was then corrupted in the middle ages to Fanculum, which in turns gives rise to the alternative name and now largely disused common name of Fenkel.

The Romans used to eat the sweet edible young shoots and aromatic seeds. So popular was it, that Pliny attributed 22 medical remedies to it. He observed that, “Serpents eat it after casting their old skins and that they sharpened their sight by rubbing against the plant”. Now luckily in England we don’t see many serpents, and most ‘snakes in the grass’ are ones people talk about, (at least we know where the phrase originates) but the idea that fennel improves sight certainly has stuck.

Throughout medieval England, and Europe I imagine, on midsummers eve you would have seen fennel hung together with St Johns Wort to ward off evil spirits and witchcraft. On its own and a use it it still employed for it was served with fish, in this instance salt fish, during Lent.

Although references are made in early anglo-saxon cookery and medical recipes prior to the Norman conquest fennel was not widely cultivated until Charlemagne ordered it be grown on imperial farms, stimulating popular growth.

In 1650 one of the most amusing descriptions of its uses was written, I laugh when I read it and imagine what a reaction such a statement might cause in todays world, “Both the seeds, leaves and root of our Garden Fennel are much used in drinks and broths for those who are grown fat, to abate their unwieldiness and cause them to grow more gaunt and lank”, its from William Coles Nature’s Paradise but it was also mentioned by the great herbalist Gerard in 1597. However, much earlier the ancient Greeks knew fennel as Marathron from the greek maraino meaning to grow thin. In Edward I’s reign the poor used to eat fennel seeds to satisfy hunger cravings on fasting days and to make unpalatable foods taste better, along with I presume suppressing hunger so ensure a small portion.

Along with its now well known hunger suppressing capabilities it is also thought to convey longevity and to give strength and courage.

One of the most well known uses of fennel is as an accompaniment to fish, in 1640 Parkinson writes, ‘being sweete and somewhat hot helpeth to digest the crude qualitie of fish and other viscous meats. We use it to lay upon fish or to boyle it therewith’. Its this culinary use with Salmon or mackerel, in much the same way as parsley which saw patches of fennel in country house kitchen gardens.

Fennel also has calmative qualities, fennel tea can be made from a teaspoon of bruised seeds and used chiefly for those suffering from over excitement. I generally use small young shoots in salads or in soups. In Italy the stalks are eaten stripped with olive oil and pepper.

In the garden, it grows to make a billowing cloud of feathery foliage, a great foil in the middle of the border. When the flowers are open deep sulphery yellow, you can smell its presence on the air and I always associate the smell of fennel with high summer. It works really well to reduce the ‘weightiness’ of some plants. The light almost dancing foliage seems to lift other plants in its company and one really good example of this effect was dark leaved Dahlia ‘David Howard’ planted en mass with purple fennel. If your a minimalist fan I have seen a rather forward thinking piece of urban planting recently where purple fennel was planted by the 1000’s against a backdrop of bleached timber walling. The foliage seemed to resemble a bubbling moving piece of art as it stretched its way along the lengthy facade.

Wednesday, 8 July 2009

Hampton Court, Talks & Walks

On the social front I am fresh from Hampton Court. We had a good lengthy nose around on Tuesday and really enjoyed ourselves. The Show Gardens were all interesting from a designers point of view, it is endlessly engrossing studying the way people interpret the space they create along with looking and evaluating your own design take on the garden. I often imagine the gardens with ‘this’ added or ‘that’ moved slightly. I am sure many other garden designers would tell you a similar story. Being so large, I am sure there was plenty we missed. One thing which sets Hampton apart, like Malvern, is its setting. The Wren facades are your constant partner when walking the show ground and their subtle, rather understated but large presence it a lot to live up to as a designer when in such close proximity.

Naturally you take something away from going to the show and for me it was a beautifully constructed, grey painted Shepards Hut complete with wood-burner. Its proportions where immaculate, the height of the hut in relation to the wheels was actually a rather joyous affair. I have decided that this is the Office to aspire to!

The other more subdued feeling I took away from the show was, ‘Don’t look for more merit than your learning deserves’, take what you want from this but for me, the wider landscape of Hampton Court was an unquestionable lesson. Away from the din and razz mataz glamour, if you want, of the show and the right here and now, the architecture of the palace and the gardened landscape are there for much longer, lasting as a testament to well executed design. This is the same with a La Notre design its sheer brilliance doesn't persist due to a retrospective historical need. Far from it the French are a forward thinking people, in their V Republic, the gardens from Versailles, Vaux le Vicomte and the garden at Chateau de Gourdon have all survived principally because there were good enough to last.

The best show gardens last in photographic sense and the best designers will be commissioned to create lasting testaments to their skill as designers and artists using plants and landscape as their medium. I leave Hampton Court rather looking forward to Malvern Autumn Show. In just under 3 months time I will be there with all the other designers who have a passion for plants, gardens, and the ways they can be used to create a sense of place.

Now with one left to go on the 29th July, I thought I would just touch on the series of garden walks I had been asked to do at the Rococo Garden, Painswick. These walks have all attracted good numbers of people wanting to, rather nicely for me, spend an afternoon strolling the garden talking about its history and more often than not, talking about plants and gardens in general. It has lead to a number of other garden walks and talks with gardening groups which has been really enjoyable and unexpected. Luckily for me I love to be involved in a conversation about horticulture and you always find something out you didn’t know before and I have to confess I have been invariable invited along for lunch or tea and cake so I can’t complain.


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