This article is the second in a series taken from The Guide to Later Life [...]
Double TroubleCreated by Verity in Being You, Home and Garden
April brings the flowering of a plant that never fails to give unalloyed pleasure. I’ve grown it all my gardening life, and where it was acquired is long since forgotten, but it would have been bought as Arabis caucasica flore pleno. Easily understood, the name indicated that it was an arabis from the Caucasian Mountains, and was double flowered.
Now the dratted taxonomists, who seemingly can’t leave any plant name alone, have changed it to Arabis alpina subspecies caucasica Flore Pleno. But whatever mouthful of a name they hang on it, this is a beautiful plant. The ordinary arabis is very familiar – white- or pink-flowered cushions that often drape the walls of front gardens in early spring. So you’d think the double form would look like that, only with tight, extra-petalled flowers. But it doesn’t. As well as doubling, somehow height has been gained, so that in flower it’s a drift of white spikes, like miniature stocks. Just charming. Cold winters faze it not at all, unsurprisingly given its native habitat, and because they don’t make seed the flowers last a good long time too. I don’t bother with its single-flowered cousins, but this excellent plant I couldn’t do without. Deservedly, it has now earned an RHS Award of Merit
Double flowers when they occur have always been seen as something special, and whole societies of ‘Florists’ were dedicated in the nineteenth century to showing highly-bred blooms such as pinks, violets and auriculas. Cottagers would also pass them around, treasuring these rarities in their gardens, so that they became ‘cottage garden plants’. Double daisies, the traditional ‘Hen and Chickens’ aren’t seen much now, but were fairly easy to come by when I started gardening, and so I tried growing them. Likewise those showy double ranunculus, lovely balls of colour that still beckon seductively from garden centre displays. But now I’m resistant to their siren calls. When the gardening compulsion first took hold, buoyed up with enthusiasm and naivety I became a sucker for double anything. Wallflowers, antirrhinums, delphiniums, hyacinths, daisies, hollyhocks – I tried them all. That’s the way we learn of course, but the lesson I took from these experiments is that most double forms are freaks of nature, lacking strength and the will to live. They’re generally one year wonders in my experience.
Perhaps I didn’t cosset them enough. They are prima donnas after all, so much more glamorous than their single cousins, no wonder they trigger the collecting instinct amongst those prepared to care for their special needs. Especially primroses. Usually with a woman’s name attached, double primroses were extolled by the books I read as special, treasures to be prized. And I succumbed of course. ‘Marie Crousse’, a maroon-flowered French lady with a silver edge to her many petals, was eagerly acquired, as was the double white, a pale and portly version of our native primrose, and a traditional cottage garden plant. And I pounced on a much trumpeted new discovery, ‘Sue Jervis’. She was a peach-coloured double, apparently found growing wild by its eponymous first owner, and was certainly very pretty.
But do I have any of them left? Nope. Of course they weren’t able to seed themselves, essential reproductive parts having been converted into petals. That also rendered them liable to go on flowering until the plant was fatally weakened, since blooms aren’t produced for our benefit, even if we like to think so. They’re purely to produce seed.
Double-flowered plants are usually weak, I learned, even my lovely arabis can’t reproduce itself. Mind you some simply ignore the rules. Try telling all that to a dandelion.
© Alex Pankhurst