When a friend rang to meet for coffee last week, the Court Cafe at the heart of the British Museum hit the spot as it were. For all its vastness, the glass and stone sheltered courtyard manages to be intimate as well as being an architecturally awesome, people watching, while-away-the-hours, rendezvous. As it was, there was not much time to spare but I’d wanted to see the North American flora in this year’s Kew at the British Museum and there were just enough meandering moments left for a few snaps. Even the wet weather managed a summery break…
All garden structures begin with trees and shrubs and this showcase landscape is no exception, with specimens that token various states of America and also provide spectacular Autumn colours. These include Sweet Gums (Liquidambar styraciflua), Sugar (Acer saccharinum) and Snake bark maples (A.davidii), Paper birch, Bald cypress (Taxodium distichum), Black walnut (Juglans nigra), Black Locust (Robinia pseudoacacia) and Saw Palmetto.
Westward from the Rocky mountains, Lupines are all American! Whilst the edible sweet yellow Lupinus (albus var. saccharatus) arrived on our shores with the Romans, the large-leaved, bitter Lupin (L. polyphyllus) was a 19th century introduction of the plant collector, David Douglas. These pea–flower-on-a-stick bluebonnets are the forerunners of the stately spires of Russell’s lupins so beloved by post-war gardeners ands slugs. With the advent of architectural uprights being a tickbox, garden design item, lupins are making a comeback.
Not yellow but startlingly rose-coloured, Oenothera speciosa is a Mexican evening primrose with a host of common names including ones that are unprintable due to its robust here-to-stay attitude. I do however wish I’d noted the name of the red and white picotee cupped blooms on the right – that’s a cue for any American bloggers to help out here!
Both the Moss and Wild Blue Phlox divaricata caught my attention probably because they make such a soft and subtle contrast to the more familiar, gaudier P. paniculatas. These can reach between 4 and 6 foot in the wild, often plain pink and growing in the damp, partially shaded areas of the Eastern states.
C. bipinnatus is the common-or-garden Cosmos or Mexican aster. Thriving in poor, sunny soils, it is named from the Greek word for harmony or ordered universe. The popularity of various hybrids and ease of propagation has resulted in garden escapees literally going wild such that ‘Chaos’ might be a more suitable epithet. Nevertheless it is only the yellow C. sulphureous which is listed as an invasive from South America. Cosmos remind me of Love-in-a-mist Nigella, though obviously larger and more dramatically hued, and the open-hearted flowers continue to be as enchanting for many gardeners as they were for the Spanish missionaries who cultivated them.
Between the grasses, wallflowers, red-hot Salvias and hazy blue Centaureas, this Prairie planting was a big lure for the insects, particularly bumblebees but it was the insectivorous Sarracenias which drew the most human attention. “Please do not touch the flowers” was a sign I almost overlooked as I could barely resist putting my fingers into the pitfalls of these pitcher plants. When flowering, Sarracenias hold aloft intricate bloom bracts to lure in bees for pollination. This is not the precarious endeavour it would otherwise be as the sweet nectarine lips and digestive pools of the carnivorous pitchers only develop after the flowering season.
I’d associated Toadflax (Linaria vulgaris) with meadows and woodland margins, in hues confined to the milk and buttery yellows of scrambled eggs. It required a double take of the exuberant, multicoloured froth of flowers therefore to realise that these were all everlasting snapdragons. Introduced into America, it has become a troublesome weed in some states though not listed as invasive yet.
The exhibition runs until November 25th with cone-flowered Echinaceas and Rudbeckias still to bloom and ending with the finale of Fall foliage. Plenty of time for a taster tour of the North American landscape and well worth a visit. Coffee is optional.
Postscript: If North American flora does not seem as exotic as it might be this is greatly due to the plant hunting exploits of the Tradescants of the 17th century (and David Douglas in the 19th century). Both father and son brought back vast collections of Americana botanica, including the Tulip tree (Liriodendron) catalogued in 1656.
Walking along an allée of these trees in Regent’s Park it is easy to forget their Appalachian origins. Honeybees feed feverishly on the faux tulips, rocketing round the blooms like balls in a bagatelle pinboard.