Monday, 13 August 2012

Land of the giants

Summer's scorching, shimmering heat brings big things to the south of France. Not least the super-yachts and enormous cruise liners that I watch daily from the garden as they wallow lazily across the horizon, white blobs in the haze where I'd forgotten there was sea.

In the garden too, there are outsize happenings.... including my pumpkins (Musquée de Provence) -  two seeds planted on the old compost heap (a great tip if you have the space) -  have now become a mountain of leaves 35ft across, still expanding rapidly...

All these giant plants got me thinking as I was weeding some newly planted echiums the other day. It struck me as I steadily got more and more contact dermatitis from handling them; it felt just like when I was weeding the borage in the potager the day before. They’re family, of course....

Our humble European borage is a coarse, weedy-looking plant with dazzling blue flowers essential for the perfect Pimms. It’s really nothing to look at (apart from when surrounded by sweet alcohol and chopped fruit).  But, strand its ancestors on a rocky volcanic outcrop in the middle of the Atlantic for a couple of million years and you get something truly spectacular.

Photo courtesy of flickr ID: dcols. Echium wildpretii wild on Tenerife
They metamorphosed spectacularly into some of the most magnificent and unusual plants in cultivation, which show evolution in isolation at its finest. Like the Galapagos finches - a different beak on every island to adapt to specific conditions - which helped inspire Darwin’s theory of evolution, these Macaronesian [Canary Islands and Madeira] plants have evolved to fill highly specialised niches. 

Each island has its own species. Some, like E. pininana (12ft blue spires familiar sight in gardens along the Atlantic fringes of the British Isles), come from the laurisilva - the cloud forest of exotic trees distantly related to our culinary bay tree. Others bask in the arid heat of the islands' volcanic slopes - the most spectacular of which, E. wildprettii, I have three precious little plants.

...and the perfect place for them.  

A problem corner, near a cypress by the front of the house - sun baked with dry impoverished soil, full of gravel from the nearby path. 

A perfect replica of those parched volcanic slopes? We’ll find out...