Information, history and tips on growing plants which are not native to Scotland, but compliment them or have become part of more recent Scottish horticultural heritage.
The North Lilies – a Living Detective Story
The late Dr.Christopher North of SCRI (now the James Hutton Institute) in Aberdeen, during the late Sixties and early Seventies, developed a passion for the wonderfully exotic form and scent of lilies. Due to their bulbous nature, he thought it might be possible to breed a sub species of lily that was sufficiently hardy to overwinter in very cold climates and low light. Specifically in Scotland!
He succeeded beyond expectations, and proceeded to name each new hybrid after heroes, heroines and writers of Greek Mythology. However, as this was a personal, sideline project to his main work with the SCRI, their provenance wasn’t documented by the Institute, and the seedlings were given away to friends, and friends-of-friends as unofficial ‘field tests’.
Recently, with the advent of a new director of the Institute, a hunt was initiated to track down all of the Collection, believed to number 22. Most have been tracked down, but being hybrids, they don’t come true to type from seed, so there may still be some in existence. To date, 18 varieties have been found – some gifted to the Institute by friends of Dr.North, or children of his friends. The final four are probably obliviously flowering somewhere in a Scots garden …
Growing Sweet Peas in Scotland
Nothing encapsulates the scent of Summer quite as well as the sweet pea, and the range of colours now available enhances any historically-inspired garden. However, they can be somewhat sulky in our weather, so a bit of preparation is needed to get not only a good display, but the maximum flowering period. Choose older strains where possible, such as the Spencer varieties – they are closer to the original species sweet peas, and tend to be a bit tougher, dealing better with sudden changes in temperature and climate.
Forget the general UK advice to leave ’em and direct sow in April/May as the soil warms – it often doesn’t in Scotland! To guarantee flowers from early July onward, sow under cover in September/October; a light storeroom, cold frame or unheated greenhouse is fine. If you’re a little late, say October time, soaking the seeds in warm water for 24 hours first does seem to speed germination, although it’s not strictly necessary. And personally, I think nicking the hard outer coating of the seeds, as some recommend, is more likely to damage the germ and introduce moulds and what-not round these parts, but hey.
Sow seed two together in compost that has been mixed with a little lime, along with sand/grit or perlite/vermiculite. Although you can buy special long plug modules to suit the sweet pea’s long root run, the best thing is loo roll inners or rolled newspaper. I’ve found that the deep punnets from supermarkets – the ones for peaches, plums etc – will take six of these well, stopping them falling over, and they have ready-made drainage holes. The airspaces created by a combination of cardboard tubes sitting in a plastic container provides insulation for the roots over the coldest Winter.
Once germinated, discard the weaker plant, and when the third set of leaves appear on the remaining plant, pinch out the top to help get some energy into developing roots. Keep aired over Winter, and water lightly once every couple of weeks to keep the young plants ticking over.
As Spring comes, dig some garden lime into the ground in which you want to plant your sweet peas, and in May, plant them out once they’ve reached about 8″/20cm, still in their tubes. As recommended since time immemorial, pinch off the first one or two sets of flower buds to create larger blooms and more vigorous growth.
Although this does seem like a lot of phaffing aboot, sweet peas are one of the few annuals worth taking some initial trouble with in Scotland, as they will reward you come rain or shine once established, and flower their wee socks off until the nights become cold.