It is Spring and of the many aspects to the season I love, getting outside to work in my garden is my absolute favorite. This year marks the 8th Spring at our home in Kentucky, and is the third year where I anticipated scant to do for my carefully designed perennial garden other than the inevitable weeding (which was minimal) and dead fallen leaves removal (which is always a lot around here). Those two tasks were accomplished within a couple of fair days in early April. Then I anxiously waited as the weather warmed to discover which of my succulents and perennials survived the ice storm in February and several heavy snowfalls thereafter.
Frankly, I expected this winter’s severe weather to be the one reversing all my renewable, perennial garden plotting and sending me to the nursery for a ton of replacements. I am sure Lowes and the local nursery would have been happy to take my money, but thankfully every last plant survived, including the cold-hardy succulents!
Of course, I did buy a load of annuals for the pots on the front porch and patio. How could I resist when they are just so pretty! Now we are again in waiting mode, but only for the Spring rains to stop so we can finish making the patio furniture to complete my backyard haven. With my mind firmly fixed on a blooming garden, and as I am still learning about the native flora for humid, rainy Kentucky which is SO different than dry, stifling hot California, it brought to mind those flowers commonly found or unique to Derbyshire in England, where my favorite fictional couple live.
Polemonium caeruleum, or Jacob’s Ladder, is the official “county flower” of Derbyshire. It is a tall, hardy perennial plant that produces cup-shaped, brilliant blue flowers with prominent orange stamens. Some varieties produce lavender and white flowers, although the native plant flower is a deep blue. The name “Jacob’s Ladder” is a reference to the Biblical ladder ascending into heaven dreamt of by Jacob on his flight from his brother Esau. It comes from the six to twelve narrow stacked leaflets arranged like the treads of a staircase, but also, being a biblical reference suggests a plant long cultivated in gardens. Nationally it is a very rare plant in England, but it has several strongholds in Derbyshire. It grows best on the margins of woods and swamps, by streams, on turf, and usually in limestone hills of which the Derbyshire Peaks are made.
Medicinally, it is an astringent and diaphoretic. In the past, it was used internally in the treatment of a wide range of conditions ranging from headaches to fevers and epilepsy. It is cold hardy, and growth hardy to the point of almost being a weed. Every source I read made note of the fact that cats are strongly attracted by the smell of the flowers and will frequently roll around in them.
Due to the close ties to Derbyshire, in my novel Darcy and Elizabeth: Hope of the Future, I chose Jacob’s Ladder for Elizabeth’s bridal bouquet. The first short passage below is Lizzy learning the flowers were available so late in the year, and the second excerpt is from Darcy’s point-of-view from the altar as his bride approaches.
Between bites, Mrs. Bennet informed them, “While I was downstairs a message arrived from Mrs. Filiatreau. She reports that the florist in Derbyshire can send Jacob’s ladder blooms as you requested, Lizzy.”
“That is excellent news! They were plentiful in Derbyshire, including in the gardens at Pemberley. A beautiful flower with a lovely fragrance. They will blend well with the lavender and honeysuckle, in both fragrance and appearance, to create a fabulous bouquet.”
“Bluish-purple flowers, is that right?”
“Yes, Jane. I saw some that were bluer than purple, the hue varying. Hopefully, the ones Mrs. Filiatreau sends are blue.”
“To match the necklace Mr. Darcy gave you! Oh, it is divine. Can we see it again, Lizzy?”
Lizzy shook her head, Kitty immediately pouting. “Sorry, but I asked Papa to keep it locked in his desk. I cannot fathom its worth, even without taking the sentimental value into account. Frankly, having possession of such a necklace is a frightening responsibility.”
Her luxuriant tresses were styled in an elaborate weave of curls and braids with thin gold ribbons entwined and tiny buds of baby’s breath and lavender inserted. In her right hand, his mother’s engagement ring sparkling in the light, she held a bouquet of honeysuckle, lavender, and, to his utter amazement, clusters of cobalt-blue Jacob’s ladder. The splash of blue with the purple was sublime and complemented the sapphire-and-diamond necklace encircling her creamy, slender neck.
Minuartia verna, or Spring Sandwort, is a speciality of the Peak District. Today it is classed as “Nationally Threatened” but remains frequent in small patches in rocky areas of the limestone dales, as well as on old slag heaps from the lead mining industry. The plant is one of the few that can tolerate the residual heavy metals left in the soil, and so can grow without competition in such areas. This has given rise to the local name Leadwort. Plants that can tolerate high levels of heavy metals are known as metallophytes, some being “obligate” meaning they will only grow in these conditions. Spring Sandwort is classed as a “facultative metallophyte” because while it can tolerate heavy metals, it will happily grow elsewhere too. The plants are found in other inhospitable environments, such as alpine and arctic locales, because they can tolerate very low temperatures.
Spring Sandwort is a small, rather subtle plant with cushions of leaves and dainty, five-petal white flowers. There are up to 10 stamens with white filaments and reddish-purple anthers. The image to the right is a lovely clump amongst the rocks, and the featured image for this blog post is a close-up of an individual flower.
Hylotelephium telephium, or Orpine, was formerly known as Sedum telephium, the “sedum” portion of the name indicating it was considered within the broad succulent species. Deeper studies, including on the molecular level, resulted in segregating these species into a distinct clade separate from the very large Sedum genus. Apparently there is some debate over this, with the majority on the Hylotelephium side but a handful holding firm to the Sedum classification.
Whatever the botanical technicalities, Orpine is a popular plant in gardens as a robust “ice plant” type of succulent with fleshy, purplish stems and broad, coarsely toothed leaves. The flowers are pink and tiny, blooming from the top of the stem in a loose cluster. Orpine is frost resistant and grows easily in craggy terrains and rock ledges. This attractive plant grows in the wild, especially widespread in the limestone based White Peak area of Derbyshire, but is very popular as a cultivated plant for gardens. One reason for the garden choice, aside from the beautiful flowers themselves, is the high attraction of the Orpine’s nectar to bees.
The very young leaves can be eaten raw, and both the young leaves and firm tubers can be cooked. Orpine has been used medicinally by the Romans to treat wounds. It is a popular remedy for diarrhea, to treat internal ulcers, stimulates the kidneys, and in the treatment of cancer. A poultice of the crushed leaves has been used in the treatment of boils and carbuncles.
Orpine has a number of other colloquial names: livelong, frog’s-stomach, harping Johnny, life-everlasting, live-forever, midsummer-men, Orphan John, and witch’s moneybags. How on earth Orpine got those names one can only speculate as the reasons are not recorded.
Hieracium naviense, or Derby Hawkweed, is a very rare species of hawkweed. Greatly resembling the common dandelion, it was discovered in Derbyshire in 1898 but not confirmed as a new species until 1942. By 1950, the rare plant disappeared and was believed to be extinct for sixty years, until staff from Kew’s Millennium Seed Bank found two small populations near the Peak District’s Monsal Trail in Chee Dale.
Hawkweeds are an unusual plant with some 400 species found in Britain, most of which are very uncommon or rare. The Derby Hawkweed is unique to Derbyshire, being one of only two vascular plants endemic to the region and found nowhere else in the whole world. Chee Dale is now the only known location where the plant is found, and the sites of the two groups of plants are owned and preserved by the Peak District National Park and Derbyshire Wildlife Trust.
Derby Hawkweed is a perennial plant and only grows in rocky limestone habitats. The flowers are yellow, similar to a dandelion but smaller. Referred to as a “leek-coloured” hawkweed variety due to leaves with the same chalky-green as the vegetable, leek.
The only other flowering plant endemic to Derbyshire is the Rubus durescens, a rare British species of bramble in the rose family. What is very strange to me is that on multiple official botanical sites and books the references to Rubus durescens indicate it is a plant still growing in Derbyshire, yet I could find no photos. First described and named in 1892 by Derbyshire botanist William Richardson Linton, he placed an illustration of the plant in gold leaf on the cover of his 1903 publication The Flora of Derbyshire. Every mention of the plant includes either that cover etching or pressings of the leaves and flowers, like the one below right.
By description, Rubus durescens has pink flowers and, in the words of Linton, “occurs in large quantity in the square about five miles to the North and East of Shirley”. The 2015 version of The Flora of Derbyshire, written by Alan Willmot and Nick Moyes, noted that the plant’s range had remained unchanged, listing locations at Mugginton Sand Quarry, Nether Heage, Lower Hartshay, and Swanwick. The plant is on the Red Data List as “Nationally rare” so perhaps it is so delicate that taking a photograph would kill it!
Lastly, an honorable mention to Thamnobryum angustifolium, or Derbyshire Feathermoss, as the only other plant endemic to the region. Mosses are small, non-vascular flowerless plants in the taxonomic division Bryophyta, so technically not fitting into the topic of this blog, but it is too pretty and special not to cover.
Derbyshire Feathermoss is so rare, the main colony covers about 3 square metres (32 sq ft) of a single rock face, with small subsidiary colonies nearby. The location is in an aquatic area of Cressbrook Dale in the Peak District National Park, but kept secret as a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI). Because of its extreme rarity, the species has its own individual Biodiversity Action Plan and is included on a list of the world’s most threatened bryophytes.
I hope everyone enjoyed this botanical post.
Share your thoughts below, and have a lovely Spring!