Great Comp Autumn Extravaganza

Sunday saw me driving the few short miles to the gardens of Great Comp for the aptly named Autumn Extravaganza. Having been at Great Dixter the weekend before, October is shaping up to be a month of great gardens and gardening events, and we’re not even half way through.

I arrived in bright sunshine to find the borders in their full late-summer glory, grasses and perennials having filled out and drawn themselves up to their full stature, and giving every impression of returning the admiring glances of the visitors with something approaching condescension, arising from a pride in the knowledge that this, of all moments in the year, is the moment in which they look their absolute best. I think we can allow the contents of the borders their lofty attitude; they look very fine indeed.

On to the plants. A goodly selection of specialist nurseries, although I had the impression that there were fewer than at the Spring Fling. Sufficient in number to provide temptation to a gardener with a roving eye, however.

I was half hoping to track down my unicorn, a plant that I’ve been after all year since one of my clients saw it in the prairie gardens at Wisley. I’d seen a few diminutive pots of the Arkansas bluestar, Amsonia hubrichtii, at Dixter last weekend but, having left my wallet at home, I was saved from having to buy the things – something of which I was quite glad, not having been entirely confident of my ability to see the tiddlers through the winter. Amsonia seems to be growing in popularity – a mainly North American relative of the periwinkle, although not sharing the vinca’s slovenly posture it bears its light blue, star-shaped flowers in early summer on upright stems. It hasn’t been hard to get hold of Amsonia tabernaemontana, and I spied A. ciliata on the stand of Hardy’s Cottage Garden Plants at Chelsea earlier in the year (Rob and Rosy stock several species, I’ve subsequently found).

But Hubricht’s bluestar has much thinner, needle-like leaves, and in autumn, it does this...

Amsonia hubrichtii in full autumn colour the impression of the original Old Testament burning bush. I’ve learned from badgering various people that it does take a good while to bulk up, and had resigned myself to having to wait till next year. So you can imagine my joy to find that Paul Barney of Edulis, had brought several decent sized specimens with him. Those were coming home with me.

Today’s offerings, as you might expect from a plant fair in October, were distinctly shrubby, with the odd climber or tree thrown in for good measure. You might think this would be boring but, in that opinion, you’d be wrong.

I’m always a bit of a sucker for an attractive ilex, and the prickly pineapple holly, Ilex aquifolium 'Myrtifolia' bears perfectly formed, glossy green leaves about an 3cm long by 1cm wide, bristling with spines. It’s a neat, compact specimen, with the young shoots exhibiting a slight purplish tinge.

Ilex aquifolium 'Myrtifolia'
This next plant might quicken the pulse of even the most hardened hater of the ubiquitous evergreen euonymus. Euonymus fortunei 'Wolong Ghost' can be used as a mat-forming ground cover, or trained as a climber. It has thin, deep green glossy leaaves, with a prominent white mid-rib and veins, together with the usual pink spindleberry winged fruit.

Euonymus fortunei 'Wolong Ghost'
Now, writing about what I saw at the weekend, I wish I’d bought them all! But one plant that did come home with me is a variety of something very familiar, in the guise of something completely alien. If I hadn’t read the label, I’d never for a moment have believed this to be a cultivar of the wonderfully scented Confederate jasmine. This is Trachelospermum jasminoides 'Water Wheel', its deep blue-green leaves now having taken on the autumnal purple tint, although the silvery midrib still evident. The flowers are present in summer, although small.

Trachelospermum jasminoides 'Waterwheel'
Continuing the oddly narrow leaved theme of the day, this version of the alder buckthorn was new to me. Frangula alnus 'Fine Line', a deciduous shrub of columnar habit, not quite yet in its autumn shades.

Frangula alnus 'Fine Line'
And who can resist the wonderful autumn colour and rounded lobes of the rootbeer tree, Sassafras albidum? Not I.

Sassafras albidum. Used to flavour rootbeer
As I made my way towards the exit, clutching my small haul of plants, I became aware of a delicious smell, some baked fruit pudding, covered with caramelised sugar and just beginning to catch and burn at the edges. I spend t a few moments scouting the area for the culprit, and soon joined a group of people shuffling about in the fallen leaves beneath a katsura tree, Cercidiphyllum japonicum.

What’s that smell? Probably Cercidiphyllum japonicum


Summer has burned itself out. The cooler weather, arriving suddenly for what we initially took to be a fleetng stay, appears to be in no great hurry to depart, hanging about the place like an unwelcome guest for the summer hols. Across the country central heating thermostats are clicking into life, woodsheds are beeing restocked, and cardies are being retrieved from the winter section of the wardrobe. While it may not yet be autumn, it surely feels nothing like high summer.

With my greenhouse thermometer revealing temperatures dropping daily to below six degrees (August appears to have mistaken itself for October), it’s little wonder that the plants in our gardens are responding. One of the first to be showing signs of the coming season is the spindle, the leaves of which are adopting an autumnal blush with what must be considered unwarranted alacrity by those who remain staunchly opposed to any mention of summer’s end – of whom there appear to be many.

Our native variety, the common spindle (Euonymus europaeus) favours neutral to lime-rich soils, and was until relatively recently a common sight in hedgerows and woodland margins (it was unceremoniously hoiked out along with miles of hedgerow for the dubious offence of harbouring wheat rust spores, along with barberry Berberis vulgaris, also now rarely seen au naturel). Its wood was valued for its toughness, and used for spindles (presumably for machines, rather than bannisters), and reputedly also for toothpicks, although due to its toxicity I am slightly dubious about this often-cited application.

The spindle’s deep green stems with characteristic striations
Winged protruberances on the stem of the native spindle
A small tree or large shrub of about three metres in both height and width, it’s most notable later in the year, at which time you might be enticed to aproach it by the fiery hues of its autumnal foliage. Once in close proximity, you can’t help but notice the fascinating, four lobed fruits, bright pink capsules splitting to reveal a single bright orange seed. During other seasons the plant is less remarkable from a distance, opposite lance shaped leaves (ovate/oval in the books, but rarely so in my experience, at least on the deciduous species) roughly an inch long a similar deep green to the stems, and small, creamy-green, four-petalled flowers in late spring. The stems themselves are characteristic of the genus, often appearing almost square in cross-section due to the presence of hardened tissue which grows laterally along the length. These corky protrusions are particularly pronounced on the winged spindle Euonymus alatus, also known as or burning bush for the richness of its autumn colour. My first encounter with a spindle was with a form of this variety, Euonymus alatus var. apteris, which I came upon in all its late season glory on one visit to the gardens at Sissinghurst Castle. On my way to the nuttery, I rounded a corner in at the bottom of the rose garden, and had to stand and gaze a while at this tall, fiery orange sentinel, glowing in the low autumnal sunshine against the dark green of the yew hedge. Quite memorable.

Euonymus alatus foliage in the process of turning
Another favourite is Euonymus 'Red Cascade', typically taller and more tree-like in proportions than the more spreading E. alatus, and with spectacular colouring, if less pronounced ‘wings’.

The four-lobed capsule of Euonymus 'Red Cascade'
How odd to think that the same family includes a whole host of evergreen shrubs, referred to pejoratively by some as ‘car park plants’, but recognised those with more sense and less of a stick-up the-bum as reliable, low maintenance plants which are guaranteed to perform in practically any location. Euonymus fortunei 'Emerald Gaiety' and the larger 'Silver Queen' are green and silver stalwarts, while Euonymus fortunei 'Emerald 'n Gold' introduces warmer tones. You may never believe that these could be relatives to the deciduous shrubs mentioned above – until, that is, you see the flowers and fruit.

For the fruit alone, I think it’s a worthy addition to any garden. The autumn colour of the deciduous varieties should be the clincher. Naysayers might point out that they’re reputed to be a host for the black fly that favour broad beans. So... don’t plant them in a hedge around your veg patch. Chances are, you’ll get the black fly anyway, so sow your beans early, and nip out the young tips. But don’t let this deprive you of a great native garden plant.

All parts of the spindle are toxic for humans to a level of discomfort, and rather more toxic to dogs, cats, and horses.