Food gardening fanatic that I am, you can be sure that when I write about an ornamental, it's because something significant has happened. As indeed it has. Earlier in the year, a very dear gardening friend of mine died. She was a day short of her 87th birthday and, like so many of the old people in my tiny isolated community here in The Catlins, what Lillian didn't know about gardening isn't worth mentioning. Bringing up her small tribe of children (and a few foster ones as well) on a scrap of land, and with a disabled husband to boot, she knew the true meaning of 'putting food on the table'. And, in her case, most of it she grew or raised herself. Which is why it is even more poignant to note that, even during the busiest periods of her life, she also had time for the odd ornamental. Life for Lillian was never complete without a flower.
Rhododendrons do exceptionally well in our acid bush soils so perhaps, with little time to devote to any plant that couldn't be eaten, this is why Lillian chose to concentrate on this species. And could she grow them! By the time her children had left home and the guarantee of a pension meant she could spend more time in her flower garden, she had planted around thirty rhodos, moved on to camellias, and had filled the rest of the garden with dozens of varieties of dahlias. Even in advancing years she could tell you the name of every one of them. Amusingly, though there appeared not to be a centimetre of space left to plant anything more, whenever I met Lillian at a plant sale, she would always have one or two items in her basket and, with a wry little smile, would assure me 'there's always room to squeeze in one more'.
It's Rhododendron Cornubia that I remember Lillian for more than any other ornamental. Apart from R. Early Cheer, it is the very first of its species to bring forth colour from our seemingly endless southern winter, and it's deep red clusters of flowers remind me to 'hang on in there – spring is not far off.' Each August, Lillian would arrive at church with a sprig of it her hand and (rather smugly, I suspect), would pass it along the pew to me. 'Cornubia', she would whisper.
When Lillian died, I promised myself that, in her memory, I would source R. Cornubia for my own garden. But as planting time grew nearer, I just couldn't, in an already over-full woodland bed, figure out where I could possibly fit in another rhodo, especially one that grows 3 metres high. In desperation, I went to the garden centre and bought one, anyway. As I headed down my path with spade in one hand and my purchase in the other, I tried not to look sideways as I dug a suitable hole between a white camellia and Michelia Yunnanensis, partially filled it with compost and leaf-litter, and planted Cornubia firmly in the ground.
It was only as I stood back to see just how little space this poor rhodo would have to grow in that I suddenly felt things might not be quite as crowded as I had imagined. In fact, just in front of Cornubia and a little to the left, there really was space for another shrub. I felt a flutter of excitement. Perhaps I might return to the garden centre for the laburnum I'd seen when I'd been hunting for Cornubia – or even the Skimmia Japonica with its gorgeous red berries that had been on display beside the counter. Perhaps there was room for both!
And that was when I distinctly heard Lillian's voice. It was as though she was standing there beside me in the garden with her wry smile and a sense of defiance, saying 'There's always room to squeeze in one more'. And if you're a true gardener, of ornamentals or edibles, indeed there is!