Staples aside, I find what we do and don’t choose to grow in our gardens endlessly interesting. Why, for instance, do I prefer larkspur over cornflowers or fritillaria over tulips? I can tell you quite quickly why you won’t find bergenia in my garden: it’s because, all too often, I’ve seen it growing, unkempt and ragged, on litter-strewn traffic islands! Hepatica has the same effect on me: it grows so well that it’s found almost everywhere and consequently, often in the most appalling state of neglect. I tolerate hydrangeas (they lost their appeal when an entire hedge of them almost covered the bedroom window of my rental when I was a student) only because they do so well here in my damp part of the world, but no matter how much flax may appreciate my high-rainfall environment, you’ll never catch me planting a variegated one (seen too many of them in cemeteries, thanks!).
On the other hand, I couldn’t possibly be without gooseberry bushes because they bring back memories of my grandmother who had two gooserries (and very little else) in her garden and who made the most delicious pies from their fruit. And by filling my flower beds with gladioli, I keep in mind my dear father-in-law, a great gardener who grew these beautiful flowers en masse to fill his church’s vases each Sunday.
Memories are why, this year, I am introducing the herb, angelica, to my garden. I vividly recall my mother stirring its shiny, crystallised stems (this was before the days of the dyed-green balls of gelatine that now flood the supermarket shelves around Christmas time) into her rich fruit cake mix, and telling we children it was ‘angelica’. This was something that was always a mystery to my siblings and I because the same plant, which she growing in the garden, looked like something poisonous which we should not touch, let alone eat. I also recall she used the leaves of angelica in the floral arrangements she toted along to her Country Women’s Institute meetings, and I suspect the foliage may have featured in the odd corsage given to my by my various school ‘formal’ partners (angelica seemed to be all the go with florists in the ‘70’s).
A giant member of the parsley family, angelica grows up to 1.5m high with a spread of 90cm but I plan to keep mine well tamed by crystallising its stems (the internet is filled with recipes for this). Tolerant of dappled light, happy in a moderately acidic soil, and preferring damp rather than dry conditions, it is just made for filling gaps in my rhododendron dell. Best of all, it happily self-seeds after its second year (flowers don’t appear in its first year of growth) so it can colonise if it chooses (if you don’t want this to happen in your own garden, chop off the flower heads before they set seed.) With a life span of only around 3 years, however, it may pay to cultivate a few seedlings.
Kings Seeds have angelica seed for sale (this isn’t a plant that grows from pieces, unfortunately) but I dare say, if I ask around, a gardening friend will have some, or perhaps even a seedling as the plants are often found in ornamental gardens where they set off any shade of flower so well. If you are purchasing seed, note that it needs to be chilled prior to sowing, and that it is usually put in the ground toward the end of summer or early autumn.
If you don’t already have it, think seriously about growing angelica this year. You never know, along with the seed, you may be sowing some very special memories.