May 29th, 2006
Alien Landscape

apple tree and sheep at Hidcote Manor Garden
I don’t remember ever seeing an apple tree in bloom; I’ve never lived anywhere cold enough for apple trees.

I’ve always thought that one weakness of a lot of science fiction is that the imagination of writers and movie makers just can’t compete with the variety of plants and landscapes we encounter right here on planet Earth.

A May day in England left me literally speechless; I didn’t have the words to describe what I saw all around me. I pressed the natives to translate.

“What’s that bush we saw on the way in from the airport–covered with golden yellow flowers?”
“What? The gorse bush?” (Update: considered an invasive weed in North America, gorse is dangerously inflammable. Planting gorse in drought-stricken Texas would be a bad idea.)

“Wow! Those azaleas look like they’re on steroids.”
“Oh. You mean the rhododendron?”

Even my transplanted husband, who swears he can’t remember the crape myrtle in our own backyard, seemed to be an expert on his native flora. As we drove from Cheshire to Gloucestershire the untrimmed hedgerows were covered in white flowers, looking like monster sprays of spiraea. Remembering my own sad spiraea, I was impressed. “No.” AJM corrected. “That’s hawthorn.” (Update: Both are members of the rose family, so perhaps my confusion isn’t completely laughable.) He also knew cow parsley (Anthriscus sylvestris) which looks like a giant cousin of our hedge parsley (Torilis arvensis) I wondered if it shares the same nasty seeds that stick to your socks when you walk through it. Although we Texans consider hedge parsley to be a rank week, in the UK it has its own Biodiversity Action Plan. Take mine! Please.

I was amazed by the huge broad-leafed trees we saw in flower everywhere–panicles of white flowers with red spots. “Horse chestnuts.” Then I remembered that I had seen the tree before in New York, after the chestnuts had fallen and AJM and SAM gathered them to make conkers.

Wardens Way
A horse chestnut tree on Wardens Way between Upper and Lower Slaughter. Watch out for the nettles!

At Hidcote Manor Garden, I suddenly caught a whiff of Texas. I stood still a moment, sniffing. Skunk? We looked around. I brushed against some large leafed plants growing in water. So this is skunk cabbage.

I recognized some things from books and movies: lilacs (Nancy Drew: The Mystery at Lilac Inn), English bluebells (Howards End), and laburnum (any book on Rosemary Verey’s garden at Barnsley House in the Cotswolds). And now I know the shade of blue named for forget-me-nots.

I fell in love with the laburnum which, to my mind, look like yellow wisteria trees. I succumbed to the temptation that every garden explorer feels; I wanted to bring it home with me. No matter how sensible we know it is to plant native plants in our gardens, who can resist the lure of all these unusual beauties? I rationalize: the laburnum is growing in the same gardens as wisteria; I grow wisteria; shouldn’t I be able to grow laburnum?

English bluebells
English bluebells in a field of bracken.

I was inspired by the specimens of old wisteria, carefully trained to frame the front doors of many a Cotswold cottage. Many of these houses have tiny front gardens, yet the owners managed stunning abundance of flowers by thinking vertically. My own house is sheathed in limestone which is very close in color to the creamy oolitic limestone characteristic of the Cotwolds. Now that we’ve trimmed back the cedar elms in the front, the area by the door gets full sun most of the year. Hmmm. A perfect spot for another wisteria.

Inspiring wisteria growing in Broadway.

I was thrilled to see some old friends. I don’t think there’s a tree I love more than copper beech. I might try planting some purple-leafed ornamental plum trees just to remind me of my true love.

I’m always delighted by the chrome yellow fields of rape blossom.

rape blossom
Stunning fields of rape blossom on the rode from Moreton-in-Marsh to Oxford.

And I remembered the nettles from our previous visit. You have to meet a nettle only once and it will sear itself into memory.

by M Sinclair Stevens

5 Responses to post “Alien Landscape”

  1. From M2 (Austin):

    When my mother lived in Belgium, her best friend wanted her children to “experience” living in Europe. She’d say, “Touch these nettles so you know what the pain feels like.” Her children refused, to her dismay.

    I thought it was cool to see a shrew running across the yard, with that nearly ultrasonic shrieking they do … and to see magpies everywhere like we have grackles here.

    Okay, not like we have grackles here. But a lot of magpies.

  2. From Annie in Austin:

    M, these photos and your stories have been a treat! Wish you’d packed some of that rain in your luggage for the return trip, however.

    There were wonderful Horse Chestnuts outside our favorite Illinois library, and in bloom they could stop traffic. I tried to grow one, but the little tree was attacked over and over by rabbits and groundhogs, and it gave up.

    Do you think the fried Meyer Lemon will recover? Is it trying to make new leaves? We had to buy our own Meyer Lemon this spring because yours looked so lovely in the photos.


  3. From Judith:

    What a treat to visit you today. England! My father was from England so I have visited several times and each time the gardens are implanted in my mind forever. Love reading about your sights & seeing the photos. Nice to have it pop out of the book & movie, isn’t it. And the Cotswolds…perfect. .

  4. From Janet (England):

    Hello. What a delight to find your website today…completely by accident…as I did a Google search for information on the Allium Sphaeroceohalon that an English friend has given me for my birthday!

    I’m a transplanted American who has now lived in Oxfordshire for 3-1/2 years. Having spent about half of my life in Houston, I’m finding SO MANY of the British plants & trees to be so beautifully mysterious. I have really enjoyed this blog entry and will be linking it to my own blog, Lord Celery, to share with my readers.

    Also, I’ll be back from time to time to see what’s going on with you and your garden!

    (And I’m so envious that you live in Austin — the Hill Country will always be one of my favorite parts of the entire world!)



  5. From Carol (Indiana):

    Thanks for bringing this post to my attention via your comment today. I hope someday to visit England in the spring, as I know it would be as beautiful as you described and not all that unfamiliar. But if I went to Texas in the spring (February?), I’d be lost and feel like I was on another planet.

    When I see the amazing diversity of earth, I think science fiction writers lack imagination. BTW, you’re lilacs are stunning. I’d love to see a bush covered with huge flowers like that. — mss