Monday 20 November 2017

Monkshood sings of autumn moody blues

CONTRIBUTING much to gardens these days are the dark-blue flowers of monkshood. The flowers are carried in broad spikes, reaching to about waist-high. The deep-blue colour of the flowers is a very effective counterpoint to the yellows, oranges and browns of autumn leaves.

Monkshood, or aconitum, has been in flower for months, but the particular variety that is flowering now is a late-flowering species.

The form that is invaluable in autumn is correctly named Aconitum carmichaelii 'Arendsii'. This has deeper blue flowers than the species itself and it is the one usually seen for sale. 'Bressingham Spire' is violet-blue and flowers into early autumn, though not as late as 'Arednsii'.

Aconitum is often mistaken as a kind of delphinium, to which it is related, but its hooded flower shape is quite distinctive and the plant is not usually as tall as delphinium. Apart from monkshood, it also has the common names of helmet flower and wolf's bane.

The names are very descriptive, the individual flowers do indeed resemble the hooded head of a monk, or a helmet of ancient times. The flowers possess a certain forbidding air, although this is probably fanciful, due to their poisonous nature. The name wolf's bane refers to the use of the roots of a related species as a poison for the destruction of wolves in Europe, centuries ago.

There are lots of other hybrids that have been selected, especially the lovely 'Bicolor' which is very popular for its two-toned blue and white flowers. It has none of the brooding air of the dark-blues and looks very lively in a border, especially with lemon-yellow flowers. 'Blue Sceptre' is also blue and white, the flowers held in a tighter spike.

'Newry Blue' is a tall form with blue flowers, not as dark as others, flowering into early autumn. 'Stainless Steel' has pale blue-grey flowers in a narrow spike. 'Ivorine' is white with spikes of nodding flowers, loosely held.

Aconitum is easy to grow and it seems to be becoming more popular again. It was once very popular, especially in cottage-style gardens. It is easily divided and pieces passed on. It grows well in most kinds of soil, although it likes the soil to be well-drained but moisture-retentive, and the plant tends to be stunted in soil that is too dry.

It likes full sunshine but will take a little part-day shade. In general, the plants form a clump and do not need staking unless they have been fed too much. If the objective is to gain that lovely touch of blue in autumn, the first flower stems of 'Arendsii' can be cut away before they develop and the replacement stems will flower later.

Sunday Independent

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