A colourful character that will really grow on you...
Of the many thousands of plants that we grow in the East Ruston Old Vicarage garden, the one that grabs the most interest and fascination from our visitors is the Virginian Poke Weed and believe me, it can become just that, a weed! But what is it? Phytolacca Americana comes from America where it grows on waste ground rather like buddleias do in this country.
In common with them it self-seeds with great gusto – hence my warning that it can quickly become a weed.
The plant is quite coarse being a stout perennial that can easily grow as tall as a man with large leaves 15 to 30cm (six to 12in) long and reddish stems and branches.
I think the reason that people are attracted to it are two-fold.
In spring the new shoots are a pleasant shade of pink on first emerging from their underground tuber. It is apparently at this time that they may be cut, boiled and eaten like asparagus. I have never tried this but, apparently the Native Americans do and I have heard of people in this country doing it too – it is said to be delicious.
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Another way in which this is cultivated for the table is to dig up some of the long roots after the first frosts have destroyed their growth above ground. These are then cut into 15 to 20cm (six to eightinch) lengths which are replanted into containers and placed somewhere warm and dark. The blanched shoots that emerge are then eaten, briefly boiled or steamed. Apparently they will crop like this for several months.
I am rather put off trying it and you should be too for all parts of this plant appear to be poisonous. However, I like it well enough to let it grow around the garden here.
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In early summer it produces wands of pretty pink or white flowers in elongated, erect clusters that resemble those of a buddleia.
These give way to substantial stems packed with green berries that later turn a very dark purple, almost black – it's strange how the colour black appears to fascinate so many gardeners. These are shiny and very glamorous but beware for they can stain you and your clothing if bruised, in fact early American settlers made a crimson dye from them.
The seeds contained within these fruits are toxic but obviously not to birds, for they are taken, the fruit eaten and the seeds pass straight through the bird, causing it no harm, and germinating where they fall So beware if you wish to grow this plant – remember that it self-sows with the greatest ease.
However, with the judicious use of a hoe, the unwanted seedlings are removed very quickly and those that you decide to leave can make a very telling statement in your garden.
September is a very good time for planting in the garden for the soil is still warm and plants can form some new roots before the onset of winter. I am still planting perennials in our stock bed area and am constantly amazed by the quick response that comes from a plant once released from the confines of a container.
Suddenly there is a plethora of fresh, new growth, often followed by flowers which may be out of season but, nonetheless very welcome. This is usually the case with first-year perennials grown from seed.
I bought some rather good-looking delphiniums from a special breeding programme from Thompson and Morgan and some of these are sending up their first flowering shoots. If nothing else they make very good cut flowers and they also give me the chance to assess them but I am never too hasty in judging plant material, always preferring to wait at least a year before deciding if the plant is for me or not.
Delphiniums really are worth growing from seed and I note with interest that Chiltern Seeds offers more than 25 different varieties. These range from F1 hybrid crosses which include some with red flowers to an intriguing new variety listed as delphinium, unknown variety with the information that it is turquoise blue – who wouldn't be tempted by that. Telephone 01229 581137 for a catalogue or go online at www.chilternseeds.co.uk.
There are many odd creatures that appear in our garden, I have spoken about the alpacas that have now settled in and love the attention that they receive from our visitors.
A few days ago four young bantam chickens were found wandering around our car park – an unwanted clutch I suppose from someone who knows that we keep chickens and assumes we wouldn't mind having a few more. Among these is an araucana which comes originally from Chile. It's a peculiar-looking hen, grey with a crest of feathers on top of its head and a parrot-like appearance. They lay bluish or greenish tinted eggs – I shall await the first of these with interest.
And now we have spotted a blackbird with completely white feathers, an albino. At the moment it is well fed and healthy and we hope that it remains so. It is fortunate that we rather like surprises!
•This article was first published on September 17, 2011.