The talk of the Pavilion this year was not the giant Pullman carriage at the Bowdens stand – but a diminutive little tumble of starry flowers spangling the mossy ground beneath Japanese cherries, pussy willows and artfully-placed branches of larch.
It’s the first time the consummate plantsman John Massey has brought his collection of hepaticas to Chelsea and they caused quite the stir, scooping the Diamond Jubilee Award for best display. They certainly made me see hepaticas in a whole new light: I’d always rather glanced past them before, convinced they were fussy little alpines which needed more care than I could sensibly give them. I couldn’t have been more wrong.
Hepaticas are spring-flowering woodlanders (these had been held back for Chelsea: normally they’re in flower in February) for planting under deciduous shrubs and trees. They’re tolerant of all soils, but best where they have spring sunshine but summer shade. H. nobilis and H. transsylvanica are the ones for growing outside; there are many more to explore once you get hooked but you’ll need an alpine house. The Asian and American species, like teeny tiny H. insularis and even teenier H. henryi, are very, very special but need the care and attention to match.
John has been working on developing interspecies hybrids, aiming at plentiful flowers but also bringing out the beauties of the foliage: I hadn’t realised hepatica leaves were quite so lovely. They are three-cornered, like a tricorn hat, and come in attractive variegations reminding me a little of the leaf patterning on cyclamen.
Two of the new varieties bred at Ashwood Nurseries and shown here for the first time were H. nobilis var pyrenaica ‘Stained Glass’, with quite the most gorgeous leaves, and H. ‘Ashwood Charm’ which earned its name in spades with a froth of exquisite little white flowers. Get your order in now to beat the rush (it’s http://www.ashwoodnurseries.com). My guess is that there will be a lot of hepatica talk come next spring: these are plants whose moment in the sun has arrived.