I love flower shows for their ability to reconnect you with familiar ideas that you may have previously overlooked or simply taken for granted, allowing you to see them in a totally new light, as if for the very first time. So I was excited to get to the Chelsea flower show, after a pandemic-enforced hiatus of more than two years, and to become reacquainted with an old botanical friend: the Japanese anemone.
Combining exotic appeal and reliable resilience, these are, to my mind at least, probably the best late summer- or early autumn-flowering species you can buy. Despite their rather confusing common name, these plants are actually native to China, where they are known as the “broken bowl flower”. Indeed, when you look closely at how the petals are arranged on some of the more wild-type cultivars, they do indeed look like shards of fine ceramic captured in slow-motion as a china bowl shatters. They were just so effortlessly elegant on the Florence Nightingale Garden by Robert Myers, it was easy to see why they have been cultivated in China since at least the Tang Dynasty – which lasted from AD618 to 906 – and yet look and feel at home in British gardens.
Perhaps that’s because, despite their far-flung origins, these plants actually hail from climates that are very similar to that of the UK, growing in moist woodland edges and sunny riverbanks in the wild. They are very hardy in the face of the worst cold that the British climate can throw at them and will tolerate the type of deep shade that prevents most flowering plants from blooming healthily. For its ability to really shine in shady spots, I love the semi-double, pure white flowers of Anemone ‘Honorine Jobert’ which, to me, looks as if it has sprung to life from an ornate Chinese screen. However, if colour is your thing, there are lots more blowsy cultivars, such as ‘Pamina’, which are packed full of bright pink petals looking like great, glorious handfuls of flamingo feathers.
Perhaps the best thing about these plants is their ability to tolerate the trickiest of garden spots – that deadly combination of deep shade and dry soil, where only a tiny fraction of plants will thrive. They will even spread out quite vigorously in the right spot, which means in just a few short years a single plant can fill a surprisingly large bed, making them an economical choice, too. Fortunately, the vigour of this species has not, so far, been shown to pose a threat to wild ecosystems beyond the confines of the garden. I think of it a bit like peppermint – definitely something that will fill space fast, but despite having been grown in this country for hundreds of years, has yet to become a nuisance outside where that’s actually a benefit.
If you want a plant that comes into its own just as most of the garden slides into autumn slumber, that’s easy to grow in even the trickiest spot and is ridiculously fast-growing to boot, it would be hard to find a better option.