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Plants held at Roseland House

LAPAGERIA-JOSEPHINE'S CHILEAN BELLFLOWER

by Christian Lamb
In 1802 Hippolyto Ruiz and Josepho Pavon, plant collectors in South America, published their Flora Peruviana et Chilensis. Describing Lapageria rosea, they say, 'There is no question whatever', 'that the copihue is considered the most beautiful flower in our Flora. The intense red of its hanging flowers sparkle amid the dark leaves of the forests, making a proud adornment to our woods; it is for this reason that it has been given the honour of being our national flower. The Latin description of the flower is penduli, formosissimi: corolla rosea, aliquando roseo-puniceo, intus punctis albis, maculata.

'The flowers are sold in autumn in branches backed with fern leaves, in the resorts of the south and taken to the markets of the principal cities [of Chile]. This lovely flower makes quite a profitable income for innumerable small peasant communities. 

History and natural range
Elbert E Reed of El Vergel
Christian Lambs article
Carlos Rendon at Berkeley
Rennie Moffat
Propagation methods
Pages from Lapageria.com

'The fruits, sweet and tender, called "cucumbers", are edible and have a most agreeable flavour; they are sold in great quantities in the towns in the south. The roots are used as a substitute for sarsaparilla (Smilax sarsaprilla); unfortunately this habit is already beginning to endanger the species.

 'In the hot houses of Europe the Lapageria has been known since the last century without ever having reached any significant importance in those countries. 

An elite member of the Liliaceae family, the genus, of one species only, was named after Napoleon's Empress Josephine, for her maiden name of Lapagerie, in compliment to her for her many services to botany; she greatly encouraged the cultivation of exotic plants by growing them herself in her beautiful garden at Malmaison, near Paris. 

John Smith, Curator of the Royal Gardens at Kew, wrote in Curtis's Botanical Magazine 'that not until 1847 were they favoured with a plant from Conception (Chile), through the kindness of Rd Wheelwright Esq, an American gentleman, who has been instrumental in establishing steam navigation in the Pacific, and who thus enjoyed superior means for the transport to England. The following year Messrs Veitch and Sons were no less fortunate in importing it through their Cornish plant collector Mr Thomas F. Lobb; but though extremely flourishing it still had not flowered in 1849'.

According to Ruiz and Pavon, El Copihue, an evergreen monocot, once called 'Copto', and the national flower of Chile, derives its name from Chilean Indian. 'Deep in the earth a rhizome extends horizontally with knots and small roots; from the knots grow the aerial shoots, the thickness of a feather quill, at first tender like asparagus, but which harden later.  

'Specifically it is a terrestrial plant, but its search for the sun has enabled it to evolve into a climber, which saves it from extinction in the darkness of the impenetrable rain forests; the shoot grows vertically at first, with no difference from non-climbing plants, but during its growth it inclines laterally, taking a horizontal position; the free extreme end is arched and makes circular movements in a clockwise direction looking for a support; this circular movement originates from the accelerated growth of the cells on the outer side of the shoot, while those on the inner side are retarded.  

'This phenomenal growth is the cause of the twisting, which allows the shoot to attach itself to any suitable support and thus continue ever upwards from left to right towards the sun; thus preventing vertical growth and facilitating its novel method of climbing and attaching itself.

 'The leaves are alternate and vary in size and thickness according to soil and exposure to sun and wind; the leaf tip is turned down for better drainage, and moss and lichen sometimes cling to the foliage which avoids violent rainfall damage. 

'The flowers of the Copihue, also known as Chilean Bellflower and Chile Bells, appear singly in summer but in the autumn will often bloom in clusters, from the axils of the upper leaves; the tiny bud shows little promise of its future splendour; little by little the red colour develops while the outer bracts retain some of their green colour; the carmine-red waxy bells conceal the nectar sacs, which are finally penetrated by birds with long pointed beaks, which thus pollinates the flower. The birds will even approach flowers held in the hand so great is the attraction of the honey. 

The red colour of the flowers is produced by a glucose substance in the cellular juice; the lack of this sometimes results in white marks or even completely white flowers'.

 Reluctantly leaving Ruiz and Pavon and their delightful eighteenth century graphic prose, we now come to the present century.

 Lapagerias at Penheale

Mr Rennie Moffat has had a great deal of experience in growing lapagerias. He was awarded the Royal Horticultural Society's long service medal in 1986 for 40 years' service. He worked at Penheale, Egloskerry, near Launceston for Mr and Mrs Norman Colville, and is now retired.    

Mr Moffat grew several different clones: Lapageria rosea, Lapageria rosea var. albiflora, Lapageria rosea 'Nash Court', Lapageria rosea 'Penheale', Lapageria rosea 'Beatrix Anderson', and Lapageria rosea 'Flesh Pink'. The reds varied in colour and markings on the flower segments; 'Penheale' had much narrower leaves, with more tubular flowers and less reflex of petals. The last two were grown from seed collected in the wild and sent to the late Mr E. B. Anderson, chairman of the Alpine Garden Society, when he had a garden at Balesmead, West Porlock, Somerset. He gave Mr Moffat one seedling from a pot of red and another from a pot of white. When the red clone flowered Mr Moffat showed it to Mr Anderson who told him to call it after his wife, so 'Beatrix Anderson' it became. The seedling from the white clone was named 'Flesh Pink'.   

For years Mr Moffat had been raising Lapagerias from cuttings and when the nursery was started at Penheale some of these were sold to the RHS garden at Wisley. Some time later his delivery boy was given some Lapageria material from Wisley and a message to ask Mr Moffat if he could propagate from it; although the material was far from ideal for cuttings, Mr Moffat managed to get plants from each specimen. Besides varieties he already had, these cuttings produced two different plants: one was white with a rose pink edge and the other white with pink spots; these were named 'Wisley Picotee', and 'Wisley Spotted.   

 

 

Mr Moffat has always grown some Lapageria plants out of doors with polythene cover for winter protection; he also grows them in pots in a cold greenhouse, where some of his stock plants have flourished for more than 15 years. His plant mix is 6 parts peat, I part loam, 2 parts grit, and wood charcoal which helps the drainage. He feeds them regularly with liquid manure.   

My own experience is limited to 20 years or so, propagating from seed, cuttings and layering, of which the latter is the most satisfactory from a good clone; from seed you are liable to get variations, not always as good as the parent. All these methods produce flowers in about three years. I grow many in large containers and when I repot them, if I add some cow manure to the mix, the Ruiz and Pavon 'long asparagus shoot' (the 3-star favourite of all slugs, incidentally), will reward me, almost immediately.  

Stunning Plants at Tregrehan 

Another old garden in Cornwall, Tregrehan, near St Austell, also has stunning Lapageria; they have been there for a hundred years or so, recorded first in 1894, both the white and the red growing against east and north facing walls, outside. Inside the old grape house are many different reds, more or less spotted white, the beautiful pale pink, and whites, some of which have green sepals and some pink. Recently many of these plants had to be moved to allow repair and some timber replacement in the building; the enormous amount of rhizomes in several huge root balls were carried with some difficulty and replanted.  

 

 I had a very pleasant surprise, when visiting America this summer, I was prowling round some old greenhouses on the Hunnewell Estate, near Boston, when I came upon a whole wall of Lapageria in full flower; the blooms were white, flushed or irregularly striped with bright pink, a colour combination I had not seen before. The head gardener thought they had been sent direct from a friend of the family in Chile, about 100 years ago.  Finding Lapageria to buy is not at all easy in England, although they are listed in The Plant Finder here and there. Imagine my astonishment when visiting Park Nurseries in Bristol where I gravitated automatically past the camellias, (which I noted were exceptionally good plants and a very good selection of varieties, including Camellia sasanqua the autumn-flowering species), towards the climbers: next to the clematis and flowering enthusiastically was a Lapageria 'Flesh Pink' priced at a modest 8.  It was a very good plant and I bought it at once and asked the nurseryman where it came from; needless to say, it came from Penheale as did all the camellias.

 Ruiz and Pavon's description of the Lapageria remarkable behaviour, written in Spanish nearly 200 years ago, inclines one greatly to admire its one track mind, one has to say almost, its thought process, which has outwitted nature's thoughtless plans, careless for its survival. If there is such a thing as IQ in the plant world, and I have long suspected that there is, the Lapageria must rate very high. This readiness to accommodate its ways has enabled it to choose where to settle; fortunate indeed are its fervent admirers if they have chosen an agreeable and fitting site for this capricious but wholly desirable plant.

Christian lamb
Christian in 2009 promoting one of her books "I only Joined for the hat"