Il Malvone, Chelsea and the Nature of Weeds

If garden plants are a selection of those growing the wild, some commonly used cultivars could be considered weeds. Comical reflections prompted by a mistaken consignment at my Chelsea Flower Show garden. by Anna Piussi

First published in
The Briansground Press, Brian’s Ground, Stapleton, Herfordshire, England Apr 2014

Il malvone is growing out of the reinforced soil buttress on the side of the house. The seeds must have lain dormant, since no fresh topsoil has been brought in, but it seems they enjoyed being thrown about, as poppy seeds do, germinating only in broken and tilled ground – that, or the availability of more light following the felling of nearby trees, or a combination of both. Surely something unprecedented happened to make them appear and grow so well, as there are no others around here, nowhere in our area, but in and around the new buttresses at least a dozen malvoni sprang up in late autumn.

Hortus spring 2014

Il malvone is the tree mallow, Lavatera arborea, but its common Italian name sounds more appropriately ominous. It grew up to my waist, then my chest, opening leaves the size of dinner plates by the time snow came in February. Crushed by the unexpected freeze, much of its structure appeared crumpled on the ground after the thaw. Curiosity overcame any gardening conscience. I let the secateurs rest and watched the untidy mess to see its next move. The malvone has such a rapid rate of growth that it begs to be treated as a breathing moving animal – a triffid perhaps. From blackened soggy stems new shoots sprang up, followed soon by vigorous leaves pushing aside the old ones still hanging on like wet newspaper.

By March Germana, my children’s nanny, was asking me why I plant ‘weeds’. Even to the untrained eye the malvone is so obviously a weed, whose rank growth can smother anything in its path. But I couldn’t resist seeing how tall and how large they would get. I started thinning them when it was clear that, having reached my height, a respectable 1.8 metres, spread by at least 1.5 metres across, they had no intention of stopping. I left a few on the crest of the slope, where the ground falls away, because they looked like trees, making a link to the woodland across the path below. A few more grew out of the buttress, pushing out between the metal rebars, crashing through the layers of plastic mesh and jute that make up the soil-retaining structure. It’s hard to think of them as herbaceous plants because in the course of five months or so they’ve made real woody trunks, thicker than my wrist. Defying secateurs and loppers, they have to be attacked with a bill-hook. I can’t uproot them without ripping out half the slope, but when they’ve been cut down and the stump has been well-notched, they die in situ, and their decay is as rapid as their growth. It’s easy to see how this plant can be considered a weed: its flowers, very similar to those of the common mallow, mauve and with a central darker ridge to each petal, are disproportionally small compared to the lush foliage. Yet I kept watching il malvone for potential garden use, because its incredibly rapid growth – what other herbaceous plant can grow to the size of a small tree in such a short time? Was I on the brink of an important discovery? Maybe one day I’d get a call from Holland: ‘Hi, it’s Piet. Yes, Oudolf, of course. I don’t know how I could have missed this plant, it’s extraordinary! I really think il malvone is going to be the next decade’s Miscanthus sinensis. You really have a great eye, have you considered working for me?’

But Germana is baffled and slightly disgusted with me for daydreaming while watching the mallow, and she throws the contents of her dustpan at it with gusto. It would help if I spent more time thinking about what she could cook for the children, but I generally say, ‘Food sounds nice’, so she huffs and puffs and proceeds to make pasta by hand to make up for my shortcomings as a mother.

I had won a place at the Chelsea Flower Show, the dream of a lifetime come true, but it meant that from the second I dropped the children off at playschool to the time I brought them home, I was on the computer and on the phone. That’s just one of the things that Germana found hard to believe, that from the end of a dirt track in Tuscany, where for the previous year I had done nothing other than breastfeed twins and poke at dirt, I was co-ordinating a show garden in London. It was hard to convince her that it was a pretty big deal because she took a dim view of the Royal Horticultural Society, a foreign institution that was accepting a garden from someone who refused to cut down il malvone, even when it topped six feet and kept on growing. ‘Brits, can’t they spot a weed when they see one?’

When I grow weeds it challenges her world view. I tried telling her that a common definition of a weed is ‘a plant in the wrong place’ or ‘one whose potential has yet to be discovered’. All plants evoke feelings, I explain, but weeds are really defined by perception alone – at which point she nearly quit. Since I, a designer, gardener and lecturer on the subject, was protecting and nurturing one such-known weed, I was either not really a professional or she’d been wrong in considering the malvone a weed all along. My explanations only add to her discomfort. When I said that strictly speaking weeds don’t exist, or that the malvone would become so only if I decided to take it out, I went against a universal need for order, taxonomy, at least in gardens. But while botany may be scientific, and horticulture has its own rules and guidelines, gardening is far less precise. Emotion and choice determine what’s good and bad practice in a garden, and cultural practice, as the name says, is closely linked to one’s culture. The traditions of one’s land, family, and even class dictate what feels – not is – beautiful, ugly or a weed.

Class – scarcely mentioned – plays a large part in garden taste and plant choice. It’s hard to tackle the subject without slipping on some PC banana peel, so I’ll step on it and just keep surfing along knowing I’m bound to offend someone. If good taste in gardens may be summarised, I’d say that all good gardens share certain qualities. In the first place garden layouts should work with the history of the location and/or the landscape, and be ecologically sound. In the second place, planting schemes should look natural, with harmonious colours, with plant cultivars that don’t look artificial. Good gardens are like chic clothes, they should look like they belong on you, not be hard to move in, not look too new or too loud, in short they stand out by not standing out.

This is completely at odds with the common perception of what’s refined in a garden. Call it garden snobbery or refined taste, but the higher up the horticultural ladder you go, the more your garden will look like the world outside, with self-supporting communities of plants, which are either species or cultivars that look remarkably close to the species and don’t need to be propped up, sprayed, primped and pruned. The roses are either antique or look like it, with smaller flowers and visible shrub shapes, and in my view it should take an expert eye to find flowers in the borders because they are spots, inflorescences, spires, plumes, green bracts, seed-pods – in short, anything except something big and fat which blooms with dazzlingly bright coloured petals. Actually if you are really good at gardening you end up with a garden of weeds, either because that’s what your plants look like or because, finally, somebody is paying you for your expertise and you no longer have the time to garden.

The novice or amateur gardener will go for something that is distinctly different from the landscape outside, embracing exotic or highly colourful plants that require skills to grow, which are new cultivars or showy flowers. My next door neighbours, absentee gardeners of the ‘bigger is better’ school of thought, regularly plant roses directly against the wall, then depart for months on end. But our clay is made to forgive even the worst gardener, and their roses thrive, seemingly just to torture me. They open huge blooms of velvety petals, rich burgundy, vibrant scarlet, their stems bend and break under the weight of single massive flowers bred for cutting and taking indoors, while the rest of the plant comprises the dullest possible foliage, its stick-shape increasingly defoliated by any passing caterpillar, but in May and September it seems to produce the very symbol of rosehood. Objectively, the flowers are truly beautiful, but I don’t like them – as garden plants. When my neighbours buy perennials (which they simply call ‘flowers’) it’s likely to be a gazania, something that has the decency to look like a flower, but they are still surprised that their yellow daisy flowers continue into autumn: I’ve given up telling them it’s pretty normal for a chrysanthemum.

By comparison, the flowers in my garden keep getting smaller. Locals would say I only plant leaves. I regularly disappoint people who expect suggestions of showy exotic plants for their terrace gardens, because I point to weeds growing on roofs, in broken paving, or on their neighbour’s terrace as a clue to what would suit a Florence rooftop, when all they want is something with really big flowers. Preferably all year round. But in the harsh climate of a terrace, I don’t advise these. What I do suggest are combinations of hardy perennials and Mediterranean shrubs that put up with parched conditions. That’s what thrives in my soil and arid climate, but mixed borders are still uncommon in Italy, there’s a lot of work to do promoting the importance of structure, foliage, shape and overall colours of a plant as a basis for design. I have roses, of course, mainly small-flowering varieties whose colours harmonise with the perennials – not prima donnas to compete with them. I’ve tried a few modern rose cultivars that looked great in the nursery, but appear garish in company here, so I keep pushing them further away, where other shrubs and distance tones them down. It’s among fellow ex-pats that I can find a common garden language.

I can also count on my British friends for cuttings and advice. Take Caroline, she likes patting the leaves of lamb’s lugs and enjoys the funny space-ship inflorescences of my Phlomis fructicosa, which to the locals is another one of my no-flower plants. In fact Germana has twice inadvertently used it for cooking, mistaking it for culinary sage, Salvia officinalis, despite its having absolutely no scent. It’s not edible but neither is it toxic: it tastes only a bit furry, but Germana’s cooking is so good that it could mask manure.

My Scottish friend Fiona doesn’t come here often enough, and I miss her acerbic wit, especially when it comes to gardening taste. There’s no point pretending that garden taste is democratic with her, she’ll come straight out and tell me that some things are beyond the pale, and what I did last May at Chelsea bordered on the unspeakable.

‘You brought pink begonias to the Chelsea Flower Show? Really? What possessed you?’ She laughed down the phone.

I begged her to stop: ‘They were the rejects, I was just going to park them in your cousin’s garden until I found someone who wanted them. I’m sorry, I just can’t throw away a whole trolley- load of good plants like that.’

‘Had the nursery made a mistake?’

‘Perhaps the whole nursery was a mistake. Did I tell you they seriously tried to convince me to use ornamental cabbages?’

‘I’m not sure I want to know. Go on.’

The whole story of my garden at the Chelsea Flower Show in 2013 would lead me astray, but thanks to Fiona I was staying in one of the nicest houses in London, a guest of her cousin Lady S., while she was on holiday in Italy. You could say we sort of switched places, but I’d be delusional if I though our ‘places’ were comparable. I have a few antique prints at home, but I’d never lived in a house where you have to shift an original Dürer to find a light switch, and while I share her love for antique carpets, there’s a lot of floor space between mine. Her Ladyship’s home is so off-the-scale-grand that I can only hope to repay her generosity by being as hospitable as her to a fellow gardener. But this is where I really stepped in the dog poo.

The fact is that some of the people involved with the Chelsea project eschewed written communication in favour of the Italian tradition of face-to-face meetings in a restaurant - while I was dusting sandwich crumbs off my computer keyboard, coordinating by email an operation between different locations in Italy, Switzerland and London. Someone must have thought cultivar names were a minor detail, their change not worth mentioning. So it wasn’t until the lorry full of plants for our garden arrived at the showground that I saw that a whole batch of plants was wrong. Instead of the Begonia x semperflorens ‘Dark Leaf Pink’ that I had put on the plant list, I received a whole consignment of something that definitely did not have a dark leaf. In fact it had a bright green leaf and fuchsia-pink flower – it screamed, ‘I’m loud and I’m proud!’ That particular cultivar should instead have been whispering ‘Ahem. I’m tastefully subdued, dark and mysterious', to complement the other purple and black foliage in the scheme.

I don’t know how the supplier could have thought that a bright green begonia with vivid rose flowers (B. semperflorens ‘Ascot Rose’) would be a good substitute for something called ‘Dark Leaf ’, whose flowers are faint pink fading to white. My colleague and I had to take an executive decision: we deleted the begonia. To this little drama, add the fact that most of the three varieties of basil I ordered had instantly frozen upon arriving in London for the coldest Chelsea Flower Show on record: they were barely alive and absolutely not up to show standard. They also had to be scrapped. In the middle of build-up, with no storage space on site, and being too stubborn to just throw away six or eight full trolley-loads of garish and ailing plants, I temporarily housed them in my hosts’ garden, while waiting to find them a permanent home. I’ll never forget the withering look I got from her gardener: ‘The basils are dead, and the rest . . . I don’t think they are to her ladyship’s taste.’ Honey, I’m not a Lady, and I find rose begonias atrocious too, but they can look fantastic interplanted with chives, and I promise you the basils will recover. Eventually. No? Forget I even thought about it, the local girls’ school will be happy to adopt them. To be honest I’d already passed that pain barrier. I’m not a fan of small-leaved begonias, but I had made my peace with the dark-leaved ones the previous year, when I had used them as foliage plants for an award- winning show garden with the same nursery. Even bedding plants can be exciting if presented with a healthy dose of chilli pepper. On the principle that if life gives you lemons, you make lemonade; if your main sponsor produces annuals and chilli peppers, you learn to use them creatively. Having said that, even after hours of meditation to free my mind, and dozens of photographs to open my eyes to another of this nursery’s specialities, I cannot be converted to so-called ornamental cabbages, whatever their colour, variegation or frill. I just don’t get it.

That’s how it is, you can try to be completely objective about plants, and only look at them in terms of colour, performance and suitability, but at a deep level feelings are involved. For the same reason I dread Salvia splendens. It’s one of the first annuals I planted as a rookie gardener; I tried to like them because they filled space, but they do it with indifferent opaque foliage which seems only to exist as flagpoles for banners of lurid colour. They’ve gone from orange to salmon and I’m sure some new incarnations are still being pursued; they look municipally tacky. You fix memories of plants at some deep level before you are even aware of them. To me Salvia splendens is a seaside resort town in Versilia, at the height of summer. A flash of orange hemmed in by some garishly-spotted shrub in yellow variegations, surrounded by asphalt, it’s an F1 hybrid horror, plonked before the entrance to the bathing establishments where you must rent an umbrella and a chair just to gain access to the shore.

Uncaring of its nature, weed or precious wild plant, il malvone grew, while I completely ignored my garden to stay on top of the Chelsea circus, interrupting work only long enough to find a new nanny to replace Germana who had to leave. It was during one of my endless phone calls in which I was either courting a prospective sponsor or promising prospective nannies that I’d personally pick them up and drop them off, because they refused to drive to our place, that I looked up to see the malvone towering over me, having reached a height in excess of eight feet by early summer, and beginning to set seed. It looked aggressive enough to scare the next nanny off. I cut it down with a handsaw, since by then its trunk sent my billhook pinging off its surface. I don’t miss it because it has left a couple of fellows behind, on the edge of the woodland, and I can still follow their progress. I guess it’s the perfect pioneer plant, because it grew so rapidly in its first two years, from broken soil, though it seems to have slowed down since, and the seeds it must have scattered seem not to have germinated. It’s not pretty, but it’s not ugly at all, it almost looks like a paulownia with its huge leaves – and who knows? – if I ever get to do another Chelsea garden I might just take it along. After all, weeds are in the eye of the beholder.


Copyright © 2022 Anna Piussi. All Rights Reserved. Text and images belong to Anna Piussi unless otherwise stated.