Spring is often a time of surprise. Bulbs that we have long forgotten about surge up from nowhere and plants that we had given up for dead decide that they are not quite ready for the last rites after all. But perhaps one of the strangest and most fascinating plants that can emerge in our gardens is one that most of us have never heard of, let alone planted. Lathraea clandestina (also known as purple toothwort) is a small woodland plant that grows on the roots of certain native trees such as hazel, willow, and poplar. It is a parasitic plant similar to mistletoe but uses the roots as a host rather than the branch. As it gains all the nutrients it needs from the host plant, the stems of the plant are wholly below the ground and the leaves, which are no more than small scales, contain no chlorophyll. Lathraea clandestina is native to Belgium, France, Italy and Spain and was introduced to Britain in 1888, having been presented to the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew by Dr Schumann of the Berlin Herbarium. It was first reported in the wild in 1908 and is now a common sight in many parts of England, Wales, Ireland and southern Scotland.
At Sissinghurst, Lathraea clandestina grows in the Nuttery on the roots of the coppiced hazel trees. For most of the year it remains hidden below the ground but in February the flower buds very tentatively emerge and by late March, it is in full bloom and the small, hooded intensely purple flowers stud the Nuttery floor. Initially, because of the age of the Nuttery, I assumed that it must have found its way to the roots of the hazels by natural means. It was only later that I learnt that it was Vita’s Head Gardeners, Pam and Sibylle who had introduced it to the garden in the late 1960’s. Pam had seen it growing in Guincho Garden, Belfast where it was growing on the roots of a willow (Salix gracilistyla ‘Melanostachys’). Both were flowering at the same time and Pam thought that this combination would look good at Sissinghurst too. Both the tree and the Lathraea were duly ordered from Hillier’s but only the Lathraea arrived. They therefore planted it on a poplar at the side of the Rose Garden. When the willow eventually arrived at Sissinghurst, some of the Lathraea was transplanted on to the willow. But, like so much in gardening, things did not go according to plan. The Lathraea would not flourish on the willow and unlike in Ireland, they refused to flower together. Such are the vagaries of gardening and nature. However, Pam and Sibylle were tenacious and determined gardeners; failure was not an option. They understood the importance of trial and error in gardening and merely came up with another plan. When the Lathraea that was growing on the poplar produced some seed, they sprinkled this in the Nuttery to see if it would grow on the hazel. Three years later their patience was rewarded as the strange purple flowers emerged.
Today, Lathraea clandestina is happily romping around the Nuttery with gusto. It has clearly found a place where it feels at home and is flourishing with no further help from us. For me, I learnt two lessons from this story. Firstly, ‘right plant, right place’ is a very good rule to follow when planting. Plants will thrive when they are happy in their environment but the right place may not at first be obvious when using a new plant, which leads me on to the second lesson I learnt. Don’t be afraid of ‘trial and error’, it’s how we learn as gardeners and from our mistakes and triumphs, great gardens are made.
If anyone else is growing Lathraea clandestina out there, it would be great to hear from you and if you are visiting Sissinghurst soon, take a close look in the Nuttery to catch a glimpse of this unique little plant.
Helen Champion (gardener)