Painterly Flowers


Much as I prefer to wander through the fields and woods and wild places at this time of year savouring these early days of autumn, I’m the first to admit that I do appreciate a good herbaceous border. Indeed, I also appreciate the very relaxing Friday night routine that is a cosy corner, a cup of tea and the latest Gardener’s World.

So of course, I sit and I watch Monty Don as he deadheads the dahlias and shows us the late summer delights of the ‘Jewel garden’, all rich oil pastel hues and dense emerald foliage beneath. Sunflowers (my favourites are the rust and chocolate brown shades), rudbeckia, crocosmia, heleniums… Gone are the tasteful pale pinks and baby blues of May and June. Now the garden puts on its last spectacle of the year in fiery oranges, deep clarets, saffron yellows and velvety purples.

These flowers are ‘painterly’; they remind me of oriental art and country house wallpapers, of painted china, Agatha Christie and the Bloomsbury set. Glamorous and decadent in both form and colour.


Of course, many of these flowers have been grown in cottage gardens for generations, mixed in with the fruit and vegetables. My great aunt in Poland used to have an abundance of crimson-and-white striped dahlias growing in profusion amongst the potatoes and onions. Lilies too, all clashing together – tasteful colour combinations were not much of a priority in hard-working, productive plots. And yet there’s always something aesthetically pleasing about a jumble of mismatched dahlia stems, displayed together in an old jug on the kitchen table.

The one painterly flower I’m a little bit snobbish about is the chrysanthemum. Back when I worked as a florist (a short-lived amble off my career track but memorable nonetheless), chrysanthemums were seen as an inexpensive ‘filler’ flower. Nobody bought entire bunches of them. There were, of course, the more expensive single stems, the ‘spider’ and ‘shamrock’ varieties which added a touch of the exotic. I can still smell the pungent leaves, crushed underfoot as we stripped back the stems to make hand-tied bouquets. For me, the one chrysanthemum I find hard to resist is the old-fashioned ‘bloom’ type: big, spherical, densely-petalled heads which look like they belong on a kimono. Bronze ones in particular (I’m incredibly – excuse the pun - picky about yellow flowers). Bloom chrysanths, in my book at least, have to be bronze.


So: Yes to autumnal forest floors and purple heather moors. Apple and pear orchards, sloe-studded hedgerows. But there’s something very lovely about a brightly coloured allotment or public garden at this time of year too. It’s like seeing a firework display: short-lived but spectacular.

I’m fortunate to have once visited the RHS Harlow Carr garden at this time of year. But I’ve also seen some truly lovely late summer displays in city parks and in local plots too. Even a trip to the garden centre to admire the colours and get some inspiration is well worthwhile before these painterly flowers go over, summer takes its last breath and autumn is well and truly upon us.

AutumnSarah Hardman