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The churchyard in Waterloo #5: about campsis and echiums

We're now exploring the Churchyard at St John's Waterloo, its history, its plants and its kind carers. Jonathan Trustram, from the Churchyard, writes about two of the plants.

Our campsis (C. radicans) is the most long-suffering plant in the churchyard. It grows by the railings against Waterloo Road, near the cork oak. It would like to be a very big plant, climbing high and producing, in mid to late summer, yellow trumpet-shaped flowers on the ends of side shoots. Its primary enemy has been some council contractors who seem to be under instructions not to allow a single leaf to grow out over the pavement. I have often wanted to show them the glorious wisteria in St Paul's churchyard whose flowering branches stretch out four or five feet across the pavement. It seems to indicate a coordinated, considered care for the environment which crosses boundaries. We have tried to let the campsis grow up higher so that its side shoots would be above head height, but it has been attacked from inside and out. The winter before last everything above ground was mysteriously destroyed. Not cut down, but ripped and wrestled with, smashed, and snapped. Luckily, it has a vigorous root system and it just started again. It may be long suffering, but it is a fighter.

Last year we began to try to get it to grow up into the cork oak, where it would be safe and could flower happily. But to be honest, it behaved in a contrary fashion and seemed reluctant to do what was asked of it. I am not sure what it is doing at the moment. The one time I have been in since lockdown I was so busy at the other end of the churchyard that I forgot to look.

This picture from a 2009 shows how it looked at its brief best:

The echiums are usually the star of the show in spring but this year they are extra glitzy. Last year's seedlings grew fat in the long, hot summer, profited from the mild winter and shot up early. As the flowering spike develops the bottom leaves wither and can be successively stripped off; the broad adolescent bullies of last year become tall and slender, accommodating other plants beneath them.

In a small garden a single Echium pininana is inspiring; here at St John's we have space for dozens. Bees love them. Everybody loves them. All along the spike hundreds of short side shoots develop. The flowers begin to open in late April and carry on until early June. And then they die, leaving countless seeds and a fat, rough woody stem which can stand as a memorial into the following winter, or may bend and fall like a dying tree in a forest. In midsummer we begin to see the first little hairy seedlings of the new crop. We hope to have some potted up for sale in the autumn.

Like many monocarpic plants (the word means flowering once then dying) their lifespan is variable. If the weather is cool, they can take an extra year, like a slow schoolchild forced to repeat a year, but this year's have been precocious. They are always now hardy in Waterloo, thanks to global warming and inner-city heat, as they are in Cornwall, but the further north you go the more exposed and vulnerable they become.

Above is a picture of one growing just 15 or so miles from central London, or rather, not growing: killed by frost. They will only withstand a touch of frost when the leaves droop and twist but then right themselves. In my garden, only six or so miles from Waterloo two have flowered this year for the first time since 2015.

Self-seeding plants reshape the garden every year. The only credit we can take for our brilliant display is that we spotted the seedlings when they were little and left most of them alone. Some which were growing in the wrong place, like giants in the nursery, were pulled up as weeds.

Thank you to Roots and Shoots for our first seedlings, back in about 2008.


Jonathan Trustram is a gardening volunteer at the Churchyard of St John's Waterloo. You can follow his blog here.

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