Sandy’s Garden ...Gaulnettya Wisleyensis

“What do you get if you cross a sheep with a kangaroo?”

Monday, 21st October 2019, 10:20 am
Sandy Simpson

(All together now): “A woolly jumper!”

Those people who argue that the old jokes are the best may not be altogether correct. And what brought that joke … first told by Adam to Eve, I understand … to mind was the sight of a labradoodle, the result of crossing a Labrador retriever and a poodle. I am old enough to remember when cross-bred dogs were called just that – cross-breeds; and that was when one was being polite. Informally, a cross-breed might be described as a Heinz dog – 57 varieties – or, more slightingly, a mongrel, although few owners of cross-bred dogs would have described their own pets as such. However, I suppose that most (all?) cross-breds, Heinz dogs and mongrels of yesteryear were brought into this world by the natural liaison between a dog of one breed and a bitch of another and were not the result of deliberate manipulation by the dog-breeding industry in its quest for, in the labradoodle’s case, a largish, friendly dog which did not moult and cover its owner’s carpets and settees in hard-to-remove dog hair.

And what brought this musing to mind was the sight in a local garden centre of a plant labelled Gaulnettya wisleyensis. The second part of its rather grand name … wisleyensis … is very obviously named after the famous gardens belonging to the Royal Horticultural Society (RHS) at Wisley, the village and civil parish in Surrey between Cobham and Woking, in the Borough of Guildford, which the RHS calls home. So what vital role did the RHS Garden play in the development of this plant?

The surprising answer … to me, at least … appears to be ‘none’! Gaulnettya wisleyensis was discovered – yes, discovered - in the Garden in 1981, a self-bred hybrid of two other plants; in other words, it’s a mongrel. But unlike most mongrels, this plant produces offspring like itself which grow from suckers springing from their parent. The parents of what is thought to have been the very first little cross-bred shrub were two closely-linked varieties of Gaultheria - Gaultheria shallon … the plant named after the eighteenth century Canadian botanist Dr Jean-Francois Gaultier and ‘shallon’ its north-west American native name … and Gaultheria mucronata, otherwise known as Pernettya mucronata … the variant which has ‘abruptly tipped leaves with a bristly midrib extension’. And there you have the origin of the plant’s name Gaul(theria Per)nettya – an identity assembled in exactly the same way as the Labradoodle came by its name.

Gaulnettya is a small evergreen shrub which grows to a height of about a metre. It is described as ‘a self-fertile hybrid which produces an abundance of purplish-pink berries with a mild flavour in September. Gaulnettya is an acid-loving shrub which is hardy to United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) zone 6.’ This USDA rating suggests that the plants should be able to survive in temperatures which sometimes drop to -17°C but hardly ever fall below -23°C. In short, it would thrive in your domestic refrigerator! A rather more romantic description defines it as ‘a very pretty and quite unusual evergreen shrub with small, leathery, dark-green leaves. Exquisite, tiny, balloon-shaped flowers of pure-white mature into large clusters of incredibly unique purple-red, edible berries that almost look inflated. The autumn into winter berries are edible, but not exactly incredible. This interesting hybrid creates a 3’ x 3’ shrub which is exceptional as a border or as a small hedge for the edible landscape.’ It is also used to form dense, ground-covering thickets in locations where it can enjoy dappled sunshine. Yes, like a lot of mongrels, this self-bred hybrid plant has many appealing features.