Sandy’s Garden ... Monbretia or Corcosmia – What’s In A Name?

Sandy Simpson
Sandy Simpson

As you may already know, gentle reader, I was born and brought up in the Fair City of Perth.

Although the largest employers in Perth during my childhood were the railway industry and Pullar’s, cleaners and dyers, the proprietors of the largest dyeworks in Scotland in the late 19th century. So by the mid-twentieth century it is more than possible that the name ‘The Fair City’ … which was conferred on the town after the publication of the story Fair Maid of Perth by Sir Walter Scott in 1828 … was no longer particularly apt. Be that as it may, my parents … my mother in particular … endeavoured to keep their garden in a state which would have done justice to the Fair City. And one of the plants of which my mother was particularly fond, and which, accordingly, was given a welcome home in their garden, was montbretia.

PlantLife Scotland … the Scottish arm of a British conservation charity working nationally and internationally to save threatened wild flowers, plants and fungi … whose Scottish office is in Stirling, describes montbretia as ‘an invasive, non-native plant’ to my surprise, advising that, ‘It is an offence to plant or otherwise cause to grow these species in the wild.’ And I am pleased to note the rider ‘in the wild,’ for montbretia is an extremely popular garden plant, widely grown for the sprays of reddish orange flowers that appear in late summer. Amen to that, say I, who grows montbretia, or crocosmia as it is now known, in my own garden; and indeed it does feature vibrant spikes of flowers in fiery shades of red, orange and yellow on arching stems from the late summer into late October to the side of my house where it is protected from any bitterly-cold wind from the north-east. That said, many species of crocosmia are fully hardy in Scotland, the underground corms and long creeping rhizomes able to cope with pretty much the worst winters Scotland can throw at them.

And therein lies the problem. The young corms form on top of their parent corm in a vertical chain; and the bottom corm in the chain has the facility to use its roots to drag itself ever-deeper into the ground. The chains of corms are fragile and easily separated, a quality which … allied to the fact that even small parts of the roots are readily able to develop into viable plants … has enabled some species to become invasive and difficult to control in the garden, let alone in the wild. And, of course, they find their way into the wild as a consequence of being carelessly discarded by gardeners, who fly-tip unwanted plants beside a convenient layby or, for example, toss them … as I might, but don’t … over the wall separating my garden from Network Rail’s property.

Montbretia or crocosmia … what’s in a name? … come originally from the grasslands of southern and eastern Africa, ranging from South Africa to the Sudan, preferring to live in woodlands and beside streams, where they get all the moisture they want during the growing season. They like to grow in only moderately fertile, moist but free-draining soil; and they thrive in both in full sun or in partial shade. Grazing animals ignore the plants; and even winter-hungry rabbits and deer will only eat them when there is nothing else available. They are immune to most plant diseases; and glasshouse red spider mite is just about the only pest to whose attentions they are subject. This combination of characteristics explains both why gardeners like them, with their self-propagating, virtually maintenance-free habits; and why, once established in the countryside, where they form into dense plantations and suffocate native plants, they are extremely difficult to eradicate. So, gentle reader, grow and enjoy crocosmia in your garden: but think before you dispose of any surplus plants!