Chiltern Seeds

– Posted in: Miscellaneous

The promise of spring, the bounty of summer, and the rich colors of autumn—it’s easy to love gardening during the milder months. The winter months (at least for those of us who don’t live in Austin) are more challenging to be cheerful about, but they have one big feature in their favor: the arrival of the seed catalogs. Each one has its charms, but the catalog I most eagerly await is the one from the U.K. company Chiltern Seeds.

If you’ve never seen this catalog before, you really need to check it out. They have a web site, so you can dip into a few sections and read about their offerings on-line. But for serious study, you really need to have a print copy of the catalog in hand. Except for a few color pictures on the front and back covers, there are no photos: All of the 220 long, skinny pages are packed with tiny print describing thousands of common and obscure offerings. This is not a catalog to simply flip through, looking for your favorites or the newest offerings. If you really take the time to read all of the descriptions—even those for plants you’d never actually want to grow—you’ll be treated to a wealth of information on nomenclature, history, geography, and yes, horticulture, too. The writing ranges from straightforward, basic descriptions to hysterical ramblings. You really need to read it while alone, or you’ll risk alarming your pets and companions with sudden outbursts of laughter.

I just had to treat you to a sampling of descriptions from the newly arrived 2008 catalog, to tide you over until you can get your own copy…

Anthriscus sylvestris ‘Ravenswing’ and Hakonechloa macra ‘Aureola’ late Oct 05 

Anthriscus sylvestris ‘Ravenswing’

Most aptly named is this somewhat macabre variety in which the leaves emerge your average green but then proceed to turn to a sombre purple-black. Very popular and we wonder if they grow it in the Tower of London.

Aster diplostephioides (=resembling Diplostephium: this must be one of the most unhelpful of all specific epithets – that’s what taxonomists call the second part of the standard scientific name – apart from being unpronounceable to a normal mortal, why someone would wish to compare a Himalayan plant to a virtually unknown plant growing a zillion miles away in the Andes is a mystery!)

Impatiens roylei (syn. I. glandulifera). Policeman’s Helmet, Jumping Jack, Indian Balsam

If you want to fall out with your neighbors, this is the plant to grow! For if ever a species earned the name Impatiens (=impatient), this is it; when ripe, the slightest touch of the seed capsules makes them explode with vigour and eject the seeds a considerable distance – to walk through a stand of the plants at this time is like being under fire. As a consequence, introduced from the Himalayas in 1839, this plant has now become one of our most invasive weeds and, in particular, has taken over many a river bank up and down the countryside. It is, however, indisputably a handsome and attractive plant, very strong-growing, and bearing in summer a profusion of lovely, white, rose, or purple, pendent, helmet-shaped flowers in clusters. If you do grow it, do stand by with your hoe in a year or two and warn (or don’t as the case may be!) your neighbours to do likewise.

Melittis melissophyllum

Translating these names, you come up with something like the Bee-Balm-Leaved-Bee-Plant which is still much nicer than its official English name Bastard Balm! Quite simply, it is perhaps the finest of all the many Dead-Nettle type of plants and if you would normally eschew such things, think again with this one! With honey-scented leaves, a fragrance long retained when dried, it bears in summer few-flowered whorls of very large, white or pink blossoms with a large lower lip a contrasting purple in colour. Once established, particularly in dry shade, it has a remarkable tenacity to life surviving long periods of high summer temperatures without rain. Sometimes used in making a Maibowle type beverage – a festive compound of sweetened and flavoured wine, popular with Continental students!

My major problem with this catalog is trying to decide which seeds I can’t possibly live without. And now I have another tough decision: Do I want them desperately enough to try out my new seed-importing permit?

Any other Chiltern Seed devotees out there?

Nancy J. Ondra
Nan gardens on 4 acres in Bucks County, Pennsylvania. In the firm belief that every garden ought to have a pretentious-sounding (or at least pretentious-looking) name, she refers to her home grounds as "Hayefield." There, she experiments with a wide variety of plants and planting styles, from cottage gardens and color-based borders to managed meadows, naturalistic plantings, and veggies--all under the watchful eyes of her two pet alpacas, Daniel and Duncan.
Nancy J. Ondra

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Kathy December 12, 2007, 12:19 pm

Well, I’d always heard Chiltern’s was a great catalog, but I thought that reputation was due solely because of its selection. I’d never heard before it was one of the fun-to-read ones. Thanks for the sampling.

It’s so cool to have a way to share this catalog with other gardeners who like eccentric stuff. It does take a certain mindset to enjoy some of the humor–I think maybe you have to be British to fully appreciate some of the references–but it truly is a treat to read.

Benjamin December 12, 2007, 1:14 pm

What a delightful and irreverent beast of a catalog. Yes! If, in ten years, I know something about plants, maybe I could write some descriptions like these (none of that fluffy froo froo stuff you see at nurseries proclaiming each plant as the second coming). That Bee-Balm-Leaved-Bee-Plant sounds great as I have many dry shade spots, particularly north facing.

Well, really, who couldn’t use a little Bastard Balm in their garden? I really think you’d enjoy reading the catalog, Benjamin, even if you’re not ready to try ordering yet.

Frances December 12, 2007, 4:04 pm

Ordered the catalog. But you can’t order seeds without that certificate?

U.S. gardeners can order seeds from them, but technically, you’re supposed to have a “Small Lots of Seed” permit from the USDA to bring them into the country. If you don’t, you run the risk of having them confiscated by Customs if the package gets opened. You can find more info about the permit in this archived post. That said, I’ve heard that gardeners here have ordered and received seeds successfully without the permit. I leave that decision to your own conscience!

Carol December 12, 2007, 11:09 pm

I enjoyed those descriptions, especially the warning to stand by with a hoe for the invasive weed! If I was looking for another reason to take hoe in hand, I’d get some of those seeds.

Carol, May Dreams Gardens

tai haku December 13, 2007, 10:48 am

Chilterns is an awesome catalogue and I’ve spent a pretty penny with them over the years on some seriously weird stuff from cycads to 4,000 year old lotus cultivars. Its frankly incredible how they obtain so much stuff.

Hi! If you check back in, I’d love to know if you had luck germinating the lotus seeds.

tai haku January 4, 2008, 3:28 pm

Hi Nan – no, no I did not but I’m willing to say it was entirely my own fault. Suffice it to say I used a spare (and it turns out faulty) aquarium heater I had lying around, cooked the seeds and nearly electrocuted myself.

By contrast pretty much everything else I’ve had from them came up well – a couple of rare Zamia and Macrozamia cycads germinated exceptionally quickly.

Hey, thanks for the update. Sorry to hear about the equipment malfunction, but congratulations on your success with the other rarities! I’ve had equally good luck with the seeds I’ve bought from them in the past.

kenny peers September 11, 2008, 7:30 am

chiltern catalogue-marvellous. always comes day before xmas.start reading after xmas lunch-can life get much better?

It’s one of the highlights of my gardening year too!

razvan, romania September 11, 2008, 11:44 am

great catalogue and good customer service.

Yep, and great seeds, as well!

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