Monday, February 23, 2009

Heale House: welcome for the winter-weary

Before I arrived in England, Sarah told me that we would visit a little-known garden gem on our way to Dixter: Heale House.

"Of course," I said.  I am always up for anything, especially when a (now) local is suggesting it.

After passing the sublime megaliths of Stonehenge, morosely cordoned off by the macadam of the A344 and the A303, we drove on to Heale House.  Located off one of the many quaint and charming roads of Wiltshire, only a little sign indicated we'd arrived.

Heale House has been around for a while: due to some major military blunder in 1651, King Charles II crept clandestinely across the countryside in an effort to escape to France.  He arrived at Heale House, and while hoping to evade recognition, the lady of the House distinguished who he was and made arrangements for his protected stay.  Not too shabby of a hideout.

In early spring now, there are millions, no BILLIONS of little stowaways haunting the grounds of Heale House.  Small and forgotten until they demand your attention, the season of snowdrops and winter aconite bring them all out in full and glowing spectacle.

Galanthus. Commonly known as snowdrops, the lovelies of this genus are the very earliest of spring geophytes to brave their will against a reluctant winter. Cheery hope, these little flowers are.  Forget the groundhog: if I was hibernating for months, I would want to poke my head up and take a look around as well. His shadow is neither prophesy nor gospel; it's nature.  Get over it, PA. Although, through some stroke of coincidence, there is a correlation between America's Groundhog's Day  and Candlemas day, both celebrated on February 2nd. An old folk name for Galanthus is Candlemas bells, signifying the peak of the bloom season. (I am still eye-rolling the groundhog.)
Now THAT is telltale spring. Call me a plant snob; I am more willing to accept Galanthus as a harbinger of spring, however long the season actually takes to arrive.

Others like me, well, more obsessed than me, take Galanthus very seriously. Within the 19 species that represent the genus, there are innumerable natural hybrids and named cultivars. The real challenge is telling them apart or tracing parentage.  Regardless, each species, hybrid and cultivar are exceedingly charming in their own ways, even though they may all look just like pretty and dainty white flowers. Maybe that's all we really need to know.  Here are two varieties that stuck out to Sarah to and me:
Galanthus 'Dionysus' 

The second little beauty of the late winter landscape is Eranthis hyemalis winter aconite.  A minor bulb with a discerning fashion sense, its cup of sunshine is collared by a very distinctive ring of green bracts.

Now just imagine standing in this pool of light . . . I asked Sarah how long it would take to establish a self-sown population like this.  Apparently, Eranthis take many years to flower from seed, so I could only imagine how many years this stand has been slowly increasing in size.

It certainly was my pleasure to see it now, however long ago the first bulbs were sunk into the soil.  It was  so charming to see the drifts of white and yellow intermingling along the paths and hilsides . . .

Besides this spring display, there were many more features about this garden that had no other choice than to stand out. 

These raspberry-veined Hellebrous stopped us both in our tracks.  There are so many color variations in the new hybrids, but sometimes, just one will be enough to make you look twice. The fact that the open flower is somewhat upwardly angled is also a bonus.

The river Avon has been divided into 3 channels coursing through this property.

Oh, what a parade of the Victorian age to have a peacock loitering on the stoop.  By the way, those are not sheets that blew off the line; those are used to protect tender plants from any damaging environmental conditions of late winter/early spring.

As we made our way out, I literally drew in a deep breath  as I saw this Cedrus libani/Lebanon cedar. How majestic is this tree?  Pruned to keep this shape, its umbrella canopy swallows that VW Rabbit.  Then again, from firsthand experience, anything is bigger than a VW Rabbit.  I do love those Euro headlamps!

A perennial garden designed by on of England's well-known designers, a charming (everything in England is so charming; it's kind of annoying!) vegetable, fruit, and herb garden, and an authentic Japanese tea house also grace this estate.

Thanks, Sarah, for taking me to Heale House to see that amazing display of minor bulbs. It was a perfect start to what may have been the longest (definitely memorable) day of my life!


  1. Sorry about the trouble with leaving comments--hopefully I've fixed it?

  2. These are great articles Erika! You're a talented writer.

    I can't wait for the next 36 hour days whirlwind tour of English gardens/pubs. How about October?? We have to go see how the pruning turns out!

  3. Who is the garden designer of Heale House

  4. So sorry for the long delay in this response to your question! The designer is Harold Peto. I know little else of him, and perhaps should do a little investigating into this, and other work. I can say that the gardens were wonderfully open, and more of a spacious ramble between areas than tightly separate rooms. I do believe that as years accumulated, other designers have made their mark on the surrounds of this quintessential English manor house. Cheers, and thanks so much for writing with interest!