Magnificent May

By Andy Winfield

How did it get to be May already? It seems a very short time ago that we were looking at the low sun and listening to the lone robins sing, bare earth and branches waiting for a temperature hike. Well, the Garden has plumped up with leaves and life, almost fluorescent in its vibrancy. It’s a wonderful time of year, even when it rains you can almost see the plants growing. 

While the rain is soaking into the May soil, it also threatens the flowers of one group of plants in our Chinese Herb Garden. This year we have completed our peony garden, a unique display here in the west country, and on Sunday 12th May we’re holding a day dedicated to peonies in celebration. One thing we’d like for people to see in this area is of course the flowers of peonies, and the weather was doing its best to rain on our peony parade. So we decided to pamper these plants with an umbrella each. It might seem over the top, but it’s a treatment that some of them are accustomed to. In days gone by the gansu mudan peony has led a life of privilege; ancient China knew it as the Emperor’s flower and law decreed that it was only grown in his gardens. Specialist growers were tasked with cultivating it for use in the imperial borders, but if anyone got ideas above their station and sneaked some in their own garden, well, they were executed! So some of these peony flowers have the air of ‘an umbrella is no more than I deserve’.

The remains of a dragonfly nymph from last year.

May also brings wildlife into the Garden and one thing I look forward to is the emergence of the dragonflies. For most of their lives dragonflies exist as fierce underwater predators hunting and eating almost continuously; for some species this can be as long as five years. During this time they moult a number of times, changing shape and size until they’re big enough to climb out of the water. This time is about now, when the iris leaves are swordlike and the bogbean is in full flower, there is a night when all the dragonfly nymphs emerge together, as if waiting for a signal. As I write this it hasn’t happened yet, but there is the feeling it is any day now. The nymphs crawl onto the sturdy stalks and leaves and, like an alien, a new beast breaks out of the exoskeleton and perches, translucent on a surface. If you catch them at this time you can see them drying themselves and slowly colouring up around the garden before they begin the gravity defying aeronautic displays that we all enjoy.

Nymphaea ‘Marliacea Albida’

Also in the pond, we’ll be climbing in and re-potting the water lilies this year time permitting. We tend to do it every other year, and when we do the plants respond to their new compost with vigour and plenty of flower. The water lily rhizomes will successfully search out food in the wild but are restricted in a pot so the soil needs to be changed to keep them sated, and a well nourished plant will reward us with a wonderful display.

I hope you enjoy the May ambience, the chatter of birds and bees and brightness of foliage. The rain helps towards the early summer sprint of plants into growth, but soon the sun will shine and we’ll all be t-shirts and barbecues!

By Andy Winfield

2 thoughts on “Magnificent May

  1. I have a severe hearing disability and can’t converse equally on the telephone… and want to ask if I can bring my well behaved Bichon along today. (He will stay on his lead)

    Much as I try there is no function to ‘search’ these facts beforehand (whether a dog is allowed) – as I want to see the peonies before they drop their petals. I shall make my way to Stoke Bishop and ask the staff at reception when I arrive.
    Perhaps one can consider putting whether dog friendly and another way to contact you instead of telephone? Thank you Sincerely. Pat Goddard.

    1. Hello Pat, usually dogs aren’t permitted in the Garden except assistance dogs. This is a rule that is typical of most Botanic Gardens due to the delicate and rare nature of the collections. Here at Bristol our welcome lodge volunteers are happy to dog sit for you as you walk around the Garden, they have a water bowl and affection to offer your dog while you enjoy the plants.
      Also, if you look at the bottom of this page, you’ll see our policy on dogs in the Garden. We’ve noted that you found it difficult to find and will try and put it in a more prominent position on the site.
      Hope this helps,

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