Wednesday 15 May 2013

A story of a dicentra… and a fine lady.

Dicentra formosa alba

The lady
I had just been given permission to hold the National Dicentra collection. I had all of five plants! I received a letter from a lady called Joyce Fussey. She was a keen hardy planter and she had raised a white dicentra from seed. She had no memory of where the seed had come from. One of many seed distribution schemes. Did I think the dicentra was worthy of wider distribution? Her son drove her over from Goathland. Joyce does not drive.

Joyce is a gifted authoress. She used to write her books in the cold North Yorkshire winter and tended her garden all the year round. She writes of her life on a small farm which nestles at the lip of a deep valley. She tells me that she has experienced frost in every single month of the year, Fortunately not in the same one! Her books are delightful hilarious accounts of farm life and tales of amusing and sometimes riotous incidents in her garden. 
I saw one of her old meadows in full bloom. Never having been treated with a herbicide, it was a riot of wild flowers. It was the most beautiful display I have ever seen.
You just might have seen parts of her garden! The popular TV series ‘Heartbeat’ was filmed in the area, her garden was sometimes used as a set.                                       

Her books are delightful. They have wonderful titles such as ‘Milk my ewes and weep’, ‘Cows in the corn’ and ‘Cats in the coffee’. Her books never made ‘the big-time’. A different shake of life’s dice and she would have had a James Heriot acclaim. Joyce is not rich in possessions but she is in her life. Originally without mains electricity she has taken delight in her garden and simple country matters. She tells me of the particular thrill she still gets when one of her admirers has sought her out and called. She has had visitors from all over the world. I can’t help thinking that had she been a few years younger she would have had a very fine blog!  

Dicentra formosa alba 
The dicentra.
I planted it my garden, my expanding collection. It was a very fine form of Dicentra formosa alba. It perhaps had larger flowers than the type, perhaps it flowered a little longer because it did not readily self seed. I gave it my ill-informed approval. Joyce wrote to nurseryman Adrian Bloom. He came north to see it, he liked it. He liked it even more when I informed him that my colleague Philip Orton had thousands of micro-propagated plants in his lab at Askham Bryan College. I think I glimpsed a gleam in his eye! Adrian undertook to   undertake the registration and promotion of this fine plant for sale throughout Europe. 

I wanted to call the dicentra ‘Joyce Fussey’, she deserved the accolade and it would promote her name. Adrian said “with that name it won’t sell”. It was to be called ‘Avalanche’, you can just sense the rush of the brilliant white flowers. It was to be launched at Chelsea. Joyce, Philip and myself were invited to the celebrity day. My two friends  had a wonderful time and the dicentra was featured on the BBC. Much to my regret, this nitwit here, elected to remain at college to give his lectures. As if the poor students wanted to hear them!
And so ‘Snowflakes’ was born! Snowflakes! what about ‘Avalanche’? Think about it, to the British it sounds exciting, to the rest of the world it’s image is one of tragedy and death.

The rise and fall of  Dicentra ‘Snowflakes’
It appeared in Bressingham Gardens catalogue. It graced thousands of gardens. It was available for some years and generally offered in the trade. It disappeared! I know no one who has it now. I might have lost it myself! For some reason it did not have the constitution. Perhaps it had mutated in micro-propagation to give a weak ‘sport’. Perhaps it was susceptable to a virus. I don’t know.
Three years ago I called on Joyce and she retrieved a plant from under an old hedge and gave me some of the original none micro-propagated stock. On the same day I bought a plant from Pat Perry’s nursery at Sleights as we went on to Whitby. It was labelled ‘locally bred’. 
Shame on me I have lost it again! Many of us lost our best plants in the 2010 winter when we had tried to keep special plants safe and potted them to hold in our unheated greenhouses. It was the worst thing to do. Plants were frozen solid in their pots when they would have survived in the ground. Dare I ask Joyce for some more? I feel another trip to the seaside is due.

Dicentra ‘Adrian Bloom’. As son of plantsman Alan Bloom, Adrian has a dicentra that bears his name. Dicentras vary slightly in colour depending on season, degree of shade and soil. This is in my opinion the true colour of D. Adrian Bloom.
Adrian jovially declared that Dicentra “Adrian Bloom’ did not grow well in his garden!
But this similar darker red cultivar ‘Bacchanal’ does!
Difference between Dicentra formosa and Dicentra eximia

The correct name of Joyce’s White dicentra was Dicentra formosa alba ‘Snowflakes’  All similar white dicentras sold in the UK are also Dicentra formosa alba. If they are labelled Dicentra eximia alba they are almost certainly named wrong!
The flowers of D.eximia and ‘D.formosa’ are completely different. The picture below shows   the long elegant shape of D.eximia.  All the other pictures in this post shows the short dumpy flowers typical of D.formosa.

This is the flower of Dicentra eximia. Anyone wanting to grow genuine (pink) Dicentra eximia can buy seed from Chilterns.

A typical Dicentra formosa flower
Dicentra eximia alba does exist in the USA - pictures can be seen on the net. Examine the shape of the flower carefully. You will find a huge array of white dicentra, some incorrectly named.
In google images I find my own picture of Dicentra formosa oregana ‘Pearl Drops’ under the search-term of Dicentra eximia alba!

Dicentra formosa has these characteristic underground rhizomes.  Dicentra eximia does not.

Another white dicentra. Dicentra formosa ‘Aurora’

My previous dicentra posts


  1. Wow, I have just noticed that my picture of Dicentra eximia is plastered with aphids!

  2. I used to have a dicentra that looked like the white one - it had very grey leaves - I also have a similar pink variety - short spreading plants both. Can't remember its name though - is there more than one variety?

    Funnily we were at the NYMR gala on Friday and got off the train in Goathland before getting another to Whitby psssing through Sleights

    1. Other white Dicentra formosa,
      Pearl Drops syn Langtrees
      Hope you had a great time at the North Yorks steam railway,Sue

    2. I think it was Langtrees - I'll be looking out to see if it is still there now,. The pink one is just starting to flower. I can't remember that name either

      We were disappointed with the gala - we wanted a ride in the Railway Children carriage which wasn't there and then out train back from Grosmont was cancelled which meant a two hour wait for the next one that ended up being a diesel. My husband was disappointed that promised engines weren't on display - to me an engine is only differentiated by the size of it's funnel and the expression on its 'face'!

  3. They are very pretty blooms to look forward to, especially with all the color choices it offers.
    Cher Sunray Gardens

    1. There is a whole kaleidoscope of colour in Dicentra formosa from white through pink,red and purple. Other species such as macrocapnos, macrantha and scandens are yellow

  4. Do you know where I can find pictures that show Dicentra Eximia in all phases? I would like to plant some in our yard in Maryland, but am not sure what it will look like in the middle and end of summer. Thanks.

    1. Dicentra eximia tends to look nicer than formosa in summer. Formosa usually eventually goes dormant in summer although sometimes reappears in a wet autumn.
      Unfortunately I find it difficult to actually keep eximia looking good over a long period in my conditions. In terms of stature and general appearance formosa and eximia are very similar. To get pictures of eximia in all phases, google dicentra eximia and click images. You will have to use your common sense as to which ones - the majority- will be correct.

  5. I have a white dicentra which doesnt expand or grow much after 6 yrs or so, also it has a very short flowering spell, any idea what its called?
    i have met the delightful Joyce at her house, she is an amazing lady, I have read the books too .
    Sadly they had severe flooding in recent yrs which ruined a lot.

    1. Yes anon, huge boulders have been washed down that North Yorkshire Moors valley in massive downpours in recent years!
      I need more details to identify your plant, the commonest white dicentras are D. formosa alba or the much larger and later D spectabilis alba. There are pictures of various white dicentras on this blog if you use the search box at the bottom.

  6. In 1998 when working for YTV on the Heartbeat programme in Goathland I discovered Joyce Fussey's magical stream side garden on one of my breaks. I had no idea she was such a celebrated author and gardener, just a lovely lady with a passion for all things growing! She was delightful company and so knowledgable. I bought a simple rosa glauca and it still grows in my garden - it is called Mrs Fussey's Rose (by me and my family). Happy memories

    1. Thank you for your memories. It is letters like yours that makes blogging worthwhile.
      We have several plants named after people and places


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