Hepaticas: early spring jewels

Hepatica flowers
Petal power: Hepatica flowers come in all shapes and sizes. Photograph: Michael Myers

Alongside the first of the green-flowered hellebores and the early flowers of thefetid adders tongue, hidden among the white canvas of snowdrops in the woodland garden, there grows a plant that takes some closer inspection.

Hepatica transsilvanica (dark form)
Hepatica transsilvanica(dark form). Photograph: Michael Myers

Similar to, but certainly not the same as, its more noticeable cousins the wood anemones, Hepatica nobilis does its utmost not to be noticed. Get your eye in, though, and their flowers shine up at you, giving a bright relief to the more subtle colours of early spring. What’s more, their leaves are exquisitely marked with silver and purple blotches that are almost metallic, particularly when wet from the thaw.

It’s these leaves that have earned them their name. Hepatica comes from the ancient Greek hepar for liver, and just like the human liver, the leaves have three lobes: hence its common names include liverleaf and liverwort. The doctrine of signatures promoted their use in the treatment of liver disease: Paracelsus, the 13th century Swiss German philosopher, had stated “Nature marks each growth … according to its curative benefit”. Later the botanist William Coles wrote that god had given “Herbes for the use of men, and hath given them particular signatures, whereby a man may read … the use of them.”

Hepatica acutiloba x nobilis ‘Cremar’
Hepatica acutiloba x nobilis ‘Cremar’. Photograph: Michael Myers

This really was the most cutting edge health care of the time. However, as with so many of these treatments, hepaticas are poisonous when used in large quantities by inexperienced practitioners. The plant, like other members of the buttercup family to which it belongs, contains Protoanemonin or Ranunculin which when ingested can cause nausea, vomiting, dizziness, spasms, or paralysis, and on skin contact cause itching and painful blistering. I wonder how many died at the hands of the doctrine of signatures?

In the late 1800s in the USA, hundreds of tonnes of hepatica leaves were gathered for use in patent medicine, such as Dr Roder’s Liverwort and Tar syrup, and even more imported from Europe to supplement this need. It is surprising to think that American natives Hepatica americana, H. acutiloba and H. nobilis survived this onslaught.

80% of the world population rely on plants as their primary source of medicines, and between 50,000 – 80,000 plant species are used worldwide for their curative properties. Half of our prescription drugs are based on plants and the compounds they contain, but overharvesting of these medicinal plants is a huge threat to them. We don’t know where the next antibiotic or the next cancer treatment may come from, and I wonder how many other benefits to humanity such diminutive plants as hepaticas may offer up?

Hepatica nobilis var pyrenaica ‘Stained glass’
The patterned leaves of Hepatica nobilis varpyrenaica ‘Stained Glass’. Photograph: Michael Myers

With between six and 11 species (it all depends on which taxonomist you consult), and hundreds of cultivars, these early spring jewels deserve more attention than they currently get. I am pleased to say that this year they are coming out of the shadows of the snowdrops they flower alongside, and, just like snowdrops, are being offered their own special events. I really hope these hepatica days become a feature of the annual horticultural calendar.


Alys Fowler: variegation isn’t always a bad thing

Photograph of silybum marianum


‘What about that nice variegated Solomon’s seal?” I point to a lovely patch outside a Greenwich brownstone as we wander about Manhattan. “Surely that’s an acceptable variegation.”

“Nope,” my friend says emphatically. “I do not like variegation.” (“I do not likegreen eggs and ham,” I whisper to myself out of earshot.)

I point at some truly horrid variegation on a coleus. “Is it just bad splashes, here and there – a thin margin of white can’t be that bad, surely?” I probe.

She purses her lips and looks horrified. (“I would not like them here or there. I do not like them anywhere. I do not like green eggs and ham.”)

I persist: “Some variegation is really very good. Naturally occurring variegation can be very subtle; it can make a scheme.”

Variegation is caused by a number of things: pigmentary is the most common, where a lack or masking of chlorophyll causes different leaf colours. White variegation is a lack of chlorophyll, and plants with a lot of white will be weaker growers. Sometimes the masking of green pigments will cause either the whole leaf to look reddish or purple, or zonal markings such as those on oxalis orpelargoniums. Some variegation is caused by the reflection of light on the surface of the leaves, and other times it’s because of hairs on parts of the leaf.

In some of my favourite plants, either the leaf margin or the veins are variegated. I love blessed Mary’s thistle or variegated milk thistle, Silybum marianum, which has fantastic silver leaf venation. It comes from the Mediterranean and is a robust, large biennial with very spiky, highly patterned leaves (that are also edible). It looks good among other silver-leaved plants such as Salvia argentea or against a bed of shingle. It looks like a big thistle, so it has to be used wisely or it can appear weedy, but it has a majestic air and the seeds are much loved by winter birds.

Likewise, the Italian arum Arum italicum ‘Marmoratum’ has seductive dark, glossy green leaves with elegant veining in silver-white. The foliage is by far at its best during the winter months, and it loves a dark, damp corner. Another useful one for ground cover in shade is the variegated form of ground elder, Aegopodium podagraria. The variegation slows its progress, but not completely, so it’s one for space or not at all. It looks wonderful mixed with forget-me-nots or as an understorey to large-leaved things such as Rodgersia aesculifolia.

I love variegation in the brassica family, too – I enjoy putting a bit of variegated land cress (Barbarea vulgaris ‘Variegata’) in a salad, plus there’s the wonderful, if almost impossible to get hold of, ornamental cabbage Brassica oleracea varacephala ‘Crème Chantilly’. This has large, white, variegated margins to the leaves and unusually white flowers. It’s a large plant compared with most other ornamental cabbages, and works well with grasses or used as you would flowering sea kale, Crambe cordifolia, for the back of the border.


Gardens: plants that live on air

Something in the air: Tillandsia plants have specialised hair-like structures on their leaves that act like sponges.
Something in the air: Tillandsia plants have specialised hair-like structures on their leaves that act like sponges. Photograph: Alamy

Over the past 20 years, a growing body of scientific evidence has suggested that simply being around plants can have an important impact on mental and physical health. Even while sitting at your desk, having houseplants within eyeshot has been reported to result in a measurable decrease in stress hormones, reduced feelings of anxiety and, according to a trial by the Norwegian University of Life Sciences, a 36% increase in pain threshold. If you are keen to reap these potential benefits in the dead of winter but are cursed by a brown thumb, worried about mess or frankly think it’s too much work, I have the perfect solution: air plants.

Hailing from the wilds of Latin America, plants in the genus Tillandsia have evolved the remarkable ability to absorb all the water and nutrients they need from the air. Specialised hair-like structures on their leaves known as trichomes act like super-efficient sponges to absorb ambient moisture and trap nutrients from floating particles of dust. This silvery fuzz gives the plants an exotic, animal-like appearance. Their ability to live off air makes them the ultimate houseplant – an ornament which, in the right conditions, needs next to no work.

Another key benefit to this remarkable strategy is that air plants do not require pots, compost or even a significant root system. The only function of their tiny roots is to anchor the plants to a solid surface where they have access to enough light and air. In the wild they hug tree branches, cluster on rocky outcrops and even cling to telephone wires, meaning you can attach them to pretty much any surface at home that takes your fancy. I mounted some on rustic cork bark (using discreet floristry wire), but have also seen them attached to driftwood or fridge magnets. The sky – and the frontiers of good taste – are the only limits.

How to grow Tillandsia

Tillandsia require a warm room at about 20C with good air circulation. Most species prefer a bright but indirect light source, as prolonged exposure to direct sun in summer can scorch leaves. Finally, as the air in centrally heated rooms in midwinter can be drier than even the Sahara, a very occasional spritz of water (as little as every month or two) can be useful to keep your plants in tip-top condition. Your little Tillandsias will even tell you when they need this, by their leaves curling inwards and becoming increasingly silver. Many sources still advise a monthly soaking of the plants by dousing them in a bucket of water before drying them off completely. But, according to top UK growers, the biggest cause of Tillandsia failure is over-watering.


Gardens: all hail the vulcan palm

Twin towers: the stately vulcan palm.
Branching out: the stately vulcan palm. Photograph: Joel Sartore/Getty Images/National Geographic Creative

For houseplant obsessives like me, offerings in garden centres can be a bit samey. In the face of two decades of declining sales, retailers are sticking to an ever-shrinking palette of safe options. But every so often you come across a great find, like the Vulcan Palm, Brighamia insignis.

This striking succulent is found only on the Hawaiian island of Kaua’i, where it once covered the rocky coastal slopes between pockets of rainforest. Not a palm, in fact, but a member of the bellflower family, it has a thick trunk topped with a crown of shiny leaves, giving it a quirky architectural form. Flushes of pale yellow flowers, 15cm long, erupt from the centre in the spring and early summer, emitting a gorgeous honeysuckle scent. They owe their elongated throats and tubular form to a hawk moth with an enormously long tongue that co-evolved with the plant over millions of years.

Ironically this stunning example of evolutionary adaption has driven the plant to the edge of extinction. Relying entirely on a single pollinator, the plant’s fate was tied to the moth. When this became extinct last century, the Vulcan Palm’s only means of propagating itself was by human intervention, namely through the work of daring conservationists mimicking the moth’s role to pollinate the flowers while hanging from ropes on cliff edges.

The remaining plants were further decimated by a series of natural disasters, including Hurricane Iniki in 1992. By 2003 the International Union for Conservation of Nature reported just seven mature plants left in the wild, so it is perhaps a surprise that they make relatively easy houseplants and are becoming widely available. Proceeds from the sales of these sustainably grown plants, propagated from seeds from plants pollinated by conservationists, help fund their vital work.

Growing vulcan palms

Brighamias love a bright spot out of direct sunlight and, surprisingly given their Hawaiian origin, enjoy a cool room in winter. Their only really fussy point is that their roots should never be left sitting in cold, wet potting mix, as this can cause them to rot. Use a fast-draining potting media, such as cacti mix, watering the plants generously once a week before allowing them to completely dry out. Feel free to miss a watering or two if the soil is moist to the touch. A monthly feed with a dilute general-purpose fertiliser will keep your plant in tip-top condition.


Gardens: chamomile lawn

‘The seeds can remain perfectly viable for years past their sell-by date and provide pretty native flowers all summer long’: chamomile flowers.

Gardening can be expensive. Even if you side-step the ready-grown plants at the garden centre and start from scratch, some seeds can cost as much as £1 each (think F1 hybrid tomatoes). Others, such as the tiny dust-like seeds of begonias, can literally sell for more than their weight in gold. For plant geeks on a shoestring, poring over seed catalogues dreaming of summer colour, wildlife, scent and maybe an edible or two, it can start to add up.

Every so often, however, you find an exception that can deliver all four horticultural fixes for virtually zero cost. Hidden at the back of your kitchen cupboard, that old packet of chamomile tea bags is in reality the source of thousands of seeds. These can remain perfectly viable for years past their sell-by date and provide a stream of pretty native flowers all summer long. With each bag coming in at 96% less than the price of buying a commercial packet of identical seed, this is not a bad deal.

To get started, find a patch of bare, well-drained soil in a sunny location. Rip open a bag of (unused) chamomile tea, sprinkle it over the soil and water in well. Germination will start within about two weeks, depending on the time of year. In my experience successional sowings can provide a virtually constant supply of fresh flowers for bees, admiration from visitors and, of course, endless cups of tea, right up until October.

As chamomile is also a common native weed species, these plants are remarkably fuss free. I have sown mine in drifts at the sides of my gravel drive and in bare, sun-scorched corners of my paths where nothing else will grow, with great results. In fact, the only work I ever have to do is cut down the dried plants in autumn to satisfy my neat-freak tendencies. Plants also readily self-sow, meaning you will almost certainly only need to raid the cupboards once.

Think you don’t like chamomile tea?

Flower power: dried chamomile tea.
Flower power: dried chamomile tea. Photograph: Alamy

When chamomile flowers are dried commercially, many of their aroma compounds are degraded or evaporated off, leaving behind the familiar ‘dusty’ flavour and bitter, metallic aftertaste. If you think you hate chamomile tea having only known the packaged stuff, I implore you to give the homegrown version a go. With their original chemistry intact, fresh flowers have a brighter, more aromatic flavour, combining pineapples and tart green Granny Smiths. Well worth the five minutes it will take to sow them.


Gardens: grow a mini grove

Mixed fruit: crab apples – plant with a partner tree (or two).

As an urban gardener with a tiny plot to play with, poring over the fruit tree sections of the gardening catalogues can verge on heartbreaking. But if you long to fit more in than the textbooks recommend, a novel technique adopted from commercial agriculture called high-density planting might be your salvation.

The idea is simple: by planting two, three or even four trees in one large hole you can fit loads more into tiny spaces. Although the production per tree is reduced due to the competition, the yield and potential variety per square metre is greatly enhanced. For home growers this not only means you can extend the season by growing early, middle and late-ripening cultivars altogether, it can also eliminate problems with pollination if one of the varieties you choose to grow won’t fruit without a nearby compatible partner.

You can even pair up self-fertile trees of different species, such as a Victoria plum and a Morello cherry, into space where you might think only one tree could prosper. The reduced yield per tree also means you are never lumbered with great gluts of a single crop, but a steadier, more varied harvest across a longer period.

All you need to do to get started is pick two or three young saplings of the same age, all grafted on to dwarfing rootstocks, and plant them in the same large hole, with their trunks between 40cm and 1m apart. Backfill the hole with the existing soil, making sure to firm it in with your heel to exclude air pockets, and then water in well.

Prune out the centre of the joint canopy where the trees meet to create an open, airy centre, only allowing growth on branches that face outwards. Aside from this quick once-over to maintain the shape, and a little extra irrigation and feeding, your mini grove will provide no extra work and some great benefits.

Dynamic Duos

Crab apple ‘John Downie’ and apple ‘Redlove’ make perfect bedfellows for a harvest of cooking apples far more exciting than ‘Bramley’.

Cherry ‘Merton Glory’ and ‘Penny’ pair a sweet, white form with a deep, dark, late-fruiting one to round off the season with a bang.

Pluots are a delicious cross between plums and apricots. Try planting pluot ‘Flavour King’ and plum ‘Mirabelle’. Pluots aren’t self-fertile, but with a playmate such as ‘Mirabelle’, pollination shouldn’t be an issue.


Gardens: drug therapy for plants

With spring just around the corner, now is a great time to get an early start on taking hardwood cuttings, like figs and roses, as well as sowing seeds of long-season crops, such as chillies and aubergines. If you are keen to up your chances in the dark days of February, there is an easy home remedy that could dramatically boost your success rate.

Simply take a teaspoon of cinnamon from your spice rack and pop it into a litre of lukewarm water. Drop in half a 300mg soluble aspirin tablet, give the mixture a good stir, let it cool to room temperature and you are done. When it comes to planting time, soak your seeds and cuttings in this solution for an hour or two beforehand. This will potentially give you higher germination rates, lower risks of infections and improve the plants’ overall vigour. In fact, just watering newly sown seeds or cuttings with this bit of kitchen chemistry may be enough to trigger these benefits. It’s like having green fingers in a bottle.

I realise this may sound implausible to non-geeks, so here is the science. Aspirin is a synthetic copy of salicylic acid, a growth-regulating hormone found in plants, and has been shown to work in a very similar way. When applied to newly sown cuttings it can turn on the genes that express the plant’s defence system, helping them stave off infections (ie rotting), while also boosting the growth of roots in a similar way to hormone rooting powder.

In newly sown seeds it has a similar effect, which has been demonstrated in a wide range of plants to induce a state known as “systemic acquired resistance” (SAR) in which the plants become more resistant to cold, heat, disease, pests and drought. And it has been widely used in commercial horticulture and agriculture for exactly these purposes.

Cinnamon works in a different way. It is the bark of a tropical tree that has evolved a range of potent natural antifungal and antibacterial chemicals to stave off the rampant growth of pathogens in the tropical rainforest. By making an extract of its bark you are effectively hijacking these chemicals and deploying them to defend any young plant you apply this to. It can work wonders for damping off (a common fungal infection that can kill many seedlings) and prevent new cuttings from rotting in the cool conditions and low light levels at this time of year. In my experience this can almost double the survival rates of tricky to root plants.

Results will, of course, vary depending on the species you are growing, as they will with any shop-bought rooting hormone or germination aid. Seeing as this method is cheap, easy, non-toxic and backed by solid science, why not experiment for yourself?


Flower power: the gardens that caused modern art to bloom

Emil Nolde’s Peonies and Irises (1936)

In Seebüll, in the northernmost German state of Schleswig-Holstein, not far from the Danish border, the wind ruffles the reeds of the low-lying marshes reclaimed from the sea. The trees bend on the horizon like crouching animals. A low autumnal sun gleams over barrel-shaped red barns. All is quiet.

In 1927, the expressionist artist Emil Nolde and his wife, Ada, were walking in these remote parts and fell in love with the landscape. They built a house, a fiercely modernist lump of architecture, all brick-faced, small-windowed severity on a hillock. And beneath it they fashioned the most beautiful garden, designed in the entwined shape of their initials and filled with vividly coloured flowers.

It was hard work. The land is below sea level, the soil is brackish, the weather fierce. But they cherished and nurtured the space, wrapping it round with a sheltering screed of reeds, employing a gardener to help them plant the beds with an ever-changing tapestry of blooms. In autumn, they are bright with late roses, yellow rudbeckia, jewel-like geums and dahlias, with their pin-cushioned heads in rich reds, bright pinks and warm oranges.

His garden was always an inspiration to Nolde; his response to it dramatically altered the way he painted. In 1908, he wrote of his first garden on the island of Als in the Baltic Sea: “They are such calm and beautiful hours when one sits or moves about between the fragrant and blossoming flowers. I really wish to give my pictures something of this beauty.”

So he did, filling canvas after canvas with the flowers that can be seen in Seebüll today. These splashes of strong colour in oils and in watercolours are violently expressive of powerful emotions. You can see the colours he used, preserved in stripes on the doorpost of the little thatched summer house where he sat to work and where his assistant cleaned his brushes: cyclamen, deep brown, turquoise and green.

Nolde is just one of 42 artists represented in Painting the Modern Garden: Monet to Matisse, a major new exhibition opening at the Royal Academy on 30 January. Spanning the years from the early 1860s to the 1920s, the show reveals just how many painters were serious gardeners – Monet pre‑eminent among them, but also Caillebotte, Pissarro, Matisse, Joaquín Sorolla, Kandinsky and Klee. Van Gogh is also included because he loved gardens, though his life was never settled enough for him to plant one.

Each artist was inspired by their garden in slightly different ways, and their tastes in plants were as different as their painting styles. All were drawn to the creative nature of horticultural activity, however, shaping a private world of beauty that was increasingly fashionable at the time. “Gardening, as a popular pursuit that takes place in the back yard, starts in the mid 19th century with the rise of bourgeoise society,” says Royal Academy curator Ann Dumas. “The exhibition links what is happening in society with what is happening in gardening.”

Wassily Kandinsky’s Murnau The Garden II (1910)
Wassily Kandinsky’s Murnau The Garden II (1910)

The transition from formal public parks and gardens to small, intimate spaces coincided with developments in botany. As co-curator William Robinson, from the Cleveland Museum of Art, notes in the catalogue: “The opening of distant economic markets and increased ease of travel brought a flood of new plant species [to Europe], imported from the Americas, Africa and Asia. This importation, combined with advances in botanical science, led to the industrial production of a vast array of new hybrid flowers with more varied shapes, sizes and colours.”

As a keen horticulturalist, Monet not only ordered the latest plants from mail order catalogues but also planted the great drifts of colour in the borders of his garden at Giverny. He was influenced by English garden writers such as William Robinson (author of The Wild Garden and no relation to the curator) and Gertrude Jekyll. When you look at the paintings he made of his iris border, with its careful gradation of purples and mauves, you can see a glorious collision of artistic and horticultural theory, a shift from formal to the informal garden, from classical to modern design.

The garden, once planted, became an outdoor studio. “It was a visual environment over which they had complete control,” says Dumas. “Monet loved this. Rumour has it that he used to go round Giverny with pots of paint so he was actually designing the colour scheme to the planting as he would a canvas.

“His garden is very meticulously planned, so he has constant motifs to paint. There is a funny story about him painting trees in the autumn and when some leaves fell off, he had them stuck back on again. He may be a nature painter but he is very much in control of nature.”

The German impressionist Max Liebermann also drew inspiration from his garden. In his heyday, from around 1879 until the 1930s, he was one of the most famous artists of his time; a president of the Prussian academy, his work was so expensive and sought after that he only needed to sell three paintings a year to keep himself in style. In 1909, at the age of 62, he bought a plot of land on the shore of Lake Wannsee and built a villa and garden there. Increasingly, as the first world war prevented him from travelling, the garden became his subject.

Joaquín Sorolla’s Louis Comfort Tiffany (1911)
Joaquín Sorolla’s Louis Comfort Tiffany (1911)

Today, after years of neglect, it has been restored as an oasis of calm and colour, running down to the water where leisure boats float silently by. On one side of the beige stone house designed on classical lines, there is an English-style garden, with pumpkins peeping out among the red dahlias and purple anemones. On the other, a swath of grass, broken by colourful planted beds. A birch grove breaks the formality at one border; opposite, a series of hedged gardens, each taking on its own character. A mass of red lilies backlit by the sun gives the eerie impression that you have walked into one of his most popular paintings.

Liebermann called these his “green rooms”, and for him – as for many of the other artists in the exhibition – the garden represented a private space, shared with close friends and family. Sometimes they became a sanctuary. In his final years, Liebermann was harrowed by the rise of the Nazis, and it is hard to walk around the garden today without thinking of this once expansive, powerful man taking refuge in the space left to him. He died in 1935 at the age of 88, embittered and ostracised; his wife, Martha, bedridden with a stroke, killed herself in 1943 after she received an order demanding her deportation to Theresienstadt concentration camp.

Shadows hang over Nolde’s garden, too. His early support for National Socialism did nothing to protect him when he was declared a degenerate artist and forbidden from painting even in private. The tiny Unpainted Pictures he produced in defiance are among his most haunting works; strikingly they contain none of the flowers with which he was still surrounded and to which he returned after his postwar rehabilitation.

From Giverny, Monet could hear the guns of the first world war as he painted. He conceived his towering series of nearly abstract water lilies canvases as his response to the carnage. “Yesterday I resumed work,” he wrote in December 1914. “It’s the best way to avoid thinking of these sad times. All the same, I feel ashamed to think about my little researches into form and colour while so many people are suffering and dying for us.” Explains Dumas: “Monet saw painting almost as a war effort, his personal patriotic gesture.”

But it is not only war that peeps into these garden canvases. In the works of the Spanish painter Santiago Rusiñol, who was also working around the same time, the shade belongs to crumbling, abandoned gardens of the Spanish aristocracy. Avant-garde painters such as Kandinsky and Klee concentrate on the vitality of the earth itself. “They seem to draw sustenance from the regenerative power of nature and gardening,” says Dumas.

Max Liebermann’s Die Blumenterrasse im Wannseegarten (1915)
Max Liebermann’s Die Blumenterrasse im Wannseegarten (1915)

This sense of gardens having a meaning beyond themselves is part of what makes the Royal Academy exhibition so intriguing. Anyone who has hoed a small patch of land, or struggled to cultivate a seed, will know that the act of gardening is a moral gesture – an attempt to bring order and peace to a chaotic and disrupted world.

This was true for these artists. As Dumas says: “In this period you get the rise of the modern city and industrialisation, which in turn stimulate a desire to retreat to nature, and to make your own capsule of peace and tranquillity and beauty.”

So Pierre Bonnard, another keen gardener who used to discuss planting plans with his friend Monet in Giverny, cultivated a wild, overgrown garden and, in his paintings, turned it into a paradise. Dumas explains: “There is a very elegiac feeling about his garden paintings; he is retreating to this golden world of classical art. The figures often adopt the poses of classical sculpture because he is very influenced by an idea of trying to recapture a lost Arcadia.”

Bonnard appears in two panels by Édouard Vuillard that are borrowed from a private collection and have not been seen before. Painted in 1898, they show the garden in Burgundy belonging to Thadée Natanson, co-editor of the influential avant-garde magazine La Revue Blanche, and his wife, Misia. In one, Misia is shown reclining on a bench; in the other, Bonnard bends down in the foreground, stroking a cat while the actor Marthe Mellot reads a newspaper beside him. It is a scene drawn from life. But on the lightly patterned panels, dappled with flowers, overhung with trees, there are no shadows. This is a dream of a garden – an assertion of loveliness and tranquillity in a troubled world.

Painting the Modern Garden: Monet to Matisse is at the Royal Academy, London W1J, from 30 January to 20 April. royalacademy.org.uk.


Painting the Modern Garden: Monet to Matisse review – ravishing visions

Water Lilies, 1916-26 by Monet: ‘There is no up or down, no end to the beauty.’

Renoir painted Monet painting his garden in 1873. The two pictures hang next to each other at the start of this exhibition. With their abundance of red dahlias and creamy clouds, their blue-shuttered houses and soft summer light, each painting looks remarkably like the other – except that where Renoir portrays his friend, Monet is nose-deep in the blossoms. “Perhaps I owe it to flowers,” he said, “that I became a painter.”

This startling statement appears in large letters in the opening gallery, as well it might, for there is no doubting whose show this is. Gardens and Monet are such a heady, coffer-filling combination that it would be extraordinary if the Royal Academy stinted on Monet’s visions of the gardens he created at Argenteuil, Vétheuil and Giverny, but what’s marvellous is the way these paintings are planted at intervals all the way through the show until they build to a grand finale at the end – a spectacular vision of water lilies, and of modern art.

Monet Painting in His Garden at Argenteuil, 1873 by Renoir.
Monet Painting in His Garden at Argenteuil, 1873 by Renoir. Photograph: Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art, Hartford, CT

Monet was not alone in digging, planting, weeding and pruning, and then painting the results. Many of his colleagues – Renoir, Pissarro, Bonnard and Cézanne – were gardeners too, and the argument of this show is that the growing fashion for gardening in the 19th century is reflected in the avant-garde art.

It doesn’t look that way in every gallery, it must be said. So many of these profusely coloured borders look much the same and very traditional – dots of bright pigment floating in a haze of greenery, which is how painters have been describing the optical experience for centuries. And it is curious that many of these men (only two women are represented) take little interest in the form and character of individual plants, so that poppies look like dahlias, which look like peonies, which look like roses, which look like poppies.

The captions frequently indicate nasturtiums, but only one painter, Gustave Caillebotte, comes close to conveying their wildfire spread and colour, their tissue-fine frailty on such spindly stems. He paints them from above, as it seems, and drifting on a sea of mauve so that one sees anew their particular strangeness.

Caillebotte painted a garden path slicing across the picture plane, pale gold in the grilling French sunlight. Frédéric Bazille has another, stealing away from the deep dark shadows beneath a tree to the back door of a house, as if to suggest some kind of dangerous liaison. One of the least familiar painters here, the SpaniardSantiago Rusiñol, shows the gardens of Monforte at dusk, the last rays of the sun igniting the archways in the evergreen hedges as the marble statues glow brilliant white in the twilight. The painting, like the garden, feels like a film set.

‘Like a film set’: Gardens of Monforte, 1917 by Santiago Rusiñol.
‘Like a film set’: Gardens of Monforte, 1917 by Santiago Rusiñol. Photograph: David Mecha Rodriguez/Colección BBVA

But there is a tension to this show. The curators want to woo the gardener from first to last: so there are 19th-century seed catalogues, horticultural specimens, cucumber frames and hothouse cupolas; real plants even bloom under cover. You may consult the detailed letters Monet wrote to one of his (six) gardeners for tips, and sit on teak garden furniture to watch a film of the master painting among the ponds at Giverny.

And gardening takes precedence over art at times – Childe Hassam is surely here only to show what American coastal planting looks like, and likewise Joaquín Sorolla’s trailing geraniums, which may be fetching but are botanical hackwork. Every kind of garden is represented – rose, herb, cottage, vegetable, knot, all the continental varieties – and anyone who loves white gardens will be in heaven with so many glimmering scenes of pale hydrangeas and white lilies.

But what about the premise, what about modern art?

Matisse barely makes it into this show, and neither does Van Gogh, so often out there among the blossoms. The two Paul Klees are dark, knotted and eerie. Munch’s painting of a rampant apple tree taking over the landscape is superb, and it is wonderful to see Pissarro’s warm-hearted painting of people actually getting down to work, hoeing and hauling. Like William Nicholson’s grave commemoration of Gertrude Jekyll’s old boots, this is one of the few images that alludes to gardening as actual hard work.

But then the narrative turns to imaginary gardens and the show really flowers. Here are Klimt’s chrysanthemums and petunias rising up in the form of a spectral bride-like figure, and Van Gogh’s hectic celebration of a garden at Auvers, painted just before his death, in which every pulsing mark radiates with life. The curators have managed to borrow a vast diptych by Edouard Vuillard in which dreamy figures are almost melting into a garden that is itself melting into a faraway landscape. Sultry, secretive and mysteriously pale, the image is hypnotic.

Daubigny’s Garden in Auvers, 1890 by Van Gogh.
Daubigny’s Garden in Auvers, 1890 by Van Gogh. Photograph: Private collection

But nothing can compare with the gardens of Monet, of course. And this show has so many of his works: white and yellow water lilies holding and reflecting the changing light; the bridge over the pond at Giverny, repeated in the water, over and again, at different hours of the day. There are those ravishing visions of the water at dusk, deeply darkly blue, carrying the last inklings of light in gauzy brushstrokes.

In old age, Monet said he took more pride in his garden than his art, and perhaps that is why the three-part panorama of water lilies reunited for the first time in decades at the climax of this show is so overwhelming – so magnificent. The bank has gone. All you see is water, flower, foliage, reflection, light, on and on, round and round. There is no up or down, no end to the beauty of these constellations of colour in liquid space and air. Monet’s garden is beautiful beyond measure: his field of vision is limitless.


Are these PoMo palaces really worth saving?

No 1 Poultry in Fenchurch Street, London, designed by Terry Farrell. A recent bid to have it listed was turned down.

Postmodern architecture in Britain closely matched the career of Margaret Thatcher. Its first flickerings were in the mid-70s, about the time she became leader of the opposition, followed by the style’s first substantial works during her first term as prime minister. By the time she left office in 1990, PoMo was on its way out, disowned by many of its practitioners, its demise hastened by the recession and building slump of the time. One or two monuments, such as the MI6 building and No 1 Poultry in the City of London, were due to the time lag in construction projects completed a few years later, but both were designed in the 1980s. When things looked up again in the embryonic Blair era, architects would admit to being anything but postmodern.

The early years of the style, as is sometimes said of early Thatcher, were anarchic and anti-establishment, championing the individual against the dead hand of over-mighty state power; quasi-punk, a rebellion against public bureaucracy grown fat and stale. At the end (again parallels might be drawn), it was a tool of exploitation, a dressing of corporate expansionism. It progressed from naughtily designed shops and eye-catching cocktail bars to thin disguises on mammoth office buildings. Throughout, the clients were mostly private – entrepreneurs, developers, speculators, corporations – in contrast to the public commissions for schools and council housing that nourished an earlier generation.

The ‘fortress-like’ headquarters on the Thames for MI6, which opened in 1994.
The ‘fortress-like’ headquarters on the Thames for MI6, which opened in 1994. Photograph: Bertrand Langlois/AFP/Getty Images

In its fall, postmodernism was condemned as trashy, superficial, gimcrack, tasteless and dishonest – and so it often was. But, with the cosmic inevitability of such things, inexorable as the movements of planets, that which was once reviled must first be recalled with affectionate irony, then made the subject of scholarly exhibitions and in due course considered for listing as buildings of architectural or historic interest by Historic England (formerly English Heritage). Postmodernism, indeed, was first revived by the architects FAT while its body was still warm, then attracted the attention of the artist Pablo Bronstein, who published a guide on the subject, and was celebrated by the Victoria & Albert Museum.

Now the listing campaigns are hotting up: Historic England recently tried and failed to persuade the Department of Culture to protect James Stirling and Michael Wilford’s No 1 Poultry. Terry Farrell would like his wedge-shaped office building at 76 Fenchurch Street, completed in 1987, to be spared what he sees as insensitive alterations. For some it will come too late. The barrel-vaulted civic centre in Chester-le-Street, County Durham, completed in 1982 to the designs of Faulkner-Brown Hendy Watkinson and Stoner, has gone. Farrell’s TV-am in Camden, London, in which the brash new world of breakfast television found form in the brash new architecture of PoMo, has been changed beyond recognition. The Sunar furniture showroom in St Pancras, the only British work by the American giant of PoMo, Michael Graves, lingers as a fading memory like a half-glimpsed pharaoh’s tomb. Marco Polo House, by the architect-developer-and-later-naturist-gardener Ian Pollard, and for a while home of the Observer, went in 2014.

It would help to say what postmodernist architecture was. It was a reaction against the impersonal, abstract and rationalist qualities of modernist architecture which instead favoured decoration and references to historical styles, both of which had been taboo under the modern movement. Where the latter had insisted that the exterior perfectly express the interior, PoMo liked putting up facades that disguised whatever was behind. PoMo embraced fakery, theatricality, perversity, complexity and contradiction. It played games with the rules of architecture, of scale and of the idea that you should be able to see what is holding a building up. It had colour – colour! – and curves.

The theory was that in these ways architecture could communicate directly with its users and passers-by, and by fusing history and pop art would speak a language everyone could understand. At the same time irony and wit were employed; most architects didn’t feel comfortable making straight copies of historic styles, so had to put them in inverted commas and place them in knowingly incongruous, literately illiterate combinations: steel beams with Egyptian masonry, fluorescent colours with learnings from Palladio.

John Outram’s ‘magnificent’ pumping station on the Isle of Dogs, London
John Outram’s ‘magnificent’ pumping station on the Isle of Dogs, London. Photograph: John Outram

At its best, postmodernism expressed exuberance, humour, joie de vivre, was both literate and playful, and took pleasure in the qualities of building materials, their heft and lightness and permanence and transience. It considered what a door or a window might be, and how a human being might relate to a building. It was concerned with what a detail could be. It had an unpompous self-awareness combined with an appreciation of dressing up: delusions of grandeur were welcome, if they came with a touch of wit.

Into this category falls CZWG’s striped deco-Egyptian office building at Aztec West outside Bristol, with grand hemi-cycles set into otherwise box-like exteriors, as a way of making a sense of place in the placelessness of a business park. Also several works of John Outram, where a love of multicoloured brick, precast concrete and the possibilities of early laser printing combined with musings on ancient mythology to breed oversize columns with flaming capitals on the outside of the premises of Harp Heating in Swanley, Kent, and amagnificent pumping station on the Isle of Dogs, London. Also a private house in Sussex, where the ornament was ever more densely layered, as in a particularly rich cake.

CZWG’s ‘deco-Egyptian’ Aztec West business park outside Bristol.
CZWG’s ‘deco-Egyptian’ Aztec West business park outside Bristol. Photograph: CZWG Architects/Jo Reid and John Peck

No 1 Poultry, outcome of a long planning battle by its developer, Peter Palumbo,had the misfortune to be much imitated (imitation being something postmodernists enjoyed) between publication of its designs in 1985 and its opening 12 years later. It therefore looked like a copy of projects that were in fact copies of it. Buildings less than 30 years old don’t get listed unless in exceptional circumstances, which is why Historic England’s recent attempt was turned down, but it has a force and grandeur that demand it should eventually be so honoured.

Aztec West, some other CZWG projects, and the surviving works of Outram should be listed, as should the more po-faced law courts in Truro, Cornwall, by Evans and Shalev. So should Farrell’s Fenchurch Street building and the house in Holland Park, London, created for his own use by Charles Jencks, the critic who applied the term “postmodernism” to architecture. Imbued with cosmic symbolism, it is a fusion in spirit between Sir John Soane’s house and the fantasy palacesthat monomaniac self-builders put up from time to time in different parts of the world. Stirling’s extension to what is now Tate Britain, and Venturi Scott Brown’sSainsbury Wing on the National Gallery, are already protected, by virtue of being attached to buildings already recognised as historic.

But the real test will come when the MI6 building’s time for listing rolls round. With these fortress-like headquarters for a spy organisation, PoMo’s claim to be the style of the feisty upstart disappeared, as did Farrell’s good intentions to make the location accessible and village-y. It is ponderous, notwithstanding the attempts of later, clumsier neighbours to make it look ballerina-like by contrast. But it is a major work of its period that, by the criteria of such things, means it should be considered.