GINA PARKINSON on the simple pleasures of a plant considered by some to be a weed

THE garden was beautiful last weekend, covered in frosty crystals under a clear blue sky. It was too cold to get any work done outside. The ground was frozen and it seemed cruel to start any pruning when the temperature was barely above freezing.

The day being so gorgeous it was too nice not to enjoy for a little while and being unable to dig or plant is an ideal opportunity to simply enjoy the plants with their glistening hoary coats.

A simple plant that has made a startling impression this year is honesty. This biennial, considered by some gardeners to be a weed, is prolific, its growth quickly establishing into a routine of flowering and self-seeding, has really come into its own in our garden this winter.

In early summer we enjoyed the purple flowers and fresh green leaves and then the seed heads that developed alongside new blooms. The semi-shaded bed where most of our honesty plants grow is filled with maturing and juvenile plants by the end of the summer; the latter will grow into their flowering size the following year.

Those that have already bloomed fade over the winter, but before they die completely they have a final flurry of interest in December and January. This is when the flat seed-heads, having lost their cargo, become papery white and en masse look wonderful in a bed where other plants have died back or lost their leaves.

Low winter sun illuminates the opaque discs which seem to absorb the energy, only to release it in a ghostly state as the day moves into twilight.

Just before nightfall, the honesty shines out while everything else is dark, their shape and pale hue reflecting that of the rising moon.

Despite its botanical name of Lunaria annua, honesty is a biennial plant that flowers from seed planted the previous June or July. Its silvery discs that look so attractive in a winter garden are revealed when the outer covering has fallen off and the seed has dropped to the ground. They have given rise to country names for the plant such as moonwort, satin flower and money flower. The botanical name of lunaria also reflects their appearance coming from the Latin luna, the moon.

Common honesty has purple flowers and oval, toothed green leaves, but there are variations within this small family of plants. ‘Albiflora’ is similar but with white flowers that contrast well when mixed in with a purple flowered type.

However, I don’t know if they come true from seed if grown in close proximity with a non-white species. Lunaria ‘Alba variegata’ is a very attractive plant with white-edged variegated leaves and white flowers that look perfect grown as a splash of light in a shady corner.

Lunaria variegata has purple flowers above spectacular foliage that is heavily splashed with cream variegation, so much so that some leaves lose almost all of their green.

This variegation may not appear until the second year of growth, the seedlings can sometimes be disappointingly green but as it comes true from seed the foliage will colour up once mature. Honesty seems unfussy about position, although it appears to last better and remain fresher looking if given a little shade at some point of the day. It is propagated from seed sown in summer for flowering plants the following year.

In the veg plot

Now is the time to start planning vegetable purchases for the garden. It’s a lovely job to do, looking through the seed and plant catalogues that are arriving through the post, as well as reading the various articles that are beginning to appear in the weekend papers.

Potatoes are at the top of our list. We were quite successful with our crop last year once it had got over the dry spring. The earlies were delicious, as were the second earlies, but the main crop was disappointing with many potatoes inedible because of slug damage. We’ll be checking varieties for their resistance to these pests.

We are also looking at carrot seed, although our crop last year was eventually got by the pesky carrot fly. However, the first few pickings were delicious so we will give them another go this year. This time we will just sow a few, pick them all at once and enjoy them as baby vegetables.

Then we won’t have to worry about whether they will be attacked and we can use their vacant space for something else.

gardening tv and radio


8am, BBC Radio Humberside, The Great Outdoors. Presented by Blair Jacobs and Doug Stewart.

9am, BBC Radio Leeds, Tim Crowther and Joe Maiden.

2pm, BBC R4, Gardeners’ Question Time. Panellists Bunny Guinness, Christine Walkden, Matthew Wilson and chairman Eric Robson are in Peterborough where they advise members of the Springfields Horticultural Society. (Repeated from Friday).


3pm, BBC R4, Gardeners’ Question Time. This week Matthew Biggs, Bunny Guinness, Christine Walkden and chairman Eric Robson are in the GQT potting shed at Sparsholt College in Hampshire for a postbag edition of the programme. The gardening weather forecast is at 3.40pm.