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The bonfire of the nineties

Pursuits |

Night Bonfire by Vivienne Luxton

David Wheeler ponders the the great British bonfire

The whiff of wood smoke beguiles me still, in domestic bonfire measures, of course, not the suffocating Amazonian doses.

When driving through a misty-blue cloud, I open the car’s windows and am taken back decades to a childhood enthralment of an aroma – nay, a fragrance – of autumn prunings and spent vegetation assigned to the flames.

‘Remember, remember, the Fifth of November,’ goes the nursery rhyme commemorating the 1605 plot. Gladly, though, Guy Fawkes’s events tend not to include any cordite; although, with shooting parties in headlong pursuit of pheasants, gunpowder is not unknown hereabouts at this time of the year.

Originally ‘bonefire’ – yes, for burning bones – such ‘celebratory’ conflagrations these days are handy for the disposal of garden refuse, although the British government website asserts that ‘You cannot get rid of household waste if it will cause pollution or harm people’s health. This includes burning it.’ And you could be fined if you light a fire that causes smoke to drift across the road and become a danger to traffic.

But gardening and bonfires seem eternally linked, the residual ash used on soils where, usefully, lime-loving brassicas will grow. Our last significant inferno (apart from my setting alight an obviously unswept chimney soon after we moved into this house 26 years ago) was on the night of 31st December 1999 – the new millennium’s eve when, in common with just about everyone else on the planet, we set flame to a heap of combustibles in our redundant, four-acre donkey paddock.

The following day saw the glorious initiation of a project that continues to excite and reward me: the planting of an arboretum. In the fading mid-afternoon light, I raked over the cold ashes and planted a single tree, Acer davidii, and a clump of snowdrops. That maple was the first of a range of exotic and indigenous trees and shrubs that now exceeds some two thousand specimens.

I began collecting such plants for their showy autumn garb with appropriately fiery foliage and Technicolor berries: sorbus, liquidambars, ever more maples and aronias. A few evergreens helped to clothe the tableau in winter’s depths, and, as these began to settle in my attention, I turned to spring-flowering woodies: sweet-smelling creamy-white viburnums, lilacs, ornamental cherries, dogwoods (many with a burgundy, crimson and orange autumn sheen) azaleas, stewartias, crab apples and feral roses.

Only later did an irrepressible love of hydrangeas begin to show itself. Ardour grew quickly, triggered when a solitary plant with undistinguished, dirty pink flowers began, in its second year, to bear heads approaching a clear blue. Aha, acid soil. Hooray!

But that’s not all blue-flowering hydrangeas need. They require aluminium, either naturally occurring in the soil or applied in the form of aluminium sulphate. In subsequent years, that plant’s blue intensified and buying sprees brought many different varieties into my collection, it mattering nought if they had pink or red flowers, for, indeed, we had aluminium in the soil.

Thereafter I acquainted myself with serious hydrangea growers in France and elsewhere, begging cuttings of commercially-unavailable varieties. I now cultivate more than 250 different kinds, with flowers ranging from pale cerulean to deepest indigo. Some reds and pinks lurk where a brick pigsty once stood, leaving behind a lime deposit. What next? A National Collection? No, the bureaucracy would numb me, but I am making plans to popularise further the glorious and enduring qualities of these amazingly variable, easy, surprisingly hardy and long-lived plants.

I must just remember to keep bonfire ash well away from them if they’re to remain (apolitically) True Blue.

This story was from November 2019 issue. Subscribe Now