I love the zip and range of colour of Chinese lanterns (Physalis alkekengi var. franchetii) when they’re just ready – tangerine to apple-green – and I love their fat, air-bubble shape.
Their colour looks neon at this time of year as other plants begin to draw their pigment back in.
It sings along with the odd artichoke flower, the late blue flowers of Salvia viridis, still brilliant purple, and the berries of callicarpa, Iris foetidissima, the green seed heads of Ammi visnaga and the big, bright blue or pink pompom hydrangeas, which many of us have in our autumn gardens.
To keep all these from rotting down to brown very quickly in the next few weeks, pick most of what you have and bring them in. It’s a guiltless harvest – by Christmas the wet and wind is likely to trash anything left in the garden.
These plants are all long-lasting once cut, particularly with a drop of bleach in the vase, but you can make them look good right through the winter with glycerine (available from chemists). The great thing about this stuff is that it preserves the stems with some juice in.
You want to keep their soft, growing texture as far as possible and this is what glycerine does, rather than allowing them to dry to a crisp.
If slowly sucked up by the flower or seed head’s stem, this oily solution is absorbed into the cells and gives the plant suppleness and strength.
Condition stems well by searing in boiling water for 30 seconds (or twice this for woody stems such as hydrangeas) and leave them overnight in deep water to drink. Then make up a small amount of one part glycerine to two parts hot tap water in a vase or jam jar so that you have only a few centimetres sitting in the bottom.
Leave the stems to preserve in the mixture until it has all been absorbed or evaporated. This takes about a fortnight and will leave the heads soft and silky and make them last for ages.
Those are the colourful, fleshy things, but there’s also great beauty in some of the plant skeletons in the garden. Again, if you leave them where they are, they’ll be blown to bits in the next few weeks.
The dark, elegant, lacy heads of Hydrangea petiolaris are good dried and then piled into a bowl, and all the large-flowered alliums look fantastic indoors.
The best is Allium schubertii, but any of the large or medium-sized flowers, A. cristophii and ‘Purple Sensation’, also look good, and alliums work well in a range of sizes. Sprayed almost any colour, there is no better Christmas decoration.
There’s no doubt, though, this year it’s the silver skeletons of Smyrnium perfoliatum that are the most beautiful in my garden. I’m about to arrange a vase to take pride of place in my sitting-room and I’m hoping it can stay there all winter. If you’ve no smyrnium, then angelica or hogweed – great towering stems and big plateau flowers – look almost as good.
With both the glycerined and dried stems, there’s one rule to apply. To keep the glamour factor high, the less you combine them, the better. Arrange each plant on its own or in pairs. Mixing everything up, a few stems of this and the odd stem of that, is too itsy-bitsy and lacks style.
The garden may be accounted for – but in the hedgerows there are equally good things to bring in to decorate your house. It’s a very fruity year, with dusky sloes, luscious rosehips, blackberries and even elderberries hanging on.
The countryside is particularly fruity this year because our last winter was properly cold. That’s good for fruit production, and then the final plumping-up moment was the damp, grey August that has just gone.
This made any fruit blow up like balloons. Since then it’s been drier than usual, so even the fluffy seed heads of old man’s beard and the red berries of bryony are still looking fresh and handsome.
Make the most of what you can find and cook and preserve the harvest. Old man’s beard holds on to its fluffy seed pods well if conditioned in glycerine, and rose hips and spindle hold their fruit and colour twice as long with the same technique.