Casual Gardener: Encouraging honesty is the best policy

Honesty is among spring's finest self-seeding plants...

Attractive as honesty's flowers are it's the plant's seed pods that get most attention

TRADITIONALLY gardening has erred towards order and formality, an idealised and sanitsied version of nature where everything is compartmentalised. But to make your garden so predetermined in its form and planting is to sacrifice the element of surprise. Gardeners are increasingly embracing nature rather than eschewing it, which means being prepared to tolerate its fickleness – and the rewards that often come as a result.

Fewer things represent this laissez-faire, live-and-let-live attitude to gardening better than the self-seeders, that group of annuals and biennials that blur the boundaries between a weed and what's politely referred to as a 'mainstay of the cottage garden'. In the spring, they come in the form of forget-me-nots, aquilegia and the idiosyncratically-named honesty (Lunaria annua). Its Latin name is derived from the plant's distinctive, moon-shaped seed pods, while it's thought the common name is a reference translucence of the same papery pods, which elsewhere see it called moonwort, 'money plant' and 'silver dollars', while in France it gets monnaie du pape, meaning 'Pope's money'. Always with honesty, it's the seeds, rather than dainty purple (sometimes white) flowers currently in bloom that are the most interesting aspect of this non-native, yet its value for pollinators and as food for the caterpillars of the orange-tip butterfly cannot be underestimated.

I introduced honesty into my garden more than a decade ago, scattering the plentiful seeds onto bare ground in an area that develops into a shady spot as the canopy grows over spring. The following year on cue it appeared in abundance, its pink-purple flowers providing the perfect foil to the white daffodils, and bringing a burst of colour to otherwise neglected patch. In subsequent years, however, it was much less visible, turning up only occasionally and in isolation, before one year it again came in a wave. For me that's the way with self-seeders, feast or famine, on a cycle of at least four-to-five years.

A native of the Balkans, honesty escaped from Irish gardens some time ago and became naturalised. It crops up in hedgerows and on verges that haven't been indiscriminately sprayed with herbicide but is never invasive. Zöe Devlin’s indispensable Wildflowers of Ireland book notes how it is sparse throughout much of the country but found in large numbers in the south-east and in two bands stretching 20-odd miles both east and west from Lough Neagh.

Honesty also comes in a white variety, Lunaria annua var. alba, which is pretty much exactly the same, only in white. The seed of other rarer varieties are available, such as the mottled blue flowers of ‘Corfu Blue’, a variety originating on the eponymous Greek island, and ‘Munstead Purple’, which has deep red-purple flowers with purple flushed stems.

My only experience of propagating honesty is by scattering seed on open ground and keeping my fingers crossed, though if you wish to be more proscriptive about where it grows then it can be raised in modules and transplanted in the autumn. Be mindful that it is a brassica which prefers limey, alkaline conditions, while the plants typically develop a deep tap root that makes them difficult to transplant once they reach a certain stage. They are also susceptible to brassica diseases, such as clubroot.

For drying, let the plant mature, flower and die back during which time the magical transformation from flower to seed pod takes place. At the end of its lifespan is also the time to collect seed ahead of sowing.

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