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Credit: Peter Symcox

So I brought in lavenders, phormiums, and thrift - by the dozen - Achemilla mollis (lady's mantle) rhizomes by the score, Senecio greyi, heathers and (a mistake, this) Berberis (barberry). And then I came across sea hollies, or Eryngium, as they are properly called. These belong to an enormous family, comprising 275 genera and 2,850 species. As well as sea hollies, we have parsnip, carrot, celery, fennel, chervil, dill, caraway, lovage, parsley, coriander and anise - all part of this same extended family. Something of a surprise, I must say. But eryngium is a thistle-like plant and E. maritimum is known as sea holly because of its propensity to grow naturally on sandy seashores (thus maritime) and holly because of its spiny bracts and sharp-toothed leaves. E. maritimum has some curious properties. Linnaeus says that the young flowering shoots of this species can be boiled and eaten like asparagus, and that the leaves have a slight aromatic pungency. And John Gerard, the 16th-century herbalist, asserts that the roots "conditioned and preserved in sugar are exceedingly good to be given to old and aged people that are consumed and withered with age." He adds that "they have the property of nourishing and restoring the aged, and amending the defects of nature in the younger." Altogether a most valuable plant I would say! But if you are on the lookout for something considerably more dramatic (although perhaps not so medicinally valuable), there is E. giganteum, a biennial form from the Caucasus. This one has a branching habit, with green leaves and stems heavily overlaid with silver, while its flowers have a touch of blue. Very nice indeed. As I know from experience, this one is splendid for pots; even though it dies back after flowering, it readily sets seedlings in nearby soil. For my Mediterranean garden, I grew E. eburneum, which has small, globular, whitish heads and grows around one to 1.2 metres tall. All eryngium grow best in slightly moist soil, full sun and - of course - all like a good gravel mulch to keep that soil nice and damp, and free (practically) from evaporation.