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A Cambridge Rhapsody in Blue

The Madingley Hall Gardens are currently closed due to Covid-19. This article/blog by our Head Gardener leads you on a themed walk in the Walled Garden discovering plants whose flowers are Cambridge blue.

As we contemplate and adjust to a new rhythm of life, the words ‘forget-me-not’ are especially relevant. Myostis spp. are cheerfully flowering as the natural world continues its progress from spring into summer. Hyacinthoides nonscripta, bluebell, the woodland beacon of April and May is painting the woodland floor with a sheen of violet blue. On Thursday, the University illuminated the Senate House in blue in recognition of the NHS workers (see Link 1). According to the Cambridge Music Handbooks, George Gershwin’s 1924 composition in the title established his reputation as a serious composer. (Link 2).

I find the colour of Cambridge blue a brighter and more optimistic shade than the darker blue of the ‘other place’ to which we share the combined term Oxbridge. The origin dates to the second boat race of 1836 with three of the eight from Gonville & Caius College. It is said on winning by twenty lengths, they asked for a light blue ribbon, the colour of their boat club. “The nearest haberdashers only had Eton Blue, which was purchased and used”. (Reference 1). Subsequently, the University Boat Club adopted the colour. (Link 3). This blue fits within the spring green colours of the colour wheel. (Link 4).

Identifying plants which grace this colour is a challenge and very open to debate. The Dart Border in the Walled Garden is currently being renovated in phases, the south end in 2019 and the north end in 2020. For many years this border has included light blue flowering plants and this theme is continuing. The season commences with Iris ‘Cantab’, a dwarf rhizomatous perennial with flowers consisting of soft pale blue standards, the falls a deeper blue with white stripes and a yellow blotch. Pulmonaria Opal= ‘Ocupol’ has a semi evergreen, blotched foliage speckled with silver and clear blue flowers. P. officinalis, lungwort, grows in the Medicinal Border opposite. It's name comes from the Latin Pulmo (lung) as the silver markings on the leaves were thought to resemble diseased, ulcerated lungs hence its use for treating lung infections. If only this association had been proved and was able to help resolve the current health situation. The Greek physician and botanist, Dioscorides (C 40-90 AD) was an early practitioner exploring the visual resemblance of a plant and a human organ, commonly referred to as the Doctrine of Signatures.

Veronica gentianoides, gentian speedwell from the Caucasus is a delightful spring flower, suitable for the front of the border. It forms a base of glossy dark green foliage, with light blue flowers on erect stems to 450mm. It has a light airy touch; Beth Chatto, the plant doyen describes “the pale washed-blue flowers”. (Reference 2). Iris ‘Jane Phillips’ is one of my favourites; Beth Chatto rightly says “deservedly popular” and “the flowers possessing well-shaped standards, softly ruffled falls in clear azure-blue with white beard”. This tall Bearded Iris was bred by Dr. John Graves (1878-1950) a prominent physician and surgeon who graduated from Harvard College School of Medicine and practised at Concord in New Hampshire. With a love of gardening, he started Iris hybridizing in 1931, raising Jane Phillips which flowered for the first time in 1946. It received both the Award of Garden Merit from the Royal Horticultural Society and the American Iris Society of which he became Vice President (Link 5.) One parent, Iris ‘Helen McGregor’ is named after his wife. He was fascinated by blue and white forms. In the National Trust publication of 2004, it describes Jane Phillips “Much of the success is the pure blueness of the flower, which soft, yet clear in tone and not suffused with the same extent of lilac as many other ‘blue’ varieties. Both the standards and the falls are elegantly veined, giving the characteristic crepe paper effect and the strong and detailed pale vanilla-white beard is immediately eye-catching”. (Reference 3).

Another herbaceous perennial from Eastern North America is Baptisia australis, false indigo. It grows both in the Dart Border and the Dye Border. B.australis ‘Exaltata’ is considered a more upright form. The Greek “bapto meaning to dip or immerse” and the common name false indigo refers to it being used as a dye substitute for Indigofera tinctoria, true indigo. The sap from cut or bruised stems turns dark blue when exposed to the air. The pea-like, light blue flowers are lit up by the light grey-green trifoliate foliage. The Cherokees used the roots as a tea for a purgative and for toothache and nausea. The Genus Amsonia, eastern blue star, is named after the English physician and amateur botanist John Amson. He moved to Williamsburg, Virginia and in 1750-1751 was Alderman and Mayor. Amson treated General George Washington during the French and Indian War. Thought to have tuberculosis, Amson advised the General he had but a common cold! (Link 6). In 1760, the Genus Amsonia was named after him. Amsonia tabernaemonta is native to the USA and grows to 1 metre; A. orientalis is lower growing, the only member of the genus native to Europe originating from Turkey and Greece. Both display starry, light blue flowers in the spring.

Eritrichium pectinatum, a low growing forget-me-not from Siberia to the central Ural mountains in Russia grows on the raised Alpine Bed. The combination of the many bright light blue flowers each only 5mm wide, stand out amongst the other alpines. Cichorium intybus, chicory, a native of West Asia, North Africa and Europe is naturalised in the United Kingdom. It has loosely branched stems (up to 1-1.5metres) with toothed leaves and clear sky-blue flowers which open in sunlight but close in rain. For centuries, it has been used as a coffee substitute and as an ingredient in coffee cakes and other confectionary. Cultivated forms can be eaten raw. Here at Madingley we always attempt to grow established proven heritage plants intermixed with the new. Clematis integrifolia ‘Twinkle’ is a new herbaceous type which can be staked or allowed to ramble in the border. The edge of the petals have a ‘twist’ and a “drop of light blue on the top of the flower, fading to the tops”. (Reference 4).

In the height of summer into early autumn, there is no more glorious a sight than a drift of the light blue Agapanthus ‘Headbourne hybrids’, the perennial, clump-forming South African lily. On Tresco, Isles of Scilly it has escaped onto the dunes in abundant swathes. It requires a warm sheltered environment and is effective in pots. The upright flowering umbels extend to 1 metre. Convolvulus sabatius, blue rock bindweed is not the pernicious weed as the common name may suggest. The Frustrated Gardener refers to it as “an extremely” polite customer”. (Reference 5). A delightful low growing spreading plant which enjoys growing at the front of the border, like its native environs of Italy and North Africa. The single light blue flowers have creases delighting the garden scene from summer onwards.

“Blue flower was a central symbol of inspiration for the Romanticism movement and remains an enduring motif in western art today. It stands for desire, love and the metaphysical striving for the infinite and ‘unreachable’. It symbolises hope and the beauty of things”. (Reference 6). I trust the plants featured reflect their beauty and this article offers hope and we look forward to welcoming you back to Madingley before too long to witness and see these plants befitting of a Cambridge Blue.

The plants exemplify the diversity and range of those grown at ICE Madingley Hall. They reflect the Institute’s international philosophy offering access to everyone from anywhere in the world. This article mirrors the subject range offered - Art History, Botany, Creative Writing, History, Literature, Medicine and Science.

Images reproduced by kind permission of Colm Sheppard, Langthorns Plantery and Taylors Clematis

To source the plants and to support specialist nurseries, who grow and conserve them, the charity Plant Heritage has a dedicated page on how to find these nurseries


  1. Gonville & Caius College Fellow Dr. Mark Wood, letter to Daily Telegraph, December 2019.

Gonville & Caius Boat Club:

  1. Beth Chatto’s Plants and Gardens:
  2. James Parry, Irises, National Trust, 2004, ISBN 1-905400-03-9
  3. Taylors Clematis:
  4. Frustrated Gardener
  5. Blue Flower


  1. University Senate House illuminated in blue: .

Richard Gant

Head Gardener

April 2020.

© University of Cambridge

Iris Jane Philips
Iris 'Jane Phillips' (image credit Langthorn Plantery)
Baptisis Australias Exaltata
Baptisia Australis 'Exalta' (image credit Colm Sheppard)
Amonisa Orientalis
Amonisa Orentalis (Image Credit Langthorn Plantery)
Cichorium Intybus
Cichorium Intybus (Image credit Langthorn Plantery)
Clematis Integrifolia Twinkle
Clematis Integrifolia 'Twinkle' (image credit: Taylors Clematis)
Agapanthus ‘ Headbourne Hybrids’ And Echinops Ritro ‘ Veitchs Blue’ Growing At Madingley
Agapanthus ‘Headbourne hybrids’ and Echinops ritro ‘Veitchs Blue’ growing at Madingley (Image credit: Colm Sheppard)