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Cambridge University Botanics Mountain Plants Diary

This entry: February 2013 - Splashes of Colour by Lucy Rowley

As the current trainee in the Alpine section here at CUBG, I have been lucky enough to see the emergence of many geophytes with the onset of spring, setting off splashes of colour in the Mountain House. My personal favourite is Scilla sibirica, a commonly available alpine geophyte, but none the less a striking one, with its electric blue nodding flowers being one of the brightest on the Scilla colour spectrum. Scilla seems to do well in pots, and our specimen has produced a dense clump of lovely foliage. As they readily self-seed, regular dead-heading is needed so that they do not spread into other pots in the Mountain House.

Scilla sibirica

Scilla sibirica

Also looking good at the moment is Ipheion uniflorum ‘Froyle Mill’, which came into our display in early January and is still flowering abundantly with plenty of buds emerging. It requires a sheltered position and plenty of light, and so the Mountain House provides the perfect environment to aid the plant in achieving a long flowering period. A weekly feed also helps with this. I have learned that watering geophytes is somewhat of an art form, and I am slowly mastering getting the balance right between keeping them not too dry and not too wet!

Ipheion uniflorum ?Froyle Mill?

Ipheion uniflorum ?Froyle Mill?

Moving away from geophytes, another little alpine delight in our display is Dionysia tapetodes­, a compact cushion plant comprised of tight sage-green rosettes studded with tiny bright yellow flowers. Native to the drier climates of north-east Iran, through the mountains of Afghanistan to the border of West Pakistan, this plant dislikes water on its leaves and is subject to the horrors of botrytis if this occurs. It was planted out in the Mountain House last spring from three small-rooted cuttings and is doing very well. Growing it on tufa, as we do here, allows the porous rock deposit to retain moisture from watering, which the plant can pick up from underneath, rather than being watered directly overhead. Its planting location in the crevices of the tufa also echoes its native limestone montane habitat, providing semi- shade and shelter for it to flourish.

Dionysia tapetodes¬

Dionysia tapetodes

The aptly named Adonis amurensis is an attractive plant currently in the shade-loving section in the Mountain House, taken from our Woodland area in the garden. Boasting large buttercup-yellow flowers combined with delicate fern-like foliage, it is pollinated by bees, flies and beetles. Although Helen and Simon knew it as a woodland plant, some recent research by Simon has enlightened us that Adonis is actually an excellent rock garden plant and prefers full sun, so we are planning to plant some out in the Rock Garden soon.

Adonis amurensis

Adonis amurensis

A more unusual plant I must mention is Ypsilandra thibetica, an evergreen perennial with a rosette of lanceolate foliage and graceful sweetly-scented inflorescences. Native to China, it can be found on mossy ledges of shaded cliff faces. Our specimen, grown in the shade-loving section of the Mountain House, really stands out against the dark bark with its ethereal lilac-white flowers.

Ypsilandra thibetica

Ypsilandra thibetica

Other plants looking good at the moment are the various species of Primula, Gymnospermium albertii, Iris bakeriana¸ Crocus tommasinianus ‘Pictus’, and the crimson and yellow flowered Polygata chamaebuxus ‘Rhodoptera’.

A selection of Primula allionii cultivars

A selection of Primula allionii cultivars

Elsewhere, we have been very busy this month with the wonders of seeds, and have been busily researching how to sow each species we have had delivered or collected; whether they require warm, cool or cold germination temperatures, and at what depth to sow them. It is very exciting to think that at some point soon these miniature storage units, some as tiny as grains of sand, will be sending up little shoots and eventually become something spectacular.

Whilst I am writing this, Simon and Helen have been re-potting some of the Primula collection, and to their horror have discovered a large amount of vine weevil grubs cosily tucked away in the roots, munching away to their heart’s content. Rigorous removal and destruction has ensued, and re-potting sans grubs is being carried out. I have been reliably informed that the introduction of nematodes is the best way to eradicate this pesky problem.

Vine weevil larvae

 Vine weevil larvae

And finally, the cold frame is now fully demolished… after a week of hard labour from the team, Simon delivered the final sledgehammer blow to the surrounding wall and the beast was no more. This has now freed up much-needed space in the otherwise rather crowded Alpine Yard, and will now allow for the arduous yet rather satisfying job of cleaning the plunge bed canopy!

The demolition of the cold frame

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