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Cambridge University Botanics Mountain Plants Diary

This entry: January 2013, A Snowy Affair by Simon Wallis & Helen Seal

Winter has returned to the Botanic Garden with a vengeance, snow now blankets the garden restricting much of our outdoor work. This allows us to concentrate on jobs undercover in our potting shed such as some early seed sowing, maintaining the plants in our Mountains House and reserve collection and cleaning any of our dirty clay pots in the Garden’s communal pot wash sink.

The Greek Island Beds covered in snow

The Greek Island Beds covered in snow

The plants in our Mountains House are well protected from the elements, and during these very cold spells we may have to manually turn on the heating to stop the temperatures dropping below 3°C. There are some winter flowering plants that are looking particularly good at this time of year.

One is our recently renamed Narcissus cantabricus subsp. tananicus. This Narcissus was originally accessioned in the collection as Narcissus cantabricus but upon closer inspection it was noticed that the tube was a primrose yellow with slightly paler tepals and a more whitish corolla tube.  Also the filaments (the stalks holding up the anthers) were white and the pedicel (the stalk of each individual flower) shorter than the straight species. Another winter flowering petticoat Narcissus looking at its best is Narcissus romieuxii and its various subspecies.

The pretty Narcissus cantabricus ssp. tananicus

The pretty Narcissus cantabricus ssp. tananicus

Our collection of Lachenalia is also spectacular; all of our examples are kept under glass to help protect these bulbous perennials from the winter cold and wet. Our young 2011 specimen of Lachenalia viridiflora is a stunner with its unusual iridescent turquoise flowers brightening up the geophytes section of the Mountains House for at least a couple of months.  This plant is now rather rare in the wild but despite this it is relatively easy to grow under glass. It is important to keep the plant moderately moist during the growing season; however do not water during its summer dormancy period.

The turquoise flowers of Lachenalia viridiflora

The turquoise flowers of Lachenalia viridiflora

The bright red, pendulous flowers of Lachenalia bulbifera are also striking. Both come from South Africa and are pollinated by Sunbirds (not found in Cambridgeshire!).

Lachenalia bulbifera

Lachenalia bulbifera

This time of year is when the Galanthus start coming into their own. All the snowdrops in the garden are unfortunately covered in snow so the best examples are those undercover. Looking particularly impressive are a late flowering form of Galanthus reginae-olgae, the tall large flowered Galanthus ‘Paradise Giant’ and the much more dainty Galanthus rizehensis.

A late flowering form of the exquisite Galanthus r

A late flowering form of the exquisite Galanthus r

The compact Paeonia cambessedesii is starting to emerge from hibernation, its bright red shoots fantastic against the dark growing medium. This Paeonia from the Balearic Islands bears bright showy pink flowers in spring which contrast well with the dark green of the fully unfurled leaves.

The striking shoots of Paeonia cambessedesii

The striking shoots of Paeonia cambessedesii

Our outside tulip plunge bench is also starting to burst into life with many of the tulip species stating to emerge these include the bright green early leaves of Tulipa saxatilis to the mottled leaves of Tulipa greigii.

A section of the Tulipa plunge bench

A section of the Tulipa plunge bench

From now on the sand in the plunge bench is kept moist and the bulbs are not allowed to dry out. Once in active growth we add a potash rich feed (sulphate of potash) to promote bud growth, this is quite a painstaking exercise as we have found this can readily encrust on top of the gravel mulch and also stain the leaves. Thus we add the potash to the surface carefully avoiding the leaves and tickle the feed under the gravel mulch with a kitchen fork.

The final picture this month is of our last remaining old cold frame. Within the next week we hope to dismantle the frame to provide us with more yard room for such things as our wheelbarrows and mobile potting bench.

The last remaining old cold frame in the Alpine Ya

The last remaining old cold frame in the Alpine Ya
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