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Cambridge University Botanics Mountain Plants Diary

This entry: October 2012 The Greek Island Beds by Simon Wallis and Helen Seal

This month’s diary will concentrate on the two new Greek Beds on the Limestone Rock Garden. These recently developed beds are adjacent to the original Limestone Rock Garden and also adjoin the newly-planted Mediterranean Beds at the Garden.

A view of the Greek bed

A view of the Greek bed

A side view of the bed on a late autumn afternoon

A side view of the bed on a late autumn afternoon

One of the beds contains plants originating from the Greek Islands along with a few representatives from the wider Mediterranean. The second bed contains plants mostly from the island of Crete. This special interest of the Cretan flora lies in the very considerable number of species which are endemic including Campanula cretica, Lathyrus neurolobus and Paeonia clusii, or which have a limited eastern Mediterranean or Anatolian distribution.

We propagated many of the plants on these two beds from a surprise parcel of over 100 seed packets.  These had been collected during expeditions to several of the Ionian Islands undertaken by staff at the University of Thessalonica Botanic Garden and funded by the Stanley Smith (UK) Horticultural Trust. The expedition seeds were accompanied by excellent collection data, so we know exactly where the seeds were collected and in what kind of habitat.  The seed sharing is built on an earlier collaboration; Cambridge University Botanic Garden staff had advised the Greek botanists a few years previously on the setting up of their new garden. Our plants now act as an informal reserve collection and we are trialling hardiness and suitability as garden plants.

One of the choice shrubs in the Greek bed is Helichrysum sibthorpii a cushion-forming perennial that is covered in dense, woolly hairs - a real foliage stunner. In summer this foliage is topped with white ‘everlasting’ flowers. Helichrysum sibthorpii is only found on the exposed rock crevices and gulleys of Mount Athos, situated on the peninsula of the easternmost "leg" of the larger Halkidiki peninsula in North Eastern Greece. 

The downy large cushion forming Helichrysum sibtho

The downy large cushion forming Helichrysum sibtho

Another hairy shrub that adds interest and some height to the bed is Ballota pseudodictamnus in the Lamiaceae family. Bulbs growing on this bed include the autumn flowering, white Crocus niveus, not yet in flower.

In the Crete bed Paeonia clusii is looking seasonally interesting with its black seeds bursting from the five red seed capsules.

The shiny jet black seeds of Paeonia clusii

The shiny jet black seeds of Paeonia clusii

In early spring, for a disappointingly short time, this beauty has pure ice-white flowers held on pinkish-purple stems. This Cretan endemic Paeonia, like many other plants on these beds, are not the most hardy, so we keep reserve plants undercover in our Alpine Yard. More unusual plants in this bed include the spiny Verbascum spinosum, also endemic to Crete, and Euphorbia acanthothamnos, often known as the chicken wire plant due to the persistent spines revealed once the leaves and flowers have died back. In spring, this plant looks special with its bright green tiny leaves and acid yellow flowers.

The appropriately named chicken wire plant

The appropriately named chicken wire plant

Two herbaceous Campanula looking particularly fine at the moment are Campanula cretica and Campanula versicolor.

The long flowering endemic Campanula cretica

The long flowering endemic Campanula cretica

Campanula cretica is another Crete endemic whose attractive large nodding white to light blue bell-shaped flowers appear from late June to September. In the wild this plant grows on cliffs and gorges at altitudes up to 1700m. Campanula versicolor is a taller plant with stems growing up to 60cm, these stems are covered in saucer shaped flowers which are dark blue in the centre with a concentric white ring then fading out to a pale blue at the edges. It is a real eye-catcher at this time when many of the plants are past their best.

The taller Campanula versicolor

The taller Campanula versicolor

The tri-coloured flowers of Campanula versicolor

The tri-coloured flowers of Campanula versicolor

Eryngium cretica is another stunning looking plant with its bright blue almost metallic stems holding up the equally impressive, but still dainty umbel inflorescence which are subtended by the vivid blue-silver bracts. It has flowered profusely for over two months now.

The metallic blue Eryngium cretica

The metallic blue Eryngium cretica

Other interesting plants flowering now include a Sea Lavender, Limonium damboldtianum, and a Shrubby Saint John’s Wort, Hypericum empetrifoluim.

These recently developed beds originally contained the Botanic Garden’s Saxifraga and Alchemilla collections which were no longer thriving. This was mainly due to the position of the bed being too open and offering very little shade. The soil in the bed had become quite anaerobic due to the presence of a butane liner 20cms under the soil surface. Many of the Saxifraga are now enjoying the shade and improved drainage of a different bed whilst many of the Alchemilla are either dispersed throughout the rock garden or kept in the reserve collection.

The old beds were then reshaped, the old butane liner removed and plenty of extra grit added to the soil. We are still experimenting to see what plants will survive our East Anglia climate but will keep you updated on any surprise successes or failures.

A final view

A final view

Simon Wallis & Helen Seal

October 2012

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