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Kent Alpine Gardener's Diary

This entry: 08 April 2014 by Tim Ingram

Caucasian interlude

Caucasian interlude

'The West can teach the East how to get a living,

but the East must eventually be asked to show the West how to live.' (Tehyi Hsieh)

Probably the most beautifully produced book I have on alpine flora is 'the Caucasus and its Flowers' by Vojtěch Holubec and Pavel Křivka. Reading the introduction to this book, and also others in different contexts but describing similar places and peoples, what comes across is the hospitality of local people - a consequence of a hard life - and in the Caucasus itself the complete magnificence of the landscape. Tied to your garden in the busy, overpopulated and geographically less remarkable south-east of England, a sense of these mountain flowers and their habitats is transporting. The photographs of landscapes, printed in large format, often across two pages, are hugely evocative and varied, and the history of botanical exploration which honours individuals dating back to the French botanist Josephe Pitton de Tournefort in the late seventeenth century, is extensive and fascinating (especially when viewed from the more parochial position of a British gardener).

Caucasian interlude

Having heard a number of talks from various people over past years on the plants of northern Turkey, Armenia, Georgia, and from further south into Iran and north into Kazachstan, one gets a great sense of the confluence both of different floristic regions and of peoples (and something of the philosophy behind the quote I opened this with). For most British gardeners these places are unfamiliar and exotic, and yet the plants often are not: there are many peonies from the Caucasus for example, including P. mlokosewitschii (probably amongst the most loved, most badly spelt and mispronounced of all species) and P. tenuifolia. This picture of the former was taken at the Botanical Garden of Prague which has an excellent collection of species).

There are many wonderful and easily grown herbaceous perennials from the region: Silene multifida (fimbriata), here growing in Sylvie Buat-Ménard and David Sayers' garden in Chestfield near to Whitstable; robust plants such as the giant scabious Cephalaria gigantea, Campanula lactiflora and Inula magnifica, which between them can rival the tall Prairie plants of N. America; and valuable garaniums such as G. sylvaticum and vivid G. psilostemon

The most widespread of all gentians, G. septemfida, grows here, pretty much the easiest of all species to grow in the garden, along with good old Sedum spurium, ubiquitous in gardens and Garden Centres everywhere. Arguably the best of all veronicas, V. peduncularis (in its form 'Georgia Blue' - I think introduced by Roy Lancaster); along with another lovely species, V. orientalis, which I was pleased to get from from Rachel and Keith Lever (Aberconwy) at the Kent AGS Show.

Potentillas are yellow aren't they? - except for the less than free-flowering P. nitida 'Rubra'. But P. porphyrantha is germinating nicely from wild collected seed and looks to be a good rock garden plant.

There are quite a select medley of snowdrops from the Caucasus, including the widely cultivated G. woronowii, which is an excellent garden plant.

And a glorious variety of other monocots, especially irises, lilies (this one is the exquisite and refined Lilium monadelphum growing in Peter and Gill Regan's garden not far from us), and fritillarias.

It is simply the case that a garden holds more than just the plants within it and one of its greatest values is that these can be propagated and shared with others. Heritage may be all the rage in a conservative and competitive society, but the East also teaches about exchange and commerce which can motivate us to grow and propagate plants as well as collect and display them.

Reading recent articles and comments in 'The Garden' published by the RHS suggest that gardening in the 'prosperous' British Isles does show something of a divide rather reminiscent of the quote from Tehyi Hsieh - younger gardeners are more concerned with the vegetable garden and community gardening, the older, as Lia Leendertz rather pointedly remarks, 'watching your castle accrue in value' . Is this what lies behind the 'Great British Gardening Revival'? Where does it leave those of us who do have, and have had, a lifetime's interest in the plant world: are alpine plants for example a niche interest that looks back to the past rather than forwards to the future? It is certainly true that making a living can often lead you to lose sight of the woods for the trees, and when you know less about plants their value is also reduced. Most interesting of all is that gardens tend to become richer through exchange and sharing, both of plants themselves and also of the wonders described in books like 'the Caucasus and its Flowers'. Rock gardening in the Czech Republic has just as, if not greater, a strong history as it has in the UK, and in both fewer gardeners are taking it up. A gardening culture to be looked back on with nostalgia or to be renewed with vision?

(errata: Veronica armena - not orientalis)

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