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Kent Alpine Gardener's Diary

This entry: 17 August 2014 by Tim Ingram

Interlude - from a gardener's bookshelf...

In this quite superb book Peter Marren describes the comings and goings of Britain's Rare Flowers, and of the botanists who have studied them, over, in some cases, the past four or five hundred years. Rarity can lead to plants being endangered or becoming extinct, and these are how it would be viewed by most people, and many such plants are Red Data listed and carefully monitered by botanists and often local naturalists. But in other cases rare plants have been perfectly successful and self-sustaining for hundreds if not thousands of years, even with, and sometimes because of, human influences on the environment. The great strength of the book is consideration of the ecology and conservation status of individual species, which are each subject to unique environmental and geographical influences.

It is a book about rare and often insignificant plants, from the Queen of the British flora, Cypripedium calceolus, to what can only be described as the many more overlooked plants that science at least, and a few botanists, regard with equal civility. And it is so informatively and intelligently written that even if you have been wowed by the brilliance of alpine flowers all around the world, the stories of these less prepossessing British plants are equally captivating. It is this detail about plants and where and why they grow as they do that really enlightens, as much as cataloguing their diversity. The only reason such a book could be written is the intensive recording of the British flora that dates back for hundreds of years and comes from innumerable sources. To have this brought together like this makes the book unique and different, for example, from 'Flora Britannica' written by Richard Mabey, which views British flowers in the same sort of historical and socialogical detail.

Understanding the nuances of plant communities and the ways in which rare plants can persist in different environments is close to learning how to grow more exotic plants from far flung places in the garden setting itself, making use of microclimate and a sensitivity to the way a garden develops over time. Or maybe it is this way of gardening that heightens sensitivity to the natural world around us? For the alpine grower this relates to the various ways really very disparate plants can grow happily in the same garden. A plantsman like Peter Korn in Sweden, who has taken this to an extreme in his moulding of the garden landscape with sand and stone, describes this like no-one else in his book 'Peter Korns Trädgård' (now available in an English edition - and which I have shown before but have no hesitation mentioning again for its unique and stimulating content). This surely points the way to how many alpine gardens might develop in the future, even if with less energy and imagination.

Maybe viewing plants in this way is not so much 'gardening' as most people perceive it? It is closer to conservation, which organisations like Plantlife, English Nature, the Wildlife Trusts and the RSPB - as well as the National Trust in a different way - all champion. We surely like to think that our gardens can have similar importance, if only because more of us become aware of plants through our gardening. Peter Marren's final chapter in 'Britain's Rare Plants' on 'Resurrecting the Starfruit' (Damasonium alisma) describes the use of hydraulic diggers to clear out ponds where this very rare plant used to grow, and its re-occurrence presumably from dormant seed, possibly in some cases decades old. Not gardening in the way most of us see it, but certainly gardening by another name and here strictly concerned with our native flora. This is little different philosophically from the article written by Pavel Křivka, 'Two Less-known Balkan War Flowers', in the July 2014 'The Rock Garden' (Journal of the Scottish Rock Garden Club, No. 133) where, in a much more historically - and presently - turbulent part of Europe, native plants are considerably more diverse than in the UK but valued, or rather, even known, far less.

Brian Halliwell, past curator of the alpine department at Kew, who Robert Rolfe writes about in the June AGS Journal, once made a display of 200 British wildflowers at the Chelsea Flower Show, of which Brent Elliott (in his book on Chelsea) writes: 'Many were nonplussed by such a deviation from normal horticulture'. Some could say that Brian Halliwell and Peter Korn both follow in the footsteps of William Robinson, whose relationship with Walter Ingwersen and that wonderful alpine nursery tucked away at the end of a long winding road through the woods near to East Grinstead must have been one of the most formative ones in British horticulture. It can be no surprise that Walter Ingwersen wrote a book entitled 'Wild Flowers in the Garden', and that its frontespiece, ANEMONE PULSATILLA [sic] should be the same plant chosen for the cover of 'Britain's Rare Flowers'.

Many of the pictures in 'Britain's Rare Flowers' are credited to Bob Gibbons, whose recent book 'Wildflower Wonders of the World' (pictured above) celebrates spectacular natural plant communities. Viewing plants both ecologically as relatively stable communities and individually as sometimes rare flowers, are complementary, just in the way we view them as gardeners. We often share similar images from far flung places with speakers to our Plant Groups, and these must be an underlying theme to how many of us garden with plants.


Two rather remarkable gardens and two rather special plant events coming up this autumn. At the end of August (Sunday 31st) the Unusual Plant and Art Fair at the Sussex Prairies Garden. The picture below shows two well known specialist nurserymen, William Dyson from Great Comp and Kevin Hughes, formally from that uniquely different nursery, Spinners, in the New Forest. 

And in early October (Saturday 4th and Sunday 5th) the Great Dixter Plant Fair.

One garden is very new and one well established and extremely well known, but both derive from great imagination and vision and are fascinating to visit. Alpines will not be such great features at either (I looked in vain for a Lloydian quote on alpines that might put us in our place - I'm sure he must have made one) but there will be some nursery-people growing these plants and we will be at both, and more to the point so will many other very interesting specialist growers. Will there be the prospect of gardeners really attracted by these little plants of the mountains? Who knows. But certainly some exceedingly exciting plants and plants-people.

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