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Kent Alpine Gardener's Diary

This entry: 21 June 2014 by Tim Ingram

Ostrowskia magnifica

Ostrowskia magnifica

Ostrowskia magnifica

(a drawing by Christine Grey-Wilson in 'The Vanishing Garden' by Christopher Brickell & Fay Sharman)

Ostrowskia magnifica. The name itself conjures up something remarkable and it is not far wrong. Reginald Farrer, in his indomitable way, gets carried away in his description of how to grow this plant in 'The English Rock Garden', but captures it accurately - if his advice on cultivation is successful - '... which for the rest of your lifetime will continue untended to throw up its stout boles and open its colossal Platycodon-like flowers in June; after which the succulent glaucous stems and foliage die down with depressing promptitude...'.

Botany, in its more measured tones, still cannot escape the specific epithet of this plant, and tells you that it grows in Turkestan in C. Asia, differs from Campanula by its whorled leaves and more numerous calyx and corolla lobes, and from Michauxia by a lack of calyx appendages. It was discovered by Albert Regel and named for the 19th Century Russian Patron of Botany, Michael Nicolayevich von Ostrowsky.

Jim Archibald, one of the few to grow and actually supply seed of this species to gardeners, describes it '... growing between 50cm and 1m tall, with stems whorled with glaucous leaves carrying enormous, floppy bells  in chalk-white, tinged and veined with lilac-blue.'  He grew it successfully in Dorset in a raised bed against a south facing wall in good rich, deep but well drained soil, and quotes both William Robinson and Graham Stuart Thomas on this plant: 'Unique... worthy of any care to make it a success' (WR); 'An unbelievable plant until seen' (GST). Although fully hardy the young growth can be vulnerable to late frosts and molluscs, which are the bane of many Campanulaceae.

With the benefit of the Internet one can quickly call up images and information about Ostrowskia but this can hardly compare with seeing it actually in cultivation as in Adrian Cooper's alpine house. Very few gardeners must know or grow it but it is, or has been, listed by alpine nurseries such as Potterton's and Kevock. Essentially its habit (like many of the umbellifers that particularly interest me) resembles a bulb; it has a thick tuberous root system that enables it to aestivate through the desiccating C. Asian summers.

Ostrowskia is hardly a plant for exhibition - the Pacific Rim Native Plant Nursery in California (www.hillkeep.ca) say it is unlikely to survive in a pot smaller than 15 litres - but it captures the imagination of any gardener who has an eye for those plants that stand apart from any others.

(this final drawing is taken from 'The RHS Dictionary of Gardening' [1951], and like Christine Grey-Wilson's shown at the beginning, illustrates the plant very well. I wonder how many AGS members grow, or have grown it?)

(Correction - my apologies to Paige Woodward and the Paciific Rim Native Plant Nursery which is in fact in Canada, not California!)

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