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Kent Alpine Gardener's Diary

This entry: 10 June 2016 by Tim Ingram

A return to East Anglia.

The East Anglia Show, Wymondham in Norfolk. Saturday May 7th 2016.

This is the avenue of cherries flowering outside Wymondham High School in early May, rather a nice introduction to the Show. It is always a pleasure to return to East Anglia, which holds good memories for me of the time I spent working for a doctorate close to here at the John Innes Institute and University of East Anglia (and I will show a little of these later on). I would like to relate the two because both involve the close study and cultivation of plants, albeit in very different ways, and there is no doubt that many members of the Alpine and Rock Garden societies will come from similar 'learned' backgrounds, which is their underlying strength and a lot of the appeal of these plants. 

Early May is an interesting time plantwise because of the variety of species flowering as spring really gets into gear. Rather like the 'Rocky Flower Show' at Wimborne, and the Exeter Show (which I will describe next), East Anglia also has its own geographical distinction. There are many more Alpine Shows further north in the UK, where climate is better suited to many species, but for us deep in the south-east most are too far to travel to - and it is also probably true to say that fewer AGS members in the south of the country are so much part of the culture of showing and exhibiting plants. But there is still the actuality and potential for just such a strong interest in the plants. The fact that this Show at Wymondham brought together highly respected individuals such as Chris Brickell, Peter Erskine, Chris Grey-Wilson and Rachel Lever (seen here) is an indication of the significance of such a plant event, even though there may have been disappointment at the relatively low attendance from gardeners more widely in the local area. (This is one reason why I would like to describe these various Shows in some detail, to put across how fascinating they are in all sorts of ways for gardeners who haven't discovered them).

Picking out this particularly extraordinary plant, Tchihatchewia isatidea, grown by Robert Rolfe (which he writes about in a recent Journal of the AGS, Vol. 83, p. 421, 2015), originally from seed collected by Jim Archibald, introduces the unique nature of the Alpine Shows. Not only are the plants beautifully grown but they are as diverse as the mountains, meadows and woodlands they come from and no other plant events can compare with this.

Tchihatchewia isatidea

On the whole it is the plants that we think of first viewing a Show like this, but allow me also to show several pictures of people - because this is what the Society is - and here is Robert Rolfe talking with Chris Grey-Wilson, and Martin and Anna-Lisa Sheader (particularly for anyone reading this who may be outside the UK and unable to attend these Shows and who may like to see personalities within the AGS).

Tchihatchewia will hardly ever be grown and the opportunity to see such plants is one of the abiding pleasures and excitements of the Alpine Shows. Another example is these two very unusual South American alpines, Nassauvia lagascae and Benthamiella patagonica. The former, grown by Tim Lever, was given a certificate of merit for its cultivation (but also surely because it is so rarely seen and really opens the mind to the amazing diversity and curiousity of mountain plants around the world).

Nassauvia lagascae

Here it is generating discussion, with Rachel and Martin Rogerson!

In the foreground is Calceolaria 'Walter Shrimpton', a hybrid between C. uniflora (darwinii) and C. fothergillii which certainly draws attention (grown by Rachel & Keith Lever).

Calceolaria 'Walter Shrimpton'

Calceolaria is an almost uniquely South American genus - it just runs up into Mexico - which also includes intriguing shrubby species such as C. integrifolia, a long flowering plant for a sunny and sheltered spot in favoured gardens. And here are more examples at 'The Botanics' in Edinburgh.

In their garden just south of Norwich, Diane and Phil Blythe (Diane is Secretary of the Norfolk AGS Group) also grow the sub-shrubby Jovellana violacea from Chile, very like Calceolaria. This is closely related to J. sinclairii from New Zealand, one of those fascinating disjunctions that illustrates the plant heritage of these southern continents. The same plant flowers against a warm wall in Tom Wood's garden near to Ashford in Kent (and before seeing this I had always regarded this shrub as being tender and only suitable for south-west gardens); I only mention it here to indicate the way that the Alpine Shows do link botany, horticulture and gardening in very informative ways.

Jovellana violacea Jovellana violacea

Small ericaceous plants are often a feature of this Show and Rhododendron megeratum, shown by Dave Mountfort, was extremely attractive and unusual.

Rhododendron megeratum

This grows on mossy rocks and cliffs, sometimes epiphytically on trees, in S.E. Xizang, Arunchal Pradesh, N. Burma and N.W. Yunnan, at quite high altitudes to 4100m. Peter Cox, in his book 'Dwarf Rhododendrons' (1985), has interesting things to say about how this and related species can be grown in old tree stumps and moss, and I rather look forward to the prospect of seeing one grown in this way at a Show! Rachel Lever, who also grows a smaller more compact form, pointed out to me the deeply indented stomata on the underside of the leaves.

Dwarf rhododendrons are a delightful group of plants that would be fascinating to learn more about and grow.  Even if species like this one are less suitable for the drier climate of the south, others have proved more tolerant, and we would like to devote a series of troughs in cooler parts of the garden to these and other Ericaceae.  Other examples at the Show were R. 'Arctic Tern' (Clive Dart) and R. (Ledum) groenlandicum (Mavis & Sam Lloyd), very distinctive for its open flowers and exerted stamens.

Rhododendron 'Arctic Tern'

At Prague Botanic Garden this grows perfectly in a 'bog' garden, along with Andromeda polifolia, but in the right spot the latter is reasonably successful even in our much drier garden and they can be grown well in pots plunged in cool moist sand or humus beds.

For one of the most beautifully written and informative articles on growing dwarf rhododendrons see: 'Some Miniature Rhododendrons suitable for Alpine House or Outdoor Culture', by Gwendolyn Anley - AGS Bulletin Vol. 8, p. 125, 1940 - which I have summarised here (scroll to the bottom of the page):

And for a detailed and comprehensive description of these plants, from someone who has travelled and studied them in the wild and grown and propagated them on the nursery, refer to Peter Cox's authorative book 'The Smaller Rhododendrons', mentioned earlier.

Another lovely and charming ericaceous plant at the Show was this dwarf form of the Cowberry, Vaccinium vitis-idaea var. minus (grown by Cecilia Coller). Certainly not ostentatious but with a quiet beauty which I can imagine gracing a cool acid trough with similar plants.

Vaccinium vitis-idaea var. minus

Cecilia is 'famous' in the alpine world for the amazing variety of plants she has and does exhibit and this was a further example at Wymondham, a striking potful of Androsace villosa var. jacquemontii, another fine trough plant for its restrained habit.

There were three very nice examples of fritillarias at the Show, F. epirotica (Robert Rolfe), F. pyrenaica (Don Peace) and F. affinis (Clare Oates). The latter two can be good garden plants, though I don't think they are widely grown, and these were very attractive forms. In his book on growing small bulbs in the garden Jack Elliott praises F. pyrenaica as being one of the very best, and yet it is rarely available commercially. For those who see images of plants on Facebook, there is a good site - International Fritillaria Study Group - which shows images of plants from many sources, and Ron Mudd has described growing various species very successfully, including the rare and unusual species F. davidii

Fritillaria epirotica

I will just show a few more examples of plants from the Show and the following illustrate three very rarely seen or grown but not especially difficult to cultivate: Verbascum acaule, Rulingia hermanniifolia and Oscularia caulescens (Ian Sharpe). Very contrasting in habit but all plants of sunny dry places, the latter two not fully hardy but only needing minimal frost protection under glass. Rulingia is completely new to me, a member of the Malvaceae from S.W. Australia, which will tolerate moderate frost so would be interesting to experiment with in mild gardens. There is a good description on this very useful and comprehensive website of Australian plants: This was intriguing to see and I didn't record who it was shown by, if someone could enlighten me?

Verbascum acaule Rulingia hermanniifolia Oscularia caulescens

A criticism of the Alpine Shows, if that can be a fair word to use (which really it can't, except to the extent that new gardeners may be attracted to the Society), is that many plants shown are not species that can readily be grown in the garden, and growing plants outside is rather a different proposition, often needing close tuning in to the conditions of one's own garden and climate. So it is always nice to see good and reliable garden plants like this beautiful blue form of Phlox bifida.

Phlox bifida (Blue form)

Don Peace, who showed some very remarkable and rare cushion species, also had this lovely rock fern, Woodsia polystichoides, which would be a super plant for a trough.

Woodsia polystichoides

Finally, as I mentioned for the 'Rocky Flower Show', May is the time of the Lewisia, and to partner Martin Rogerson's superb group of six plants at the latter Show, here is his more refined trio of Lewisia brachycalyx at Wymondham.


One of the extra enjoyments of visiting East Anglia again was to meet up with Dr. Trevor Wang at the John Innes Institute, who was a friend and colleague when I was there so many years ago. So this is a short addendum to the AGS Show. John Innes has changed greatly and grown in size to become a different place over the years, but still with that important connection to the practice of agriculture and horticulture. Only the central building was there at my time and the site was more open and intimate. 

Most of the 'garden' and plants around the site have been lost to new buildings but this striking tree stands outside the Conference Centre, providing a strong link to plants! (I actually took this picture standing next to a small raised alpine bed!).

My time at John Innes was spent studying the plant hormones gibberellins in Pisum sativum, using the facility at the adjacent Food Research Institute, which enabled measurement and identification of tiny quantities using a Mass Spectrometer (this fragments complex molecules, giving a characteristic 'fingerprint' of smaller parts). Now Trevor has built up and runs this suite of Mass Spectrometers at John Innes, rather more sophisticated and compact than my memories! One project is studying toxins in a legume from arid environments in Africa with the aim of breeding plants where these no longer preclude plants from use as crops.

John Innes has now become part of a much bigger 'Science Park' and this building, the 'Centrum', provides more public access to the work going on. Just next to it is a small trial field (probably likely to be lost to more buildings) with a device that moves across the crop recording its growth in 'real time', the ultimate in technological 'greenfingers'!

Across the road from John Innes is the campus of the University of East Anglia, with the Sainsbury Art Centre and famous 'Ziggurat' (which I spent a year living in before moving into Norwich). There is widespread building and development to the west of Norwich close by, but this area at least provides an expanse of woodland and grassy fields which retains some of my memories of the place.

I will finish back in a garden setting where the connection with plants remains more personal and intimate, and where as much can be learnt about them but in rather different ways.

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