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Kent Alpine Gardener's Diary

This entry: 06 March 2014 by Tim Ingram

Svalbard and the Snowy Mountains

Svalbard and the Snowy Mountains

Over the 85 years of the AGS Bulletin (and now Journal) there has been a huge variety of writing varying from the highly personal to erudite accounts of different groups of plants. (For a personal overview of the first 40 years or so see my essays on 'Random Nuggets from the Bulletin' under the 'Any Other Topics' section of the Discussion Pages on the website). Over that time a succession of very interesting people have edited the Bulletin, varying from nurserymen to the more botanically inclined. Throughout it has been one of the most significant publications on any group of plants, with a wide appeal to gardeners of many interests and unequalled factual information on cultivation and the distribution of plants. Not-with-standing this the 1960's saw something of a 'sea change' when Roy Elliott became editor, probably partly because of changes in society generally over the period following the 2nd World War, but also because of his ability to garner fine articles from a wide variety of AGS members covering a broad mix of subjects, whether practical, descriptive, or botanical. However, Roy Elliott had a strong involvement with the AGS for many years before this as well, including as Publicity Manager from the mid 1950's. The results of this were an increase in membership from 2500 in 1955 to over 6000 in 1966. In that year also he published a monograph of the genus Lewisia as part of Vol. 34 of the Bulletin, describing his and others' experiences of growing and studying these plants. This was republished by the AGS as 'The Genus Lewisia', and in his introduction Roy Elliott explains his aim to describe the genus for the benefit of gardeners like himself; quote - 'I have endeavoured therefore slightly to temper the wind of botanical technicality to the shorn lamb of gardening understanding'.

Svalbard and the Snowy Mountains

The following Volume of the Bulletin opened with a similar précis; 'A Gardener's Guide to Hellebores' by Brian Mathew - a group of plants of perennial appeal to gardeners. These two articles could be said to have set the tone for the Bulletin to come, but also to have captured the essence of the AGS throughout its previous history too - combining a detailed and accurate study of plants with their much broader horticultural and gardening interests.

 

In that same Volume 35 of March 1967 two other articles exemplify this; one on Spitzbergen by Dr. Mostyn Lewis and a second on the Mountain Flowers of the Australian Alps by Peter Erskine. In each case the articles look closely at the plants of very discrete and different places and provide fascinating and informative overviews of two regions few AGS members are likely to visit. 

 

Spitzbergen (or Svalbard) lies only 600 miles from the North Pole but has a fine Arctic flora during its short summer, as a result of the moderating effect of the tail end of the Gulf Stream. The article was written only about 50 years ago but with the advent of the World Wide Web it is possible to gain a clearer impression of the 'spectacular' display of Arctic flowers and the dramatic scenery of the island, and also of the way in which attitudes to the environment have changed over this relatively short time. The website 

http://svalbardflora.net is a wonderful example of detailed botanical information, presented in a very accessible way, and with exquisite photographs of plants in close-up and habitat. The island only has a flora of some 165 species but almost all are fascinating to the alpine gardener and include such familiar plants as Silene acaulis, Dryas octopetala and Saxifraga oppositifolia, as well as those virtually impossible to grow in our gardens such as Ranunculus glacialis. Many are localised components of the British flora too in upland and undisturbed regions. Mostyn Lewis only describes a few of the Svalbard plants, commenting on several in particular, such as the Marsh Saxifrage, S. hirculus, 'of a clear and beautiful yellow', Cochlearia officinalis (now groenlandica) or Scurvy Grass, with 'uninteresting white flowers. Having a high vitamen C content it has saved the lives of many sailors...', and the Svalbard poppy P. dahlianum 'quaint rather than beautiful'. As one of the most unspoiled environments anywhere, Svalbard encapsulates some of the dilemma inherent between conservation and exploitation, which runs through its history over the past century or more, but its isolation and uncompromising climate appeal to the adventurous spirit.

The Australian Alps in the furthest south-east corner of that continent are very different from Svalbard but have the same draw of the 'wilderness' - true even more of the nearby south-west of Tasmania - which such mountainous and arctic regions always exert. The same scientific and educational interests have resulted in strong conservation measures here too and a close study of a specific area of the region is comprehensively described in 'Kosciusko Alpine Flora' published by CSIRO in 1979. For the alpine gardener the plants of this region are much more unfamiliar in detail than those of a geographically much closer place to the UK as Svalbard, but the two share ecological similarities, as well as in Australia a distinctiveness resulting from altitudinal and climatic isolation. Just as in Svalbard and many other highland places species of Ranunculus are common and include some of the most exquisite of all mountain plants. There are many composites, such as Helipterum albicans, which recall plants from the African mountains, especially the genera Helichrysum and Cotula. Along with these there are specifically S. Hemisphere plants including members of the Proteaceae and Epacridaceae.

Peter Erskine describes many of these plants from the Snowy Mountains in the AGS Bulletin at a time when few were probably known or grown in the UK, and even now the majority will be unfamiliar to most gardeners. Some, such as Helichrysum (Bracteantha and now Xerochrysum) bracteatum have become well known as bedding plants in cultivation, but must be glorious in their native habitat. Others, the mint bush Prostanthera cuneata as an example, are more refined and rare as garden plants but much hardier than related species. Celmisia longifolia, also found in Tasmania, is one of the southern daisies more amenable to drier gardens in the UK, compared with most New Zealand species, and grew well for many years in our Kentish garden. The beautiful Ranunculus anemoneus pictured on the cover of Kosciusko Alpine Flora recalls similar extraordinary species from the New Zealand Alps, the Andes and the Alps of Europe, and must capture the imagination of all gardeners whose special love is alpine plants around the world.

 

These are just two articles in one edition of the AGS Bulletin but show how an interest in these plants can take you far beyond your garden and tell a lot about the world to anyone willing to discover it.

 

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