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Kent Alpine Gardener's Diary

This entry: 09 March 2014 by Tim Ingram

March hares...

March hares

As spring gets into its stride the garden really becomes more and more fascinating. Even if snowdrops and hellebores are still major players, following the same idiom the melody is changing and becoming more elaborate. Hellebores though can give floral interest right through to summer in some cases, and H. 'Pamina' which I showed earlier is even more lovely now and testimony to the value of Elizabeth Strangman's steady ideals in her breeding programme, despite the fact that it was a happy accident. The foliage of hellebores is an equal feature of the garden and H. multifidis subsp. istriacus is amongst the most striking. These species are not as easy to grow well in the garden as many hybrids, and this plant is slow and has never set seed for us but I wouldn't be without it and other natural species.

March hares

The majority of gardeners will see snowdrops as a carpet of white in woodlands and large gardens just through February in the UK, but those of us in the know have them in flower right through from the previous autumn sometimes into March and even early April. At these outlying times they are much less noticed because the colour and variety of other plants is so much more dominant, but for the moment there are still some that are fascinating to the plantsman. The species G. woronowii and G. ikariae are easily confused because both are distinctive with relatively broad green rather than glaucous leaves. In our garden forms of G. woronowii are very variable but have never set seed, the leaves are realtively glossy, and the inner markings small and confined to the tip of the inner tepals. The first picture below is an elegant example but we also have another form with the tiniest of flowers that is very charming. G. ikariae (and our plant came originally from Kath Dryden) has relatively matt leaves, the markings extend over nearly half of the inner tepals, and even more valuable it sets copious seed and self-sows extensively. Curiously though it is this latter species that is rare in gardens, presumably because most cultivated material has arisen from the wild collected colonies of G. woronowii sold in Garden Centres and by the trade. Does this provide evidence of the conservation value of gardens? - I would say so.

Even more interesting for the galanthophile is the rarely grown hybrid G. x allenii, the origins of which are convincingly explored in the Monograph of Cultivated Galanthus by Matt Bishop, Aaron Davis and John Grimshaw. One can see how this must have first attracted attention as being distinct to James Allen and John Baker who described and named it. In our garden close by grows an interesting seedling clump which I wonder whether may have G. x allenii in its parentage? The latter is now thought to be a hybrid between G. woronowii and G. alpinus probably of chance natural occurrence.

Before leaving snowdrops another plant that came from Kath Dryden is G. 'The Linns'. The noted N. Irish galanthophile Mark Smyth regards this as one of the best late snowdrops and it is also very distinct with an upright habit and very short flower pedicels. This arose in Dr. Evelyn Stevens' garden in Dunblane from where the highly regarded, and poignantly named, little snowdrop 'Sophie North' was also selected. Beauty can extend well into March.

Jim Archibald was a hero to many plantspeople and his seedlists must have thrilled gardeners right around the world. He was unusual in having that idiosyncratic combination of literary (poetic) and precise (cultural) appreciation of plants that came out in his writings - rarely but beautifully in the AGS Bulletin - and his gardening showed how well he knew and understood plants. This plant in our garden, Narcissus panizzianus, was grown from JJA seed, and self-sows gently in a gritty sunny spot. Opening in a wet spring day it can look a little mournful but in sunshine and fully out it is the most exquisite of daffodils, so very different to the  golden flowers of 'February Gold' on the other side of the drive. Will everyone want it who comes to see the garden today? Perhaps a few will really notice it and I can talk to them about from where I obtained it.

There are some fine woody plants flowering now too. A variegated form of Pieris japonica (here part of it has reverted) is flowering as freely as I ever remember it and these little ericaceous bells show how thoroughly intriguing this extensive family of plants is. I have always regarded our garden as too dry for many ericaceous plants but this gains some run off from the greenhouse alongside and we are trying more of the smaller rhododendrons in cooler and moister spots and they seem more tolerant of dry summers than I originally thought.

About the earliest of the cherries (except for Prunus subhirtella 'Autumnalis') is this fine hybrid P. x blireana, thought to be a hybrid between P. cerasifera 'Pissardii' - also just beginning to flower now and from which it gets its bronzy-red foliage - and a double form of P. mume, the Japanese Apricot. P. x blireana is a better plant for gardens than either of its parents, shrubby in habit, and in our garden underplanted with Daphne odora, an inspired pairing which for once was deliberate.

The definition of a plantsman could be someone with eclectic interests, which often results in a relatively dishevelled garden (but interesting). So I have always been fascinated by the plants of the S. Hemisphere and particularly specifically southern families such as the Proteaceae. The last winter or two have seen off a lot of these plants - notably a huge specimen of Grevillea 'Canberra Gem' which was probably 15 or more years old. Several other grevilleas still grow and flower well in more protected spots, and this one, a form of G. rosmarinifolia called 'Williamsi' (thought to have arisen as a seedling in New Zealand in the 1920's) has richer orange-red flowers than the type and flowers nearly all year round with a short lull in the summer and autumn. The flowers of the Proteaceae are unusual in that the pollen is 'presented' on the end of the style, dusted in the unopened flower onto a region just below the stigmatic surface.

Seeds are now germinating and cuttings growing away and there is urgent need of more space in the nursery to grow young plants on, so a new line of frames is under construction. This should hold a good number of alpines and hopefully we will be able to show these to local gardeners at the 'Best of Faversham' market that I described earlier on, and encourage more to visit the garden too.

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