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Kent Alpine Gardener's Diary

This entry: 04 September 2017 by Tim Ingram

Of Alpine Shows. The South-west, Rosemoor in Devon.

I've looked at gardens, and there is no doubt I will return to them, so let's take a look at Alpine Plant Shows again. If you visit Art Galleries and theatres, or concerts, or the mountains themselves where alpine plants grow, then there will be a diversity of people you see and meet - young and old and everywhere in between. There is an inclusiveness about culture and exploration of the natural world, and really about the garden too.

Plant Shows can be very much the same when they are large enough and most spectacularly presented, and it is a well known fact that the UK is a country of gardeners. Yet step higher, literally, into the world of alpine plants and this is much less true, and the question is, Why?

There is something pretty exciting about growing these plants in the garden.

Is it simply because few people view plants in such an individual botanical way? And more, few people judge the plants they grow in the way that members of the Alpine Garden Society, and to a lesser extent the Scottish Rock Garden Club and North American Rock Garden Society, do? Most people perhaps take plants more for granted? Different degrees of that 'plant blindness' which extends into an understanding of ecology and environment.

Take this plant of Hepatica x media 'Millstream Merlin' (grown by Dorothy Sample and shown at Rosemoor in April), because I have recently mentioned the garden of the same name made by Lincoln and Laura Louise Foster.

This occurred as a spontaneous seedling between H. triloba and H. transsilvanica in their garden and has been rather prized horticulturally ever since, but is rare because it is slow to propagate vegetatively. It becomes a plant that you are only ever likely to see at an alpine show, but it arose in the garden. By extension many of the plants exhibited at the alpine shows are rarely seen by gardeners either but have arisen in the natural world and can bring this into the garden too.

So the point I make is why are these shows, and these plants, not of more interest to gardeners?  They show us the detail of the world of plants in a way  that otherwise you will only find in botanical gardens or by actually closely observing what is around you. Alpine Shows are often held at schools - these are ideal venues, they have large halls and catering facilities and are places of learning. And yet no students come to them and the schools themselves do not promote them as events that may interest a local public. This practice of displaying and exhibiting plants - illustrating their diversity and origins - seems more to do with the personal joy of growing them so well, but also judging them, rather than illustrating their diversity to gardeners more widely. This is a rarified form of horticulture and the appeal it has as a result can be limited. But this picture taken at Rosemoor in spring shows that this needn't be so.

At the Alpine Show held at Rosemoor Garden the plants on display were attractively presented but in an educational building away from the main crowds who visit the garden and maybe fewer visitors discovered them than might have done.

But in all probability fewer visitors would actually been so interested in seeing them, and the garden itself is spectacular and full of fascination.

The point I make though is that any garden fundamentally does result from this individual discovery of plants, and though they may not so often be alpines it is that 'discovery' that gives a garden its deepest and most real form. Combining an Alpine Show with a garden such as Rosemoor is in many ways an ideal, just as it is for those of us wishing to sell these plants too, and find an audience with a significant interest in them. And it was a most enjoyable day.

The opportunity is there to make this specialised form of horticulture more visible to the gardening public but only if the media and RHS (as by far the largest gardening charity in the British Isles) take it on board and express these events to gardeners for the value they truly have. As a corollary of course there is an oweness on the specialist societies themselves to encourage an interest and be receptive to those gardeenrs who do discover these plants: the Shows illustrate them to perfection but most of us are not so perfect in the ways we grow them.

I have written about the 'Rocky Flower Show' held at Wimborne in the summer, and those people involved in running it have close connections with the Hardy Plant Society and Plant Heritage too - the Show acts (can act) as a real focus for enthusiastic plants-people in the region, not least because of the specialist nurseries who bring plants to it and the diversity of rarely seen plants you will see there and can buy. The same is true of the spring shows held at Rosemoor in Devon and Sutton Valence in Kent which we attended this year. Writing this, I want to put them in the context of the places and people involved with them, just as much as the individual plants that members exhibit, because like a play or a concert the audience is involved as well as the players.

Where else would you see such contrasting - and simply rather beautiful - plants as the following three? Tropaeolum azureum is a delicate tangled climber from hot and dry hillsides in Chile that needs a frost-free greenhouse or conservatory and a watchful eye when it comes into growth to enable it to be presented as well as this (by Ann and Michael Morton).

This Japanese rhizomatous Viola brevistipulata hidakana (Lionel Clarkson) intrigued me as much for the texture and form of its leaves as its flowers. Just one species from a genus which is so familiar to gardeners, but much less in its botanical nature than as horticultural hybrids - and yet really these natural species have so much charm and variety.

And Primula nghialoensis from Vietnam (grown by Dick Fulcher), only recently decribed by David Rankin in Curtis's Botanical magazine (see For a gardener in the dry south-east of the UK a plant like this recalls the introduction of the ravishing P. sonchifolia from China, which Frank Kingdon Ward described glowingly in his 'Romance of Plant Hunting' not far off a century ago, but then cast doubts whether it would ever be possible to grow in cultivation. The intervening years have proved otherwise given the cool and moist climate in the north of the country, but those of us with more Mediterranean-like gardens look on wistfully and can only revel in such plants at alpine shows.

These three examples are quite esoteric - few gardeners will ever grow them, though those that do will gain immense satisfaction from them.  But how about this flower arrangement from Barry Starling, a true doyen of the AGS and of UK horticulture, who has such expertise in growing and knowledge of ericaceous plants.

These, and the flower arrangement I showed earlier (from Paddy Parmee) are nearly all plants that will grow happily in the garden in suitable situations. And many of the plants that you can look at closely and in detail at alpine shows can also be cultivated reliably in the garden with care and understanding.

Trillium albidum for example - this is a nice form with marked leaves grown by Lionel Clarkson - grows well in our dry Kentish garden, but to see such a fine specimen encourages you to pay extra attention to its cultivation and create the best conditions you can for it in your own garden.

 A plant such as Anemonella thalictroides 'Oscar Shoaf' (exhibited by Martin Rogerson) has that delicate allure which can easily be lost to view in the garden. Catching that moment when it looks like this is rather magical and emphasises the theatrical nature of alpine shows. 

None the less in the garden of Oscar Shoaf, who originally found this in a small graveyard in Ovatonna, Minnesota, it grew in profuse mounds of pink, so can thrive in the garden too and makes for infinitely more excitement than the average front yard.

This plant, Agapetes smithiana var. major (Roger Clarke), needs a very mild and relatively cool and moist climate and peaty acid soil, and illustrates the value of holding Shows in different parts of the country where gardeners can succeed with very different plants.

One of the nurseries selling plants at Rosemoor had a superb selection of Rhododendron species, many of which would be rarely encountered elsewhere, and this shows the other side of the 'coin' of exhibition of plants - that stimulation for others to grow them too, and their propagation by specialist nurseries.

Fritillaria reuteri (grown by the skilled bulb aficionados extraordinaire, Bob and Rannveig Wallis, who are able almost to make a Show entirely around the wonderful plants they grow alone), which comes from high mountains west of Esfahan in Iran, was one of several species of this engaging genus exhibited. Fritillarias in their variety grace all of the spring alpine shows and have an unique appeal: the Fritillaria Group now has its own Facebook page, set up to engender more interest across the social media, in the same way that the AGS tries and perhaps needs to do.

For those who would like to see the plants displayed at Rosemoor in real detail then view Jon Evans' superb compilation of photos and commentary here This is Jon and his colleague Jim Almond in action at the Show.

I can't leave Rosemoor though without a few more images from the garden itself, which I first visited many years ago before it was gifted to the Royal Horticultural Society. The original garden around the house has that wonderful maturity of characterful trees and vistas.

But the 'new' garden has also matured remarkably and that clean moist climate of the West Country is reflected in the lichens growing on this tree.

And in this rather nice planting as you cross through the tunnel connecting new and old.

There are those plants which satisfy the curiousity of the true plantsman... Ercilla volubilis climbing through Magnolia grandiflora...

... and the Chinese Aspidistra sichuanensis.

And finally the most superbly presented array of alpines and bulbs in the alpine house.

It is not easy as an individual to achieve results like these with plants in your own garden without the help and support of other gardeners - both practically and intellectually - and this is where societies such as the AGS and RHS can be of great value when they work in partnership at a Show like this at Rosemoor.

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