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A North Wales Alpine Gardener's Diary

This entry: 23 September 2013 - Entry 9 by John Good

September, unlike almost every other month so far this year, has been normal! Not too hot or cold, not too wet or dry, and with a fair number of storms, but none too damaging. When the rain came at the end of the long drought, and the air as well as soil temperatures remained high, there was an unusually rampant growth of everything green, so that now there is a lot of pruning and clearing to do before the onset of winter. Inbetween these activities, which I regard as being among the least enjoyable garden tasks, I have stopped to enjoy some of the better plants that the early autumn has to offer. The Cyclamen hederifolium are still going strong, making a lovely show beneath the giant beech tree at the entrance to the garden, while in my access frame, and scattered around the garden, other cyclamen are coming into flower. One of the best here is C. cilicium in its pink and white forms. Like C. purpurascens, which is going over now, this has a sweet and very distinctive fragrance, one or two plants in pots soon filling my small alpine house with perfume. Soon C. cilicium will be joined by its close relative, C. mirabile, which is notable in that some forms have a pink suffususion on the upper leaf surfaces when they first open, fading as time passes. A lot of work has been put into selecting forms with particularly intense pink colouration and/or strong zonal variations in leaf colouring, one of the best that I have grown that combines both virtues being C. 'Tilebarn Nicholas' (photograph courtesy of Paul Cumbleton's Wisley Diary).

Cyclamen cilicium

Cyclamen mirabile 'Tilebarn Nicholas'

Among other bulbs that are coming into flower now in the frames are various species of colchicum, some of which are probably wrongly named, as I find is common in this confusing genus. I have yet to really get to grips with those that I grow, let alone several others that I have seen in the wild, but at least I don't have a large collection of the more robust garden colchicums to deal with, many of which also suffer from taxonomic confusion. Perhaps my favourite of the ones I grow in pots, and certainly the easiest, multiplying readily from its wandering, uniquely stoloniferous corms, is C. boissieri.  It is quite usual to find the bottom of the pot jammed full of these when repotting so that it is easy to build up a stock, but I have not so far been able to keep it when planted in the open ground - has anybody reading this been more successful?  Of similar stature, but more chunky in appearance is C. umbrosum, which in my form at least is a very attractive shade of pale pink with darker anthers.

Colchicum boissieri

Colchicum boissieri in a pot

Colchicum umbrosum

The last of the roscoeas to flower here is R. purpurea, which never appears above ground until well into July, when it makes up for lost time by growing vigorously to 45 cm. and producing plenty of its attractive clear pale purple flowers. As they begin to fade the shoots turn to mush and may be easily removed when tidying up.

Roscoea purpurea

One of the few shrubs that is at its best here now is a miniature winter savory, Satureja montana subsp. illyrica. It only just survived last winter but has made a remarkable recovery and is now in full flower, as the illustration shows. According to the AGS Encycopaedia of Alpines, S. montana is a variable species with five subspecies, the Turkish form I grow being the best. As I have not seen any of the others, apart from the larger, coarser plant that we grow for the pot, I can't really make a useful comment.

Satureja montana  subsp. illyrica

Satureja montana  subsp. illyrica close-up

Many people are snooty about sedums, probably because they are so easy to grow and propagate, but I am not of that number. Many of the best are grown primarily for their foliage and in some cases the flowers are probably best removed, but some of the autumn flowerers have blooms that enhance rather than detract from the beauty of the mats on which they are borne. In my garden two similar but distinct species fall into this category and both are flowering now. Rather than discuss the differences I offer pictures of Sedum ewersii and S. cauticolum 'Lidakense', the former inhabiting rocky mountain slopes from Afghanistan to Mongolia, the latter from Japan.

Sedum ewersii

Sedum cauticolum 'Hidakense'

Some but not all of my species peonies are yielding good crops of seed this year, but before I collect  this bounty for the seed exchange I stop to admire the seeds in situ. In some cases (e.g. P. coriacea) the ripe seed heads are mundane, all the seeds being black, and not even very shiny, but in others (e.g. P, cambessedesii, P. mlokosewitschii, P. obovata 'Alba') they are as striking as the flowers, the plump  fertilised, shiny black seeds being displayed among the flaccid bright red unfertilised ones. I am told that these seed heads are a flower arranger's idea of heaven, but not being one of that ilk I just enjoy them in the garden.

Paeonia obovata 'Alba'

Nothing could be more different from the seed heads of the peonies than those fluffy powder puffs of mountain avens. I am very fond of the dwarf form (Dryas octopetala 'Minor') of one of our most beautiful native alpines, and it is this that is shown here.

Dryas octopetala 'Minor' seed heads

Ferns flourish in wet Wales!

As you would expect of a land where the air is always moist and the soil rarely dry, ferns flourish in my garden, and it is during the autumn that many of them pay for their keep. Of the natives which would take over much of the garden if allowed to do so, Hart's tongue (formerly Asplenium scolopendrium, now Scolopendrium vulgare) and Lady fern (Athyrium filix-femina) are among my favourites despite the fact that I am always having to pull or  dig them out from all sorts of locations where they have unwontedly placed themselves. More unusual, and hence more admired, is the only fern named for the country of Wales, Polypodium cambricum, the specific epithet being the latinized form of the word Cymru, the welsh name for Wales. I have the form 'Richard Kayse', rescued from virtual extinction just outside Cardiff by Martin Rickard in 1980 in the same location it was introduced from by Richard Kayse of Bristol in 1668. As can be seen from the photograph, it is a hearty grower here being winter-green and putting out many of its Large evergreen bipinnate fronds of exceptional form at this time of year.

Until quite recently Martin had a fern nursery near here which was a delight to visit since there were so many rarities among the commoner varieties. Another plant I got from him is the Scottish form of Holly fern (Polystichum lonchitis), which I believe he raised from spores he collected in the Highlands. Finally among ferns for now, the hardy maidenhair (Adiantum venustum) is a really excellent plant here, slowly covering large areas of ground with its lovely airy fronds. It really is hardy having suffered no damage whatsoever during the last two cold winters.

As it is Keats', 'season of mists and mellow fruitfulness', let us end with a couple more fruits. Sorbus forrestii is not often seen and I was lucky to get seeds from the 'sorbus king', Hugh McAllister, many years ago when he was working for the University of Liverpool at Ness -  if you are interested in the genus and do not have his recent kew Monograph you should get it. My plant, which is more than 25 years old, is about 2 meteres high and wide and some years, such as this, it produces large crops of it's dangling bunches of pure white fruits. The fruits of the smallest sorbus, S. poterifolia are about the same size and are also white, but the plant only grows 5-10 cm high! I was given seeds of this at an aurtumn show in the 1990s and have several plants as a result dotted around the garden, unfortunately the name of the kind donor now totally escapes me, so if you are still out there and read this, let me know. 

Finally, a plant given to me by that great grower the late Joan Wilder when I visited her lovely garden near Tewkesbury in the late 1980s, Euonymus cornutus var. quinquecornutus. This is still only a metre high, though it might well be taller if I had given it more attention. The plant is named for the fruits (cornutus means 'horned'), which as the photograph shows, very closely resemble a five-cornered hat of the type worn by mediaeval jesters and now sometimes by fans at football matches! They dangle very appealingly below pendant branches, the seeds being a particularly startlingly bright shade of orange, especially when caught by a shaft of golden autumn sunshine.

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