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A North Wales Alpine Gardener's Diary

This entry: A cold and dreary March - Entry 31

After an uneventful February, March in N. Wales has been uniformly cold, with strong winds from the quarter through from NE to NW on many occasions, which is unusual for us as westerlies and south-westerlies predominate throughout the year. As a result everything is now later than usual, but the advantage is that many flowers have stayed lovely, longer, and the grass has hardly grown at all! Even the later snowdrops are still in quite good fettle, especially my favourite late flowerer, G. ikariae subsp. ikariae, which is among the best of all here. 

I don't grow many narcissus species but those that I do give us a lot of pleasure. I have shown you N. cordubensis in this blog before, but it has been so good this year in a low raised gravel bed that I don't hesitate to repeat the treat - what a pity you can't smell the scent of this little beauty, or of N. papyraceus, which follows. I had not grown the 'Paper-white' narcissus outside before but having raised a batch of seedlings to flowering size I decided to plant the bulbs out last autumn. Whether they would have survived and flowered this well if we had had any appreciable frosts this winter I don't know - who else among you grows either or both of these narcissus species outside without protection, and if so, where?

Galanthus ikariae subsp. ikariae

Narcissus cordubensis Narcissus papyraceus

Hyacinthella azurea (syn. Muscari azureum)

Little blue bulbs are confusing, at least to me, and none more so than hyacinthellas, bellevalias and muscaris! Anyway, to leave the taxonomy aside for now, for I am not by any means sure that I am capable of explaining the differences, I have a steadily growing patch of a very pretty little fella which I grew from AGS seed as Hyacinthella azurea. As the photo shows, it is growing in a slightly raised dry scree bed where it seeds itself about but has not yet become a nuisance, as some of its close relatives are apt to do.

Hyacinthella azurea

Some choice hellebores

I do not grow any double hellebores, preferring to see the single flowers which are often greatly enhanced by their ring of bright sulphur anthers. A number of my favourites were grown from wild-collected seed, including my favourite 'black', an excellent form of H. purpurascens. This is a fully herbaceous species which pushes up its flowering stems  with or just before the new leaves. As the photograph taken at Bod Hyfryd in the last few days shows, it is quite special, assuming of course that you like very dark flowers!

I also have H. atrorubens grown from wild-collected seed, but this is a much less spectacular plant with smaller, more starry, green and purple flowers borne on longer stems, and as I do not have a good photograoph of my plants I will leave it for now, Helleborus cyclophyllus is a really good doer in my garden, however, and I recognised it instantly when I saw it coming into flower on the slopes of Mt. Parnassos in April 2011. The first photograph shows a plant in the wild and the second a plant in my garden grown from wild-collected seed some years earlier.


Helleborus cyclophyllus, Mt Parnassos, Greece

Helleborus cyclophyllus

Some early flowering shrubs

We grow quite a lot of the smaller rhododendrons; if space allowed we would grow a lot more! Among our absolute favourites, partly because it flowers so freely and so early is the hybrid betrween R. ciliatum and R. moupinense, appropriately named R. x cilpinense. It seems to be hardier than either of its parents and in most years the flowers escape frost damage, but of course we are on the N. Wales coast, so relatively frost free. Usually the flowers last in good condition for about 10 days but this year  it has been delighting us in the bed just inside our front gate for more than three weeks and is only now beginning to go over.

Rhododendron x cilpinense close-up


I have just two corylopsis, C. pauciflora and C. himalayana, the former obtained from Bodnant Nursery some ten years ago, the other raised from seed collected in the wild by Keith Rushforth in the late 1980s. The form of C. pauciflora is altogether better in my opinion, the plant forming a fairly small, twiggy, wide-branching shrub liberally smothered with its small primrose-coloured flowers in March/April. Corylopsis himalayana is altogether bigger and coarser, more upright and with fewer, stouter branches, but the flowers are formed in Chinese lantern shaped bunches and are of a slightly darker shade, making them stand out better against the bare branches. I imagine they would grow well here in full sun, although both my plants are in part shade.

Corylopsis pauciflora close-up Corylopsis himalayana

Late camellias

Many camellias are still at their best and some are only just coming into flower. Here are flowers of a few just because they are so spectacular: C. japonica 'Daitirin', C. williamsii 'Little Heaven', C. japonica 'Little Bit', C. japonica 'R.L. Wheeler'.

Camellia japonica 'Daitirin'

Camellia x williamsii 'Little Heaven' Camellia japonica 'Little Bit' Camellia japonica 'R.L. Wheeler'

Polygala chamaebuxus

This little shrub with its pea-shaped yellow flowers (yellow and pinkish-purple in the variety 'grandiflora') is already in full flower and will go on producing a succession of blooms for several months yet, a real little charmer. It will grow perfectly well in full sun but is equally happy in part shade which makes it a very versatile and worthwile plant for the smaller garden.

Polygala chamaebuxus

A few cushion saxifrages

March is the month when cushion saxifrages come into prominence in the alpine garden, especially in raised beds and containers where they can be admired more closely. There are now so many varieties to choose from that it is impossible to recommend onlya few, so the best bet is to visit an alpine nursery (or a Show) at this time of year and choose them in flower. The following are among my favourites here:  'Peter Burrow', 'Cumulus', 'Allendale Elf', 'Mirko Webr'

Saifrage 'Allendale Elf'

Saxifrage 'Cumulus'

Saxifrage 'Allendale Elf' Saxifrage 'Mirko Webr'

Two primulas

I used to grow quite a lot of allionii primulas in pots but these have gradually been whittled down by death or my choice to a few. One of the best remaining ones is P. allionii 'Marjorie Wooster', seen here growing in a pot in my alpine house - not a show specimen by any means but lovely nevertheless. The other primula offered here is P. Aire Mist', a hybrid between P. 'Blairside Yellow' and P. allionii, raised by Peter Lister, which remains an incredibly pure brilliant white in the open garden for a long time, perhaps as much as three weeks.  

Primula allionii 'Marjorie Wooster' Primula 'Aire Mist'


It was very remiss of me not to mention here our visits to the gardens of John Richards and Alan Furness during our trip to Northumberland in mid-March when I gave a talk to the local AGS Group. As any of you who have visited either or both of these gardens will know, they are something special, and all the more intriguing because they are so different though only a few miles apart.  Alan's site is very open and exposed to the elements, with quite steep slopes, and in parts at least, quite wet, whereas John's is, by comparison, very sheltered and in parts quite heavily shaded by trees, and it is on a much more uniform and gentle slope. These differences are reflected, as they should be in any good garden, in the planting, Alan having swathes of every concievable species and hybrid of celmisia, which love the cool, damp, windy micro-climate, pulsatillas seeding all over the place, and many happy dwarf shrubs, cushion plants and bulbs- not to mention his rightly renowned collection of plants in pots. John, on the other hand, has wonderful collections of unusual smaller rhododendron species, woodland plants, primulas (of course!), snowdrops, choice alpines, and again a super wide-ranging collection of plants in pots. It was lovely to see both these gardens again, even though our visit was a little early to see them at their best -  thank you both.

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