A North Wales Alpine Gardener's Diary
This entry: 'April is the cruellest month' - T.S. Elliott - En
This April has certainly been cruel here by the usual balmy standards of the 'North Wales Riviera', with daytime temperatures rarely exceeding the dizzy hieghts of 10C and night temperatures hovering between +2 and +5 C . As a result most plants have staggered rather than sprung into growth, but the upside has been that flowers, once opened, have lasted longer than usual. When the almost continual rain and wind of the previous five months finally ceased early in April the damage done became clear, particularly among the many shrunbs that I grow; anything from hotter, drier climes, notably cistuses, penstemons lavenders, have either succmbed entirely or been damaged to the extent that in some cases major surgery has been required, in others, including to my surprise a youngish, vigorous rosemary, removal. Worst of all has been the loss of a large and much loved bush of Daphne bholua 'Alba', which was 15 years old and a source of much pleasure each spring. Foolishly, because it always looked so healthy and flowered so freely, I had failed to propogate it, so now I have to try and find a replacement. Worse still, this follows on from the loss of my splendid old D. bholua 'Jacqueline Poskill' which had reached 3 m x 2 m and which scented the air in the whole of the bottom part of the garden from just before Christmas until the middle of March. The white form has been replaced by a young plant of an unknown evergreen daphne originating from Crug Farm which looks like D. arisanensis BSWJ6983 in their current catalogue, which is endemic to Taiwan and was collected in forest on that island's highest mountain, Yushan. if so it should have greenish-yellow flowers followed by orange fruits. 'Jacqueline Postill has been replaced by Ribes laurifolium and Vaccinium glauco-album, which is an old favourite of mine with shiny greyish leaves and cluster of typical urn-shaped white, pink-tipped, urn-shaped flowers borne from pinkish-red calyces.
Another nice shrub which brightens up dull march days is Corylopsis himalayana, grown many years ago from a Keith Rushforth seed collection. I pruned out a lot of dead and crossing wood in the winter which has left the bush looking a bit sparse, but the 'Chinese lantern' like pale lemon flowers are a joy.
The rhododendron pageant begins
I knew throughout the winter that this would be a good season for rhododendrons as nearly all bore a profusion of fat buds, full of promise. One of the first to open here is the hybrid between R. ciliatum and R. moupinense, called logically enough, R. cilpiense. On a flying visit to Bodnant the other day this plant, in various shades of pink, was one of the highlights, and in my garden the large old plant by the garden gate has given great pleasure for three weeks.
Rhododendron x cilpinense
Quickly following on are some of the early yellows, the tall and open R. lutescens and two dwarfs, R. 'Shamrock' (R. keiskei x hanceanum), named in honour of St Patrick on whose day (17 March) it is generally in flower, and R. sleeping Beauty' (for which I can't find the parentage). 'Shamrock' is about 1.5 m wide x 50 cm high after 12 years while 'Sleeping Beauty' forms a more rounded, faster-growing bush.
Rhododendron 'Sleeping Beauty'
Rhododendron pemakoense (syn. R. patulum)
I seem to show you this plant every year, but it is such a lovely thing that I can't resist. Some years it is a failure because the flowers are very sensitive to frost, but here on the coast it generally escapes damage. It is a slow grower with very large flowers in proportion to the size of the plant and when the sun comes out they glow and sparkle. It was collected in North India by Frank Kingdon Ward in 1929..
Magnolia 'Heaven Scent'
This is way out of order for inclusion in an alpine garden blog but again, I can't resist it, as when it is in full flower at 10 m high by 10 m wide it dominates the lower part of the garden, giving off a delicate perfume which intermingles with that of nearby Rhododendron 'King George' producing an olfactory extravaganza. . I had to take the photo of the magnolia from about 50 m away on the road outside the garden using the excellent telephoto facility on my latest toy, a Sony HX90v pocket camera; it is quite astonishing how good these cameras have become and what's more I can send the photos by wi-fi direct to my mobile phone, iPad or computer, marvellous!
Rhododendron 'King George'
Lest you should think that I am oversoing the trees and shrubs I had perhaps better show you some plants more suited to an alpine blog. I am very fond of erythroniums but have not really tried many of the hybrids, of which of course there are lots, some of which are quite scrumptious, but have gradually accumulated a few of the N. American species, mostly grown from seed obtained a few years ago from that doyen of US collectors for many years, Ron Ratko, So, in no particular order of beauty or importance, and with the caveat that the names are as I received them on the seed packets, and not checked rigorously, here are: E. citrinum, E. helenae, E. howellii, E. multiscapoideum, and E. revolutum,followed by the common but none the worse for that hybrids, E. 'White Beauty' and E. 'Pagoda'.
Erythronium 'White Beauty'
The Eastern North American Arisaema triphyllum is the first of the genus to flower here, and thanks to the generosity of American friends I have several forms, some with particularly good variegated leaf patterning. They vary with respect to the colour and intensity of the striping on the spathes as well and this one is as good as any of mine in this regard.
Most of my primulas are past their best now but P. 'Hyacintha' is worth a look and I like a small group of oxlips (P. elatior), which I raised from AGS seed and planted on a raised bed!
Helenopsis are 'quiet' but interesting woodlanders ifrom the Far East, notably Japan and Korea. They are members of the family Melianthaceae, which largely comprises tropical and sub-tropical, chiefly African trees and shrubs, some of which are widely used in tropical and sub-tropical horticulture and arboriculture. H. japonica is a synonym for H. orientalis, being the Japanese form of this widespread and somewhat variable species. The basal rosette of reddish tinted leaves is evergreen, giving rise in spring to the 20 cm flowering stems bearing clusters of blooms which may vary from dark purplis-pink (as in the example shown) to pale pink or almost white. This is an easy plant to grow in woodland conditions and will stand a good deal of shade. In my expreience it is slow to increase vegetatively and I have never found seed on it so patience is required to grow it into a reasonably-sized flowering clump.
Growing close to the Heliniopsis, but with less shade, is a patch of Dodectheon pulchellum which gently seeds itself around, producing individuals with paler or darker pink flowers; this is one of the best of the bunch. Other dodecatheons also do well in this permanently moist (sometimes very wet!) bed, notably D. media and (probably my favourite) D. dentatum.
Vitaliana primuliflora f. praetutiana
This lovely little cushion is a delight when covered in its bright yellow flowers, but not all forms flower as well as this. It has been in this very lean trough for about 7 years
Paeonia mascula subsp. russoi
And finally, the first peonies are starting to bloom; I always show the gorgeous P. cambessedesii, which is usually the first to flower here so for a change I will show the first flower to be produced by a single plant of Paeonia mascula subsp. russoi,grown from AGS seed, complemented by the quite glossy, reddish stained foliage. I have sprayed it with fungicide twice already this spring, as I have all my peonies, because, as I have written here before, Peony mildew (Botrytis paeoniae) is one of the curses of this garden. I believe Martin Sheader may have given me a good reason why when he visited us last year, saying that the mildew is chiefly carried by tree peonies and that he only got rid of it when he removed the latter. I have not yet steeled myself to take this drastic step as my tree peonies are one of the most spectacular joys of the garden in their brief but much anticipated flowering period, and some of them are more than twenty years old; watch this space!
Update. The temperature at noon today (30 April) was +3C, which is two degrees colder than at the same time on last Christmas Day!!!