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A North Wales Alpine Gardener's Diary

This entry: May 2015, a long cold haul into summer - Entry 32

This has been a decidedly chilly spring here in Wales  more or less from start to finish, and even as I write this at the end of the first week in June (sorry to be late, I have been away from home for much of May) it is still not really warm. The up side of all this is that many plants have continued in good flower for much longer than usual, for example, the Anemonella thalictroides 'Oscar Schoaff' that I showed you in March is still in good fettle, and my beloved species peonies have been much less fleeting in displaying their astonishing beauty than usual. 

 In my November 2014 posting, completely 'off piste' , I talked about the semi-hardy echiums (Viper's buglosses) of which I had sown seed the previous year and which were now in a condition to (hopefully) flower in summer 2015, and asked you to 'watch this space'. Well, they are now in flower and have generally exceeded my expectations, especially the towering white form of E. pininana (no 'blues' have flowered yet), which is fully 4 m tall and straight as a ramrod, the dark pink flowered E. wildprettii, smaller at 3 m and with slenderer spikes, but still very impressive, and the bushy E. candicans and the previously unseen (by me) E, gentianoides, which in the colour of its flowers does justice to its specific name - it seems to be the least hardy. All are adored by bees and other nectar-seeking insects, great excitement being aroused today by a Humming-bird hawkmoth (the first of the season) whizzing from flower to flower on E. gentianoides before moving on to Dianthus 'La Bourboule'. I can't imagine why more people gardening in mild coastal districts don't grow these mind boggling plants, but you rarely see them except in the far SW of England. Even here I was careful to cover E. candicans  and E. gentianoides with fleece for the winter, although it proved to be so mild that I would have probably got away with it had I not bothered.

Echium pininana 'Alba'

Echium pininana 'Alba'

Echium pininana 'Alba' close-up

E. wildprettii (on Mt. Teide, Tenerife, and at Bod

I show a picture here of the plant growing wild on Mt Teide, Tenerife, where it is quite common on the upper lava-strewn slopes of the volcano, partly to show what a magnificent spectacle a group in full flower presents, and partly to compare with plants in our garden. As you will see, in the garden the stem is a good deal longer than in the exposed conditions of its natural habitat and the spike of blossom is more cylindrical.

Echium wildprettii on Mt Teide, Tenerife

Echium wildprettii

E, candicans

Known as the 'Pride of Madeira', Echium candicans, which is endemic to the island, forms a rounded bush with semi-woody stems bearing rosettes of semi-silver leaves with short spikes of blossom at their centres. I have grown this before and it can form a bush 2m or more across, but a really hard frost will kill it stone dead.

Echium candicans

E, gentianoides

This one is endemic to the island of La Palma and differs from the others in having waxy succulent leaves, The plant grows to about 1.5m high and is less shapely than E, candicans, but has longer, usually bluer spikes of flower.

Echium gentianoides, close-up of flowers

Some silver saxifrages

I love all the silver saxifrages and am glad to see that they seem to be becoming more popular again after a fairly long period in the doldrums; perhaps they are too 'old hat' or 'samey' for many but they amply repay the minimal attention they require (full sun, perfect drainage) to do well. There are many fine forms of S. paniculata, which is widespread and common in the alps, in cultivation, two of my favourites being the very old 'Rosea', with pale pink flowers, and 'Whitehills', which may be a hybrid with S. cochlearis, with small, heavily encrusted silvery rosettes and snow-white flowers on quite short stems. S. cochlearis itself is first rate, both in its standard form, seen here growing in the wall of a raised bed, and in its much diminished form 'Minor' (here growing in a trough, for which it is particularly suited) which takes ten years to grow to as many inches in spread and can certainly live for thirty. There are even more compact silvers, notably the two very similar (and often confused) forms of S. paniculata known as ''Minutifolia and 'Baldensis'.

At the other extreme silver saxifrages can be quite large, robust plants, sometimes with glorious plumes of flowers up to half a metre long, as in the well known monocarpic S. longifolia and its polycarpic hybrid with S. callosa, S. 'Tumbling Waters', which is easily propagated by rooting the side rosettes that accumulate around the doomed flowering rosette. Saxifraga cotyledon is never quite as impressive as S. longifolia, the flowering spikes being less elegantly displayed with the flowers more widely spaced so presenting less of a plume. However the best forms, such as 'Major' are pretty good, as the photo of a seven year old patch in one of our raised beds shows. Although I could show you quite a few more 'silvers' I will end with the famous S. cotyledon 'Southside Seedling'. This plant (or as it turns out several similar but distinct forms) has been around in the trade for more than 50 years. I have only two, a widely distributed one that I have obtained from various nurseries over the years, and the quite distinct AGM form known as 'Slack Top Ruby Southside' in recognition of the nursery that submitted the stock to the RHS silver saxifrage trial. As the photos show, 'Ruby' (as I like to call her) has many more but smaller flowers in the spike, which are more heavily marked with red - 'you pays yer money and you takes yer choice'!

S. paniculata 'Rosea'

Saxifraga paniculata 'Rosea'

Saxifraga 'Whitehills'

Saxifraga paniculata 'Whitehills'

Saxifraga cochlearis

Saxifraga cochlearis

Saxifraga cochlearis 'Minor'

Saxifraga cochlearis 'Minor'

S. 'Tumbling Waters'

Saxifraga 'Tumbling Waters'

S. cotyledon 'Major'

Saxifraga cotyledon 'Major'

Saxifraga cotyledon 'Southside Seedling'

Saxifraga 'Southside Seedling' Saxifraga 'Southside Seedling'

Saxifraga cotyledon 'Slack Top Ruby Southside'

Saxifraga 'Slack Top Ruby Southside' Saxifraga 'Slack Top Ruby Southside'

Some more peonies

Can one ever have too many peonies, I thnk not! I am still acquiring new species and forms, mostly either grown from seed (often, unfortunately, wrongly named in the exchanges) or received as very welcome gifts from friends. Fortunately the peony season is quite a long one, starting here with P. cambessedesii from Majorca in late March and finishing with P. anomala from (in the case of my plants) the Eastern Caucasus in late June. It is worth noting that in a recent taxonomic revision P. anomala has swallowed up P. veitchii in its various forms, of which P. veitchii subsp. woodwardii is most often seen in gardens.P. mascula (illustrated below) in several forms differing but slightly, and then chiefly in flowering date, is one of the best here, and it seems more resistant than most to the peony blight which afflicts most species and some hybrids here, and which I have written about in earlier offerings. Seedlings pop up around the plants and are always eagerly carried off by visitors to the garden. Although it is totally inappropriate for this blog I can't resist showing you a ridiculously blowsy unnamed double that to my astonishment thrives in the driest of shade beneath a venerabler beech tree. Often it has only a few of its huge (20 cm wide) flowerz but this year almost every stem is producing the goods - gorgeous!

Paeonia mascula

Unnamed double pink tree peony Unnamed double pink tree peony, close-up

Some plants in the troughs

I try to keep a steady flow of interesting and colourful plants in my troughs until at least July, so let's see what has been catching the eye in May.

Gentiana verna

Gentiana verna

Morisia monanthos

Morisia monanthos

Oxalis 'Gwen McBride'

Oxalis 'Gwen McBride'

Edraianthus pumilio

Edraianthus pumilio

And in crevices...

Helichrysum sessiloides

This always surprises me by doing so well in this wet climate, mind you I have to stick to the task of removing the covering of moss that would otherwise cover and kill it during winter.

Helichrysum sessiloides

Ramonda myconi

This, one of my all-time favourite alpines since I first saw it growing wild in shady rock crevices in the Ordesa Canyon in the Pyrenees, follows on from R. serbica here. As you can see, the plant illustrated is not by any means a 'show' specimen, but it is reminds me vividly of that day in the mountains long ago. 

Ramonda serbica

Telesonix (Boykinia) jamesii

Sadly I have never seen this quite startling member of the saxifrage family growing in its home on the alpine peaks of Colorado and New Mexico, where I gather it is locally abundant. I say 'startling' because you somehow don't expect a 'saxifrage' to have such large individual flowers, and of such a glaring strawberry pink. The plant shown has been growing and flowering freely in a chink in the top of a raised bed supporting wall for 15 years or more, but this year it seems to be flowering particularly well.

Telesonix jamesii Telesonix jamesii close-up

Wisley, 30 May

I can't finish this entry without showing you a few of the many pictures I took on a lovely sunny day at the RHS garden at Wisley at the end of the month. First, a couple of shots of what is the finest crevice garden I have ever seen, at least in terms of the construction, though there are many good plants growing in it too. Like our own AGS example at Pershore it was designed and to a large extent built by Zdenek Zvolanek, who is a good friend of mine and who, with the help of his late-lamented partner Joyce Carruthers did most of the works in creating my own much smaller crevice beds.  

The crevice garden at Wisley, May 2015

The crevice garden at Wisley

Plants in the Alpine House at Wisley

As I was with non-gardening friends, and there were many visitors in the Alpine house, I was not able to take as many (or as good) photos as I would have liked, but here are some plants that caught my eye in what was a truly stunning display - well done the staff and students in the Alpine Section. 

Drimiopsis sp., Wisley

Incarvillea zhongdiadensis

Incarvillea zhongdiadensis

Ledebouria sp.

Ledebouia sp.

Cypripedium parviflorum

Cypripedium parviflorum

Lewisia rediviva

Lewisia rediviva

Tufa bed

Tufa on raised beds in Alpine house at Wisley
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