A North Wales Alpine Gardener's Diary
This entry: November 2016 - Entry 51
Oh those leaves!! We always pray for a gale from the west when the leaves from our large deciduos trees start to fall as with a bit of luck this carries most of them out of the garden (still leaving more than enough for the leafmould heap) or gathers them in 'drifts' at strategic points around the garden when it is relatively easy to collect them up. Not this year, the weather was calm for nearly a fortnight at the crucial moment, but wet at times too, so not only did the leaves stay where they dropped, but also got sodden, which makes collection with a garden vac machine almost impossible. But it is important to remove them asap, at least from the choicer dwarf alpines which can soon be killed if left covered with damp debris in winter. As I write I am about half way through this tedious task but glad that at least a few days of dry, windless weather are forecast, which should enable me to finish the task, with the help of Jenny, my (very) part-time gardener. Some of the shredded leaves are taken and spread immediately on the shrub beds around the garden, making sure to give all the rhododendrons a good mulch. I was once many years ago at a lecture at the Royal Botanic Garden in Edinburgh by the eminent (and delightfully eccentric) rhododendron expert, H.H. Davidian, who devoted part of his lecture to cultivation, during which he more than once enmpasized the desirability of mulching rhododendrons whenever possible, stressing that while peat or leafmould was the best mulch, almost anything organic would do. I can hear his voice now urging those present to "MULCH your rhododendrons, whatever else you do, MULCH them". I think he was right and try to ensure that they all receive a good covering at least evey other autumn. One thing that leaf removal has revealed is the quite advanced growth of some of the early snowdrops, which starts one thinking about the good things to come.
This is hardly an alpine, but at this time of year when looking for plants in flower to mention, beggars can't be choosers. Hedychiums were popular conservatory ornamentals in the Victorian era. Oddly, like camellias, they were never really tried outside it being assumed that they, like most of the other gingers, were not hardy. Ultimately, rising fuel prices caused a drop in the popularity of conservatory plants and Hedychium went out of favor, nearly disappearing from cultivation. The modern upsurge in their popularity was due primarily to the work of Tony Schilling, who in 1965 went to Nepal and "re-discovered" the genus. Most hedychiums, with the exception of those from high-elevation cool climates, proved to be not reliably winter hardy in the UK, since they need heat to produce the sugars needed for winter survival. The release of one such cultivar, Hedychium 'Assam Orange' in the early 1970s, re-ignited the European and American love for the genus. Since then, hedychium has spread all over the world in warm temperate gardens. Tony Shilling's advice on cultivation in the garden is to keep them well fed and watered in the summer, drier and with some frost protection around the dormant crowns in winter. I came by my plants in a slightly unusual way: we were on holiday in Madeira, travelling round the island in a hire car when, quite high in the mountains we stopped for a drink at a roadside cafe/bar, adjoining which was a touristy shop selling all manner of 'tat'. But in one corner there was an area full of plastic bags full of various bulbs and perennial plants, notably the agapanthus in blue and white which are almost a weed on the island. I bought two bags for 2 euros each (!), one containing several strong bulbs of Amaryllis belladona, the other several thick chunks of an unlabelled Hedychium but with a photo attached which was glearly H. gardnerianum. When I got home (early March) I potted them up in a free draining compost, placed them in a cold frame and forgot about them. The Amaryllis bulbs flowered the following autumn but the hedychiums just produced short pseudostems (what look like stems are actually pseudostems comprising the overlapping furled petioles of the leaves) and duly died down as the autumn advanced. The following year I planted out three potfuls in a half-shaded, freely drained spot in the garden where they produced bigger and better pseudostems but no flowers. This year the new shoots grew to a metre or so tall and then flowered for the first time, and I must admit I was thrilled to see them. My concern now is that in the absence of a hard winter they may spread more rapidly than I would wish.... but I gather that it is quite easy to keep them in check either by chopping bits off at the edge (good for spares in case of that hard winter!) or (better) dig up the whole clump, divide it, replant pieces from the edge and dispose of the old worn out rhizomes from the middle.
I keep showing you this plant but the flowers are so stunning that it's hard to see too much of it. On this occasion my excuse is that the photograph here was taken today (25 November) and there are still more buds to come. Granted, we have only had a touch of ground frost on a couple of nights so far this winter but even so I think it is worth recording for those of you with similar mild climates to mine.
Serratula seoanei (syn. S. tinctoria)
Serratula is a fairly undistinguished genus of daisies comprising c. 70 species of mainly herbaceous perennials from Europe and North Africa, eastwards to Japan, quite closely related to Centaurea. Perhaps unsurprisingly, few have found favour with alpine and rock gardeners and if S. seoanei did not flower in autumn it would probably remain unknown and unloved. But in October/November it is worth a second, if fleeting look. It grows to about 30 cm high and wide in five years and flowers very freely once established. Like many of these sub-shrubby composites it's performance is marred by retention of the brown seedheads among the later flowers. Not a hard sell I grant you, but as I said earlier, one has to be happy with morsels at this time of year.
I have shown you a good many berrying plants over the years on this blog but not I think this one, chiefly because it does not usually fruit very well. But like many soft fruits, this year it has done really well and I could definitely pick enough of the 5mm berries to make a tart if removing them did not defeat the principal reason for growing the plant! I tried a handful of fruits this morning and they could most charitably be described as 'unremarkable', bitterer than bilberies (Vaccinium myrtillus) but not dissimilar. Displayed agains the glossy evergreen foliage in the weak sunlight of a chilly but bright November day I think they are worth noticing. This is a true alpine, coming from the mountains of Western China, sometimes apparently growing as an epiphyte, and with berries which may vary in colour from reddish-black to purple-black. It isw a very easy plant to grow in the usual acidic soil required by ericaceous shrubs and can be propagated from suckers, cuttings or seed. It reaches about 50 cm high and wide in 10 years.