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A Northumberland Alpine Gardener's Diary

This entry: 13 April 2009 by John Richards

Northumberland Diary. Entry 112.

Spring Society

A few years ago I was involved in a light-hearted quest to find an alternative name for the somewhat misleading and off-putting name by which our Society is presently known. This led no-where, but one of the main attributes of our interests did not occur to me then, but seems nevertheless to differentiate us strikingly from most branches of horticulture.

I write as our Show season has reached its half-way point, numerically. And what is the date? April 13th! It is still early spring by any other measure! This is the Easter holiday and most big gardens only opened for the first time this weekend. Apart from bulbs and a little spring bedding, most are still slumbering in the depths of their horticultural winter. By most reckonings, spring ends at the end of May, and if the autumn is discounted, our Show season has virtually finished then. There are only three Shows in the summer, and none during the apogee of most gardens splendour, late July and August.

As Easter passes, most gardeners are just waking up, and emerging, blinking, into their gardens for the first time, gingerly sowing their first seeds, and protecting them from the frosts that are still undoubtedly to come. In contrast our charges are designed to emerge during the short alpine or arctic summer as soon as the snow recedes. Translated to our conditiions, this means that they flower very early. Also, our mediterranean subjects flower early too, before the hot dry summer arrives. Alternatively, they flower in the autumn, after the summer heat, when we hold out last three Shows. Really, we should be the 'Spring (and a little bit of autumn) plant Society'!

Ground frosts
Consequently, late frosts often coincide with the peak of the alpine plant display. Here are photographs taken at 8 am yesterday morning. Easter Sunday may be a joyous occasion, but we had a bitter start!

Ground frosts

That is the Acer crategifolium just coming into leaf in the foreground.

Lying near the bottom of a  north-facing slope, we are rather susceptible to spring frosts at this time of year, although our thick hedges break some of the flow of cold air. Slightly later, when the trees leaf, the shelter is much greater and late April and May frosts are much less usual.

Cold air does indeed sink. The flowers of several of our dwarf rhododendrons were ruined, but the Rhododendron pseudochrysanthum  I featured last week, Rhododendron 'Carmen', and Magnolia x soulangeana were sufficiently raised to escape any damage.

While certain flowers are ruined by frost, it is fascinating how other subjects are completely flattened, but rouse themselves to make a completely recovery in minutes, once the frost has lifted. Here Erythronium californicum 'White Beauty' and E. tolumnense have been heavily knocked by frost, but they were fine by mid-morning.

I have been amused by this little wild top corner of the garden. Few of the plants in flower there now, for instance the Fritillaria meleagris or the Erythronium tolumnense and E. revolutum were actually put there. Possibly the bulbs were dug up and reburied by rodents, or, more likely, they have self-sown. The haze of tiny black flowers belong to Xanthorrhiza simplissima, that unlikely member of the buttercup family.

Despite the above, Erythronium revolutum is not a great success in this garden and scarcely multiplies. This plant, on the other side of the path, was grown from seed maybe 10 years ago, and is only one of three survivors there.

On the subject of failing bulbs, I reported last year that I had lost patience with attempts to grow fritillaries in the alpine house as they kept collapsing while in full growth. I received the advice to try them outside, and constructed a well-drained sunny little slope just outside one of the alpine houses. I have six species in flower there now, mostly just in ones and twos, because the bulbs has been severely weakened by years of 'Fritillaria sudden collapse'. Hopefully they will settle down and do as well outside as F. pallidiflora and F. elwesii, two species I have always grown outside. Here is one of the two F. davisii that are flowering. It is remarkable that this endemic of the hot dry southern Mani in Greece should survive outside unprotected in Northumberland, but so it is.

Most alpine gardens have a few really special plants which thrive in that particular environment, and of which their owners are justly proud. Two such are flowering here at the moment. These are both subjects which I am sorely tempted to dig up for a Show, but am sure that this would bring their lengthy and exalted careers to an abrupt end, so I have resisted  all blandishments.

Firstly, Rhodothamus sessiliflorus. Show wallahs will recall that I grew one in a pot which covered itself in glory at a couple of Shows and then died rapidly. I was fortunate to be able to buy two seedlings of this very little known Turkish endemic when offered by Ian Leslie some years back. The other was immediately planted out into a fishbox trough, and has not been disturbed since.

I suppose that is the trick; risk one on the bench if you have two! Well, I only have one of the fabulous endemic from the Chelmos massif in the northern Peloponnesos, Adonis cyllenea. I have now been in possession of this seedling gifted by Ron McBeath for 14 years, and have never touched it. It goes from strength to strength and this year has produced no less than 12 of its enormous flowers. The AGS is planning to hold a Tour to the northern Peloponnese immediately after the International Conference in two years time, and you may rest assured that the adonis will be one of its main targets!

Yes, I know there are 13 flowers/buds on the adonis, but either I am superstitious, or can't count! Decide among yourselves.

On the subjects of wonderful gifts, one of our members from the Thames Valley, William Purvis, has visited us this winter. His mother lives in Hexham and he was raised locally. Many many years ago, when I was a lot younger than he is now, he used to attend our local group as a keen teenager (where are they now?). William has kind memories of those years, and has presented me with this magnificent present, a great tub full of Cypripedium formosanum. Working on the assumption that it is more blessed to give than to receive, William must feel truly blest. Certainly I do!

It is a kind of generous gift when a grower propagates and offers a rare plant for sale at a local group stall at a Show or Conference. Ian Leslie's rhodothamnus seedlings certainly fall into this category. A couple of years ago, I happened to notice in such a sale a rooted cutting of Robert Rolfe's unnamed lamium that I think he collected cuttings of on Sandras Dag, home of a related but different endemic species, L. sandrasicum. This has grown well in a long-tom pot plunged in the alpine house and did well at the Cleveland Show on Saturday.

Finally for this week, back into the garden where after a year off, Abies koreana is promising to cone heavily. I love this stage, with the little pink female cones! I am now off to Ireland for a week, visiting gardens and chasing dandelions. The forecast is horrible!

John Richards

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