A Northumberland Alpine Gardener's Diary
This entry: 30 April 2009 by John Richards
Northumberland Diary. Entry 114.
Do like Wednesdays
I have mentioned our Botany walking Group (scion of the Natural History Society of Northumbria) before. We meet on Wednesdays, even in winter when the walks are primarily non-botanical. Over the years, it has been extraordinary how blest we have been with the weather every Wednesday. For years we have been fearful of mentioning our good luck, but as yet another cloudless Wednesday dawns, it has become the chief topic of conversation as we set out. I would say, if you live in North-east England, and you can get out during the week, it would pay to choose Wednesdays! Presumably it is because Wednesday is the day furthest removed from the weekend, when most working folk are free. However.
I had to miss the first of the botanical walks this spring, being in Ireland (nevertheless, it was lovely here, torrential in Ireland!). However, we met again yesterday and of course it was another lovely day in what is turning out to be a miserable week. I took a garden group round the garden during Tuesday evening in gloomy dusk and puring rain. Poor souls! They were very good. But the rain itself is a real boon. We had become very dry, as in so many springs here.
Yesterday, the walking group met at the National Trust property of Allenbanks, in what is in part ancient woodland on steep, often precipitous gorge country on the River West Allen, about nine miles west of here. To start with, there are many exotic trees, dating from times when this was a private estate. This first view has some magnificent Douglas Firs in the distance.
Further south, the woodland is mostly undisturbed, species-rich sessile oak woodland which is the climax community on sandstones round here. The richest areas are managed by the Northumberland Wildlife Trust, who help to preserve a number of local or rare plants. The most conspicuous at present is Orchis mascula, the 'long purples' of Shakespeare, flowering early this year. It really is most unusual to see it in April this far north.
One of the more interesting spring flowers, if such you can call it, is the parasitic toothwort, Lathraea squamaria. Here it grows on the roots of wych elm, Ulmus glabra (as if elms didn't have enough parasitism to be going on with already!), and it is striking that there are some moderately mature trees surviving deep in the reserve.
A lovely small tree at this time of year is Prunus padus. This is a local plant of northern riversides which I regard as one of our local specialities. I refrain from using a common name, to save my blood pressure. I have always known it as 'Northern Cherry', very appropriate, and the wild cherry, or Gean as it is known round here (hard 'g') as 'Bird Cherry' in acknowledgement of its scientific name Prunus avium. But no, for some extraordinary reason, the floras have Bird Cherry for our little P. padus, despite the fact that its small hard black fruits are certainly very toxic to man, although I am less sure about birds.
Back to the garden
I thought I would share with you what I am now considering to be a major error, when I redeveloped one of the 'D' beds last August. Interestingly, it is a problem I haven't read a discussion about before, although this may just reflect on my limited horticultural reading.
I thought it would be nice to have a succession of spring bulbs, snowdrops, followed chiefly by Erythroniums, and then lilies in summer, planted between dwarf rhododendrons, meconopsis and primulas. As the following photo clearly shows, it doesn't work! The bulb leaves get in the way of the rhodos and primulas, so that they can't be fully enjoyed at their best. These woodland bulbs stay in leaf here until early June, so no respite can be gained from planting later-flowering subjects.
I have come to the conclusion that primulas, mecs and the like have to be planted in splendid isolation, without accompanying bulbs, so I shall have to start all over again (of course I may change my mind completely when the bulbs do die down; what the eye doesn't see the heart is less likely to grieve over!).
Elsewhere in the garden there are some nice dwarf rhodos at present. Here is Rh. racemosum. This has struggled with tree roots in its present position, but mulching with leaf mould and a couple of wet summers have suited it just fine.
Next to it is Rh.'Chikor', rather more adept at coping with sorbus roots.
I mentioned dwarf meconopsis, and the first subjects are coming into flower, once again most unusual for late April. Here is Farrer's 'Harebell Poppy', M. quintuplinervia. I was once asked what this mouthful meant. But we are all used to the word 'Quintuplets', aren't we? Even if, thank goodness, few us have actual experience of them (twins were quite bad enough!). Growing with this are two blue wood anemones. The darker one is 'Robinsoniana'. I think the paler blue must be a cross between that and a white anemone we also grow here. Certainly they do seed about.
I managed to raise a batch of the tricky Meconopsis delavayi during the last wet summer. Two planted out in a trough have yet to flower, although well-budded, but one that stayed in the alpine house in a pot is presently at its best.
I have mentioned the Daphne x hendersonii cuttings I collected on the Nota Pass, west of Lake Garda in 2003 and grafted onto D. tangutica seedlings before. My Show plant did not like living in a pot and now looks very sick, although a second individual, planted in a trough is at its glorious best at the University Botanic Garden. However, once I had made the grafts I had some spare scions, which I attempted to root. Only one succeeded. As expected it proved to be very much slower than the grafted individuals, but it was planted out onto the rock garden in 2005 and four years later it is just starting to attain respectability. This is the clone I have called 'Nota Pink'.
Success with a paintbrush
Nearly all our anthologists have adopted really witty names, although the stock of suitable parasitic plants must be running low (perhaps a future orthodontically challenged anthologist could call him/herself Lathraea?), but none more so that our present incumbent who, for those who don't know, is an accomplished painter of flowers, hence 'Castilleja', the Indian Paint-brush.
A few issues of the 'Alpine Gardener' ago, we were encouraged to grow castillejas in association with suitable hosts, so when I saw a young plant for sale at a local members stall at an early spring show this year I snapped it up. I planted this individual of C. miniata at the base of our Salix x boydii. It sulked for six weeks, and then suddenly started to grow, and is now in bud, so I fondly imagine that it has tapped into the willow!
I have a fondness for the lesser-known species of mossy saxifrage, cinderellas of a splendid genus. Here are a couple to finish with, flowering on the tufa bed (S. vayredana) and rock garden (S. cervicornis, often considered a form of S. pedemontana).