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A Northumberland Alpine Gardener's Diary

This entry: 04 April 2010 by John Richards

Northumberland Diary. Entry 144.


Last week I mentioned devastation amongst my bulbs in pots. I thought it might be of interest to list a few things which definitiely died, presumably as a direct result of being frozen solid in the plunge for anything up to eight weeks (mid December to mid-February). The following are subjects which I have grown for years with at least moderate success, but which are definitely dead, the 'bulbs' (or their equivalent) rotting:

Corydalis popovii, C. verticillata, Nerine filifolia, Asphodelus acaulis, Cyclamen alpinum, C. pseudibericum (another one survived but is looking sick), Gladiolus saundersii, G. papilio, G. crassicaulis.

More surprising perhaps are those plants which suffered considerable foliar damage and in some cases are dying back already, at least a month earlier than usual. These include:

all Greek autumn crocuses (12 species), all sternbergias, all African narcissus.


There are a few bright spots. Here is that funny little Turkish Hyacinthella heldreichii, a gift from Trevor and Angie Jones some years ago.





At a Show a few weeks ago I acquired a very good plant of Fritillaria raddeana for what I considered a very reasonable price. It isn't a plant I fancy showing, and I am sure my garden is too cold and wet for it. Having seen Bob and Rannweig Wallis's photos of it in the wild in the most recent 'Alpine Gardener', I thought it might enjoy being planted out in a sand plunge in the alpine house. Despite the thunderstorm they encountered in its valley, the habitat looked pretty dry and desolate ('lots of bare and rapidly eroding rock and sparse vegetation....north-facing stone slides').

A sand plunge bed

This brings me neatly to the subject advertised in advance last week, namely the bed I have planted in part of an old sand plunge. When I acquired a second alpine house on my retirement, I decided I didn't need all the plunge in the original house for pot plants, and I had long nursed an ambition to grow difficult alpines planted out inside an alpine house. As this area already had automatic watering, it was ideal.

I have shown pictures of the home-made lumps of 'tufa' embedded in this area, but have not really discussed the bed itself before. Apart from the tufa lumps, it is largely unmodified from when pots were sunk in it. The automatic watering system in the rest of the house is still in place, hence the unslightly pipes everywhere, so it receives a dripped water supply (including onto the tufa lumps) twice a day from April to October (it was restarted during last week; the battery operated timer which is stored dry and warm during the winter failed to work this year, so I had to buy a new one. I find that their life is approximately 10 years, so at £2 per year, this is a tolerable expense).

Otherwise the area receives a few cans of dilute feed (usually 'Phostrogen' during the growing season), and thats it. The medium is pure builder's sand, somewhat modified by humus from moss, plant debris and the compost that adhered around plant roots. It is one metre deep, filled with sand all the way to the ground soil on which the alpine house stands, and held in place with vertical pavers.

A sand plunge bed

By far the greater part of the plunge bed is taken up with a very rare and almost unknown primula, probably P. erratica, which was collected by the ACE expedition back in 1994 from calcareous flushes at low altitude beside the Yangtse in Yunnan. This rather P.farinosa-like plant is chiefly distinguished by the abundant long stolons it produces, and it creeps everywhere here, so I have to pull it out in handfuls. I have not been able to grow it anywhere else, either inside or out, but this curious habitat seems to suit it fine. It was originally given to me by one of the ACE members, Ron McBeath. It is not in flower yet, but I have figured it in earlier years.

Here is a small section with Dionysia aretioides 'Bevere', planted between two lumps of tufa, and a seedling of Primula marginata grown from seed we collected near the Col de Tende on the French/Italian border.

I   had a phase when I collected north American drabas. One of the nicest is D. ventosa, but I have found it difficult and can only grown it in the sand plunge, where is attains to no great size.

Amongst other plants I grow in this plunge are Campanula fragilis, C. hierapetrae, Saxifraga longifolia, S. ferdinandi-coburgii, S. exarata, Primula allionii, P.edelbergii, P. boveana, P. kewensis, Narcissus bulbocodium, N. romieuxii, Iris aphylla, Jancaea heldreichii, Dionysia tapetodes, and a large bush of Hypericum balearicum. I also grew Verbascum arcturus until this winter, but I think it was killed in the hard weather. Luckily I collected new seed in Crete in the autumn.

Moving to the other alpine house, the newer one, this is of course the time of the greatest showiness. Yesterday I went to the Cleveland Show, and many of us were struck by the sheer display of colour. It is a shame that this suburban show seems to get very few members of the general public to attend.

Much of the above colour is provided by saxifrages, but I want to spend most of the rest of this epistle describing some of the Europaen primulas that are flowering now. First of all a couple of rather localised species, Primula villosa, and the white form of P. pedemontana.

Next to feature is 'Ruby Tuesday', a plant I raised myself from seed taken from P. auricula grown from wild seed. I think the most likely father to the cross is the P. marginata hybrid 'Philip'. The flowers are very much the colour of my wife's engagement ring, and celebrate one of my favourite 'Stone's songs.

'Ruby Tuesday' is not a million miles away from one of my favourite hybrid primulas, 'Broxbourne' and they seem to flower at the same time. Neither are quite at their best yet.

For me, the best of the 'whites' is 'Tony', although the most vigorous, 'Aire Mist' is not in flower yet this year. Here is 'Tony' which looks very much like an allionii when not in flower.

Now for a couple of Jim Almond's small crosses which he left here when he visited last autumn. First is 'Lindum Moonlight'. I wonder if this is the right name? I can't see what Moonlight has to do with a pink flower!

More plausible as a name, and a nicer plant I think, is 'Sunrise'.

A few scraps of asiatics as a coda. A couple of weeks ago, Rachel Lever handed me a plant of Primula minor, a plant I know well from the Beima Shan and elsewhere, where it tends to grow by waterfalls. The seed had been collected as possibly P. limbata, but the leaf and the very small eye and narrow tube to the flower shows it to be P. minor. A photo of it on the Beima Shan follows that of the gift, which I have put in a polystyrene trough together with some of my petiolarids.

Finally, here is a scrap of P. bracteata subsp. dubernardiana, a gift from Peter Hood last autumn. There will only be two flowers on this young plant, but another specimen recently gifted by Cyril Lafong, with much narrower leaves, is about to flower, so if it is a pin I hope to get seed (this one is a thrum). These really are very like a white-flowered P. bracteata; the narrower leaf-form is part of the variation of the familiar pink-flowered plant too.

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