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A Northumberland Alpine Gardener's Diary

This entry: 11 April 2010 by John Richards

Northumberland Diary. Entry 145.

Little blue bulbs

In the garden, chionodoxas, scillas and the like tend to be Cinderellas. One forgets all about them, and then one day in April they pop up, seemingly overnight, often in new places, for they seed around with some vigour. For the most part, they are so easy and evanescent that they are often ignored. This is a shame because they are undoubtedly very pretty, being in many cases a good unadulterated blue, and if you have eyes to see, they can make a considerable contribution to the spring garden.

We never introduced any of them here, but here several of them are in any case, maybe remnants from when this was part of a much bigger garden, or they may have been introduced by our predecessors, or they may even have seeded in from neighbours or on our feet. Certainly they have since escaped from the garden onto the road verges the other side of the hedge.

In these circumstances, one cannot always be sure of their name. I think we have four in total. Most common is 'Chionodoxa luciliae of gardens', which we are told may really be C. forbesii. It has a white throat to a flower which is larger and a better blue than is often the case for this species, so it may be 'C. gigantea', which may be really best as C. forbesii 'Gigantea'.

Little blue bulbs

Chionodoxa sardensis is a much better plant in my view. It is robust and easy, but seems less liable to sow around than 'C. luciliae'. It stands more upright, with flowers of a good dark blue which lack a white centre, although the anther filaments lend a white 'eye' to the flower. The leaves are shorter and wider than in 'C. luciliae'.

Then there is the neat little intergeneric hybrid x Chionoscilla allenii. I guess that the scilla parent here is S. bifolia, which it does resemble in some regard, rather than the more familiar S. sibirica. I am not sure if this hybrid is sterile, but although it spreads to form patches, I guess the bulbs may be moved around my solifluction, frost heave and rodents, for it does not seem to travel far.

Finally in this section we have Scilla sibirica. The Siberian scilla can be seriously invasive in some gardens, but it behaves itself here. It flowers a little later than the chionodoxas, and is not quite in flower in this photo, although our patches have fully expanded as I write. Unlike the chionodoxas (and many other scillas), the flowers hang downwards, possibly in response to uncertain Siberian springs.

A few more bulbs which are featuring at present. As was pointed out in the 'Alpine Gardener' I have already featured Corydalis 'Beth Evans' more than once, but here it is associating with Erythronium dens-canis to make a charming picture.

I have featured kaufmanniana-type tulips in planters before now too, but in this picture, associating with Primula vulgaris ssp. sibthorpii and Bergenia ciliata 'Patricia Furness'  they make a particularly gaudy picture.

One of the more successful introductions made by the 1999 MESE expedition to northern Greece was the high level form of Saxifraga marginata from 1800 m on Timfi. Like many of the Europaen 'porophyllums', it is more effective just before the flowers open fully. I grow it in a trough, having failed on several occasions to please it in a pot.

When I was lecturing down in Sussex last year, a pot or two of the little-known stoloniferous form of Primula boothii (subspecies repens) was gifted to me. This was originally introduced from west of Annapurna ('Deorali') by Lorraine Brogden in the 1970's, but has not been seen for many years. The present form is superior to the original and I am most grateful for the gift. I do not know the plants' origin or indeed who gave it to me, and were they to contact me I would be happy to know.

Another plant that came my way mysteriously is the little-known P. kitaibeliana, from the coastal limestone ranges of Croatia. This attractive little plant is very close to P. integrifolia, but is larger and has wider leaves. A kind donor gave  this plant to Alan Furness at a Show I did not attend, with instructions to pass it on to me, which Alan did. Once again, the name of the generous donor did not reach me, and I would love to know who gave me this excellent gift.

Another plant I showed at the excellent Chesterfield Show yesterday was purchased from Edrom nurseries just over a year ago. Originally I had a pin and a thrum and so was able to gather seed last summer which has now germinated, I am delighted to say. Only the thrum has survived, but I split it up and now have three small plants, planted together to make a greater display. This is the alpine form of Primula cuneifolia , subspecies heterodonta, from northern Honshu. It may prove easier to grow than the arctic subspecies from Alaska and the Kuriles, and in my view is more attractive too.

For most of my gardening life I have grown a superb oxlip which I originally found at 'Kilbryde', Randle Cooke's garden, after it was left to the University of Newcastle. In fact we suspect that things went full circle here. The redoubtable founder of the Heslop-Harrison botanical dynasty was professor of Zoology, Genetics and Botany (those were the days!) and anything else he could lay waste to at the University in the 1920's to 1950's. He has become notorious for his Hebridean expeditions ('A Rum Affair', Carl Sabbagh) but he was a man of many sides, one of which was a study of European primulas (parallel to and in some sense probably in opposition to his counterpart David Valentine at Durham). Harrison had good links with the Soviets and acquired many interesting primulas from the Caucasus, some of which we still grow. These were passed on to Cooke when Harrison lost interest, and we imagine that this magnificent clone of Primula elatior subspecies pseudoelatior had this origin. It adores a rich meadow soil in good light.

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