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A Northumberland Alpine Gardener's Diary

This entry: 07 April 2011 by John Richards

Northumberland Diary. Entry 179.

Dinton Pastures

 We went down to Reading last week to see the family, taking in the excellent Chesterfield Show en route. There was an attractive small violet shown there which had been sourced from Macedonian seed (not sure if the country or the province of Greece) as V. gracilis. However the latter, as the exhibitors clearly recognised, is a very different plant, a 'pansy' (section Melanium) from southern Greece where I expect to see it in a fortnight or so. Instead, here we had a neat little tufted violet, which no-one knew, although it reminded me of another nice Viola from the northern Peloponnesos, V. chelmea. So, out came the camera, and when I returned, out came Flora Europea, and the Mountain Flora of Greece, and the excellent new book on Greek flowers by LaFranchis and Sfikas. The answer seem to be that this nice little plant is a form of the widespread subalpine species V. pyrenaica, more often sourced from the Pyrenees or Alps, but the truth is, rarely seen in cultivation.

Dinton Pastures

 One afternoon at Reading, Sheila and I went for what turned out to be a much longer walk than we expected at Dinton Pastures. This very large local nature reserve lies just to the north of Winnersh villlage centre (and the A329(M)) and is based around about a mile of the River Loddon and several large gravel pits. At the capacious car park there were several maps and information, but maps became exceedingly scarce in what is a bewildering space, and without a map or GPS we soon became thoroughly lost. When we finally found someone to ask in another small car park, it transpired that we were nearly three miles from the car!

One of my reasons for going was that I thought we might find  (for me) new sites for the 'Loddon Lily', that extremely interesting native bulb which is such a speciality of the area that locally it is  named after this little river. It is also known as the 'Summer Snowflake' (although it flowers in early April), or, more correctly, Leucojum aestivum. I knew Sandford Mill, at the other end of the Reserve, used to be a site for it, and indeed we stumbled across it here (although on private ground), but we also found large native stands in the characteristic riverein woodland that borders the Loddon and many of the Thames tributaries.

 Another attractive spring plant, rather scarce, and one we never see in the north, was one of the loveliest of the spring willows in male catkin, the Almond-leaved Willow, Salix triandra.

 Kingcups, Caltha palustris, was also in full flower. It is some way off that stage up here as yet.

 Back home there was plenty to admire in the garden. Some of the slightly later Erythroniums have now started, E. revolutum, E. californicum and E. 'Pagoda' for instance. There are also several E. helenae, grown from seed and planted out. Amusingly, one has emerged in the middle of a clump of dianthus, where I certainly had not put it. I suspect that this is one of a number of bulbs here that have resulted from my practice of using old seed compost to make up garden beds, so that late-germinating seed has occasionally found its own niche.

 Sanguinaria canadensis 'Multiplex' is currently at its best. This is one of the signature plants of the garden. It seems to flourish everywhere here, and I enjoy its large sculptural summer leaves quite as much as the rather evanescent flowers. Here it is consorting with two primulas, P. vulgaris subsp. sibthorpii and P. denticulata.

 Staying for a moment with the so-called 'drumstick primula', P. denticulata, here it is consorting with a native British form of that geographically very limited species the oxlip, P. elatior, only found in the UK in a few woodlands around the borders of Essex and Suffolk.

 One of the plants that is succeeding with me at present is Primula villosa. A strain of this disjunct and scattered species (its isolated populations range from western Spain to eastern Austria) seems to have settled down, so that seedlings which originated from controlled crosses between pins and thrums can be found in several parts of the garden. They vary a good deal, and not all are a particularly attractive colour (P. villosa rarely has the vibrant rose of its relative P. hirsuta), but I think all are pure rather than hybrid. Here are two rather different plants growing side by side in a trough.

 One last 'European' primula, the hybrid 'Gloria Johnstone' which was named for his wife by our friend Ray many years ago. I believe it is a cross between P. hirsuta and P., allionii, but it is a good garden plant which can look quite like P. villosa. I have shown it before, and this is really an excuse to show that amongst the more important pollinators of primulas can be butterflies, here a Small Tortoisheshell. Incidentally, long-tongued bees are also important visitors, especially B. pascuorum. While we were in Reading we spent a sunny April afternoon watching the bee-fly Bombylius major visiting the primroses which carpet my mother's garden.

 Moving on to a couple of androsaces, both these were recent gifts from Keith Lever. I am not doing as well with Chinese androsaces in pots as I am with plants that were planted out, so both these have been put in the open garden, A. mariae (which I saw on the Zhedou Pass in 2007) and the tiny, elegant A. aff. elatior. The latter has been planted in cavities in peat blocks in partial shade, where it seems to have settled down.

 Next to the latter androsace, I am delighted that Shortia soldanelloides 'Magna' has come into flower. I have to admit that this is the first shortia I have ever successfully flowered. I did not grow any until about five years ago when I purchased two seedlings from a local members plant stall and planted them in recently acquired Swedish peat blocks. Both have set buds during the last two springs, which were frosted on each occasion. I now learn that a ground frost is expected tonight, so I am now off to put a frame-light over them!

 Hopefully the frost will not be severe enough to put paid to the rhodos that are flowering at present. When I made the new Ericaceae bed last autumn I moved a rather overgrown Rh. pemakoense, and for the first time for years it has flowered unfrosted, although somewhat etiolated after its earlier incumbency.

 What has become a large specimen of Rh. pseudochrysanthum over some 30 years is also nearing its zenith.

 I have shown it before, but the McBeath introduction originally named Saxifraga rhodopetala is one of my favourite plants, especially now that I have buried it in a lump of home-made tufa in the open garden where it flourishes without any further tending. This pink relative (and probable wild hybrid) of S. andersonii strikes me as a quintessential high alpine, and I am inordinately fond of it.

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