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A Northumberland Alpine Gardener's Diary

This entry: 19 April 2011 by John Richards

Northumberland Diary. Entry 180.

The Nottingham International

 Back from Nottingham where the ten-yearly International Conference was held from April 14th-17th. I found the whole experience very enjoyable and it was great to catch up with old friends and to make new contacts from around the world. In the end it seemed well attended, and everyone I met seemed to be having a good time. Many of the lectures were excellent, and there was a multiplicity of excellent displays, photographic competitions, plant sales, information stands, book sales, and of course the International Show, which I would have wished could have lasted for more than the one day (and in an air-conditioned room, as promised; black mark to the Conference Centre there!).

One of the workshops I attended was run by our webmaster Jim McGregor about AGS on the web, and the subject of the members diaries naturally came up. I have to say that I was slightly shocked to hear someone say that they were surprised that the diaries were anonymous. I thought that the names of the authors was stated, but I now see that this is not the case. I did start nearly five years ago anonymously, but then I started to sign the occasional contribution, and I thought that when the site was redesigned that we had been identified. Apparently not! As I expect most of the readers know, I am John Richards, and I live in Hexham 20 miles to the west of Newcastle in northern England.

In common with most of Britain, we enjoyed good weather during the Conference, and this promises to continue unabated for some days yet. This is pushing plants through very quickly indeed, so I know that Norma is worried that many of the plants planned for next week's Cleveland Show will have gone through. Certainly, I have been struggling to keep plants in good condition both before and after the International. I put these two forms of Primula pedemontana into a three-pan class; they were still in late bud when I took them to Nottingham, and almost over when the Show finally started.

The Nottingham International

 I had hped to take the marvellous Primula 'Balirside Yellow'; still perhaps the best dwarf yellow hybrid, but it went through much too quickly for my comfort and I left it at home.

 One plant that did stay in good condition for the Show, rather to my surprise, was Meconopsis henrici. This was grown from seed from the Zhedou Pass, west of Kangding, where I had seen it in 2007. It has not proved easy, not surprisingly for a scree-dwelling high alpine, but this one individual overwintered successfully in the alpine house and emerged this spring bearing three flower buds. I am sure it will proveto be monocarpic, so we must hope that it is self-fertile and will set seed. Possibly it has not been seen on the Show bench before.

 Here is M. henrici growing in the wild for comparison. It is a close relative of the more widespread M. lancifolia, but has distinctive swollen blue filaments to the yellow anthers.

 The flower stem of the wild plant seems much more bristly?

Lots of mecs are now budding, and in the next few weeks I should enjoy about a dozen species, although if it doesn't rain soon I shall need to water. The only one that that has otherwise actually flowered spo far is the first of several M. puniceas, the 'scarlet flag'. Hopefully I shall be seeing this sensational species in the wild in a couple of months. I must remember to cross my plants once another one opens its flowers, as seed is only set between different individuals, and I find that pollen is not released until after the petals drop..

 Growing near the meconopsis in one of my 'D' beds (leaf-mould mounds over well-rotted compost) is a frequent associate on high Chinese passes, Bergenia purpurascens, a widespread high alpine which also occurs in the Himalaya. I have failed with seedlings from wild seed on several occasions, but a purchased plant has settled down well, and delights not only wiht the flowers, but the lovely burgundy leaves in autumn.

 One enormous surprise came today when I walked down the drive to say farewell to our overnight visitors. Sheila said 'did you know this parasite was here?', and for a moment I thought she must be referring to me, but she was pointing to a scruffy patch by the garage, and this is what we saw.

 This is Lathraea clandestina of course, appearing for the first time, and its presence requires some explanation. Originally, there had been a crack willow, Salix fragilis, here, and many years ago, not long after we acquired the house, my colleague Alan Davison gave me some seed from his plant with an instruction to rub it on the bared root. This I did, but after a few years we regretfully decided to lose the willow, and with it, I fondly imagined, the toothwort (if it had taken). Years later we replaced it with a Cornus alba 'Sibirica', but this has never really thrived, in what seemed a suitable location. I think we now know why!

Moving on, many rhodos are now at their best. Here is a selection: Rh. campylogynum myrtilloides, Rh.'Chikor', and Rh.cephalanthum crebriflorum.

 However, there is little doubt which rhodo has given me the greatest pleasure. Rhododendron rufum is a rare Taliensia species from the north of China, with a lovely indumentum on both sides of the leaf, but it had never flowered, and I expected it to be shy flowering in common with many of its bretheren. However it has displayed three trusses this year for the first time, of the most breathtaking pure pale pink.

 Staying with the Ericaceae, my Pieris forrestii 'Firecrest' is presently at its best. It gets more enormous every year. No frosts this time!

 Now that it has been relieved of the burden of an overtowering Pinus aristata, my seed-grown Daphne retusa is coming into its own.

 Here is a general view of the back garden, where there is presently a lot of colour as the Ericaceae and bulbs combine to make the best display of the year.

 Some years ago I acquired a few Swedish peat blocks through the kind offices our fellow north-east AGS member Alan Newton. The 'spin' was that various Diapensiaceae particularly relished growing embedded right into the blocks with no other obvious source of nutrition. A year or two later I was delighted to find Shortia soldanelloides (I am told there is a fashion to return this Japanese species to Schizocodon) selling for £5 each, and I purchased one each of 'Magna' and 'Ilicifolia'. These have had a slightly rocky history, suffering badly from late frosts in each of the last two springs which set them back badly, but two wet summers have suited them, and after four years, both are flowering for the first time (last year the buds were frosted and I have kept the frame light on longer this year). The 'Ilicifolia' has been the more successful with five stems. I cut a circle the size of a pot out of the block with a knife and took it to the International Show. It has now slotted back into its socket in the peat block, apparently quite unconcerned.

 Androsace mucronifolia is one of the less common alpines which seems to be a permanent fixture here, and is performing quite well in a trough. It comes from the western Himalaya.

 As the garden matures, Erythroniums multiply and self-sow to the extent that their influence tends to outreach even that of narcissi. Of the later ones, by far the most influential are E. californicum 'White Beauty' (which is very fertile and seeds around everywhere) and the presumably sterile but very vigorous E. 'Pagoda'. However, I have recently found some self-sown seedlings which seem intermediate between the two (yellow flowers but heavily marked leaves) which suggests that 'Pagoda' may have some fertile pollen at least. Here is a general view.

 Here is a close-up of the wonderful 'Pagoda' which should be in every garden.

 To finish with, new this year has been Dianthus simulans, endemic to Slavianka (Orvilos, Ali Botusch) on the Greek-Bulgarian border, from where several Czechs collected seed a couple of years ago, as related in the 'Alpine Gardener' last year ('Ali Botusch at last', September 2010). Its a super little thing, grown in the alpine house throughout..

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