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A Northumberland Alpine Gardener's Diary

This entry: 01 April 2012 by John Richards

Northumberland Diary. Entry 210.

A fortnight has elapsed since I last wrote, and a good deal of water seems to have trickled under the Richards' bridge since then. Firstly we journeyed south to visit my mother, and then to help look after one family of grandchildren while my daughter paid a flying visit to Chicago. While we were in Reading we took my mother to revisit our favourite garden of all, the Queen's garden, named for the great designer Sir Eric Saville, in Windsor Great Park. It has been four years since we were last there, in April 2008 (diary entry 70). On that occasion it had suffered badly from frosts, so that the magnolias and many camellias were spoilt. Doubtless, this is also true now as I write, as most of Britain experienced its first frost for some weeks last night, and worse is forecast in the near future. However, during our visit 10 days ago the garden was pristine and looking its very best, for this is a spring (and autumn) garden par excellence. Here are a few of the wonderful magnolias, firstly M. sprengeri 'Lanhydrock', and then the white flowered 'Columbus', a veitchii x denudata hybrid.

We have just bought a Magnolia x loebneri 'Leonard Messel' for the Newcastle Botanic garden, so it was great to see Saville's champion tree in wonderful bloom.

Not many rhododendrons were yet in flower, so I guess many may have been spared frost damage. However I was greatly taken by this hybrid, 'Golden Oriole', a Rh. moupinense x sulphureum cross. So, Tim (who commented on the last entry), you don't have to travel north to see good rhodos!

Last time we were at Saville, the estimable Bergenia emeiensis had been frosted, so it was nice to see their considerable plantings of this unusual plant (inside and out) in good nick.

Like Wisley, Saville is justly famous for the naturalised drifts of Narcissus cyclamineus and N. bulbocodium. I had forgotten however how extensive their plantings of the native wild daffodil, N. pseudonarcissus are. I think this small bicolor is my favourite of all the narcissus species, not least because we have wild populations close to home here in Northumberland.

My next excursion was in the opposite direction, to Edinburgh. Pam Eveleigh from Calgary is visiting Scotland and Ireland on a lecture tour over the next month or so, and we had arranged to spend a couple of days together in the Edinburgh herbarium, mulling over taxonomic problems in Primula. I need hardly say that this was highly productive, exhausting, and great fun. David Rankin joined us on the first day and I am grateful to David and Stella for hospitality during the intervening night, and some exciting plants!

The Rankins near-vertical west-facing garden is packed with exciting plants, and here are a handful that caught my eye, firstly a super patch of a deep pink form of Trillium rivale.


As in so many woodland gardens in Scotland, Erythroniums figure prominently in the Rankins' plantings. Here are mixed drifts of E. revolutum and E. californicum which self-sow and produce hybrids which typically open whitish and fade a soft pink.

I must say I was impressed how well the often incalcitrant yellow-flowered Erythronium americanum flowered there. Also flowering well was a mysterious yellow plant which David thought might be a hybrid, but in retrospect I wonder if it might be another American species, from the south-east, E. rostratum?

Along the road to the Rankins' nursery 'Kevock', surely the best source today for asiatic primulas, as well as many other wonderful plants, many Himalayan and Chinese. Their poly tunnels are a treasurehouse. I thought I would illustrate just two primulas as I have recently been interested in the taxonomy of this difficult group. Here are P. minor and P. brevicula as a useful comparison.


Back home again I scarcely had time to prepare for yesterdays Northumberland Show, just down the road from here. Here are a few of the plants I took. A Draba cappadocica, followed by Primula villosa and P. algida. I also took a second plant of the 'mystery primula' (see last entry), which now shows the characteristics of this interesting plant rather more clearly

Finally, a few shots from the garden. Increasingly, we are tending to grow tulips in containers over winter, which are replaced by lilies during the summer months. The tulips are just coming to their peak now. Here they are, accompanied by troughs on the terrace.

As can be seen above, we have planted one of the tubs with Narcissus jonquilla this year as it flowers at the same time as the tulips.

The Camellia 'Donation' by the front door had a really rough time in the 2010-11 winter and has taken a full year to recover. However it has now almost regained its former glory, although if the forecast is correct it will be frosted tonight.

Finally, a shot of the planted-out area of the alpine house, where plants live in nothing but coarse sand or home-made tufa, watered by the automatic watering system (hence all the unsightly pipes). They get a few feeds of liquid 'tomorite' each year, but no other forms of sustainance. Among the plants on view are Primula 'Ruby Tuesday' (my own cross), P.'Jackie Richards' (NOT my cross, despite its name!), P. 'Clarence Elliott', P. kewensis, Primula 'nov. sp', Dionysia aretioides,Saxifraga ferdinandi-coburgii, Meconopsis delavayii, Paraquilegia anemonoides (the last two not in flower).

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