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A Northumberland Alpine Gardener's Diary

This entry: 13 April 2014 by John Richards

Northumberland Diary. Entry 268.

Down south

We are newly returned from a family visit to the 'deep south' where I was completely shocked by the advancement of what must be one of the earliest springs there ever. When on the 10th of April, lanes can be deep in 'Queen Anne's Lace' (Anthriscus sylvestris) approaching full foaming flower, buttercups were out, daffodils gone over and dandelions in clock, this is global warming gone mad. I feel sorry for the south when spring,that most precious of seasons, goes through so quickly, chased by such a long succession of warm sunny days. We may complain about the weather here in the 'frozen north', but at least the seasons still adhere to the rules and give us time to enjoy them while we shiver in our woolies!

In fact, the state of dandelions is important to me. Some of you may know that I wear a completely different hat some of the time in spring when dandelions have their main flowering season, as I am the main authority for dandelion taxonomy in this country. On April 24th I am due to spend several days in north Wales studying the local Taraxaca as a Botanical Society workshop. Once dandelions start to go to seed they become virtually impossible to name, so I am crossing my fingers that the season in the Bangor district is not much more advanced than ours, where our dandelions have scarcely started to break bud. Otherwise we shall have to head for the hills! (not such a bad thing, perhaps). John Good's diary suggests that we may be okay, wait and see.

Up north

Returning late yesterday, I was delighted to discover that although cool, the weather had not delivered a frost since we left. A devastating -6C frost three weeks ago had not only destroyed those rhodos that were flowering at the time, but killed several relatively tender alpines which had been planted recently, notably a Lithodora diffusa, a Zaluzianskia, and two dianthus. I have a suspicion that the fact that I had applied a top-drssing of 'Growmore' shortly beforehand had compounded the problem, but whatever the cause there are several gaping holes in the sand beds.

During the intervening week, several rhododendrons had moved towards flowering, while others remained in good condition. Here is the Rh. forrestii again (at least Tim enjoyed it!) with Rh. pachyanthum behind it, and a Primula veris intricata.

Up north

Rhododendron pseudochrysanthum is just opening, backed by a flowering currant.

Oxlips, Primula elatior, and Erythroniums both self-sow here to cover the ground in a number of beds. Often the smaller rhododendrons struggle to make themselves count, but at least that excellent Cox cross 'Patty Bee' matches them in its primrose (or should I say 'oxlip'?) colour.

As seen in the last photo too, another group which rapidly covers the ground now are the wood anemones. We have white ones, and two blues, although I think most of the blues are Anemone nemorosa 'Robinsoniana'. This seems to come true, as it definitely self-sows here (seedlings crop up all over the place) and are indistinguishable from the original. However, the cross with A. ranunculoides (which I seem to have lost), A. x heerii, seems to be sterile and keep itself to itself. The two are lovely grown together.

Unlike the wood anemones, the blandas have been going for more than a month, but last well and are still good, here with oxlips again.

Most erythroniums are only just starting, but E. helenae, always early, and E. hendersonii are now going flat out (the European E. dens-canis is well over). Here is the hendersonii, now starting to make a decent clump. I like this because, strangely, E. revolutum doesn't like me at all, and refuses to establish.

The north 'cliffs' of the rock garden are presently dominated by Aubrieta scardica, originating from MESE seed collected on Timfi. It is a good deal looser than in the wild, and is a poor thing compared with some of the modern hybrids, but we all love our own children. It is one of several Greek aubrieta species I grow, A. gracilis and A. thessala on a sunny slope and A. glabrescens in a scree, but is the earliest by several weeks.

Another introduction from wild seed is now starting to flower in a trough. Gentiana angustifolia is found in the western French Alps, where I featured it in a diary entry last July, but also in the eastern Pyrenees, from where we collected seed eight years ago. The narrow sepals, narrow, dark unspotted trumpets, and narrow leaves are all distinctive.

Two years ago I raised a batch of seedlings from Primula villosa. They have proved rather uniform, and apparently true to type (crosses were made between pin and thrum parents, each obtained through the trade), but all with paler 'baby'-pink flowers compared to the parents. I have one in a pot which I showed last week, but here is one of several seedlings I have planted out.

Inside I am flowering a reputed example of Primula (villosa) cottia, the disjunct western alpine form of this scattered species which is sometimes considered to be worth specific rank. Certainly it does look different, especially due to the flower colour which is almost blue in tone.

Now we have ventured inside the alpine houses, two more primulas come to light. One is the nearest to white of any of the Primula (bracteata) dubernardiana seedlings I have yet produced.

The other is Primula angustifolia. Purchased from the Levers two years ago, this species is fully deciduous, so it was both a pleasure and a slight surprise when it resurfaced again this spring to flower almost at once. This high tundra American has a reputation for difficulty, and certainly it has not grown much, but at least it is still with us.

Not I suppose so distantly related is another north American one of several of my own seedlings of Androsace laevigata which have been planted out in sand-beds. These at least were untroubled by frost for fertiliser.

One last celebration of the plants flowering under glass, my pan of Tulipa vvedenskyii, grown from seed many years ago, which seems to persist year on year without complaint.

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