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A Northumberland Alpine Gardener's Diary

This entry: 12 April 2015 by John Richards

Northumberland Diary. Entry 295.

Blind daffs

After a halcyon week between the Cleveland and Chesterfield Shows, it suddently turned cold on Saturday, and we were frozen queuing to enter the Chatsworth grounds after we had put plants on the table yesterday. Sensational as the scenery is, and undoubtedly handy for the North Midland Show, Chatsworth does not have a great deal to offer the plantsman/gardener in April (or most other times of year) apart from millions of narcissi. A two-hour ramble tended to confirm my suspicions, which I have heard voiced elsewhere, that 2015 has proved a far from vintage year for the genus Narcissus: indeed a very high proportion have failed to flower.

To be fair, this seems to have been limited largely to the trumpet daffs. The early cyclamineus crosses such as 'Jetfire', 'Snipe' and the ever faithful 'Tete-a-tete' performed as well as ever, and it looks as if the later tazzettas and poeticus are poised to do equally well, but in many places bog standard daffs such as 'King Alfred' and its ilk have not lived up to expectations. Granted there were some spectacular shows on some Derbyshire village greens, but these appeared to have been freshly planted, and established populations fared very poorly.

Hybrid primulas

This is the first garden-based contribution for some weeks and a backlog of photographs has built up. However interesting, I am in two minds whether to show some of the earlier subjects that have now gone through. I shall start with some of the plants which are starring at present and see how we go.

I am not a great hybridiser, but I do save and sow quite a lot of my own seed, and occasionally this has resulted from deliberate crosses between species or hybrids. More frequently, only the mother to the cross can be ascertained for certain, and this is the case for two of three primula crosses I have raised. The most recent is a rather cabbagy and very vigorous cross which was raised from seed set on Primula pedemontana. The leaves are much more toothed and crinkled that on the rather smoothed leaved mother, and it is possible that P. latifolia is the other parent, but this is far from certain. The flowers open very small and deep violet, but soon become larger and paler, and although it is still quite a striking plant. If I succeed in propagating it, I had better coin a name I suppose.

Hybrid primulas

The second plant I raised about ten years ago. The mother was a P. marginata cross with vivid purple flowers called 'Philip', and the father was not known, but it must have been a P. x pubescens cross, as the offspring resembles this group far more. The flowers are an indescribable shade of purply-red which is much the colour of my wife's engagement  ring, so that I called it 'Ruby Tuesday'. This name may strike a chord with those of certain age, and if not, soonest mended. However I might add that I had a passing acquaintance with Marianne Faithfull when we were both very young! I have propagated and distributed this clone to a few.

Primula 'Ruby Tuesday'

Finally, the plant that I named for my wife, 'Sheila'. This is probably too far down the 'Auricula' road for many alpine purists, and the flower is very 'pasty', as are the leaves farinose. This was grown from seed gathered on P. auricula of wild origin, crossed with 'Philip' again. This has also received a limited distribution.

Some European species primulas

From these hybrids it is a short hop to some of the European species, of which I am very fond and which I try to collect as many as will grow for me. I am particularly taken by this form of P. villosa v. villosa, very different from v. cottia and v. commutata, both of which I also grow and which are much more robust. I have sometimes wondered if it is hybrid, but as it is ostensibly grown from wild seed, I suppose it is likely to be true.

Primula villosa v. villosa

Primula albenensis was discovered only about 25 years ago in the north-west Italian Prealps where it grows on north-facing limestone cliffs. It is a charming plant which I have found fairly trouble-free grown in a crock-pot plunged in the alpine house. It is liable to aphid attack later in the season, and resents being dripped on (as do most plants: I must mend some cracked glass!). Incidentally, I should say that increasingly I am not growing most European primulas this way. Instead I am growing them in plastic pots in a compost with more than 50% perlite, plunged in a relatively shady spot in the alpine house.

Primula albenensis

And some Asiatics...

I have only owned Primula warshenewskyana for about a year. During this time it has increased steadily in a small expanded polystyrene container (originally made to hold lab bottles of acid) with a pane of glass cover in winter. It was lifted for showing and has now been put back in the container in some fresh compost. It seems taller than some forms of this species, but is not a P. rosea hybrid, and probably comes under P. w. ssp.rhodantha. As this species grows in Tadzhikstan as well as Afghanistan and northern Pakistan, I wonder if it has been reintroduced relatively recently?

Primula warshenewskyana ssp. rhodantha

Another primula from a similar area, although slightly further east, into Kumaon, Kashmir and east to west Nepal, is Primula erosa. This charming low-level, forest-dwelling, evergreen and winter-flowering relative of P. denticulata is not very hardy, and despite several introductions in the 1970's, did not survive the terrible winters that ended that decade. I am greatly indebted to Alan Oakley who gave me a piece last year, not least because it seems to have fascinated Judges at several recent shows!

Primula erosa

Before we finally leave Primula, it is worth showing a picture of Primula 'Soup-Plate'. This seems to have been one of several hybrids of Primula bhutanica that arose at the Sherriff's garden, Ascreavie, in the 1960's (where the blue primulas of the eastern Himalaya used to self-sow). The best-known and longest-lasting of these is 'Arduanie', with larger flowers of a clear blue. 'Soup-plate' makes rather large, dish-shaped rosettes with somewhat smaller purplish flowers. Viewing it in her garden back in 1974, Betty Sherriff and I agreed that it somewhat resembled a dish of soup! Although it was planted in quantity at the RBG Edinburgh in the 1970's, I had thought it lost until Ian and Carole Bainbridge exhibited it at Kendal this spring. Generous to a fault, they gave me a rosette which is pictured here planted in my modest peat wall where at present it looks quite happy.

Primula 'Soup-Plate'

Porophyllum saxs

Time we finally left primula! There have been a few excellent porophyllum saxifrages in flower over the last couple of weeks. Not all the locally raised 'Allendale' crosses are good garden plants here, but 'Allendale Bravo' is one of the best.

Saxifraga 'Allendale Bravo'

I have given up trying to grow the various S. x poluanglica crosses for exhibition. At present, the Coolock hybrids seem to carry all before them, so such plants as 'Peter Burrow' and Tvuj Uspech' have been consigned to the garden, together with 'Redpoll' which is probably the best of them.

Saxifraga 'Redpoll'

I already showed a pciture of Saxifraga marginata v rocheliana in early flower several weeks ago, but it has been truly sensational this year and is still in good form in mid April.

Saxifraga marginata v rocheliana

It is also proving a good year for Erythroniums. E. tolumnense is easy here, but often rather shy-flowering. Not this year; it has been excellent.

Erythronium tolumnense

E. oregonum has now flowered for nearly three weeks.

Erythronium tolumnense

Staying with bulbs, but looking at a few in pots (not my forte), Fritillaria stenanthera (now over), Tulipa vvedenskyii and Ipheion uniflorum 'Rolf Fielder' have all proved their worth as very easy bulbs, by managing to flourish, even for me!!

Fritillaria stenanthera Tulipa vvedenskyii Ipheion uniflorum 'Rolf Fielder'

After several rather blank years (perhaps it needs to become pot-bound, being a crevice plant in nature?), Paraquilegia anemonoides has produced more than 20 flowers this year. I adore it, one of my favourite plants. My photo of it on the Beima Shan formed my screensaver image until recently (Frit. delavayi now!).

Paraquilegia anemonoides

Rhodo time!

A bit of frosting on tender buds, but we have had worse springs. Here are that lovely Rhododendron leucaspis cross, 'Snow Lady', followed by the pink form of Rh. chamaethomsonii, both currently at their best.

Rhododendron 'Snow Lady' Rhododendron chamaethomsonii pink form

As a final image, the prettiest plant in the garden at present, that peerless shrub Corylopsis spicata. How I love it!

Corylopsis spicata
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