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A Northumberland Alpine Gardener's Diary

This entry: 20 April 2008 by John Richards

Northumberland Diary. Entry 71.

The north wind shall blow.......
My wife, who is a native of north-east England where we live, reminds me that for each of the first twenty years we lived here I would complain bitterly every spring about the cold winds and late start to the season (in comparison to my soft southern origins, she would say!). It is a measure of the extent to which global warming has affected us that for the second twenty years of our domicile here, such remarks have rarely if ever passed my lips. Not so this year! For more than five weeks we have suffered an almost unbroken series of bitter northerlies and easterlies, accompanied by, as I have occasionally chronicled, wintery weather, snow, frost and hail. As a consequence, we now have one of the latest springs I can recall in the garden, and most of my main targets for the North of England Show at Harrogate next weekend are struggling to flower in time. As an example, that fascinating shrub, Stachyurus chinensis is usually a late March plant, but towards the end of April it is only just starting to bloom here.

The north wind shall blow.......

One man's meat.......

For many, the Lesser Celandine, Ranunculus ficaria is a welcome harbinger of spring. The early, reflective, heaven-seeking buttercup flowers can be accompanied by leaves bearing fascinating markings and colours, so the extent that there are National Collections of this delicate flower, which offer many cultivars and demand high prices.

I can't believe I have just written this! Here in this humid, cool, stiff-soiled garden, celandine is Public Enemy No. 1! Given half a chance it would smother the whole garden (and much of the lawns) in a dense carpet more than 20 cm deep, completely eliminating all competing plants (i.e. those I want to grow!)  smaller than medium-sized shrubs.

The problem here is that when we first arrived I removed the quantities of celandine that appeared during the first and subsequent springs onto the compost heap. In my conditions at least, celandine survives composting, and the little tubers and bulbils (yes we have the tetraploid bulbiliferous form for the cognoscenti) were scattered into every new bed we made, revelling in the open soil and fresh new compost! Soon we had mattresses of the stuff. By the end of June all had died away, to reveal successions of sad little corpses where treasures of the woodland floor had been suffocated by the dense carpets of celandine.

The solution was of course to dump celandine in out of the way corners, for instance under hedges, where it could do no harm. When the leaves first appear in spring, it is surprisingly easy to remove whole, by grasping the centre of the rosette and pulling upwards, when the whole plant should emerge, tubers and all. Even if some tubers are left behind, they are weakened seriously by the removal of all top-growth at this critical phase. Latterly disposal has been aided by the provision by the Local Council of wheelybins for garden waste. For a few weeks in spring, these are reserved exclusively for celandine (and later for ground elder). Assiduous picking over a number of springs has now reduced the problem to manageable proportions, and of course all new planting areas are now celandine-free!

One man's meat.......

Although most celandine-infested areas are now in the far corners of the garden, some bits still pop up in the middle of precious plantings where they have to be watched closely. Here is the double form of the canadian bloodroot Sanguinaria canadensis 'Multiplex' (which grows in many places here), still in bud, but contaminated with celandine.

Staying with the poppy family (to which Sanguinaria belongs), the first of the monocarpic Meconopsis opened its first flower today. This example of M. integrifolia may seem a little leggy as a result of the poor light, but many of the thousands of plants we saw in western China last summer looked much like this.

Androsaces from round the world
Staying in western China for a moment, I have been intrigued by a little Androsace I acquired from Jim Almond  last year. This came under the name A. mariae, a beautiful plant we saw a good deal of last summer. Our plants had much broader leaves than this, and purplish to almost blue flowers, although it can be white flowered too.

Androsaces from round the world

On balance, I think Jim's plant might be better named A. minor, although the plants we saw on the Beima Shan, figured below, are once again not very like Jim's plant, which in some ways more resembles A. sublanata. These are variable and difficult complexes, not yet fully understood.

Back on surer ground, I have loved a little Androsace sent as seed from western Canada by Pam Eveleigh. She labelled this as 'A. chamaejasme', thus reflecting current opinion that classifies all the plants from western north America, Alaska, Japan, Siberia and Europe as the same variable species. More often in the UK, we have called these plants from the Rockies A. lehmanniana, not to be confused with the difficult Himalayan species A. lehmannii. In common with many of the Chamaejasme section of the genus, it has a wonderful marzipan-like fragrance.

Incidentally, you will see that this seedling is highly stoloniferous, but others from the same collection are more mat or even cushion-forming.

Next is a much more localised north American species A. idahoensis (previously classified as a Douglasia, but new studies show that Douglasia is closely related to the European Aretian species, more so than the Chamaejasme section of Androsace). I haven't yet found the trick of producing this in good condition. So far it has been plunged in the Alpine House in a plastic long-tom pot.

Staying in the Alpine House, I have enjoyed Erythronium hendersonii. Sown in 2002 using seed from Gothenburg Botanic Garden this is flowering for the first time. It has stayed in the Alpine House throughout, being mostly dried out in summer and repotted with other bulbs in late July. I tried other sowings in the open garden where they flowered once and were never seen again. In other warmer gardens I believe this plant from quite low levels in the Medford region near the Siskiyous thrives outside, but not apparently here. I have just pollinated it with E. revolutum from the garden to see if a new pink hybrid can be raised.

Himalayan rarities
I am concluding with pictures of three unusual alpines from the Himalaya. The first was acquired from Aberconwy Nursery as Saxifraga micans. This resembles S. andersonii in flower, but has very different leaves that are harsh, even prickly, to the touch, longer and more pointed with a number of lateral lime-pits. As far as I can make out from the Horny, Webr and Byam-Grounds monograph, S. micans does seem to be the best name for this attractive plant, which seems to be a good doer. As for all my Himalayan saxifrages, it is repotted after flowering and spends the summer plunged outside in a cool spot.

Himalayan rarities

Next is Primula deuteronana. Unlike most petiolarids, this is a genuine high alpine, growing above the tree-line in central Nepal. It has rather crocus-like flowers with a hairy tube. The present plant was acquired as the much plainer woodland species from Bhutan, P. bracteosa, so it has a very pleasant surprise when I suspected it would flower as P. deuteronana. Recently, Ian Christie gave me another, very different-looking plant which proves to be a pin, so I have been able to cross these in the hope of obtaining seed.

Finally the 'real' P. petiolaris. Most plants of this complex in cultivation are forms of P. gracilipes, and genuine P. petiolaris is hard to come by (the plant with reddish-purple flowers often sold as this is the clone 'Redpoll'). P. petiolaris resembles P. gracilipes but is tighter with almost stemless, cup-shaped flowers and crisped foliage. Unlike P. gracilipes it lacks meal on the foliage, although there may be a trace on the outside of the corolla.

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