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A Northumberland Alpine Gardener's Diary

This entry: 12 August 2008 by John Richards

Northumberland Diary. Entry 86.

Monsoon

Having been away at the weekend, I had thought of leaving the diary alone for a week, but its raining so hard and so continuously today that I have decided to improve the shining hour.

I believe this rainfall is countrywide. Here we have exceeded our ration for August already, and talking to our Editor, I believe the same is true for East Anglia. Judging by the weather at the Oval (cricket, for the uninitiated) over the last few days, this is less true of the south-east of England, but even that dry corner must be far from short of water.

Before we went away I finished the bulb repot. As the result of my ruthlessness drive I am down to about 110 pots of bulbs under glass now. The benefits are that the pans are properly spaced in the plunge, and there is even a small amount of spare plunge for that late acquisition. I am striving for a position in which at least half my pans of bulbs are show-worthy; the ratio is probably not much more than a third at present. Of course, the real specialists have ten times more pans of bulbs than I do, but in this climate and garden bulbs under glass are fairly well down my list of interests.

I have mentioned late germinators before, and I have another three to report. Two New Zealanders, Ourisia caespitosa and Raoulia bryoides have not yet changed their clocks and have just pretended its early spring. For some reason, Androsace cylindrica has also produced a couple of late seedlings.

Yesterday afternoon the weather turned quite nice for a bit. Its that sort of summer! Having attempted to mow and edge (with a strimmer) a soggy lawn, I turned my attention to an individual of Jeffersonia dubia that has survived buried right in the roots of Rhododendron lepidostylum for some years. Its removal involved digging up the rhodo, and with it yards of weedy Cymbalaria hepaticifolia and oak fern. Once I had extricated the Jeffersonia, Sheila decided that the rhodo was an ideal subject to plant in a hole caused by the removal of an ancient rotten Rosa 'Fruehlingsgeld', so after soil preparation, in it went. Perhaps in this much more open site the rhodo will now flower more freely. The scent of the foliage is wonderful.

During these operations, I disturbed a seriously overcrowded Rh. pumilum. As was the case last year, it has decided to flower in the late summer monsoon, which it probably does in its south-east Tibetan home.

Interestingly, two more rhodos that have decided to produce late flowers are also south-east Tibetans. I wonder why rhodos from this corner are quite amenable in the garden when so many other wonderful subjects from there are less accomodating? Here is Rh. calostrotum, followed by Rh. campylogynum.

Quite early in the history of this diary, about a year ago, I mischievously offered some Primula sonchifolia seed to anyone who could identify the out-of-focus foliage of a shrub. My main motive was to see if anybody was actually reading the diary, so imagine how thrilled I was to receive no less than two answers! One of these was correct to genus, but not to species, and I meanly withheld the seed. The subject involved (Azara petiolaris) was not the commonest of plants, and neither is the present subject. For the same prize, what is the shrub in the background of this photo of Lilium leichtlinii, currently in flower? Answers to go in the relevant part of the on-line discussion. I shall ask any winning entry to send me their address.

Staying with lilies, my favourite of all, the fabulous scarlet Greek L. chalcedonicum has excelled all week, although it is now looking a bit frazzled in all the rain. It will probably follow all the other lilies this year and set no seed. I have never known a poorer year for lily-set.

Such is the paucity of subjects in this, the third late summer I have documented that I am forced to repeat myself again. As an excuse I can report that Codonopsis grey-wilsonii is definitely moving forward, with at least six flowers out together and even 'Himal Snow' is due to produce a flower next week. In my book, nothing can beat the original blue.

Now for a couple of odd-balls.The first was acquired from Slack Top nurseries as 'Crassula sp.'. At the time that I spent a very modest sum on its acquisition, I was newly returned from the Drakensberg and enthusiastic about hardy crassulas. This interesting plant tends to lose its foliage as it flowers in late summer. I thought I might be about to lose it, but I see that it is starting to come into growth again. I grow it in two places, one of them the crevice bed, and have decided that I really like it. Does anyone know its name?

Succisa 'Cassop'

The second oddball is a plant I have grown for more than 30 years. One summer, as a young University teacher, a colleague and I took the students to a local magnesian limestone slope and we recorded vegetational change from the bottom of the slope to the windswept summit. We also recorded the performance of one species, the Devils-bit, Succisa pratensis. Seed was collected from along the transect, germinated, and then grown on in standard conditions to form the subject of an exercise for the same class the following year.

Remarkably, seed from the very dwarfed plants at the top of the slope gave rise to very short plants even in the most fertile soil. I brought this tiny form into cultivation, where it self-sows modestly, and all the seedlings are equally dwarf. I call this plant 'Cassop', after the original locality. I have given it to at least one well-known nurseryman, but cannot tell you if it is available. As it is not outstandingly attractive, to put it mildly, it may well have been overlooked.

Finger-licking good...

The prophet-flower, Arnebia echioides, is named for the rapidly disappearing black spots on the petals, supposedly touched by the the prophet Mohammed. Coming from warm dry spots in Turkey, it had a rough time during our cold wet winter last year and I nearly lost it. I planted the sad remnants on the top of new mound of artificial tufa, and it has shown its pleasure through resurrection and a burst of late flower.

As a final subject, I can do no better than illustrate one of my favourite late summer plants, Lobelia tupa. Although a tall subject, this is a good deal better at free-standing than surrounding lilies, for which it acts as a prop. It is supposed to thrive in wet places, but here it enjoys a south-facing raised site, although it has done best in the last two, very wet, summers.

John Richards

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