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A Northumberland Alpine Gardener's Diary

This entry: 29 August 2016 by John Richards

Northumberland Diary. Entry 323,

Into the inferno

For the last week we have been visiting relatives in the South, coinciding with yet another heat-wave down there. Shade temperatures exceeded 33C in several days and even at night the mercury rarely dropped below a humid 18C. For us, in what has proved a 'staycation' summer, this was a quasi-tropical treat. Emerging from the coolness and shade of the house into a blast of hot air was reminiscent of treasured holidays in Malaysia, Tanzania or Greece. Not surprisingly, gardens had suffered. Laboriously pickaxing the iron-hard soil down to about 30 cm in my daughters garden revealed no trace of moisture and the grass was becoming sere and dry, reminding us of that far-off summer of 1976.

Needless to say, during the same period, our own garden in Northumberland had scarcely exceeded 20C and buckets left out revealed that at least 4 cm of rain had fallen while we were away. All the plants looked fresh and green, and many seedlings had grown a great deal.

I have to say that schadenfreude led me to wonder 'how on earth does anyone grow alpines south of Yorkshire'.(!) Visits to several public gardens, notably Englefield Park, near Theale, west of Reading, and Hatfield House, although full of well-grown interesting plants, tended to support the feeling that most summer displays had ended prematurely and that many plants were suffering from the heat and drought.


The miracle of Wisley

In that context, a whole-day visit to Wisley in suffocating heat revealed how much really good husbandry can do to alleviate the effects of hot dry weather. All areas were in peak condition with no sign of suffering from drought, and the general displays of colour were simply magnificent. Also, many of the plantings were remarkably striking and original in design. Consider the following plantings, just inside the entrance.

The miracle of Wisley

Naturally, I made directly for the alpine area. I was struck immediately by the precocious flowering of many subjects that are months away from flower with me. Several species of cyclamen were in full flower (OK, C. hederifolium has just started to flower up here too, but not the other autumnal species), as were some nerines, colchicums and petrocosmeas. My prejudice is that autumn flowering is triggered by cooler temperatures. I can't believe that day-length is important to bulbs and tubers buried in soil. Yet, certainly it has been (and in fact almost always is) cooler here in the north, yet I struggle most years to get many crocus, cyclamen, sternbergias, gentians etc to flower in time for the autumn Shows. This has caused me to put many of them in a cool place outside after repotting, but am yet to be convinced that this is the way to promote earlier flowering. Do Wisley put their autumn subjects in a cool room prior to flowering? Somehow, I doubt it.

I loved Petrocosmea rosettifolia, often a Christmas flowerer here!

Petrocosmea rosettifolia

There are few really good August genera for the rock garden, but amongst these are origanums, and these do not resent a hot dry climate, notwithstanding that many thrive best in a cool limy crevice. Unlike most, the Turkish O. amanum is a true alpine, but nevertheless succumbed here to the dreadful early winter of 2009/10.

Origanum 'Barbara Tingey' is perhaps the best of the O. rotundifolium hybrids.

Origanum 'Barbara Tingey'

As a fan of the Cretan flora, I have always enjoyed the Dittany of the Ancients, Origanum dictamus, well known to most Cretans too. Formerly it was much gathered from the wild for medicinal purposes and corresponding difficult to find in the wild. It is now grown commercially, and packets of the dried product can be purchased at many Cretan tourist venues. This has allowed it to recolonise many of its former localities (mostly shaded limestone gorge walls), including the Kotsifou and Kourtaliato gorges north of Plakias where it is readily encountered merely by walking up the road (and dodging traffic!). Plants from the Kotsifou seem not to be remarkable in any way, which makes the appellation of Wisley's plant as a cultivar 'Kotsifou' superfluous.

Origanum dictamus

Here by way of comparison is my own plant, grown from seed gathered from the nearby Kourtaliato. It is very brittle, and pieces that break off almost invariably root if dibbed into the sand plunge, making very acceptable sale plants when potted on.

Origanum dictamus

Staying with Greece for a moment, I was intrigued by the plant pictured below which was planted out in the rock garden alpine house. Unusually, it was unlabelled, but I believe it to be the interesting Borage Cynoglottis barrelieri. We encountered this lovely thing amongst limestone scree high on Timfi (N. Greece) during the MESE expeditions in 1999, but failed to find mature seed and this was one of the relatively few plants we had targetted but failed on.

This matter of labelling raises one of the very few quibbles that arose from my visit. Labelling at Wisley is mostly copious and accurate. This cannot be said for some of the primula plantings. You cannot label a planting Primula 'Candelabra'. This means nothing either botanically or horticulturally. Probably these were P. x bullesiana, or P. 'Harlow Carr hybrids' (essentially the same thing) and should have been labelled as such. Another planting was labelled Primula 'Wanda'. Well, it won't be. The clone 'Wanda' which would now be nearly a century old, died out many decades ago, but has been supplanted by many lookalike seed-grown lines (i.e. 'strains' a useful word which for some reason I would be excommunicated for using). Unless specifically designated, these are best labelled as P. 'Wanda Group'. Worst of all perhaps was a planting labelled P. reticulata (a small relative of P. sikkimensis, scarcely in cultivation) which was plainly some P. x polyanthus relative. Unfortunately some criminal has been sending out polyanth seed as P. reticulata for many years. Wisley cannot be blamed for sowing it, but they should have recognised by now that, like the rest of us, they have been duped.

(I might add in parenthesis that I have suffered in similar ways several times this year and mostly from AGS seed. 'Primula blinii' proved to be Erinus alpinus, 'Dianthus brevicaulis' some rather nice and heavily scented pinks. Seed labelled D. myrtinervius has proved to be a semiprostrate relative of D. deltoides, which is in fact what D. myrtinervius ssp. myrtinervius from Vitsi is, vastly inferior to the wonderful ssp. caespitosus from Katmaktcalan, so in this case, perhaps I can't grumble.)

Back inside the alpine house, one could not help being bowled over by Habranthus magna.

Habranthus magna

The next subject was unlabelled, but I believe it to be Daphne rosmarinifolia, formerly a Wilkstroemia species, which is flourishing on tufa outside.

I apologise for the quality of the last photo. This might be the point to interject that after more than 10 years of faithful service, my wonderful Nikon D50 has been demoted into an honorable retirement. This magnificent nmachine has accompanied my around the world, has taken all the thousands of photos figured in the 323 instalments of this blog, has taken in all more than 50,000 photographs in all, has never been serviced, and has never once let me down. It is still in good working order, but I am told that I have been very fortunate, and have finally succumbed to its replacement, a D5300. This is a good camera with many new refinements, but for my visit south I failed to check the iso settings and took photos with files sizes too big for the site to handle. This caused me to overcompress many images, some of which are now insufficiently detailed. It won't happen again!

Returning to Wisley, there is now a superb bog garden below the rock garden with sensational plantings of sarracenias. This is S. x catesbyi.

Sarracenia x catesbyi

Looking though Pontederia cordata plantings to the pitcher plants.

As already intimated, many of the displays of annual bedding were sensational, as well as being 'off the wall'. I don't think I had realised before what an impact annuals asters can have.

Here is another view of the annual borders as laid out in the demonstration gardens which I thought unusually interesting this year.

Battleston Hill was next. Once the rhodos, camellias and magnolias are over, one might think that these magnificent woodland gardens would be bereft of interest. One would be wrong! Quite apart from the sheer impact of tree and shrub foliage, exotics are now flourishing in the glen, where there is a particularly good group of Musa basjoo, the hardy banana.

In another area Dicksonia antarctica is well established and growing to a size more associated with Cornwall

Much of the late summer colour on Battleston Hill comes from Hydrangeas. I love Hydrangea quercifolia, one of the great foliage plants (lost to frost here), but one rarely sees it flowering so well.

Hydrangea quercifolia

Possibly H. paniculata 'Vanille Fraise', is slightly too much, rather like its namesake dessert?

Hydrangea paniculata 'Vanille Fraise'

Like the song, Hydrangea paniculata Chantilly Lace is more to my taste. 'The night the music died'. All my yesteryears, nearly six decades ago now. Wipes a small tear.

Hydrangea paniculata 'Chantilly Lace'

Moving swiftly on to the trial beds. I discovered the magic of the trial beds a few visits ago now, educational and often a great spectacle, even if plants rarely have time to fulfill their full potential. Various annuals and beddings, for instance zonal pelargoniums, made for a very colourful spectacle.

I have always been fond of hardy hibiscus, even if we can't grow them up here. I thought this trial very appealing, with some magnificent varieties. Here is Hibiscus syriacus 'Helene'.

This variety is called 'Lohengrin'.

I was also greatly taken with the Zantedeschia trial, another group that I doubt if we could grow well. This one is 'Gold Sovereign'.

In contrast, the brooding splendour of 'Cantor'.

Back home

I hope the the above eclectic mix gives some small insight into how impressive Wisley is at the moment, arguably Britain's premier garden, a crown it has not always worn.

Back home a number of plants are putting on a splendid display, Eucryphia 'Nymansay' is better than ever, as are Zauschneria angustifolia, Desfontainea spinosa, Roscoea purpurea 'Royal Purple Group', our own Hydrangea paniculata, and many sorbus are coming to their best. I have featured all of these at least once, so will pass over.

I like Trachelium jacquinii ssp. rumeliacum, not least because it reminds me of the Enipeus gorge, a little above Litochoron, on the path up Olimbos. It is now supposedly a campanula, but this old dog is becoming too old for new tricks, and in any case, I don''t believe it!! However, this does what all good plants should do, remind one of other places, times and adventures.

Trachelium jacquinii ssp. rumeliacum
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