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A Northumberland Alpine Gardener's Diary

This entry: 14 August 2017 by John Richards

Northumberland Diary. Entry 344.

A study in scarlet

Why is it that some many Chilean subjects tend to flower in the late summer in the UK? Reading reports from down under, most seem to flower before Christmas there (equivalent to our May or early June), but it is my perception that several of the large Andean alpine genera, Alstroemeria, Ourisia, Tropaeolum for instance, tend to flower a good deal later with respect to the solstice when translated to our gardens.

Certainly, several Chileans are flowering here now, including a couple of species I have never flowered before. Philesia magellanica has been an exercise in patience. I acquired a small piece of this exquisite scaled-down version of Lapageria the best part of a decade ago. I planted it in a shaded bed amongst peat-blocks and it immediately started to produce surprisingly long woody rhizomes which surfaced to produce small shoots anything up to a metre from the parent. Whether this signalled its general well-being or signified a jail-break in an attempt to discover somewhere more to its liking I have yet to discern. Whatever, it has never shown any indication to flower over many years. Like a sulky wisteria I have taken to cutting off the runners has soon as they appear, hoping that such maltreatment might encourage flowering. I took hope from a super plant at Kilbryde, Randall Cooke's garden near here, many years ago which reputedly took many years to settle down and then covered itself with glory every year. Imagine then my delight to discover a solitary splendid flower yesterday!


Philesia magellanica

Not scarlet, I hear you say? Well, there's no argument about the next subject, Mitraria coccinea. This is another subshrub from wet temperate forests in Chile which is bird-pollinated, and in common with the majority of flowers evolved to be pollinated by humming-birds, it is genuinely scarlet rather than vermilion. This is, rather unexpectedly, a member of the Gesneriaceae, although it shows its affinity to certain south-east Asian bird-pollinated gesneriads such as Aeschyanthus. Unlike the philesia, this has not been in my possession very long, so it was a pleasure to see it is starting to produce some flowers when grown in a plastic pot in a shady spot.

Mitraria coccinea

To pursue the theme, rapid reference to two more scarlet Chileans which are long-established here and late-summer staples, firstly the superb shrub with holly-like leaves Desfontainea spinosa.

And Ourisia coccinea, which unlike its relatives is positively rampant here, scrambling over old logs, and flowering over a long period, without producing a concerted show.

I could continue the Chilean scarlet theme with Tropaeolum speciosum, Crinodendron hookerianum etc, but instead will make an almost annual reference to the wonderful Eucryphia 'Nymansay', sure sign that the garden is rousing from its aestival slumber and gearing up for the autumn

I really must get some more lilies. The handful that I grow have a  staggered growing season, but visits to several local gardens recently, including that of Alan Furness, show that the later lilies can make a great display, and when bought wholesale (I am told that Parkers are good) can be excellent value. Most here are finished, but L. henryi, grown from bulbils, is dominating one part of the garden.

In fact away from the bedding and herbaceous, much of the colour presently is reliant on roscoeas. Most of these I grow (for instance R. humeana and R. cautleyoides) have finished now. However, the magnificent 'Royal Purple' group of R. purpurea, a gift from John Massey, have survived division, have been planted in several places, and are now making a considerable impact. R. auriculata and the yellow R. x beesiana are also in flower now.


There are not many rock plants flowering now, but Gypsophila repens is at its best. This 'everyday' alpine has a strange scattered distribution in the Alps, being absent from large areas but abundant at moderate altitudes in some districts, often on acidic 'roche moutonee' and commonly found on roadside embankments. It is a most useful garden plant, not used enough.

Gypsophila repens

Trachelium (Campanula) jacquinii is another first rate rock garden plant for the late summer, straightforward to grow (here anyway) and long-lived, easily propagated by division in the spring. It is not often grown, although visitors to Olimbos in Greece will be very familar with it on rocks close to the village of Litochoron. Last summer we collected seed in north-eastern Greece, from a ravine near Achladychori which germinated well and the young plants are already setting some flower buds in their first year. Here however is the mature plant I have grown for many years.

Trachelium jacquinii ssp. rumeliacum

It has been quite a season for precocious flowerers. Here are two more subjects flowering despite the fact that they only germinated four months ago. First, the rare and desirable Roumanian endemic Dianthus callizonus.

And here is Androsace rotundifolia, planted out. I acquired seed of this as I already grew A. elegans and A. geraniifolia and wanted to 'complete the set'. A. rotundifolia is the most vigorous, easiest, and, dare I say, the plainest of the trio. Of course, with round-bladed, dissected, geranium-like leaves these are very untypical androsaces and the DNA shows them to belong to a quite distinct clade which should be placed in a separate genus. Alpine gardeners have a reluctance to follow the indications of modern science (Cyclamen for instance, has nothing to do with the Primulaceae, although I have wasted too much breath making myself unpopular by saying so) and I intend to shut up forthwith!

Androsace rotundifolia

Earlier this year I acquired a delightful little Matthiola. This is M. scapigera which hails from north Africa. I have taken some time to discover how to grow it. At one stage I nearly lost it to drought and heat (ironically), but I find that if it is grown plunged in a plastic long-tom, rather underpotted, and with a drip-feed into the pot, it thrives and with dead-heading has a long flowering season. It is definitely a subject for the alpine house however. I deduce that it comes from wet springs on north-facing cliffs!

Matthiona scapigera

and, finally.......

It is amazing how much impact the bronzy leaves of Rodgersia aesculifolia have at this time of year. Contrasted with Carex elata 'Bowles Golden Sedge' it dominates the pond area. Who needs flowers?

and, finally.......
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