A Northumberland Alpine Gardener's Diary
This entry: 27 December 2008 by John Richards
Asiatic Primulas at Kilbryde. Entry 101.
More Primulas from Kilbryde.
Readers of the last entry will know that I showed there a number of old photographs from Randle Cooke's garden that formerly existed above Corbridge, about three miles from where I live, and about the same distance from Alan Furness's house. Cooke gardened there from about the turn of last century until his death in 1973, and the garden ceased to function in 1981.
I was uncertain how much interest there would be in seeing these old pictures, but the response has been gratifying, and I am encouraged to show a few more. This time I am limiting myself to unusual asiatic primulas that are rarely if ever seen today. These have all been scanned from very faded old Dufaycolor lantern slides, made between 1928 and 1934 (most are dated). I have tried to improve the images, which were also extremely grainy, myself. However, I am greatly indebted to Pam Eveleigh who runs the primulaworld website. Her expertise has further improved these pictures a great deal.
The first two pictures are of Primula dryadifolia. This high alpine from limestone rocks and screes in south-east Tibet and western China has become familiar in recent years from images in the wild, but it has rarely been grown with much conviction. It is a variable plant, and it is seldom realised that it can also exist in a yellow-flowered race, chlorodryas. It is impressive that Cooke flowered both back in 1928-9.
Continuing with high alpines from the eastern Sinohimalaya, here are a couple of Crystallophlomis species. First, the Bhutanese P. elongata. This was labelled P. barnardoana, which represents the early-season form of the species, and by which name the species was principally known in former years. However, as with many species the leaf-shape changed rapidly as the plant matures, and this photo is of a plant more resembling the later form, known as P. elongata, and the prior and correct name. This seems to be a local species in the wild and has not been seen very often. I well remember a lovely little plant shown by the Bainbridges some 15 years ago.
Perhaps because it is fairly easily come by on the Beima Shan (Yunnan), which is often visited by parties of plant enthusiasts these days, Primula brevicula is better understood than formerly. Originally, I was encouraged to sink it within the P. chionantha complex by early-1990's sendings which grew into 'sinoplantaginea' look-alikes. However, some later gatherings of seed grew into a distinctive little plant more related to P. minor, and it is clear that it is in fact a good species, which I was delighted to find high on the Beima Shan in the summer of 2007 (second photo).
Cooke's plant was grown as P. glacialis, which has long been known to be a later synonym of P. brevicula.
Staying on the Beima Shan, here is Cooke's photo of the lovely sky-blue P. zambalensis which grows in quantity on the limestone roadside rubble beside that pass. Cooke called this species P. chrysopa, and in more recent years it was considered to be a variety of Primula gemmifera, v. zambalensis. I first saw it on the Beima Shan back in 1995, and was convinced that it was a distinct species, for whichthe name 'zambalensis' was prior to 'chrysopa'. I well remember when Keith Lever first offered plants for sale, under the name 'P. involucrata', and when it became clear what he had he was nearly trampled in the rush! It is rather short-lived and it is important to cross plants and save seed, but it is a super little plant for a trough of which I have a planting at present. My photo of it on the Beima Shan follows Cooke's.
One more high alpine from south-west China. Although apparently more widespread, and possibly merging with other species (P. apoclita?) in some areas, P. pinnatifida is best known from high altitude sites in the Yulong Shan, north of Lijiang. Like all the Muscarioides species it is very short-lived and best treated as a biennial, so it is crucial that seed is saved every time it flowers. Cooke's plant was a Rock number. No, no, Joseph Rock, who lived in Lijiang for many years!
Now for three highly emblematic species, legendary plants! First is the wonderful Primula kingii. This distinctive relative of P. amethystina has flowers somewhat like a dwarf P. secundiflora, but is MUCH more difficult to grow and only the Sherriffs at Ascreavie ever really succeeded with it. However Cooke clearly flowered it at least once. It occurs in two disjunct areas, and those from the western Sikkim/Chumbi population seem much leggier than those from the Orka La on the Arunchal/Bhutan border. It is reasonable to assume that Cooke's plant, collected by Ludlow and Sherriff, originated from the western population.
Next, the subtropical chasmophytic aberrant Soldanelloid that Sherriff chose to name for his mother. This has (had?) only two known sites, some 500 km apart, and it may have been seen on each only once. It is an extraordinary species, clearly designed to be pollinated by hawk-moths (Sphingidae), which just survives in cultivation.
Finally, my favourite Soldanelloid, only known from the Orka La region, and not seen in cultivation since about 1950. It has been seen in the wild in recent years, and has been photographed by Anne Chambers and others. Presumably Cooke grew it from an early Ludlow and Sherriff sending.
Not quite sublime to the ridiculous, but it is self-evident that the final trio lack the rarity and high alpine glamour of the previous subjects. However, P. geraniifolia, P. heucherifolia and P. pycnoloba are rarely if ever seen in cultivation today. P. pynoloba is a very strange species, placed within its own section, although it is probably best treated as an aberrant Cortusoid, with inflated calyces fused into a ball-like head, and small brown tubular flowers.