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A Northumberland Alpine Gardener's Diary

This entry: 29 December 2009 by John Richards

Northumberland Diary. Entry 136.

Let it snow, let it snow, let it snow.....

As I write, we have enjoyed one of the most protracted lies of snow here since the mid 1980's, a quarter of a century ago (yes, it really is that long!!). It started snowing on December 15th. We disappeared south on the 21st, getting to my daughter's house near Twickenham just early enough to just miss one of the biggest snarl-ups the south has experienced, as heavy snow was preceded by rain which washed away the salt, and then hit the afternoon rush. My own home town of Reading disappeared under a blanket of snow, grinding to a complete halt which had scarcely shifted when we drove there three days later. My other daughter in Hertfordshire was stuck in a car for seven hours and in the end walked home.

The photos that follow were taken a day after our first snow, more than two weeks ago, but arriving back home yesterday, very little seemed to have changed. Both alpine houses had remained subzero (dropping to -5C) for most of the intervening period, and the garden was still under a blanket of snow. I expect good flowering!

Let it snow, let it snow, let it snow.....

Cotoneaster lacteus, followed by Berberis thunbergii and Abies koreana.

We had a visitor to the alpine houses; Jack Frost!

The traditional wreath that we put on the front door is always made from material in the garden as we have plenty of berried subjects. Although I usually use variegated holly, most of the berries are supplied by Skimmia x reevesiana which has larger, brighter, longer-lasting fruit than the hollies.

A child's Christmas at Kew.

Despite the above, south-west London had received very little snow, so on my wife's birthday two days before Christmas we went to Kew with my daughter and four-year old grandson Danny. Kay only lives about three miles from Kew, and visits it very frequently, at least once every two weeks. We have bought her a season ticket as a Christmas present for some years now. Kay would say that she is no gardener, but she and Danny really love Kew, and it is really set up for a four year old, particularly at Christmas. No skating rink this year, but instead there was a real old-fashioned roundabout (carousel for Transatlantics), and another with 'Noddy cars'(i.e. Austin A40s for those of us old enough to remember!), which Danny loved. As always, 'climbers and creepers' (a childrens' adventure playground under cover made into parts of plants, you can pollinate a huge flower), was a great success. There are spin-offs. Danny knows all the glasshouses and led his granddad by the hand to show him bananas growing on the tree. I don't think he believed me when I said it was pollinated by huge fruit-bats!

Although there was only a thin sheet of snow, the ground was frozen solid, so it was not surprising that there was little in flower outside. However I was very surprised to see the Mallorcan and Minorcan endemic Hippocrepis balearica in flower, as it usually flowers in April in the wild. It may be hardier than it looks, as it grows a long way up Puig Major.

A child's Christmas at Kew.

There were also some Galanthus elwesii just starting. This one is called 'Three leaves', but as it seems to rice-grain, perhaps it would be better as 'Too many leaves' (!).

The last time I wrote about Kew (autumn of last year), I was rather rude about the Davies alpine house, so I had better redress the balance. There are still relatively few real alpines, but the rather eclectic mix on show provided many points of genuine interest at the most difficult time of year, and I was impressed.

First, here are two general views.

You will see that Primula verticillata figures prominently. I know that Kit Strange enjoys these Sphondylia primulas, following a long tradition (P. verticillata is a parent of P. kewensis).

I have just noticed that in the last photo, the primula is partnered by Helichrysum arwae, which is often its companion in the Asir mountains where they both grow.

I completely fell for Androcymbium europaeum. There can be no genus more marginally European than this predominantly African group of bulbs. This species only creeps into Europe near Almeria in the driest part of Spain, while A. rechingeri is only found on Elaphonisos, south-west Crete, to which you can wade at low tide.

Another bimodal from southernmost Spain and the south-west extremity of Crete is the only European Juno, Iris planifolia. Several forms were in flower during our visit.

Sternbergia candida from south-west Turkey seems to have problems deciding whether it is an autumn species, or spring-flowering. By the way, I can't flower it!

Finally, it was very odd to see Chaenorrhinum glareosum in full flower. This was a species I greatly admired high on the Sierra Nevada one August and I never expected to see it flowering at Christmas. Perhaps, under glass, it never stops.

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