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A Northumberland Alpine Gardener's Diary

This entry: 15 December 2011 by John Richards

200th Edition: A Celebration of Alpines.

200th edition.

This diary started over five years ago, in early August 2006. Originally it was planned as a weekly account of affairs in our garden, but simple maths will illustrate that an average of  fewer than 40 issues have in fact appeared annually. Also, the subject matter has on occasions strayed to the Newcastle Botanic Garden where we volunteer, other gardens we have visited both public and private, and our botanical trips both in this country and abroad. Hopefully enough people find the diary  interesting enough to warrant a continuation, at least for the time being. I intend to stop when I am fed-up with doing it, which, strange to say, is not yet!

At times it seems as if I am addressing a readerless vacuum, but when I visit local groups some people do come up to say that they enjoy it, which is kind. The diary does not attract much discussion, but then again it is spared the meaningless feedback of the 'Wow, thats really great' type that tends to accompany contributions to other websites, (less said soonest mended!). I do hope I haven't scared away potential commentators in saying this; any feedback, even 'Wow, thats really banal' would be better than nowt!

The 100th edition passed without comment, but it is nearly Christmas and its dark outside, and I thought I would mark the Festival and this milestone with a special edition in which I celebrate my 25 favourite alpines. One suggestion for a discussion topic would be 'Wow, how could you possible have omitted my favourite Blanketus anonymus?'


Twenty-five favourite alpines

So here we go. I am starting back in my early gardening history. Nearly 40 years ago, in 1973, Randle Cooke died at the age of 93 and left his famous 1 ha garden 'Kilbryde' (about three miles from here) to the University of Newcastle. No-one much else was much interested in the garden, so at the tender age of 30, and fairly recently appointed to a lectureship at the University, I assumed responsbility for the upkeep of the garden. We were able to keep it in reasonable shape for another eight years through the help of the 'Job Creation Scheme' of the Wilson and Callaghan Governments (another financial crisis was under way at the time, with eye-watering unemployment which made the current figures look almost trivial).

I am starting with three wonderful plants which thrived on Cooke's back wall for all the years we were there. This area was backed by a wall set into the hill through which drainage water percolated; it was raised, but in shade for much of the day, it was draughty but sheltered and with excellent frost-drainage. Surprisingly, about 15 cm down there was a thick yellow clay.

First the Award of Merit form of Rhododendron forrestii. This was distributed when the garden closed in 1981, and some years later I was given a piece by Margaret and Henry Taylor and I grow it still, although never as well as this, a photograph taken at Kilbryde in 1977.






Twenty-five favourite alpines

Very close to the rhododendron grew a superb Shortia uniflora var. grandiflora, the best I have seen growing outside. When we moved the plants to our own Botanical Garden, all attempts to propagate the shortia failed. It is my experience that it is best to transplant very young seedlings, and then never move them again!

The final plant I am showing from Kilbryde is what I think is probably my favourite primula. Now, there are a lot of primulas (more than 430 species), and I am fortunate to have seen more than half of them, one way or another. It is a genus full of lovely plants, so it is possible that my fondness for P. griffithii stems partly from the fact that it was the first difficult rare plant with which I really succeeded (they set seed in 1977 and at one time I flowered more than 120 together in my own garden!). However they only really thrived on the Kilbryde back wall where their deep thongy black roots penetrated far into the yellow clay. Doubtless absence makes the heart grow fonder and now the true plant is no longer cultivated, and the likelihood of its (illegal) importation from its homeland in north-west Bhutan becomes ever more unlikely, one can only gaze at photographs from the wild (here by Liz Knowles), and covet!


Here is part of the Kilbryde group, all those years ago.

Time to move on from Kilbryde and indulge in my fascination with Greece. I first went there as a student teenager in 1962, where we baked on a remote island. I was unable to return for 20 years, when I led a tour to Parnassos and the north-west in 1981. In 1985 a second tour was able to take in that magnificent botanical mountain Olimbos, and here I encountered for the first time what is very possibly my very favourite alpine of all, Jancaea ('Jankaea' then) heldreichii which is found nowhere else. Since then I have been a fan of all things gesneriaceous, not least tropical subjects which featured on this diary early this year when we visited Malaysia. But Jancaea remains my first love, and I am happy to report than I grow and flower it every year in a lump of home-made tufa in the alpine house.

Since then I have been back to Olimbos many times. Here is a group pictured growing on the remote northern side of the mountain.


I should have said that Jancaea was another plant that flourished on Cooke's famous back wall, although not in our time. As a matter of record, here is a photo of his plant (from 1928!).

Mention of Greece brings me to a plant which I was involved with the discovery, or at least publicity, of. On the first MESE expedition of the Alpine Garden Society to northern Greece in 1999, we had intended to spend more time than we did on Kajmatkcalan on the Makedonian border. We were dissuaded by a combination of overenthusiastic border guards, the rumour of mines, and the feeling that we could achieve little more on the limited area of the mountain on which we were permitted to roam. This caused us to spend a very productive day on the mountain Vermion, above the wine producing town of Naoussa. Having four-wheel drive, we were able to take a vehicle up a rough forest road to above the tree-line, indeed we eventually drove close to the summit. On the way we passed through rolling limestone country at about 1900 m which was dotted with daphne bushes. Many of these were the familiar D. oleoides, but some were distinctly different, having purple buds, obtuse crystalline petals, deeper green leaves of another shape, and redder fruits. In fact they looked remarkably like some forms of the Chinese D. retusa. Being unaware of any daphne from here looking like this, we named it informally D. 'vermionica' and so it appeared in our report of the Expedition in the AGS Bulletin for September 2000. Having consulted with the experts (including our ex-President Chris Brickell), I was preparing to go ahead with the publication of this species when I was disgusted to find that Jozef Halda had pipped me to the post and published it in an obscure journal as D. sojaki. So, D. sojaki it is. Unfortunately, seed collected then gave rise to plants which did not thrive for most people. Since then, my wife and I have been back and I collected scions which grafted onto D. mezereum have made moderate progress, but this is not an easy plant. Here it is in the wild.


There is no doubt that D. sojaki is at least very closely allied to a little-known Croatian endemic, D. malyana which was exhibited at the Cleveland Show this year and mentioned in the latest issue of 'The Alpine Gardener', although the latter does not have purple buds. It is also a relative of another Greek endemic, from further south, D. jasminea, and here they are both flowering together in my alpine house this year. Incidentally, I have found that my D. sojaki is alarmingly deciduous, although it does seem to regain its foliage the following year. I wonder if this has anything to do with its enforced  D. mezereum root-system?


It is hard not to select that superb plant Daphne petraea from northern Italy, but I showcased that well on this diary in June 2010, and a picture of my show plant of D.p. 'Grandiflora' appears in the current issue of 'The Alpine Gardener', so instead I am featuring the lovely yellow daphne from north-west China, D. calcicola. I saw plenty of this on the Shika Shan (Zhongdian, Yunnan) this summer, but the following photograph was taken on the pass above Xiangcheng in extreme SW Sichuan in 2007. Here it grew on limestone outcrops above the road at about 4200 m with, as we shall see, some surprising companions. I have never grown this plant, and until the price of grafted plants drops, I probably never will!


As I have just said, the aforementioned daphne had some surprising bedfellows, none more so than the ultimate cushion-forming androsace, A. tapete. This has the reputation of rarely flowering in cultivation, and if its behaviour on the Beima Shan is any guide, this may also often be true in the wild. However, on the Xiangchen pass it was in fine form. I was not prepared to give space to another cushion androsace, so A. alpina, A. helvetica, A. yargongensis and others were passed over, not least because they have all appeared on these pages before.


However, I couldn't resist another androsace, another favourite genus, seen in quantity the day before Xiangcheng in 2007, all around the high Tibetan plateau town of Litang. This is of course the wonderful yellow A. biscula var aurata which I was delighted to be able to exhibit this spring, and which I am still (fingers tightly crossed!) growing.


On the same trip to China in 2007 during which the last three photographs were taken, we encountered many other fantastic plants including the other primula I am featuring (I have limited myself to two!). This is the 'Nivalid' Primula longipetiolata. We were fortunate to 'have to' spend three whole days on the Zheduo Pass during that Tour, due to a change of plan caused by an earthquake-induced landslip (which nearly slipped on us!). I have written elsewhere (Alpine Gardener in 2008) about the splendours of the Zheduo, which include the black-flowered primula, then known as P. euprepes but now correctly P. melanantha. Extraordinary as this species undoubtedly is (we visited it again in 2011), I regard the outstanding plant of this zone to be P. longipetiolata. This grows in bushes beside a stream near the black primrose, and is in my view an extremely beautiful plant, for the brilliant red petioles contrast well with the clear blue flowers. This species had been lost to view, as successive authors had sunk it within the more widespread P. limbata, which it closely resembles in the herbarium. It is not easy grow and I have yet to raise it to flowering, although P. limbata itself is less difficult.

In many ways I regard Omphalogramma as the 'ultimate genus'. These exotic primula relatives (but with six petals) all come from very remote areas where the Himalayas border China, and are very difficult to grow, difficult to tell apart, and hard to encounter in the wild. Added to this, they are very beautiful with huge flowers of a vivid intensity (usually royal purple to dark blue, but also sometimes a vivid red). This is another genus I first encountered when young, at Kilbryde, where a small group of O. souliei grew on the back wall next to the Primula griffithii.

Most omphalogrammas resemble O. souliei in having funnel-shaped flowers which graduate into the wide tube. O. vincaeiflorum differs in having a flat-faced flower which changes abruptly into a narrow parallel-sided tube. This plant is still occasionally offered and I have flowered it several times in recent years, putting it on the show bench on two occasions (where it was politely ignored; not all judges share my enthusiasms!). This is the only species I have seen in the wild, back in 1995 where we found a colony on the ridge to the west of Napa Hai, Zhongdian.

If a theme is appearing here, it might be that I have a bias towards medium-sized plants with single nodding blue flowers. I think this must be true, although what the deep-seated Freudian basis for this fixation is is sunk in the depths of my subconscious. I have yet to mention Meconopsis, which regular readers will know is something of an obsession here, and causes me to unveil two candidates; this is another 'two-species genus'!

I think the loveliest of the small species, at least those I have grown and encountered in the wild, is M. delavayi. The fact that I manage to flower this most years indicates that it is by no means impossible to grow, although I don't always succeed to obtaining my own seed, and some years I am beholden to the Meconopsis Group which seems to have a regular supplier. Incidentally, as with many such plants, I find it helps to grow several together which improves the seed-set and also the quality of the (cross-pollinated) seed.

This is another plant I saw in the wild in 1995, in the Gang-Ho-Ba, Yulong Shan, where I believe that it has become rare due to the depredations of collectors. Usually it is a high alpine, but here it descends to below 3000 m in altitude in light woodland on the lateral moraine..

I am spoilt for choice for my second meconopsis, and  was tempted to showcase species I have flowered and seen in the wild over the last year, M. henrici, M. lancifolia, M. integrifolia and M. prattii. But it is hard to resist the sheer glamour of the scarlet M. punicea,if only because it was so tantalising out of reach for much of my gardening life, but has now become much more accessible, both in the wild where I have seen good colonies on the road south from Danba in 2007, and in the garden. Now that I have the trick of obtaining seed most years, I have moved from the position of suppliant to provider (don't ask, it has all gone!) and it is a great pleasure to have several flowering in the garden most years. In the photograph below, taken this spring, it is seen together with its hybrid M. x cookei (Kilbryde again!) and M. prattii.

I have yet to feature any orchids. Many of us find cypripediums the most alluring of all the hardy orchids, and one of the pleasures of travel in western China is the wealth of lovely slipper orchids that grow there. Several species are related to the widespread C. tibeticum, C. franchetii for instance, and C. calcicola (= C. smithii). Here I am featuring a little plant I have only seen once, near Napa Hai, back in 1995. This seems to belong to the variable and scarce C. yunnanense and was notable for its intense, jewel-encrusted flowers.

I intend to leave China in a minute (not above time! some will say), but first we will journey north to the Beima Shan (Bai Ma Shan) where so many beautiful plants grow. Here are four of my favourites. First, that variable and widespread plant Anemone rupicola in a wonderful hairy form. I find this lovely plant perfectly straightforward in a cool scree in the garden, but it is certainly worth looking out for attractive variants such as this.

When I first visited the Beima Shan in 1995, the weather was poor and a bus broke down, so we only had two hours botanising in poor light. During that time, we were surprised and delighted to find a small yellow lily. Returning in 2007, we found a sizeable colony of Lilium euxanthum to the south-west of the pass, growing with such notables as Primula calliantha, P. nanobella, P. amethystina, Cassiope fastigiata and Rhododendron chamaeunum, any of which might well have vied for inclusion here.

It would be impossible to catalogue my favourite alpines without including one Diapensia, very possibly our native one in its Glenfinnan fastnesses. However, I adore D. purpurea which I first saw on the Beima Shan, and encountered again this year growing with Primula dryadifolia (surely also on my shortlist had I not featured it a couple of months ago) along the summit road of the Hong Shan.

Finally, what is perhaps the best alpine of all, and again one which I am successfully cultivating at present (with my own seedlings too!), the lovely Paraquilegia anemonoides (probably should be P. microphylla now), growing on the limestone cliffs on the Beima Shan, and so entrancing that it has formed the screensaver on my computer ever since I first encountered it there in 2007.

High time we returned to Europe, and a quick venture into the Alpi Maritimi, because we found this scarce and beautiful fritillary, not in France, but on the Italian side of the Col de Tende, near the village of Limonetto. This is Fritillaria moggridgei, a woodland plant was we saw it, and definitely quite different from F. tubiformis of which it is sometimes considered the yellow variant.

Another remarkable plant from that trip was seen near the Col de Veilos, supposedly a site for Saxifraga diapensioides. We failed with this, but were compensated by wonderful forms of Saxifraga callosa, S. retusa and one of the best of the alpine pansies, Viola valderia.

On the same holiday (in May), we walked up from Madone de Fenestre to the still-frozen lake, to find Saxifraga florulenta, the 'Ancient King' among the boulders. It was still early enough for Saxifraga oppositifolia to be in full flower, a common and widespread alpine, a British native even, and easy enough in the garden, but rarely seen in the wild in good form, it flowers so early.

For my final French alpine we are travelling west to the Eastern Pyrenees, and in particular to a valley which runs south to the Spanish border from west of the little fortress town of Mont-Louis. This valley, parallel to the famous Val d'Eyne, has a road which runs almost the full distance until parking is reached at Station Puigmal d'Err at 1971 m, amongst Rhododendron ferrugineum and Primula latifolia in its Pyrenean subspecies cynoglossifolia. From here a good track heads for the border, and within half an hour walking one is on good screes with abundant Senecio leucophyllus and that best of European buttercups, the pink Nuria form of Ranunculus parnassifolius. In this account, the latter will have to stand in for the four great buttercups of the southern hemisphere, because my photos of R. buchananii and R. lyallii have never been digitised.


I have just realised how good a match the ranunculus is for Corydalis benecincta that I featured from China a few weeks ago, in that the round fleshy leaves of both are the exact colour of the scree.

One more European alpine, and one from the Eastern Alps that I have never seen in the wild. But I find Callianthemum anemonoides is a good-tempered garden plant which only asks to be let alone in a cool scree where it never dries out to grow slowly to a great size. The problem is propagation, but this year, unusually, it set good-looking achenes which went straight into the fridge and will be sown shortly. Watch this space!  The reason for the odd appearence of this photo, by the way, is that last year I exhibited it top-dressed with small pieces of coal!


I am finishing with two of my favourite South Africans from the Drakensberg. First comes Helichrysum milfordiae which graces the rocks beside the top of the Sani Pass, growing amongst Rhodohypoxis baurii, an exotic combination! The Helichrysum is a plant which used to be seen quite commonly in cultivation, but rarely occurs today. It seems to do best in the south-west of our country, which may suggest that it is not the hardiest, but also likes a lot of rain, which it certainly gets on top of the Sani Pass in summer!


For my final choice, a second South African was a hard pick, there are so many attractive, cooky plants there. In the end I have selected Protea dracomontana, a one metre-high shrub from the montane zone. Proteas are so much part of the African scene, and so spectacular that it was a delight to discover that there are two dwarf mountain species (the other is P. repens). As as I know, neither have been in cultivation in Britain, although they grow with many other things which are perfectly hardy here. Probably they would find our wet winters a trial, as winters in the Drakensberg are very dry. Definitely worth a try!

Thats all folks! Now for the next 100! Best wishes for the New Year!

John Richards

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