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A Northumberland Alpine Gardener's Diary

This entry: 31 December 2011 by John Richards

Some bulbs from California and Oregon. Entry 201.

West Coast Lecture Tour, 2001.

After I had compiled the list of 25 of my favourite alpines in the last issue (not necessarily the 25 BEST alpines of course; my favouritism was much influenced by personal experience), it occurred to me that there were no entrants from North America, or New Zealand (or indeed South America, Japan or many other places unknown to me). However, the reason that the US and New Zealand were not included was more mundane. I had not travelled there since photography (or at any rate MY photography) became digital, and so I did not possess photos in a suitable format.

I may address this lacuna for New Zealand at a later date, but for the time being my attention has focused on the USA. I have travelled there to seek plants, at least in part, on four occasions, and my short visit to New England the spring before last was described in these pages. We have also explored the Rockies on a couple of occasions, but for me the most memorable trip, not least because it was relatively recent, was a lecture tour I took up the west coast, starting in San Francisco and finishing in Seattle, 10 years ago, from April 16th-24th 2001.

Over this week I gave six lectures, in San Francisco, Medford, Eugene, Portland and  Seattle, but more to the point I was carried throughout (shuttled if you like) by local enthusiasts who gave me generously of their time, hospitality, transport, and knowledge of local flowers.


It is invidious to name names, so I shall, and apologies to those left out, but I well remember visits to wonderful gardens, such as those of the O'Byrnes, Jeannie Mehls, David and Donna Hale and Kathy Allen, to famous nurseries such as Grand Ridge, Rick Lupp's and Siskiyou, and I was priviliged to be escorted into the field by many knowledgable people including the late Wayne Roderick, Phyllis Gustafsson (who was a great hostess too), and Dave and Jan Dobak who stayed with us here in Hexham this spring (and accompanied me with others on a terrifying walk in the Columbia River gorges!).

It has given me a good deal of pleasure digging out old transparencies, and I have started scanning in some of my favourites. Of course, they are not of the same standard as original digital photos, but they do give some idea of the great richness to be seen during a western spring, especially when accompanied by those who know.

In this issue I have concentrated on bulbs, and I am starting with Fritillaria of which I was shown, depending on one's taxonomy, eight species, not including F. liliacea which had long finished flowering in the fields south of San Franscisco. First, the spectacular scarlet bird-pollinated species, of which the most widespread and abundant is F. recurva. This is essentially a woodland species, and we saw a good deal of it around the pleasant little country town of Medford on the edge of the Siskiyou, particularly climbing up to Table Rock. However I saw it first in California with Wayne, where it grew close to Erythronium helenae in Butts Canyon.






Here is the same species growing in quite dense scrub on the slopes of Table Rock. I love the contrast with the lichen!

The complexity around Medford is that many folk consider that there is another related species which grows in just that part of the eastern Siskiyou, F. gentneri. This is regarded as having a fuller  more chequered flower with less recurved tepals ends, and is perhaps not as tall (F. recurva can be 60 cm high), but the two can grow together and intermediates definitely occur. Whether this is just part of the variable F. recurva, or whether the two hybridise is a matter of opinion, but F. gentneri is undoubtedly an attractive plant.

One of the best sites to see F. gentneri is the Medford graveyard, and here is a conspicuous tomb for the local botanist , Louis Gentner, after whom the species is named. As you can see, the grave is covered with a fine population of Dodecatheon hendersonii, a local speciality. Sadly, no F. gentneri actually grows on the grave, although it flourishes nearby.

Much less spectacular is Fritillaria eastwoodiae, which we saw at Shingleton in northern California, a site for the remarkable Darlingtonia. I was given the name F. phaeanthera, but this seems to have been subsumed under F. eastwoodiae.


We move on to the Fritillaria affinis complex. This is a widespread and variable group, occurring in scrub and woodland margins at moderate altitudes. As I understand it F. affinis itself has slender stem leaves, often glaucous-pruinose, and a rather large mottled bell, with only 1-3 flowers together. Here it is, firstly from the Rough and Ready botanical area in northern California (on serpentinite), and then from 8-Dollar in the Siskiyou.

Much taller plants, often shinning green, with robust stems with firm whorls of leaves, and several rather small bells together, are often separated as F. lanceolata. This photo was taken in woods by the Rogue River, north of Medford in southern Oregon.

Returning to the Rough and Ready botanical area, a species more typical of bare rather toxic serpentinite areas where is grows with Lewisia rediviva (and so hot and dry in summer) is the serpentine endemic Fritillaria glauca.

A much more widespread yellow species is the 'Johnny Jump-ups', Fritllaria pudica, which I have also seen in August at over 3000 m altitude north of Dead Indian Pass in the Cody area. However, this species has a vast altitudinal range, and in the Columbia River Gorges it was flowering in April, together with other species which are usually alpine such as Erythronium grandiflorum.


That was at Losier Loop. We also saw F. pudica in the Cascades at Haywood Hill, but again at quite low altitude..

The last Frit to be mentioned was something of a disappointment. I have always regarded the pink F. pluriflora as one of the most beautiful of all bulbs, let alone frits, and Wayne Roderick promised to take me to see it on Walker Ridge, while warning me that it was really an early April (or even late March) species. Sadly he was right (you can't be on time for everything!) and this sad bundle was all that was left of its earlier beauty.

On to Calochortus. I was lucky to see three species. On the same trip as the visit to F. pluriflora, we ventured further north in this region east of the Napa Valley to near Clear Lake, where there were beautiful masses of Calochortus uniflorus growing as weeds in the arable margins.

The other two species were seen in woodlands near Shingleton. First, C. tolmiei, another member of a confusing and variable complex.

There was also a yellow species here, Calochortus monophyllus, which does indeed have one large leaf!


I shall finish this issue with Erythroniums. The first species I saw was the lovely E. helenae, growing in steep woodlands at Butts Canyon in California, where Wayne took me to see it.

It is a feature of the Medford area that it houses two lovely plants (and good garden plants here) which are named for a Mr Henderson. I showed Dodecatheon hendersonii on Gentners grave, but here is Erythronium hendersonii which grows on the Table Rock woodlands.


Also in the southern Oregon Siskiyou, but at 8-Dollar, we were taken to see the lovely Erythronium citrinum, which grows in huge masses in the woodlands there.

Here is E. citrinum growing with Arabis breweri

Furher north, in the woodlands around Eugene, Erythronium oregonum was the common species, also growing in great masses.

Finally, I had already mentioned the usually alpine Erythronium grandiflorum growing at low altitudes in the Columbia Rover gorges which separate Oregon from Washington State. These photos are from Eagle Creek and from Losier Loop.

Happy New Year everyone!

John Richards

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