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A Northumberland Alpine Gardener's Diary

This entry: 21 December 2012 by John Richards

Solstitial Celebration. Some Rocky Mountain Alpines. Issue 230.

We got there!

I may have said this before, but I do look forward to the winter solstice, not only for the seasonal celebrations, seeing the family, but especially as it marks the turning of the year. No longer are we descending into a long black hole, but, ever so slowly, ascending again into the light, and warmth, and spring. We alpine gardeners  are lucky in that we get to celebrate the coming of spring so early. We have very little to cheer most Novembers and Decembers, but as soon as we pass the Solstice, the snowdrop season starts, some of the earliest crocuses appear ,as do some of the other very earliest bulbs, and hellebores (no sign of the latter so far this year however). And, as soon as we have celebrated the New Year, seeds to sow!

After the cold snap in late November and early December, it has been less cold, but very wet for nearly two weeks now. In fact, we have not been as nearly as wet as some other parts of the country, no flooding, and no standing water in the garden, but it has been miserable. Nevertheless, some days last week were sufficiently open to do some real gardening. I undertook a fairily major make-over of one of the 'D' beds (weeds out, and some shrubs also into which the weed roots were inextricably bedded, off to a wild area with them!, top-dress with compost and leaf-mould). I then started to tackle the Lamiastrum. 'Yellow Archangel'. Lamiastrum galeobdolon has smothered whole areas of the garden over the last year. Luckily, it is fairly easy to rip whole handfuls out, and then attack the root rosettes with a small fork. I will have missed some, but plan to go round again the the spring with a herbicide spray as they burst into action again. The area it has covered is full of snowdrops,and they would have been smothered had I done nothing. I haven't finished this area yet and it will have to wait until after Christmas now, but at least the snowdrops can grow away untramelled.

The Rocky Road to Alpines

In past years I have used these drear weeks to revisit some of our old trips to the mountains, scanning in old trannies and organising and labelling the digital files that result. Last year I posted some pictures from the USA North-West (2001). This year I have gone further back to 1991 (Colorado and Utah) and 1996 (Wyoming)  and have copied and edited about 100 photos. This week, I thought I would start, as we did in 1991, by visiting the Mosquito Range west of Colorado Springs, on the western edge of the great elevated plateau of South Park. We stayed in the old Wild West mining town of Fairplay (quite a shock to sleep at about 3300 m, only 48 hours after landing at Denver!) in the most magnificent old 19th century hotel where they still slid beers down the bar!

From here it was easy to drive west 15 miles or so into the Mosquitos where there are several high road passes. My favourite was the Horseshoe Pass, which is still one of the richest high alpine sites I have visited anywhere. Sheila was till teaching then, so we could not get away until the very end of July, and I suppose these photos were taken in the first few days of August. We were too late for the flowering of such delights as Eritrichium nanum, Androsace chamaejasme or Primula angustifolia, but there was still a good deal to see. It is a late area, and June would be too early.

As you drive onto the Pass, the relicts of mining litter the ground.

The Rocky Road to Alpines

We had been directed to Horseshoe by our friend Tass Kelso of Colorado Springs, another Primula nut, as she said it was a super area for Primula parryi. She was right! We enjoyed one of the finest primula spectacles I have seen anywhere, quiote a match for the best China can offer.

In the first photo you can see traces of brilliant blue in the background. These were formed by Mertensia viridis which is stunning here, vastly superior to M. alpina we saw in the Beartooths on another occasion.

On drier, rocky ground, more patches of brilliant blue were formed by the most widespread of the 'sky-pilots', Polemonium viscosum.

Growing alongside the primula in the wet areas and streamsides were two Ranunculaceae, Caltha leptosepala, and Trollius laxus.

Aquilegia caerulea is of course the state flower of Colorado, and when seen in a good form is is easy to understand why. Here it is growing with the dark purple Penstemon whippleanus.

Another, more attractive Penstemon occurred right on the top, in the tundra with Eritrichium. This is the rather gentian-like P. hallii.

Other high alpines still in flower in the tundra included Erysimum nivale and Arenaria obtusiloba.

As I remember, it was not possible to drive right over the Pass to Leadville in a standard car, and we walked along the trails. In wet, possibly polluted areas at the limit of our peregrinations was a most stunning buttercup, Ranunculus adoneus.

There were several lovely dwarf Erigerons high up. The dwarfest was E. simplex.

We don't usually get excited about thistles, but here were two dramatic species, Cirsium coloradense and C. scopulorum.

The giant daisy, Hymenoxys grandiflora was another spectaculat compsite lower down, where it was often dominant.

On the way back down the Pass, the lovely Calochortus gunnisonii grew by the road.

Finally, the roadsides were often coloured with masses of parasitic castillejas, even in the small town of Fairplay. Here are C. integra, followed by C. occidentalis.

I hope you agree, quite an area!!!

Happy Christmas!

I nearly forgot to say:




John and Sheila Richards

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