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A Northumberland Alpine Gardener's Diary

This entry: 28 February 2011 by John Richards

Northumberland Diary. Entry 174.

Yellow snowdrops

 It might well be thought that I have written enough on the subject of 'yellow snowdrops' (Galanthus nivalis 'Sandersii' officially). If you want to learn more, I refer you to 'The Plantsman' 9: 48-51. At that time (and it was only published a year ago), I was firmly of the opinion that yellow G. nivalis (in which the ovary and inner tepal marks are yellow) have only been found in the wild in a limited area of north Northumberland, at least in this country. The yellow condition, which not surprisingly affects the plant physiologically in several ways, is genetically inherited, apparently as a simple dominant. Consequently a number of yellow hybrids with other species are now known ('Primrose Warburg' and 'Spindlestone Surprise' for instance) in which it is assumed that the yellow condition has been inherited from a Northumbrian parent.

No sooner had the article been published (isn't that the way? but I guess publication draws folks' attention to a problem) than a friend phoned me triumphantly to say that he had found yellow snowdrops in a churchyard about four miles west of Hexham, where we both live. Now, this is still in Northumberland, but a long way outside the yellow snowdrop zone, where the nearest locality to us is at least 55 miles distant (yes, it is a large county!). As far as I know, this was the first time a yellow snowdrop had been found 'de novo' outside the zone, and now another friend tells me that she has found a second site in the Hexham area, this time to the east of the town. This is also in an ancient church graveyard. Both sites are full of thousands of snowdrops. I am sure that one of the preconditions for the occurrence of yellow snowdrops is very large populations of 'normal' plants. I have never seen yellow snowdrops in the wild away from huge stands, as in the accompanying photo which was taken at the second site.

Yellow snowdrops

 There were two small groups of yellows at the second site, one apparently a seedling from the larger clump.

Nevertheless, it is I suppose suspicious that these two new sites are both in old churchyards, amongst the graves. Yellow snowdrops have occasionally been cultivated for a number of decades in this their native county (certainly for the 40 years I have lived here) and it is possible that yellows have been planted in memory of a departed relative or friend. This is  not now evident at either site (yellows are not associated with a particular grave), but the possibility should always be borne in mind. In the north of the county, too, at least one well-known site is partly in a churchyard, although yellows also occur in lanes, hedgebanks and woods nearby.

I have stressed on a number of occasions that yellows are very variable, as one would expect if the variant comes true from seed. Those of you who were at the Harlow Show last weekend will have seen a pan that I had deliberately planted up to demonstrate some of this variability. Some plants are three times the size of others. Not surprisingly, the judges didn't like this (I couldn't put it in a variation from seed class as I hadn't grown them from seed intentionally), but, hey, what do judges know?! Here is a photo of one of my biggest yellows in the garden. It stands about 17 cm high. Plants such as this had been known as 'Flavescens', but I have always argued that there is so much continuous variation amongst yellows that only the most distinctive (e.g. hybrid) clones should be named.

 In the Plantsman article I had mentioned that yellows had been found in other snowdrop species, notably G. plicatus, but also that Ian Christie had found a yellow G. woronowii. At that time I had not seen the latter plant, but G. woronowii is a great success here, indeed virtually a weed, so I was really delighted when Ian gave me a bulb. This has now flowered, and here it is.

Ericaceae

 A handful of the rhododendrons we grow here flower really early, and in this relatively mild and mostly frost-free (so far!) late winter, three of them have come into flower in February, just as they used to do before the last couple of late springs. We are now forecast snow and ice over the next few days (they seem to have just changed their minds for the worse on this; we will see) so this may be a brief celebration. In any case, the rhodos may get frosted, but it won't be like what Pam 'Primula' Eveleigh is presently suffering in Calgary, namely 30C below!

Here is Rhododendron 'Christmas Cheer', followed by the superb Rh. barbatum.

Ericaceae

 Another member of the Ericaceae, Pieris floribunda, has also flowered very early. It is alongside our P. forrestii, but on this occasion will be some six weeks earlier.

 Another group that are well ahead of themselves are the porophyllum saxifrages, especially those in troughs. I think we have never had such a good display from S. sancta (a much better plant I think than its offspring S. x eudoxiana such as 'Golddust'. Although a Greek plant (and from further east) and looking rather stressed where I have seen it on Pangeon, it seems to enjoy cool damp summers such as the two we have just endured up here.

 Something of a species purist, I try to grow as many porophyllum species as possible, and in general I find that the species tend to be more persistent in mixed plantings outside, compared to many modern hybrids. For instance, the first association I am figuring here, of S. scardica, grown from wild collected Greek seed more than 20 years ago, and the Himalayan S.lilacina, the original parent of so many hybrids with pink or reddish flowers, have survived untouched in this trough for more than a decade.

 Here is another association involving a species, the Astraka form of S. marginata from seed collected by the AGS MESE expedition in 1999, growing with a hybrid, the Czech-raised 'Branik'. The latter seems to be a good garden plant which is surviving well outside, as is 'Tvuj Uspech', and 'Franz Listz'.

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