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A Northumberland Alpine Gardener's Diary

This entry: 05 February 2012 by John Richards

Dividalen and Northumberland Diary. Entry 205.

Catching up.

Well, where are we? The post-Christmas mild spell, which briefly promised the earliest spring for many years, is a distant memory, and we have enjoyed frosts for most of the two weeks since I last wrote. These have not been too severe: -6C is the lowest temperature I have recorded outside and it has not dropped as far as -4C under (unheated) glass. Also, the thermometer has crept above zero in most days, although the ground has often remained frozen, and even the plunges inside the alpine houses have remained solid. It takes a bit to shift a frost at this time of year; the sun has yet to reach our north-facing garden.

Consequently, flowering development has almost ceased and suddenly, well into February, we seem to be into a 'normal' earliest spring, time-wise. As yet, almost nothing is flowering under glass except a few reticulata irises, and although there is quite a long list of early bulbs, petiolarid primulas, hellebores and so on which have started in the garden, none has yet reached 'full bore', as it were (unlike their grower, I hear you say).

During these winter days, I have continued to look at some old transparencies, choosing some to scan, and later in this epistle I intend to show a few pictures from the north of Norway. As an interlude, here are a few photos from the garden to bring you up to date.

Big, pricey snowdrops are all very well (and some are very well indeed, with 'Straffan', 'James Backhouse', 'Dionysus', 'S. Arnott' already making an impact), but for sheer exuberance, and the ability to cover the ground with very little external help, you can't beat a good strain of 'ordinary' Galanthus nivalis.

Catching up.

In the above picture, notice how my abundant strain of G. woronowii is not yet even in bud. It is a March plant here, unlike G. w. 'Pat's Giant' which is already in full flower. Near these snowdrops is a planting of the G. plicatus x elwesi crosses that Ian Christie found near Brechin. Unlike straight G. elwesii which struggles in this cool acidic garden (understandably for a plant native to limestone mountains in the Mediterranean region), these hybrids are settling well here. I guess thats the G. plicatus blood which has allowed them to naturalise in north-east Scotland (and, hopefully, here).

One of my 'Desert Island plants' might well be the Spring Snowflake, Leucojum vernum, which I have grown much of my life and is such a harbinger of earliest spring. Here is is trouble-free, totally weather-proof, and apparently immortal, and it has the charming attribute of opening its flowers almost as soon as it emerges from the ground.

Another very early plant is Crocus tommasinianus. This slender relative of C. vernuus is less than ideal here, for most years the sun never gets to it, and so many of the flowers never open much, although this does not seem to dissuade it from flowering as early as ever. Perhaps as a consequence, it is not as invasive here as in many gardens, as I guess it rarely sets seed here. It is still a good vegetative spreader though.

Much more desirable is another early subject which opens its flowers as it pierces the ground. Crocus sieberi 'Firefly'. For some reason this is a better doer here than C.s. 'Tricolor', although the latter sows around at the Moorbank Botanic Gardens at Newcastle where it is provided with more sun and better drainage.

When we went to Waterperry Gardens near Oxford a couple of years ago we bought two hellebores. One was the hybrid H. x sternii, the cross between H. lividus and H. argutifolius. This is a superb foliage plant at this time of year, and the flowers are just starting to open. It is planted on the top of a raised bed where it gets all the sun and drainage that are available at this time of year.

Thye snowdrop in the front of the last photo is 'James Backhouse'.

The other hellebore we bought there was a 'painted' form of H. x hybridus. This has not proved as vigorous as some, perhaps as it is too close to a Corylopsis spicata, but it has settled down in this new northern home.

Heres one more hellebore for luck, a self-sown form.

Dividalen, arctic Norway

OK, time for more reminiscing, based on some pre-digital transparencies I have recently scanned in. This time I am harking back to a trip I took to Tromso, in the far north of Norway, in early June 2004, the summer that I retired from work. This was in response to an invitation from Finn Haugli to celebrate the 10th anniversary of the remarkable Botanic Garden that he had helped to develop way north of the Arctic Circle, the northernmost Botanic garden in the world. I felt very privileged to be so asked, and had a wonderful time, and was extremely impressed by the superb asiatic primulas they grew in drifts in the BG; especially the more difficult Petiolarid, Nivalis and Sikkimenses types.

However, the subject of this brief foray into the far north is an excursion that some of us took into the interior (Tromso is set on two islands) to visit Dividalen. This involved quite a long bus ride, and then a hike for 90 minutes or so through  birch scrub and up onto the tundra. In this particular area there is quite a lot of exposed limestone, which may well to explain its floristic richness. Luckily, we had a lovely day, at least until the later afternoon. Here first is a scenic shot across the tundra to show the type of terrain we were visiting.

Dividalen, arctic Norway

I was particularly impressed by the wealth of arctic Ericaceae we saw that day. To start with, here is Phyllodoce caerulea. This prompts a story. Almost forty years ago, the Botanical Society of the British Isles sponsored a poster which illustrated the first dozen plants which had just been protected in law by the British Parliament. One of these was the Phyllodoce (a very rare Scottish plant with just a couple of British localities). For some reason, one of the common names for this is the 'Blue Heath' (heavens knows why as the flowers are purple). Of course, the press thought that was hilarious, as the then Tory Premier was Edward Heath. At that time I was a young and inexperienced Conservation Secretary for the BSBI, who had to field a torrent of insane questions from the redtop press. I have never rated our journalists since.

Phyllodoce caerulea is one of a number of arctic Ericaceae that  I used to grow well once and can't manage at all now. Most cassiopes fall into the same category. It is true that I have never really succeeded with them in my present garden, but our move here coincided with a major climatic shift, and I am minded to blame climate change instead. In fact my only Farrer Medal was won with this species at Harrogate, back in 1988. It was a three-day Show then. The organisers have tried to get the Society to resume a three-day Show this season (2012), taking advantage after our one-day show had been absent for a year due to the International, and we have refused, quite rightly in my view. Three days in tents is not good for alpines, and with modern petrol costs, exhibitors do not like to travel to a Show twice. I shall miss the Harrogate Show, and hopefully we can return to a one day show in Yorkshire at that date, but outside the Harrogate showground.

But that is by the by. Back in 1988 I dumped the plants on the bench early on Thursday morning and raced back to Newcastle in time to give two lectures, and later was bemused to hear that I had won the Farrer in my absence. I had no idea which plant might have been so highly rated, explained by the fact that I then thought phyllodoces to be 'easy'. I certainly don't now, so perhaps the judges were right after all! Here is the Farrer plant back in 1982, six years before its ultimate accolade.

Back to Norway! Here are two more arctic Ericaceae which, surprisingly perhaps, were associated with the limestone outcrops. Firstly Cassiope tetragona, which has always had a reputation for being ungrowable (the American C. saximontana used to be much more compliant however, although seen rarely nowadays, and was once classified with the Eurasian C. tetragona).

I have a particularly soft spot for those former cassiopes with spreading leaves that are now classified in Harraminella. I used to grow the Asian H. stellerana (it thrived at Kilbryde), and the late Robin Brown who lived near here, an expert in all things Norwegian, grew the next plant, H. hypnoides to perfection. In nature, this always grows in late snow lie areas on steep banks on very shallow soils, suggesting that it needs immaculate drainage.

The yellow violet is the widespread V. biflora. So surprisingly that this ubiquitous arctic-alpine does not occur in the British isles!

A final Ericaceae was Rhododendron lapponicum, again, remarkably, always on the limestone. A shy little plant with only a few flowers, very different from some of the good garden strains that have originated in Newfoundland and Labrador.

Betula nana, Persicaria vivipara and Empetrum hermaphroditum are all visible in the above photo!

Talking of rhodos, one of the other members of the party was Ken Cox, who, not surprisingly, was thrilled to see the rhodo. He and I were botanising a few hundred metrea apart when I suddenly became aware that a large herd of reindeer were heading straight for me at a considerable pace, having been disturbed from their snow-patch by other participants. I lay down flat and they thundered straight past and over me. as I snapped away for all I was worth! I think Ken is just visible in the next shot.

One of the other special plants of this area is Diapensia lapponica, relative of shortias, and again a great Scottish rarity with just two sites, the best known being above Glenfinnan. In that locality it grows on a quartzite outcrop, but in Norway, once again it tended to be associated with the limestone. This is a plant I have grown for many years, on a peat block, but I have never flowered it!

Two other very localised plants, rather special to Dividalen follow: Pedicularis flammea and Astragalus frigidus.

We were also very fortunate to find that inconspicuous and very localised orchid Chamorchis alpina. I have seen this in Austria, so it is very widespread, but is much sought-after by orchid-nuts.

Finally, two subalpines that we saw as we climbed up through the birch scrub. First is Pyrola norvegica. This arctic plant resembles of the more familiar P. rotundifolia, but as it lacks the stigmatic disk of that species, it is in fact more related to P. minor.

Finally, the dwarf cornel, Cornus suecica. This good garden plant is native to my own county here in Northumberland, biut it is much more exuberant in the far north!

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