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A Northumberland Alpine Gardener's Diary

This entry: 23 February 2015 by John Richards

Northumberland Diary. Entry 290.

Down to Kew

Having daughters and grandchildren in the south-east, we frequently travel south for school half-term (one of our daughters is also a teacher) and last week we found ourselves staying down the A316 from Kew. One morning I sneaked off there for a few hours on a lovely sunny morning. The car park fee of £7 (Brentford Gate) was a shock, not least because the machine didn't take £2 coins. My 'grumpy-old-git' mode was further encouraged by the lady on the gate who assumed without asking that I would pay the extra £1.50 gift aid on top of the swingeing £14 (concessions!) entrance fee. I might have done if I had been asked nicely, but as it was, not a chance!

The gardens were lovely of course, as always. This first sight of masses snowdrops and 'Tommies' put me in the right mood again.


Down to Kew

Last time I went (probably an autumn visit) I remember being rather rude about the Davies Alpine House. On this occasion I was very impressed. On a mid-February date it was stuffed full of interesting plants in excellent condition. Many had clearly been brought in for exhibition, but they had been cleverly subsumed into the general display.

Here first is Helleborus thibetanus (or tibetanus, the orthography seems not to have settled). This uniquely east Asian species in an otherwise western genus is still rather unusual in cultivation. Possibly it rarely sets seed as only one clone is generally grown: I am not sure. Also, I believe it is rather tender. The latter rather surprises me as we found it in 2007 just south of the Mengbi pass in NW Sichuan at about 3300 m beside a small river in a distinctly alpine setting and with many other subjects (Meconopsis punicea, Caltha scaposa) which are definitely hardy. Primula hoffmaniana was there too. The first picture is at Kew, the second (in fruit) in the wild.

Helleborus thibetanus Helleborus thibetanus

Few of us are fortunate enough to have been commemorated in a plant species name (yes I have, but its only a dandelion!!), let alone in such a charismatic genus as Corydalis. It says a great deal for the ability, energy and charm of Henrik Zetterlund of Gothenburg Botanic Gardens that his friend and colleague Magnus Liden has thus celebrated him not once (C. zetterlundii from near Skopje) but twice (C. henrikii, an Anatolian species. The latter is one of the earliest to flower and was seen at its best at Kew last week.

Corydalis henrikii

We are off to Andalucia shortly, so I was pleased to see both Iris planifolia and Narcissus cantabricus, although the fact that they were flowering already suggested that we might be late to see them at their best except at the highest altitudes.

Iris planifolia Narcissus cantabricus

Kew is of course the home of the celebrated iris guru Tony Hall (although now retired, at least in theory) and it was not surprising to see well-grown individuals of some of the more startling Juno irises, such as I. nicolai.

Iris nicolai

Crocus vitellinus is another species rather seldom represented in collections. It is unusual amongst crocuses in that the southern, Lebanion and Syrian populations are autumn flowering, but those from further north in eastern Turkey flower in the early spring

Crocus vitellinus

Another genus whose representatives can scarcely decide whether to be late autumn or early spring flowering are the androcymbiums. There are only two European species (more in Africa), both very localised in the extreme south. One, A. rechingeri is only found on a low sandy islet off the south-west shore of Crete (Elafonisi) which can be waded to at low tide. We were there at the end of the summer when all was sere and dry.

Androcymbrium rechingeri

The other androcymbium, A. europaeum, is confined to a small dry part of the opposite corner of southern Europe, in Spain near Almeria.

Androcymbium europaeum

With such a plethora of snowdrop clones available, it was nice to see a scattering of Galanthus species doing well in colonies on the main rock garden, close to the alpine house. Some of these, such as G. cilicius from the mountains of south-central Turkey are rarely seen in cultivation.

Galanthus cilicius

Another uncommon species is the race of G. alpinus named bortkewitschianus (!). This seems to be a sterile triploid which maintains itself vegetatively and hails from a single site in the nothern Caucasus. Probably it is better recognised by a clonal name than as a variety, but it seems to be a good garden plant, at least at Kew.

Galanthus alpinus v. bortkewitschianus

I was also delighted to see the spring flowering race of the autumn flowering Greek snowdrop, Galanthus reginae-olgae ssp. vernalis. With its very long narrow flowers and leaves with a pale central stripe, this is quite a distinctive snowdrop, but it is rather rare in collections. Unlike the autumnal variety, it seems commonest in northern Greece where I have seen extensive populations flowering in April in the vicinity of the Vikos gorge, where the second photo here was taken. It was interesting that Kew grows it against a hot south rock, suggesting that it likes to be warm and dry in summer.

Galanthus reginae-olgae ssp.vernalis Galanthus reginae-olgae ssp. vernalis

Galanthus ikariae comes from some of the Aegean islands and rather struggles in the garden here in Hexham so that I have started to grow it in the alpine house with rather more success. The large green mark is distinctive and the leaves are matt, not shiny as in G. woronowii. Characteristicaly, it seems quite vigorous in Kew's warmer drier climate.

Galanthus ikariae

Galanthus elwesii is of course a well-known species and was featured in my last issue. One of the varieties grown at Kew is named 'Kite' for the distinctive shape of the inner tepal mark.

Galanthus elwesii 'Kite'

Finally amongst the 'species' snowdrops at Kew, here is the fine plant that was once regarded as a species, Galanthus imperati, from southern Italy. This is now regarded as being a good form of the common snowdrop G. nivalis which is native in Italy. This was labelled 'Ginn's imperati'.

A footnote concerning Kew snowdrops. A wide variety is grown there, mostly very well, and most are well labelled (not all: what is the superb snowdrop grown in quantity around the Orangery? I could find no label). However, I was intrigued to find poor miffy specimens of two snowdrops which are amongst the very best here in the far north of England, 'Straffan' (originating in northern Ireland) and 'S. Arnott' (originating in south-west Scotland). This tended to confirm my theory that snowdrops which were selected in the north tend to thrive better in the north, and vice-versa. It appears that these northerners dislike Kew's hot dry climate.

By the way, I was delighted to see two Red Admirals flying at Kew. It is generally considered that this species cannot hibernate as an adult, but reimmigates every year (or possibly reverse migrates). But these specimens must have overwintered at Kew.

I am closing with two reticulata irises which are amongst seven or eight which are flowering here at present, I. 'Gordon' and I. 'George'. I thought I had lost the latter (which must be a histrioides clone?), but it has escaped into the sand plunge where it made leaves for several years, was rescued, and has started to flower again.

Irids reticulata 'Gordon' Iris 'George'
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