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A Northumberland Alpine Gardener's Diary

This entry: 21 February 2017 by John Richards

Northumberland Diary. Entry 332.

An early start

Once we had got our breath back from trips to Portugal and then to the south of England, the weather turned very kind and we were able to spend several benign days in the garden. While we were in Portugal, and indeed during our sojourn south it had been bitterly cold in southern England but much milder up here in Northumberland, and the difference in flowering times was striking. For instance 'tommies' (Crocus tommasinianus) were in full fig here two weeks ago, but there was no sign of them at all in Reading. Since then we have been sent a photo of my centenarian mother sat amongst her tommies and it is clear that the South is making efforts to catch up. One of the great things about naturalised tommies that they will often last for several weeks and they do make a great show. Here they were this morning in our own garden.

Crocus tommasinianus

Another lovely thing about tommies, and indeed other naturalisers of the early spring such as snowdrops and Cyclamen coum, is how they often seed together in a great confusion. This can make for really colourful displays in the semi-wild garden at this time of year. In the next picture, none of these were put at the base of our pollarded tulip tree; they all arrived on their own accord from elsewhere in the garden.

Aconites, Eranthis hiemalis, are also putting on a brave show now. These established slowly here, and I find that the seedlings take several years to flower. Although they are starting to self-sow (not least into paths and lawn), initially I transplated young plants in the green from where they had self-sown to spread them round the garden and we now have several good patches. One of the benefits of a lengthy garden custodianship is that after quarter of a century or more early spring bulbs really take a hold and make great spreads of colour.

Here for a change are tommies and snowdrops (with a clump of snowflakes Leucojum vernum at the top of the shot).

Some snowdrops

Of course, snowdrop mania is in full swing, and it will be evident to the cognoscenti that there were a couple or more good snowdrops in the above picture. The further clumps are of the Atkinsii snowdrop 'Backhouse Spectacles', a gift from John Good which I find very vigorous. The closer clumps are of two plicatus snowdrops (or plicatus hybrids) which are figured below. 'John Long', to the right, and 'Sophie North' ,to the left, are very similar and really robust good growers here. They are best distinguished by the green inner mark which bleeds in two tails to the base of the inners in John Long but not in Sophie North.

Some snowdrops

Another super robust snowdrop here is 'Helen Tomlinson', which does not figure in the 'Galanthophile's Bible', 'Snowdrops' (Bishop, David and Grimshaw). This has the biggest flowers of any snowdrop we grow (the really large-flowered G. elwesii like 'John Gray' don't do here), but it has the fault that it tends to flop.

Galanthus 'Helen Tomlinson'

I have figured Galanthus 'Primrose Warburg' before. Originating as it does in Northumberland (it was a seedling sent to Mrs Warburg in Oxfordshire from Spindlestone in north-east Northumberland by Diana Aitchison), it should be a good doer here, and indeed it rather tends to outperform its parent our own G. nivalis 'Sandersii' , perhas due to hybrid vigour (its other parent is G. plicatus). I had the privilege of guiding a party of German galanthophiles around one of our wild 'Sandersii' populatsions last week, on a lovely day too. Great fun!

Galanthus 'Primose Warburg'

Having said that many of the G. elwesii don't thrive in this cold acidic garden, I have found that they will do well in a sand-bed in what passes here for a south-facing border. These are just plain ordinary G. elwesii and none the worse for that!

Galanthus elwesii

For a final snowdrop I am finishing with little 'Trumps', because it makes me laugh.

Galanthus 'Trumps'


Now for something entirely different. When the garden is overtaken by the early bulbs, it is easy to ignore vegetative stars which were perhaps looking a little 'bed-draggled' as an ancient friend of Sheila's used to say in mid-winter, but are now starting to come into new growth. Here for instance are a couple of stunning rosettes of Meconopsis dhowjii. I raised a batch of these last spring and planted them out mid-summer. I have failed with this species before, and cloched half the plants over winter. This time, all have come through unscathed, cloched or not, but we have had the benefit of a rather dry winter so far, and I have now removed all covers and cloches.

Meconopsis dhowjii

Such a happy outcome, so far, as also been true for Meconopsis superba, which, again, have survived cloched or uncloched. This rosette grows alongside that super garden plant Celmisia 'Eggleston Silver', making a lovely contrast.

Elsewhere in the garden, Daphne blagayana 'Brenda Anderson' is flowering well in a shady scree.

Daphne blagayana 'Brenda Anderson'

It is a number of years since Helleborus purpurascens has performed well and indeed I thought I had lost it at one stage. The reason is not hard to seek, for, surrounded by mollusc-proof H. x hybridus ('Lenten Rose'), it clearly lacks the defence systems of the latter and gets heavily munched every spring. This is a shame for the dwarf habit and flowers of a curious mixture of dove grey, aquamarine and mauve are unlike any other. Again, it seems to have appreciated the dry winter.

Helleborus purpurascens

It is also many years since I grew our own native Helleborus foetidus. It has arrived here unannounced, probably from plants next door.

Last year I posted a picture of my large specimen of Draba sphaeroides in a sorry state as mice had taken nearly all the flowers. This year it has been better protected (guess how) and is now approaching full flower. This North American is not perhaps in the front row of the parade in this excellent and diverse alpine genus, but it is not difficult to grow and flowers much earlier than all the others.

Draba sphaeroides


I am finishing with a small parade of saxifrages. Here is the alpine house is Saxifraga 'Lojzicka', of which I know nothing except that it is presumably of Czech origin and is early, and to my view, very attractive.

Saxifraga 'Lojzicka'

In the garden, one of the oldest hybrids, and like all the early ones, a good garden plant which I have grown for nearly 50 years, Saxifraga 'Johan Kellerer'.

Saxifraga 'Johan Kellerer'

Finally, returning to the theme of how attractive foliage subjects can be at this time of year, here are two silver saxifrages, S. cochlearis minor and S. crustata. Both love the sand-bed where they were both introduced three years ago as small rootless cuttings.

Saxifraga cochlearis v minor Saxifraga crustata
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