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A Northumberland Alpine Gardener's Diary

This entry: 28 January 2007 by John Richards

Northumberland Diary. Entry 21.

About a snowdrop
In my mother's garden in Reading a large vigorous early snowdrop grows in quantity.  I now grow it too, both in a pot in the alpine house and in the garden where it is as yet the only snowdrop in full flower. She inherited this plant with the garden (planted by Richard Bisgrove) so we have never known its name. This week I spent some time tracking it down in the magnificent 'Snowdrops' (Bishop, Davis & Grimshaw). This comprehensive account has a very logical system for compartmenting the hundreds of snowdrop varieties into more manageable chunks, and a primary division of the key is based on leaf vernation (arrangement of the leaves in section as they emerge from the ground). I had not looked hard at this feature in our snowdrop before, and was intrigued to see that in some leaves the vernation was explicative, with the edges of the leaves folded back on both sides (the edges look greener against the greyer underside of the leaf). This is a feature of Galanthus plicatus and its hybrids.

About a snowdrop

But it must be a hybrid
However in other leaves the margin is only folded down on one side, which is diagnostic of many G. plicatus hybrids.

But it must be a hybrid

Irregular flowers
Many hybrids, not only in snowdrops, exhibit a developmental instability, and in our snowdrop about one in four of the flowers are deformed or semi-double. This seems to give the game away, as Bishop et al. describe a fine large plicatus hybrid with deformed flowers as G. x atkinsii 'James Backhouse'. This pleases me as Backhouse of York has always been one of my heroes, perhaps the first specialist alpine nurserymen in the mid nineteenth century, and a fine field botanist too, who discovered many of the treasures of the mountains of Upper Teesdale.

Irregular flowers

Characteristic flowers
However, the perfect flowers are not described by Bishop et al., and they are so distinctive that they merit a picture. They are long and robust, and the inner segment markings are unlike any other snowdrop I know; two green 'blobs' at a very acute angle to one another and scarely joined at the angle.

Characteristic flowers

Why keep a dog (wood)?
Cornus alba 'Sibirica' is one of the great garden plants. We keep it by the entrance, partly to bark at visitors, but also because this spot picks up the low beams of winter sun. There is a Garrya elliptica in the background (ours didn't catkin at all this winter which seems to have been a common experience), and a ground cover of Picea 'nidiformis' and Euonymus 'Emerald 'n Gold'.

Why keep a dog (wood)?

Where pants the hart.....

Low winter sun can be very flattering to the few evergreen survivors of winter frost. Hartstongue fern (Phyllitis scolopendrium) grows in shady damp places in our local woods. We have never planted it, but nevertheless it has colonised several places in the garden. This plant has chosen a spot under limestone boulders just above the pond.

Where pants the hart.....

Crevice progress
After a frosty week, the weather has opened up so I have been able to start on the crevice bed, pictured in its aboriginal state last week. The plants have all been lifted, cleaned of perennial weeds (especially vetch Vicia sepium which is a menace here) and moss and stored in large hessian dumpy bags (in which the local sundries merchant now brings deliveries of gravel and sand). Using the original stone I have constructed an outside skeleton (two courses) giving the frame of a raised bed, and I have placed the major crevice features in place. These will be infilled with verticals of a finer shale as I plant. The hardest bit will be to devise a suitable fine dryish compost for infillings. The greasy local loam is quite unsuitable even in the tiniest proportions. As soon as I finish this entry, I shall see what sieved leafmould and old potting compost can achieve (mixed with coarse sand and grit of course).

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