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A Northumberland Alpine Gardener's Diary

This entry: 10 January 2014 by John Richards

Northumberland Diary. Entry 260.

False dawn?

Sheila pointed out yesterday that I hadn't 'blogged' for more than a month. In truth, there has been little to say, at least on the garden front, and we were away for much of Christmas. Nevertheless, probably time to exercise what remains of my mind.

We have had the darkest month and the day-lengths are starting to lengthen slowly. It continues extraordinarily mild, and in this neck of the woods, protected from the worst of the Atlantic jet-stream, neither excessively wet or  particularly windy. Pride probably precedes a fall, possibly of the cold white stuff. Going back to my entry last year on January 13th, three days later in the year, I seem to have said something very similar, although noting that the first cold snap for a long time was forecast and the first flakes were starting to fall. Well, we know where that one finished! , or rather when. Mid-April if one is optimistic, although it was wintry well into May 2013. Hopefully we are not in for another late spring, although another warm summer like 2013 would not go amiss.

Despite the mild weather, very little has really moved outside yet, and those things that are showing colour are what you might expect. Chief amongst my very early subjects is Helleborus 'Early Purple Group', which I have featured several times before, but not for several years, so here it is again for new visitors, a most reliable and distinct hybrid which flowers several weeks before the remainder of the hybridus crew. Which reminds me, I must cut back the leaves on the Lenten Roses, as the flowers tend to get buried in the vigorous and persistent foliage here.

False dawn?

A less expected early-riser has been a primrose which Vojtec Holubec sent as a 'freebee' last winter when I sent in a seed order. These primrose seeds were collected above Trabzon on the Black Sea coast, and were labelled P. vulgaris ssp.sibthorpii, which is what one would predict from here. Seed germinated well, and seedlings grew quickly, to be planted out last July. From the start they seemed to have particularly flat, non-bullate leaves compared to British primroses, although this is not the case for the several strains of pink and white sibthorpii I grow already. It is characteristic of sibthorpii to flower early, but my other accessions are mostly still in tight bud. However, the Trabzon plant (do you remember Rose Macaulay's delightful novel 'The Towers of Trebizond'?) was in flower by Christmas. As you will see it is not pink, or white, but a deep cream, although paler in tone than most western plants. As I say, the leaves are distinctive.

Thats P. moupinensis round the primrose by the way; budded well this year.

I need hardly say that this year's seed was sown on the first and second days of the year. This has become more of a tradition as I age, and my liver takes less and less of a beating over the New Year (indeed we were in bed not long after midnight). The number of packets decreases by the year, and I think the total is only 86 so far (hopefully I shall have some late-arriving goodies from Gothenburg). I am subscribing to fewer collected seeds now, and only now use the AGS of the Society lists (jolly good seed this year, some really mouth-watering prospects!). As always, many of the seeds sown were in fact collected in this garden, as so many of my favourite subjects are very short-lived.

One slight innovation this year; the seed-pans are covered with a mesh to stop our local cats walking all over them as happened last year!

Goodness, what a weedy patch beyond the seed-trays! I shall have to get in there before germination, as this winter seems to have bred a very invasive strains of 'poppers' (Cardamine hirsuta).

Not much more has happend under glass as yet, although quite a lot of noses are up. A plant which seemingly never stops flowering (and so, never makes a big show), but seems very hardy and very easy to propagate is Fuchsia 'Lottie Hobby'. This was a gift from Mala Janes which certainly seems to earn its keep in the alpine house (it would be lost outside; it is very dwarf and the flowers are tiny). It is listed as an 'Encliandra hybrid', which means nothing to me, and is classified as H2-3 which I think is rather unkind as it is certainly bone-hardy here in the alpine house.

By the way, and wearing my pedagogic hat, few plant names get misspelt as often as fuchsia. It was named for a Herr Professor Fuchs (same name as the Polar Explorer) as was the fuchsin stain (but not I think the same Fuchs), so all that is needed is to add 'ia' on the end and pronounce it carefully with a lip-pursing Teutonic uber-u!

A relative newcomer to me is one of the great alpine bulbs for a pot or a sheltered spot outside, Ipheion 'Rolf Fiedler'. This is sometimes listed as a variety of I. uniflorum, but I see that the 'Plant Finder' does not commit itself, and it certainly seems different (and I think superior) to definite forms of I. uniflorum much as 'Froyle Mill'. As a beginner with these plants one of their endearing features seems to be a long flowering time (and indeed flowers which last individually a long time). So, one of the few bulbs to have actually opened its flowers here yet is good old 'Rolf' with its wonderful sky-blue flowers.

Something which is also new to me, and has found its way here in the aftermath of the Newcastle Botanic Garden debacle (not now, but I may comment on this when we know more about the Landlord's plans for the site), is the South African Cyrtanthus mackenii. Like the ipheion, this also seems moderately hardy and has a long flowering period. In fact, individual flowers last months. The flowers are perhaps a bit 'peely-walley', but any colour is welcome at the moment.

The Stirling Ranges, Western Australia

In recent years, I have padded out this diary with stories from yesteryear, past trips I have taken to far-flung spots. This has at least given me the incentive to scan in old transparencies which would otherwise get largely forgotten in this digital age.

Back in early September 1981 I was invited to co-lead a symposium at the International Botanic Congress in Sydney, a huge experience for a relatively untested young squab. Afterwards, subbed by the Royal Society (thanks guys!), I went on a weeks field trip to the south-west, led by Neville Marchant, who was already a major authority on the amazingly rich flora of the Mediterranean-vegetation belt of south-west Australia. I have just Googled him, and found a good Wiki entry. Neville is now retired from the Western Australian Herbarium, and is well known for two standard works 'Flora of the Perth region' (1987) and 'Flora of the South-West' (2002).

Two things stay in my mind from what Neville told us all those years ago. One was that this was the least disturbed area of temperate vegetation in the world, which has remained static with essentially the same climate, soils and rocks for 100 million years. Thats a long time for plant evolution and speciation to happen! The other is that there are essentially about five main climatic belts inland from the coast of the south-west (Albany, say), from very wet (100+ cm a year) to very dry (as is most of the interior). Every species group (and there are thousands) have evolved segregates adapted to one of several of these zones. Not surprisingly, there are at least 20,000 species of flowering plant in this Floral Kingdom, which is at least three times as rich as its main competitor, the Fynbos of South Africa (with which it has much in common). Back in 1981, Neville estimated that less than half the flowering plants in the South-West had been described. I guess they have made quite a lot of progress since then!

Here is Neville, back in 1981.

The Stirling Ranges, Western Australia

Of the many places we visited (mostly flat), the Stirling Ranges National Park stayed in my mind more than most. At least there were small mountains (to 1700 ft, we have bigger ones in my county!), but an astonishing range of weird plants.

Lets start with Nuytsia floribunda. This is a strangling mistletoe (Loranthaceae) which colonises a Eucalyptus, kills it over time, puts down a root, and becomes a (quite large) self-supporting tree late in life. The first photo shows a tree with the Stirlings in the background, the second a close-up of it as a parasite.

And then there were red-flowered, dry-land bladderworts, Utricularia menziesii, insectivorus of course.

Some of the peas were red-flowered too (to attract honey-eater pollinators). This is a Chorizema. (Neville would say 'Oh, I know that one, but it hasn't got a name yet').

Astroloma  prostrata was in Epacridaceae (in Ericaceae now I guess), a dwarf red-flowered cushion-shrub. That would go well with the judges!

Leschenaultia formosa is in the Goodeniaceae, a very Australian family, and has become a popular garden plant. The first picture shows it in the wild in the Stirlings, on a very sterile soil, and the second in cultivation where it can make an amazing show.

I shall finish with the creeping Banksia, B. repens, and a story. A young western Australian researcher, Steve Hopper, wanted to find out what pollinated this ground-banksia. So, he said, he found a group in flower, and acquired a net, a flashlight, a camp-chair and 'several tinnies' and waited through the night. In the small hours he heard a rustle, out with his net. and caught a small marsupial, the Dibbler, which had rarely been seen before and was thought gravely threatened. It had a very particular niche!

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