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A Northumberland Alpine Gardener's Diary

This entry: 06 July 2008 by John Richards

Northumberland Diary. Entry 81.

It never rains but it pours.........

I am not sure when St Swithin's Day is (I am always minded of the fat Forsyte!), not yet I suspect, but my prejudice is that the fate of the summer is determined on the cusp of July. Just as late May is usually fine (Examinations fortnight in Universities!), and early June invariably miserable (field-course week!), so June has often bucked up its ideas by the end and then often leads to a fair July. Watching Wimbledon, I gather that such a weather pattern has apparently graced the south-east of England this year. Not so up here. Despite a couple of sunny days in the low twenties centigrade, we have had rain most days, and a lot of cloud and humidity.

This 'quasi-monsoon' has of course meant another splendid summer for the young Chinese plants. For primulas, meconopsis and the like, after pricking out into 7 cm square pots, the next stop is the garden, whether in special beds or fishbox troughs. There is no doubt that one secret of success is to keep plants moving. It pays to prick out seedlings as early as possible, to keep them fed and watered, and to place them in permanent positions as soon as maybe. Then, they develop into robust plants, well-equipped to face the rigours of winter and to flower well the following spring. This is one reason why I never sow this season's seed now, but put it into the fridge, to sow at the New Year, thus to germinate as soon as possible in the new season.

The decision whether or not to plant out young plants in mid-summer depends so much on the weather. I remember 2005 vividly; so many young plants crumbling to dust in the summer heat! This year I have had few qualms.

The problem is perhaps less acute for subjects that are destined to spend their lives in pots. I have been fortunate with Chinese androsaces this year. I take no credit for this; the quality of seed and accuracy of naming of those offered in the Jurasek and Holubec lists speaks for itself, and I have done nothing clever. However I have now been able to move on young plants of A. delavayi, A yargongensis, A. wardii, A. brachystegia, A. mairei and A. mariae into clay pots. Although these will spend the autumn and winter in the alpine house, they are presently stood on a plunge, shaded for the second half of the day, where they are currently enjoying the rain!

More mature plants have stayed in the alpine houses, which remain unshaded. Androsace ciliata, grown from seed last year, has flowered continuously since mid-April.

It never rains but it pours.........

The Suicide Lily

Staying in the alpine house, the most spectacular contribution at present comes from Gladiolus flanaganii . This spectacular plant comes from high soaking wet rock ledges in the KwaZulu Natal Drakensberg, where I was fortunate to see it in splendid form in January.  It seems to have acquired its depressing name from its tendency to grow in inaccessible sites that are suicidal to reach, but in fact I found it close to the (so-called!) road. Coming from such high, wet sites, it might be expected to be hardy in British conditions. However, it should be remembered that these locations are very dry in winter. Nevertheless, two seedlings from my plants were placed outside at the Newcastle Moorbank Botanic Garden and are just coming into flower, one year old, having spent the winter unprotected. Here, the plants figured live in a deep pot in the alpine house where they are repotted when dormant in winter. Ther are completely hardy, probably to zone 6 or 7.

The Suicide Lily

I can't resist showing the Disa uniflora again. It has betrayed its name by producing another spectacular flower while the first one remains in good condition over a month after it opened. What a plant!

Red is an important colour amongst South African flowers because of the ubiquity of sunbird pollinators. Many of the red flowers in the garden are also South African. Last week I mentioned Dierama igneum as a pretty thug. Interestingly, I noticed yesterday that some of the self-sown seedlings are apparently hybrids with D. pulchellum that grows nearby. Some look to be interesting plants that might be worth selecting for division. I hope to feature some in the next contribution. In the meantime, here is the parent, an excellent garden plant.

Another red South African that features here is Phygelius capensis. In the Drakensberg both this and its slightly less vigorous cousin Ph. aequalis grow as subalpines, often competing with the lush vegetation that borders mountain rivers. They seem perfectly hardy here, but enjoy humidity and moisture at the root. We treat the former as a climber, and here it forms a combination with Clematis 'Henryi', five metres up!

Ginger Spice
Apologies to the lovely Miss Helliwell, but never so gorgeous she as the commemoratives of the founder of Liverpool Botanic Garden, William Roscoe. My favourite has to be R. humeana. Last week I mentioned roscoeas as late-comers which I tend to forget and from which lush vegetation has to be torn when they finally appear at the end of June. A week later they are in full flower! I covet the yellow forms, and the wonderful f. alba and 'Snowy Owl' seedlings (see the Current issue of 'The Alpine Gardener'), but so far only have a standard purple, and the magnificent deep violet 'Inkling'.

Ginger Spice

I promise to try not to repeat myself too much, but as this diary approaches its third year it is inevitable that some favourite subjects get a second showing. One of the best introductions from the 1999 AGS MESE Expedition to northern Greece was the shining deep red form of Lilium martagon that we christened 'Naoussa Boutari' after the excellent local wine (Its not true that all Greek wine is rubbish, but they do tend to keep the best for themselves!). Once liberated into open ground, the group of four seedlings has gone from strength to strength and I send a quantity of seed to the AGS list every year. It seems to come true (there are no other colour forms nearby in any case).

The primula season is nearly over for another year, tant pis, but there is still time to celebrate one of the last to flower here, the white form of P. alpicola christened var. luna. I am not ashamed to admit to having just finished the apotheosis of Miss Rowling's oeuvre, in which the eponymous Luna emerges from relative obscurity to play a starring role. That Luna is said to be original in her style of dress, but not perhaps as striking in her attire as this virginal primrose.

Round and about

Time for more excursions into the great outdoors. Chives, Allium schoenoprasum, is perhaps not the first plant you would associate with a collection of alpines, but travellers in the Alps will know that it is a member of a characteristic assembly that colonises thin soils over acid rocky tumps, together with sempervivums, thymes and rockroses. Chives is a very rare British plant with less than a dozen localities. We are fortunate that several of these lie within Northumberland, although, as in the following photograph, the flowering heads are a deliacy to sheep, so they rarely flower. (All the grass-like green areas in this photo are chives).

Round and about

This has caused Natural England (aka English Nature, aka Nature Conservancy Council) to cage a couple of patches, with spectacular results. However, I wonder if they could have found exclosures that looked less like milk crates?

Another local speciality that is at its (rather feeble) best at present is the plant that the great Carl von Linne (who styled himself Linnaeus, and even the 'von' was an affectation it seems) deemed worthy of being named after himself. Almost certainly Linnaea borealis is not native here, although it is a natural denizen of northern Scotland. Many of our first conifer plantations, now mature forests, were established from seedlings imported from Scandinavia, and this is the most likely origin of our plants, and of two other local specialities of conifer forest the orchid Goodyera repens, and the may lily Maianthemum bifolium. Most years the Linnaea is shy to flower, but it is usually possibly to find a few inflorescences.

Finally, a quick visit to the Lake District, whither a party of eight of us last Wednesday. From Seatoller, the wettest place in England, we were led behind Great Gable to a site not too far above Wasdale Head. Here there was a calcareous ghyll with a selection of English alpines. Perhaps the most interesting was Saxifraga oppositifolia, but this was long since over. However, two other saxifrages, the yellow S. aizoides and the white S. stellaris were in flower, and provide a suitable conclusion to this particular contribution.

John Richards

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