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A Northumberland Alpine Gardener's Diary

This entry: 26 July 2009 by John Richards

Ranunculus in the Dolomites. Entry 122.

Hot desking

After more than a month in which we seem never to have been in one place for more than a few minutes, we have finally settled back at base for an extended sojourn, to deal with hedges, lawns, the bulb repot and a general tidy up.

At this, the lushest time of year, it has become clear that several small trees that we inherited or planted when we first arrived twenty years ago, have outgrown their space and have made considerable areas of previously cultivated land untenable. No longer will it be enough to prune or raise crowns. Consequently, we are determined to harden our hearts and after leaf-fall several charges are due for the chop. Prime candidate is a very beautiful Acer capillipes. Lovely in leaf and fruit and with beautiful boles, we will be able to redevelop about 100 sq metres when it goes. At the other end of the garden a mature Amelanchier lamarckii is due for the same treatment, particularly as it has ceased long ago to flower freely. I love trees, but it is hard to combine a collection of trees and alpines within half an acre!

Last year I reported briefly on two nights away we spent in the western Lakes in the company of the Northumberland 'Botanical Walkers'. This year it fell to us to organise the away trip, and we chose Silverdale at the northern end of the Morecambe Bay, one of our very favourite places on earth.  We had a rather damp stay, but good clothing and well-resourced Bed and Breakfast accommodation made up for any infelicities in the weather, and we saw many good plants (and birds, butterflies and reptiles).

Perhaps the best day was spent at the most spectacular of all lowland limestone pavements, Gaitbarrow National Nature Reserve. Here is a shot of the site, followed by a lovely combination of berries, juniper, Juniperus communis together with tutsan, Hypericum androsaeum.

Hot desking

This diary is approaching its third birthday, wonder to behold, and I vividly recall complaining in the very first issue that early August is amongst the least interesting times of year in this garden. Plus ca change, and although three years of retirement has caused a slight increase in the late summer interest, I am depressed to see that nearly all the subjects I photographed during the last week have been figured on previous occasions.

Nevertheless, I am tempted to show a couple of plants that have increased their display over the years. The first is Lilium canadense, that I was interested to see that John Good had chosen for a special mention in the last edition of the 'Alpine Gardener'. I too love this plant, which is proving long-lived here, which is more than I can say for some species lilies (as John points out). Also, and I am only mentioning this as a rare aberration, judging from John's photo, I am doing rather better with it than he is (so far!!).

Daphne alpina is a somewhat unsatisfactory garden subject, because it rarely covers itself with flower, but 'potters on' all summer (and often the winter too!). Nevertheless, I have found it straightforward in a slightly raised limestone bed and it has grown well, almost outgrowing its allotted space. At the moment, the display, such as it is, is at its zenith.

My last contribution from the garden is one of the odder-balls from MESE, the Greek AGS seed collecting expedition, now celebrating its 10th anniversary. This far down the line, introductions show how well they withstand the test of time (and in my case, sometimes, neglect). This is certainly true for this rather handsome umbellifer, Seseli rigidum, seed of which was collected from the vast screes which cover much of the south side of the second highest Greek mountain, Smolikas. It has a handsome rosette of finely dissected grey leaves which can take several years to flower. I find that if it is dead-headed fairly early, it will produce a new basal rosette, which allows it to perennate after flowering.

Dolomite buttercups

I did say that I would augment some contributions from the 'thinner' months by featuring some of the many splendid plants we saw on this year's trip to Selva in the Italian Dolomites. On this occasion, I thought I would celebrate a few of the lovely white-flowered ranunculus we found there. Incidentally, presumably these are not 'butter'cups if they are white? Crowfoot seems somehow inadequate for such magnificent plants.

First, my favourite of all alpine ranunculus must be R. seguieri. This is often said to be the limestone equivalent of the more familiar acid-dwelling R. glacialis, but the only two sites I know for it are off the dolomite and on fine screes apparently composed of some metamorphic substrate. I fancy that the requirement may be physical rather than chemical as the dolomite never seems to make screes of this fine consistency. Here it is, growing near the Rodella.

Dolomite buttercups

This seems a good point to introduce R. glacialis, the so-called 'glacier crowfoot' itself in comparison. Being a plant of volcanic rock, this is a very localised plant in the Dolomites, and by far the best known site for it there is the Padon ridge above the Pordoi Pass, reached by the famous 'Vial del Pan'. Just beyond the Refugio de Vial del Pan, it is fairly easily come by, although on the most treacherous, rotten, steep screes. Notice the flowers colouring pink and the much fleshier, blunter, more upstanding leaves than on R. seguieri.

On the same walk (Vial del Pan), but while still in the limestone section not far from Sasso Becce, there are a few late-snow patches above the path where Ranunculus pyrenaeus can be found, growing together with incomparable Pulsatilla vernalis. I think the Pyrenean crowfoot is a rare plant in the Dolomites, but it flowers so early that it is possible that it is usually missed during a midsummer visit.

The familiar Ranunculus alpestris is a plant of wet acidic sites and is rarely if ever seen in the Dolomites proper. Instead it is replaced by R. bilobus, which occurs on high dolomite screes, usually over 2400 m in altitude. It is a rather insubstantial little thing, with rounder, less dissected leaves than R. alpestris, but has its own charm.

Finally, here is the large meadow plant Ranunculus aconitifolius. I have never seen this in the Dolomites proper, but on the west side of the Adigo valley, towards Austria, it is not uncommon.

Gentians next time, and a gently smacked hand for the last number of the 'Alpine Gardener'. Has anyone spotted what it is for?

John Richards

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