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A Northumberland Alpine Gardener's Diary

This entry: 10 July 2011 by John Richards

Some Chinese Meconopsis. Entry 186.

Chinese Meconopsis

No contribution for a month, so time to catch up a bit! I have been in western China with a party of 15 led by Harry and Hanni Jans. Very successful, lots of good plants, excellent weather, no major hitches and good fun. We saw so much, and there is so much to dwell on (32 primulas, 27 rhodos, 11 corydalis, 10 androsaces and so on) that I shall probably concentrate on one or two genera each time I make a diary entry for the next few months or so. Hopefully, things will seem less indigestible that way.

This time I shall concentrate on Meconopsis. I think we saw eight species, and as seven of them are small, blue and 'critical', I am not entirely sure of all of their names, and this account is rather tentative and exploratory. Any contributions (in the discussion sections) would be more than welcome. Most of the species we saw fall into the great maw of what the original monographer of the genus, Sir George Taylor FRS, lumped as M. horridula. I never met Taylor, although he was a friend of Randle Cooke whose garden Kilbryde we (University of Newcastle) inherited and many of whose plants we still grow. Taylor and Cooke must have been a mismatched couple, the former bombastic, opinionated, dogmatic and surly; the latter shy, recessive and with a thin piping voice. What they did have in common was a love of plants, particularly those of the Himalaya. Taylor was convinced that all the many forms of M. horridula s.l. were joined by intermediates, so that they were best treated as a single species, and, typically, he would brook no argument.

Taylor ended his career as Director of Kew Gardens, and this prestigious position undoubtedly explains his knighthood (now much less an automatic accolade for present holders of the post). Why he was given an FRS is much less easily accounted for, as he appears to have been a rather poor plant taxonomist. However...! Since then Kit Grey-Wilson and others have demonstrated, not always entirely convincingly, that many good species dwell within the 'horridula' coverall. We shall see!

Lets start with the easy one! Meconopsis integrifolia, the 'lampshade poppy' was present, and usually abundant, on all of the eight main massifs we visited (from north of Sichuanese Kangding south to the Shika Shan on Yunnanese Zhongdian). In the Zhongdian region, and southwards. another yellow species, M. pseudointegrifolia, occurs, but we never saw this. Although the former species is very variable, all the plants we saw could unambiguously be placed there. By the way, I find this much lauded species rather scruffy and untidy, and, these days, very difficult to grow, much more difficult in the garden that the scarlet M. punicea. It was much easier 30 years ago and may be a casualty of climate change. However, the photograph here. from the Hong Shan, is of an attractive individual, early in its flowering period.

Now for the relatives of Meconopsis henrici. Like all the species mentioned here, this species is monocarpic (dies after flowering), and is one of four species we saw that have cup shaped flowers of a luminous violet. M. henrici is most easily diagnosed by having dilated bases to the filaments (stalks to the stamens). This is best examined with a lens, but like all tricky characters, once seen and learnt, the feature is readily diagnosed, and is illustrated below. M. henrici grows on shaly screes above about 3800 m in the mountains of west-central Sichuan, especially in the Kangding region, where it is common. I was fortunate to flower it this spring and I exhibited it at the International Show at Nottingham in April, possibly one of the few times it has been seen in cultivation. Here are some photos from sites to the north and west of Kangding, the close-ups showing the swollen filament bases.

The closest relative of M. henrici is M. lancifolia, another species I was able to flower this spring. This species occurs in similar habitats to M. henrici, but not apparently in the same regions. After several days in the Kangding area we travelled south for a day to Jiulong, and both on the Zi Chou Shan to the north of the town, and in the vicinity of Ruxu lake, M. henrici had been replaced by M. lancifolia. Diagnostically, the anther filaments were not swollen, and the plant tended to be much spinier, with straw-coloured spines. Also, the leaf-shape was subtly different, with a more marked (green) petiole.

The identity of the other two violet species we saw is more controversial, particularly as I can find no convincing description of M. impedita in the literature. However, in the vicinity of Ruxu Lake near Jiulong, and on the Zi Chou Shan pass, together with M. lancifolia, grew a much less spiny, almost smooth, plant with narrow purple petioles, which I believe to be the former species.

Most of the party took the teleferique up the Shika Shan, near Zhongdian, where they saw M. pseudovenusta in the high screes. Together with two others, I stayed relatively low (seeing many good meconopsis) and it is only now, looking at photos from screes high at the southern end of the Hong Shan, that I realise that I too saw this very dwarf species with its thick, fleshy, lobed leaves, flattish flowers and pale anthers. By the way, these Hong Shan screes are fantastically rich, with about 8 corydalis and much else, and they will be covered at a later date.

We move now into slightly less controversial territory, looking at the 'blue' species. By far the most straightforward (and for me one of the most lovely of all meconopsis) is M. rudis, with its black spine bases and gunmetal-blue leaves. Here are photos from those two great massifs on the Yunnan-Sichuan border, the Hong Shan and Da Xue Shan.

I should have said that in my experience, M. rudis always occurs on limestone screes, unlike most of its relatives. It is not hard to grow and sets good seed; I am raising a set of my own seedlings as I write.

We move next to M. racemosa, an easy garden plant which often self-sows with abandon. It is variable, but can be very lovely in good forms. It often occurs lower down the mountain than other species, and is common in the Zhongdian region as low as 3200 m, but higher up it is rather later flowering than most. It is related to M. prattii but has wider more oblong leaves and more or less ebracteate flower spikes.

We finish with M. prattii, with its characteristically many narrow pointed leaves and bracteate inflorescence. This species seems to grade into M. racemosa in some localitires, suggesting hybridisation and it is possibly that in this instance, Taylor might have been correct not to separate them. However they seem distinct in the garden where both are of easy culture.

Back home; daphne fruits

Ok, another genus next week!  Back home, I hardly need say that I have been extracting bushels of weeds over the last two days. However, it seems to have been relatively damp and cool and on the whole I am pleased with how seedlings have grown, and mature plants have survived and even thrived. Many plants show signs of having been too shady and humid, and I have been busy moving some into more light, and cutting back shrub cover which tends to provide shading for some of the plunge areas for pot plants.

The seed season has started and I have been collected  and cleaning seed which goes straight into the fridge. This brings me to the subject of daphne berries which is something that has exercised me before. Some daphnes (D. petraea, for instance, or D. jasminea) never seem to make fleshy coloured berries, but just produce a pale 'skin' outside the seed. Other species, D. retusa agg. or D. mezereum, produce masses  of brightly coloured berries which are eaten by birds (who seem immune to the toxins). Others yet again seem to vary, and this has been particularly marked on one of my plants of D. sokjai ('D. vermionica') which has produced both types of fruit together, as the accompanying photo illustrates.

Back home; daphne fruits

Two of the later saxifrages are at their best. Firstly, flowering for the first time here is that strange relative of S. aizoides, which pretends to be a silver sax, S. mutata. I know this in the wild on the Nota Pass above Lake Garda where it also flowers late, in July. I am relieved to see that it has set side rosettes which I shall need to root in the next couple of months.

Here is the Turkish form, reputedly of S. pedemontana, grown from seed last year, flowering in a trough. Looks like another species to me?

Even more rapid as been Senecio polydon from the Drakensberg. Not only has the parent survived the horrid winter and is flowering well, but last years seed germinated and grew so fast this spring, that seedlings planted out in May are now large flowering plants. It is a lovely thing and so easy to grow!

I have never been quite comfortable with the spotty, fleshy-coloured flowers of Campanula punctata, vast as they are, so it was with some interest that I purchased a plant of the white form last back-end. This has done very well and is spectacular at present.

I have shown Meconopsis x cookei in its 'Old Rose' form before, but it seems to have really settled down here, and is almost perpetual-flowering.

I think I could really get into lily hybrids in pots, so useful at this time of year, and so sumptuous! L. 'Montenegro' is new this year.

To finish with, two plants that flowered before I left for China, in mid June, but I did not have time to post then. I was amazed that Gentiana 'arethusae', from last years seed, overwintered in a trough, flowered so early. It is now long over, but the plant itself seems well. I put the name in quotes, as some authorities treat this as a synonym for G. hexaphylla. By the way, G. georgii also flowered while I was away, for the fourth year in sucession!

It almost broke my heart to leave Cardiocrinum yunnanense in peak condition. And, we didn't see it in China, either!!

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