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A Northumberland Alpine Gardener's Diary

This entry: 22 July 2007 by John Richards

Northumberland Diary. Entry 43.

Jet-stream blues

We have just returned from another visit to the south of England, where we experienced some of the cloud-bursts that have caused the worst floods in 60 years. Luckily, my mother gardens on a gravelly river terrace well above the Thames flood-plain, and the bulk of water is not due to reach the lower reaches for another few days. However, Friday morning was amongst the wettest I have ever experienced, 10 cm falling in six hours. It has been far worse in Pershore and Upton where the Avon and Severn have burst their banks. The AGS Centre and garden at Avon Bank should be protected, lying as they do well above the flood-plain, but I hope that our friends who administer the AGS  have escaped the worst of the floods. They are in our thoughts.

We are told that this quite exceptional weather has been caused by the jet-stream passing much further south than is normal at this time of year, so that depressions have tracked through southern England rather than to the north of Scotland. It follows that out own summer here near the Scottish border has been much less extreme; cool and showery yes, but without flooding. If truth were known, it has been a good summer for the growth of 'true' alpines (as against dryland bulbs which seem to pass for alpines south of Watford!). My friends from the south will realise that I am pulling their leg(s) again, but will wonder what they have done to deserve such extreme weather, hot and baking one summer, flooded out the next, while here in the north we enjoy climatic mediocrity. Further north still, some are suffering from a drought, not least Common Gulls in Orkney that a friend tells me have been unable to raise young as the earth was too hard and dry to reach the worms!

Amongst the best alpines for late summer are the Near-Eastern gentians. The ever-popular G. septemfida can be rather too vigorous, flopping cartwheel-style over less robust neighbours, and is not always a good blue. Its  cousin G. lagodechiana is rarely seen these days but was a better blue, although with larger foliage. Recently, the more upright G. paradoxa with narrow foliage has become popular, but of this group I prefer G. boissieri  (figured below). Grown from AGS seed about four years ago, this is well-behaved and a very good blue. It seems to be restricted to Turkey as it does not appear in Vojtec Holubec's splendid book about ther Caucasus. At the moment it is the best plant in the garden.

Jet-stream blues

A long-lived and reliable plant for the late summer is the so-called 'pink dandelion', Crepis incana. This Peloponnesian endemic can be found around Chelmos, not least on the river gravels beside the Styx below Soros. Of course it is not a dandelion. In fact there are some pink real dandelions, occurring in central Asia and western China where I saw some (Taraxacum section Porphyrantha) last month in north-west Sichuan; and these might be fun to try in the garden some time. I doubt if they would be invasive. Crepis incana has the engaging habit of creeping around, and the young rosettes, not produced so freely as to be a nuisance, can be detached and potted on. The 'fluff' that passes for seed seems never to be fertile, but seedlings can sometimes be found far from the parent, so it must produce some good seed.

I have just realised that the last photo showed another speciality of the northern Peloponnesos, the wonderful Adonis cyllenea, now dying back. As always, I have saved the achenes that look fertile, putting them straight in the fridge, and in due course they will go to the AGS seed exchange. Being Ranunculaceae, I fear for their viability if they are not kept cool throughout their history. I have never germinated them successfully, but a friend tells me that they have epigeal germination, like a peony, and nothing appears above ground until the second spring. I shall try again!

Here is another good plant at this time of year, Allium narcissiflorum. This is an excellent garden plant, late-flowering, long-lived and reliable. It also sets good seed that I always gather in September.

One more plant from the garden, or rather from the cooler of the alpine houses, the Chilean gesneriad Mitraria coccinea. I have grown this dwarf shrub for years, loving its brilliant bird-pollinated flowers. I find it persistent and good-tempered when I have failed with its related compatriots Asterantha and Sarmienta. Its main fault is to not to produce a single display (at least here) but to stagger its flowering throughout the summer.

News from the field
As the summer progresses, I find there is often a hiatus between potting on seedlings, and the late-summer jobs of cutting the hedges and repotting the bulbs. During this season I often change hats, temporarily, and spend more time looking at wild plants than garden plants. Last week I led a walk in the north of our county, to the National Nature Reserve on the tidal island of Holy Island (Lindisfarne). This has magnificent orchid populations, not least of the marsh helleborine, Epipactis palustris.

News from the field

This beautiful plant occurs in countless thousands, making a wonderful spectacle in mid-July. It is sometimes obtainable from nurserymen as a garden plant .I need hardly say that it should NEVER be removed from the wild! Much rarer is another helleborine that we now know from DNA studies is a localised endemic, restricted in the whole world to Holy Island, and appropriately christened a few years ago E. sancta (the site was a cradle of Christianity in England and for some time the home of St. Cuthbert).

There are other plants on the island of potential interest to alpine gardeners, not least this attractive fern, the sea spleenwort, Asplenium marinum, which occurs on walls in the village. I have seen this most attractive species exhibited in fern classes at AGS Shows, and perhaps it should be distributed more widely amongst specialist enthusiasts.

And further south...

During our few days in the south, I was able to find a short dry period to visit one of my favourite habitats, southern chalk hills. OK, I admit there are some things the south does better than the north! I thought I would finish with a couple of wild plants that have found their way into rock gardens (admittedly in superior forms) and, naturally, cope with summer heat and alkaline conditions well. First is the little milkwort Polygala calcarea, well-known in its Pyrenean selection 'Lillet'

And further south...

Finally, here is the dropwort, Filipendula vulgaris. In its pink-budded youth, this can be drop-dead gorgeous. By now, like this summer, its charms are beginning to fade.

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