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A Northumberland Alpine Gardener's Diary

This entry: 11 July 2016 by John Richards

Northumberland Diary. Entry 320.


Continuing our adherence to our own shores this summer, we spent a pleasant week in a little hotel in the village of Silverdale, on the shores of the Morecambe Bay, returning last Monday to piles of weeds which had flourished during a rather wet week.

Nevertheless, we managed to get out every day, visiting some familar haunts in this limestone country such as the fabulous Gaitbarrow Reserve and some of the Whitbarrow woodlands, but also having the time to discover some excellent new sites. We were intrigued by the extensive dunelands of Walney Island, west of Barrow. Here we found carpets of the little perennial dune pansy, usually called Viola tricolor ssp. curtisii, but which, if it had occurred in northern Greece, would undoubtedly be granted specific rank. Here it is growing with the restharrow, Ononis repens.

Viola tricolor ssp. curtisii

An unexpected feature of these dunes, although 'advertised' on Reserve noticeboards is that rather sinister member of the toxic pharmacopaeia, the henbane, Hyocyamus niger.

Hyocyamus niger

I greatly enjoyed a little secretive Cumbria Wildlife Trust Reserve called Latterbarrow, just off the busy A590. Were we saw fragrant orchids, Gymnadenia conopsea, greater butterfly orchids, Platanthera chlorantha, and great masses of columbine, Aquilegia vulgaris as a native plant. It was nearly finished flower, but those that remained were plainly a uniform dark blue, and very popular with bees.

Aquilegia vulgaris

One of the chief features of the district is the hill Arnside Knott, which projects somewhat into the sea. Like Latterbarrow, this is a butterfly site (we saw Northern Brown Argus at both, and High-brown Fritillary at the former), but for me the chief attraction is a steep bank on the east side which is a most unlikely locality for the Teesdale Violet, Viola rupestris in one of only three British locations. It grows here with a rare sedge Carex ericetorum. Both were over flower (in fact the sedge had not flowered at all), and can be confused with starved forms of the hairy violet, Viola hirta, which is abundant here. However, when found, the Teesdale Violet is quite distinctive.

One of the great rarities of Arnside grows just south of the town by the promenade, where water trickles down a shady limestone cliff. Here the maidenhair fern, Adiantum capillus-veneris, grows in its only native site north of Devon.

Adiantum capillus-veneris

Amongst the small trees which overhang this site is the Lancashire Whitebeam, Sorbus lancastriensis, endemic to the Morecambe Bay limestones. I am unduly fond of this little tree as I grown an example in my garden, grown from seed gathered on Humphrey Head (which we also visited, to watch a young peregrine being fed by its mother).

Sorbus lancastriensis

Mention of birds of prey brings me to Foulshaw and Meathop Mosses, again lying beside the busy A590 on the north side of the bay, but this time to the south of the road. Both are once again managed by the Cumbria Wildlife Trust, which does a fantastic job in this area, and both have really extensive walkways over wet peat mires with extensive bog pools with rare dragonflies, Large Heath Butterflies, and wonderful aquatic plants such as the insectivorous bladderworts and rare sundews. Foulshaw has a pair of ospreys, with a viewing area, which had attracted visitors, but if anything for us the scene-stealer were the great sheets of bog asphodel, Narthecium ossifragum at Meathop.

Narthecium ossifragum

Probably the rarest plant we saw was the little creeping buttercup, Ranunculus x levenensis, beside Ullswater on the way home, but this is so uncharismatic I dare not show its picture even in this uninspiring context!

So, onto gardens. You will not be surprised to hear that we visited three gardens in the area. Two of these, Holehird and Holker, we have visted several times before. Levens Hall, on the A6 just north of Milnthorpe, was new to us and we were not sure we would like it. But the ancient, well-maintained topiary, is so off-the-wall, that you can't help being  amused, and there is quite a lot of interesting, conventional, garden as well. 

Holker Hall garden is best known for its large collection of rare, rather tender, trees and shrubs. It rained heavily all morning and we enjoyed the interior very much. In the afternoon the garden was rather soggy but there was much to enjoy.

Magnolia sinensis has much smaller flowers than our own M. wilsonii, and broader leaves, but it has a long season and is more floriferous.

Magnolia macrophylla has the largest leaves of any magnolia, up to 70 cm long!

Magnolia macrophylla

There were many fantastic cornus, here 'Norman Hadden' followed by C. florida 'White Cloud'.

Cornus 'Norman Hadden' Cornus florida 'White Cloud'

I was delighted to see that relative of camellias in the Theaceae, Stewartia pseudocamellia. We grew this at late-lamented Moorbank Botanic Garden, but it never consented to flower. Incidentally, I was thrown to find that my tree and shrub 'bible' Hillers has this as 'Stuartia', so I looked it up. Another example of Homer nodding!

Stewarta pseudocamellia

The so-called Snowdrop Tree, Halesia caroliniana is another favourite of mine. It was flowering heavily and covering the ground with a snowfall of fallen blossom.

Halesia carolinana

Finally, from Holker Hall, a mystery. Unfortunately the labelling there is virtually non-existent. However, it is a garden, not a Botanic Garden! What an earth is this? I have no idea of genus or family although suspect it could be Solanaceae. Answers to the discussion section please! (Since discovered to be the Bolivian Iochroma australe (yes it is Solanaceae).

As always Holehird was wonderful, but I have covered it before and I want to move onto a few things here, so just a couple of items. Firstly, this handsome plant was labelled as Campanula zangezura. I was sufficiently intrigued to look it up and find that Holehird has been subjected to the campanula-lumping disease and is more usually referred to as Symphyandra zangezura and hails from the Caucasus. It is new to me under this name too!

Symphyandra zangezura

Also, Holehird had the most marvellous Convolvulus sabatius. Although in the Lake District, I guess their climate is much milder than ours. We cannot manage this lovely North African at all.

Convolvulus sabatius

Back home

The garden is now well into its rather passive, mid-summer phase, notable for lushness and foliage rather than good alpines (Sheila's herbaceous are a notable exception). Nevertheless, there are still things worth mentioning, not least the enormous sombre bells of Lilium nepalense. Having failed in the past, I may have cracked the cultivation of this magnificent thing, having gone from two flowers last year to five this year. I lifted the bulbs in the back end and stored them in dry peat in newspapers in the potting shed for the winter, replanting them in late March and keeping the pot in the alpine house till all threat of frost was past.

Lilium nepalense

Another summer 'bulb' I treated in a similar way was the 'Suicide Lily', Gladiolus flanaganii, from the Drakensberg, grown from seed two years previously. This turns out not to be strictly necessary in this case as the corms came into growth late and are still not budded in their pot (might do for an autumn Show!). In contrast, a couple of spare bulbs which had been put into the rock garden unprotected and forgotten about, are now in flower!

Gladiolus flanaganii

Some of the later primulas are still good, well into July. I am pleased with this planting which compares the magenta of Primula poissonii (received as P. stenodonta) with the ruby-red of Primula wilsonii.

This good form of Primula alpicola v. violacea has become a reliable fixture in this position. I have seen plants under this name for sale in several places recently and none match the quality of this plant. This is a race which deserves selection at the seedling stage.

A curiosity next. This very leggy little primula with fascinating dissected leaves originates from south of Danba in NW Sichuan, according to Alan Oatway. I have been to the exact locality in 2007 and did not see it, but at the end of May it may not yet have been in growth. It has the growth habit of Primula gemmifera and its allies and the flowers closely resemble P. zambalanesis, from the Bai Ma Shan, but the leaves tell us that this must be the little-known Primula laciniata. We have learnt a good deal, because P. laciniata, not having been previously in cultivation, was previously classified near P. blinii in section Yunnanensis.

Primula laciniata Primula laciniata

In troughs, repeated use of ant-ant powder has finally freed up Campanula garganica which has been a martyr to their nests.

Campanula garganica

The low-level Olimbos form of the Greek Dianthus haematocalyx, ssp. ventricosus, is not often seen. I like it and have sent seed to the AGS on more than one occasion. Seed was originally collected during the MESE expedition.

Dianthus haematocalyx ssp. ventricosus

I am finishing with two plants from the alpine house, both planted out into the plunge. Verbascum 'Letitia' is an old hybrid, recently acquired. In past years I had rather unsuccessfully tried to grow this in a pot, but it seem to love growing in pure sand.

Verbascum 'Letitia'

Another plant which failed to reach its full potential in a pot, Onosma nana has flourished exceedingly planted out in the plunge. I also grow several Greek subshrubs this way (Onosma frutescens, Lithodora zahnii, Stachys spreitzenhoferi, S. chrysantha, and the Mallorcan Hypericum balearicum). It is a very successful way for growing such things, to the extent that it is vital that material is kept severely in check and not allowed to exceed its allotted space (and so yielding cutting material to stick into the plunge!).

Onosma nana
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