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A Northumberland Alpine Gardener's Diary
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A Northumberland Alpine Gardener's Diary

This entry: 19 July 2016 by John Richards

Northumberland Diary. Entry 321.


This will not be the longest entry, but I am sheltering upstairs from the hottest day, not only of this summer, but that I can ever remember in this garden. At 2.30 pm thermometers in the shade outside at head height registered 30 C and those in shade in the alpine house 34 C (despite fans and white 'paint' shading). However, here is a lesson, for me at any rate. I was not sure that the alpine house thermometer was really in the shade, so I put it on the floor of the alpine house 'under the bench' (not really under the bench as my plunges reach the floor, but in perpetual shade). And the alcohol (reacts faster than mercury, and safer!) level dropped immediately to 27 C. I then did the same with the thermometer I had outside on a table in shade, I put it on the ground under the table, 27 C again!

I have been in the habit of putting alpines susceptible to heat on the floor of the alpine house in hot spells (for instance what is now a little population of Primula aureata resides there at present), and clearly, this is a good idea. In fact, most such plants are living outside at present, in dappled shade, and this is probably even more favourable.

Another point is, at about 10 am this morning, before the sun really got to the alpine houses and other susceptible areas of alpines in pots, I gave everything a good soak with the hose (using a rose), sothat during the day when they are at their hottest they are cooled by the latent heat of evaporation.

There is no doubt that heat is a real killer of the type of alpines I grow (Himalayans like primulas, meconopsis, gentians, himalayan saxifrages, lily relatives especially) and I am very lucky that a really hot day such as this is vanishingly rare in this north-facing part-shaded humid Northumbrian garden. When one does occur (and I am at home as is often not the case at this time of year), it is well worth making that extra effort, moving small fishboxes, plants in pots and so-on into the shade, and spraying again when the sun is down.

At the same time, to echo Sheila who has just walked by, 'thank God we don't live in the south of England'!  We are very sorry, it must be awful for you! (More Schadenfreude!).

This garden is not designed for herbaceous, and Sheila in particular views the plots of those with flat vistas and open skies with envy. This is not to say that her own border is not really delightful and it is at its best at present.


Here is a close-up, featuring anthemis, delphiniums etc.

Naturally, the bedding is also at its best. Perhaps the most startling are these gazanias. Not to everyone's taste, or, necessarily, even mine and a little goes a long way, but you can't ignore them!

Time perhaps for something rather lower key and more in keeping with alpine sensibilities! Parnassia palustris, the Grass of Parnassus, famously not a grass and found nowhere near Greek Parnassos, is one of my favourite plants and one we find fairly frequently in Northumberland. It has two quite distinct habitats, upland calcareous spring-fed mires, and calcareous flushes near the sea. The autumn before last, in one of the latter sites where Parnassia grew by the thousand (and is, I hasten to say, unprotected) I put a single seeding capsule in my pocket. It germinated well last spring and the plants were put out into a fishbox in a commercial compost well-leavened with perlite and lime where they are now coming into full flower. I find I am increasingly using lime in composts where I consider the subjects might appreciate it.

Parnassia palustris

Other inhabitants of the fishbox include Gentiana verna which is fruiting well and I must remember to collect the seed! 

Another plant of 'quiet interest' which flowers now is the so-called Balkan heather Bruckenthalia spiculifolia. This dates back to the MESE expedition in 1999 during which we collected seed on Kajmatkcalan, Greek-Macedonian border, where it grows commonly on the edge of rather acidic boggy areas at about 2000 m. I have two plants which have survived much neglect, and are not particularly hard to grow, neither do they seem to need boggy conditions. One lives in another fishbox, while the present subject is on the rock garden below an outcrop of articifial tufa. Incidentally, the true heather, Calluna vulgaris, also somewhat unexpectedly grow on Kajmatkcalan. but has a different habitat there, preferring rocky aciic outcrops. In my view, the two are not particularly closely related.

Bruckenthalia spiculifolia

Another MESE subject has risen from the dead, much to my surprise. Gladiolus imbricatus is a pretty little glad which grows on the wet edges of the vast hay meadows which stretch above the small Greek mountain town of Metsovon. It grew readily from seed, but proved to be short-lived, usually setting seed and dying, although quite often leaving a few self-sown seedlings in its place. However, over the years, I took it for granted and one year it was no longer there. After quite a gap, it has reappeared at the edge of a rhododendron bed, and I can only suppose that cultivation exposed buried seed. This time I shall take care to gather the seed!

Gladiolus imbricatus

In the interim I have continued on my explorations, twice crossing the Pennines to visit a wonderful Cumbria Wildlife Trust Reserve at Eycott Hill, and then up the road to Great Dun Fell in the Pennine Fells. I guess this audience is not ready for the cornucopia of rare grasses, sedges and rushes we have seen, so I shall limit myself to two plants from Knock Ore Gill. This is one of the finest sites for mountain plants in England. Amongst many other treats, roseroot, Rhodiola rosea was in fine form, growing on limestone cliffs (it is more often on the whin sill in fact).

Rhodiola rosea

One of the most famous rarities at Knock Ore Gill is the Yellow Marsh Saxifrage Saxifraga hirculus. This enigmatic plant has a scattered distribution from arctic Canada to the far East, but misses the Scottish Highlands and most of Scandinavia. It is also a great favourite with sheep, so is often found not to flower. Last Sunday, we found hundreds of the yellow, red-spotted flowers, growing in wet spring-mires. Taking a reasonable photo in the howling gale was another matter!

Closer to home, it has been wonderful summer for several orchids, not least Platanthera chlorantha, the Greater Butterfly Orchid, which grows well in two horse pastures only a mile or two up the road from here. In total, we have 29, and they have done well in other local sites too.

Platanthera chlorantha

At one of these sites we have our only inland locality for the bog pimpernel, Anagallis tenella, a popular 'alpine' in its south coast-collected form 'Studland', where it thrives in trampled wet mud.

Anagallis tenella
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