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A Northumberland Alpine Gardener's Diary

This entry: 29 July 2017 by John Richards

Northumberland Diary. Entry 343.


One may well moan about the rain (and who doesn't!), but it is good planting weather. As intimated in the last episode, I have been busy planting out seedlings from this year's crop. Although the usual sacrificial offerings of ungrowable/short-lived/high prestige meconopsis and asiatic primulas have as usual taken a good deal of time and effort (some really desirable mecs such as Meconopsis pseudovenusta, venusta, yaoshanensis, henrici etc are, shall we say, not yet dead), for once there had been a fair admixture of reasonable garden plants. From last years autumnal trip to NE Greece have come some lovely digitalis which are growing apace. There are also some interesting alpines such as Inula verbascifolia, Trachelium rumeliacum, Campanula orphanidea, Silene aff. parnassica, Anthemis cretica and Saxifraga sempervivum. Also, the 'dexanthorrhized' plot (see last epistle) has proved fertile ground for a series of young monocarpic mecs such as M. staintonii, including a suppose white form and M. wilsonii.

Next to this is the enclave where I planted seedling meconopsis (with conspicuous success) and Cardiocrinum last summer. The C. yunnanense flowered five weeks ago, but the chance and very welcome gift of the very unusual C. cathayanum is flowering now. This giant lily was unknown to me. It differs from the C. giganteum crew (including C. yunnanense) in being multistemmed, like a candelbra, and shows signs of not being monocarpic (C. giganteum of course throws side buds which if you are fortunate will flower after a couple of years, but C. cathayanum looks as if the same crown is capable of repeat flowering; we will see. Either way it is a spectacular plant.

Cardiocrinum cathayanum

We enjoyed the garden visit two weeks ago. We were one of ten Hexham gardens open that afternoon, and rather out of the way compared to most. Also we could scarcely compare with offers of folk bands and Pimms on tap, so our visitor score of 80+ was modest. This is emphatically not a July garden and could scarcely compete with the regimented colour on view elsewhere. Most folk were kind enough not to mention the weeds (although an opinionated 10 year old could not forbear from doing so) and several emailed to say that they found the blends of foliage in this woodland garden 'restful'. Damning with faint praise, but all we could expect for what is for us an unseasonable opening. February would have been better and we could have made a mint from snowdrop sales. As it was I believe the combined contribution to charity was some £3300.

Mostly, I could only mutter about how lovely the blue poppies had been a month earlier. In fact we did have a blue poppy on offer, not a 'big blue' but the stately monocarp M. wallichii, which is a blue of a kind, so some folk departed happy.

Meconopsis wallichii

Another poppy has been making a show recently. Acquired at a plant sale this spring, I thought I might appreciate the Chinese Stylophorum lasiocarpum as it seemed rather similar to Hylomecon japonicum, one of my very favourite spring plants.

So, the good news is that it is vigorous, very possibly too vigorous, and has a long flowering season. Also, both the foliage and the fascinatingly hairy seed pods are attractive, even if the yellow poppies are evanescent. The bad news is that it sprawls over other subjects (greatly valued dwarf rhodos such as Rh. pronum in this case) so it has to be watched, and frankly it doesn't combine well with other subjects. At present the jury is out, but if I was this stylophorum I might be feeling slightly paranoid......

Stylophorum lasiocarpum

Some reliable late-summer favourites are flowering. When writing about remaking the vetched rock garden last month (thats vetch the wretch, not Veitch!), I mentioned propagating the 'pink dandelion', Crepis incana. Root cuttings withered rapidly, but as predicted they recovered and one is even in flower now. Elsewhere a old-established plant is in full flower.

Crepis incana

The wonderful Dierama pendulum is also in full flower. This opened in time for the visitors so it has a long season. It has been in the same spot, between flagstones, for decades.

Dierama pendulum

This photo of one of the greenhouse border was taken today. Plants of interest include Allium flavum (yellow) and A. beesianum (blue). However, please note Gladiolus flanaganii, the 'Suicide Lily'. The real interest is that these spare seedlings were planted out three years ago and forgotten. They have survived without protection, while other bulbs were lifted and stored in the garage. All have flowered at the same time, but those planted out are dwarfer.

One does not grow Gypsophila aretioides for the flowers, but nevertheless I have not flowered it so well before.

Gypsophila aretioides

Butterfly bonanza

Last week we took another of our increasingly frequent family-directed visits to the 'Deep South'. Until now, this has been a forward, mostly hot and sunny summer in the south-east, so that my expectations that I could see some of our more interesting butterflies were limited by the season, cool showery weather, and family calls. Eventually I was able to make two excursions, first to Pamber Forest near Silchester, a beloved locality I have been visiting since I was ten years old, and then to Bernwood Forest in Oxfordshire, close to where we once lived at Brill.

Despite the advanced season, it proved to be a vintage year for the majestic Silver-washed Fritillaries which were flying in dozens or even hundreds at both sites. Here is a shot of a male courting a lady.

Butterfly bonanza

One of the more interesting features of this species is a sex-linked polymorphism which is only expressed in females. Should this seem surprising (sex-linked polymorphisms such as red-green colour blindness in humans or deafness in white cats occur in males), I would note that the heterogametic gender in butterflies (XO, not XX) is the female. In the Silver-washed fritillary this variant has grey-bronze rather than brown wings and is named valezina. Remarkably, a butterfly guru from early last century, F.W. Frohawk, named his daughter Valezina. The right gender and a pretty name, but history does not recall what colour she was.

In Britain, the valezina variant is mostly restricted to the New Forest where about 12% of females are of this type. However I have recorded it at Pamber Forest over the last 60 years (!), and I was delighted to see one on last week's visit.

We have a restricted butterfly fauna in the North-east, so I was able to see several species such as Brown Argus, Essex Skipper and Gatekeeper that are absent here. However, undoubtedly the greatest thrill came from Bernwood. We had entered a flowering meadow within the forest, full of butterflies, when Sheila pointed to a flower by the path and asked innocently 'whats this then?'.

'Great heavens', quoth I, 'its a Brown Hairstreak!'. This is a late-flying rarity for which Bernwood is well-known, usually seen round the tops of trees where blackthorn is abundant, so such an accessible, fresh individual was both unexpected, and an indication of how far the season has in fact progressed.

In fact we saw two hairstreaks at Bernwood and I am indebted to another nutcase I met there for showing me Purple Hairstreaks doing what they do best, flying round the crown of an oak tree. They were well out of photographic reach, so here is one I took earlier.

Enough time back home to fulfill a promise to a friend to show her a local population of the increasingly rare bog orchid, Hammarbya paludosa. This a a tiny, uncharismatic little plant which is easily overlooked for the co-existing yellow sedges (Carex demissa). It is also incredibly hard to photograph successfully, so this less than perfect image represents for me, a minor triumph. There are Lesser Twayblades (Neottia cordata) on the site too.

Hammarbya paludosa

and a bottle of pop and a sausage roll.....

Time to cut what we grandly call the hay meadow, all 100 sq meters (10 x 10) of it. This experiment is only a couple of years old, so we are still learning. Given the wet weather I tried strimming it yesterday with limited success. Having raked off the cuttings, I shall try again today with the electric rotary mower with the blades set high. Yesterday I disturbed any number of Large Yellow Underwing moths, which is not surprising bearing in mind that I ran a light the previous night as part of the garden moths scheme and caught 66 moths of which 47 were Large Yellow Underwings! The larva is also known as cutworm, so it is not surprisingly that we suffer some deprivation from this common, if not unattractive, pest.

Primulas are thin on the ground at this time of year, so it is good to welcome a few late flowers on Primula capitala ssp. sphaerocephala, now in its third year.

And, finally.....

Summer has its compensations. What can be nicer, and smell better, than a large bowl of Sheila's sweet peas?

And, finally.....
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