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A Northumberland Alpine Gardener's Diary

This entry: 29 June 2010 by John Richards

Saxifrages in the Lake Garda area, Italy

Saxy Italy

It is now more than three weeks since we returned from the Lake Garda area, but I promised a few more pictures of some of the special alpines of that relatively low-lying, early limestone region.

There is, I suppose, nowhere in Europe that has such a high concentration of species classified in Saxifraga section Porphyrion, informally still known as 'Kabschias'. As well as the relatively widespread, late-flowering, S. caesia, there is its close relative, the much more localised Dolomite 'special' S. squarrosa, and the spring-flowering S. burseriana which also has a wide distribution in the eastern limestone Alps. We did in fact see the latter just going over flower on Monte Baldo, but that particular path (down the eastern side, from the main car park) scares me rigid and I examined it at a distance, through the trees, with binoculars.

We did better with the two species localised to the Garda area. I had seen S. vandelii before on Corne Bianca, north-east of the Passo Croce Domini, but in mid July 2003 when it was well past flowering. When we reached the start of the path (from Cadino della Banca) on May 27th this year, it was evident that what should be a simple hour-long stroll along a mountain path would be more problematic so early in the season. The path, which contours around a relatively steep slope, was mostly covered in steep banks of snow, much too steep for two very inexpert (and un-cramponed) ice-walkers. Also, the weather was less than perfect, with light rain and some low cloud higher up the valley.

This photograph, taken four days later with a big lens in perfect weather is misleading because the Corne Bianca (the white rock left of centre) is further than it looks (about 3.5 km) and much of the snow has now gone from the path.

As it was we had to pioneer a route up the bottom of the valley. In fact, on our return we found that there was a marked ski-trail that we had missed on the way, but in the end the two hour walk was not too bad. In particular, there was a lot of lovely Primula glaucescens in early flower.

When we got to the base of the rock, it was immediately obvious (using binoculars)that the timing was good and the saxifrage was in flower. It is a stiff scramble up to the base of the vertical walls on which the sax grows, but some plants are within range of a photo taken with a 200 mm lens.

The final photograph shows the habitat of this exciting and rather little-known saxifrage well. As you can see, some plants almost grow upside down.

By now the cloud had come down to our level and it was raining steadily. Nevertheless I was determined to walk on another few hundred metres past the rock where there is a col on acidic ground. I had heard that this was once a station for Primula daonensis, but that this very local species (even sometimes  said to be nearly extinct) had disappeared many years previously.

Immediately I reached the acidic ground, Pulsatilla vernalis appeared, the only time I saw it on the whole holiday in this low, lime-rich region.

And then close nearby, first one and then a scattered colony of Primula daonensis, growing on level ground amongst Loisleuria and Vaccinium uliginosum.

The primula is best known for its very long marginal leaf hairs which carry a large terminal reddish gland.

On to another saxifrage, this time S. tombeanensis which as its name suggests is mostly confined to the mountains to the west of Lake Garda (the same country as Daphne petraea in fact), formerly known as Cima Tombea, but now as Monte Tremalzo. It is also recorded further north from here, and from Monte Baldo, although the latter records may refer to S. burseriana.

I believe the best sites for S. tombeanensis are reached by the military road, now a mountain path which runs below and then south-west from the car-park and Refugio on Mt. Tremalzo (reached from the Ledro valley to the north on a good road) and eventually reaches Magasa. If you walk up from Magasa it is a very steep pull, particularly at first. I saw it above this road in July when it was well out of flower (and out of reach too).

However, we did find a few old plants above the second tunnel on the path from Tremalzo down to Bondo (the one featured for the daphnes two entries ago). These are inaccessible to all except an expert rock climber, but I did manage some distant shots.

This path, from Tremalzo down towards Bondo, has much S. caesia, and I thought I had found a plant in flower beside the upper tunnel, growing amongst the charming little Arabis pumila. This would be a real freak in May, for this is a late summer species. Only when I got home did it become evident that it was the Arabis that was flowering!

Another saxifrage that grows beside this road is the curious S. mutata. The big rosettes look for all the world like S. cotyledon, but when it flowers in July, it is evident from the yellow-orange flowers that this is in fact a relative of S. aizoides and not a silver saxifrage at al.

In fact, the showiest plant along the Tremalzo path in late May is not a daphne or a saxifraga but Primula spectabilis. There is a lot of P. auricula too.

Garden news

I may show a few more photos from Italy in future editions; we will see. Back home, the news is that it rained heavily last night, the first proper rain for weeks in what has been an exceptionally dry start to the year, the driest since 1929 we are told (that was the summer of 'Pigeon Post', when the Lake District caught fire).

Up to last week, I had the young seedlings (there are more than 400 now) in full light, watering daily. However, they were starting to suffer from unrelenting sunshine and heat and looking rather yellow and limp. Even in this sheltered, cool, north-facing garden with its big trees, at the solstice this far north the sun is right overhead for many hours and the only shade is right under bushes (which is where the primulas are put).

So when we were due to go south for a few days last week, I put all the seedlings in a much shadier place. It was hot, going to 26 or 27C with unbroken sunshine for the five days and four nights we were absent, and when I returned I was relieved to find that I had lost exactly five seedlings (about 1%). Remarkable! So after watering, and about 2 cm of rain last night, greatly daring I took all the seedlings except the petiolarid primulas and put them back in full light again. And now there is hot sunshine again and not a cloud in the sky! Probably I would have done better to leave them where they were.

By the way, I do hope that all those who look at our primulas or meconopsis and say 'its all right for him, he lives in Northumberland', and such sentiments have even been printed in Bulletin Show Reports by very distinguished growers who should know much better, read this and realise how much hard work it is and yes, we get hot dry conditions too! Perhaps I should try dionysias instead? (not).

I'll finish with a few things giving me pleasure at present. Last year I acquired two purple Drakensberg senecios from Ron McBeath. I had seen them both in the wild and was delighted at the chance to grow them. In a sheltered rich scree (when I say 'rich', it has probably long since run out of food but did once have an admixture of old compost amongst the gravel), they overwintered the worst winter for 30 years without turning a hair and are in flower now. The main one in this picture is S. macrocephalus McB. 2926, and the flowers of the rather more floppy and possibly slightly less desirable S. polyodon (McB. 2919) are propped amongst them.

Garden news

Now that they are fully established, Cardiocrinum yunnanense is one of the wonders of this garden. This year's two flower spikes, featured a few weeks ago, are in full flower now (note that the crinodendron is still in flower!). Equally good, this is a plant which gives notice of pleasures to come well in advance and I already know I shall have two spikes next year again, possibly three. And the offsets themselves have offsets.........

I featured a few of our summer iris at this time of year a couple of summers ago. However I think I left out I. pallida 'Variegata', possibly because it tends to be rather shy flowering. Four flowering shoots this year, but great foliage!

Finally, the terrace is still looking good, so here it is again, now with bedding in containers to replace the tulips which are drying out and will be naturalised in November.

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