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A Northumberland Alpine Gardener's Diary

This entry: 24 June 2007 by John Richards

Northumberland Diary. Entry 39.

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I returned last night from a three week visit to the mountains of western Sichuan and north-west Yunnan. It is 12 years since I last visited western China, and the differences tht have been engineered in roads, hotels and general facilities for the tourist over that short period are huge, so the latest visit was both rewarding and, by and large, enjoyable as well. Cities such as Kunming and Chengdu are now much larger than formerly, with well over 5 million inhabitants each, and now have amazing infrastructures of freeways and skyscrapers, so that they resemble cities such as Atlanta or Philadelphia. They also seem to have impressive social cohesion and order, at least to the outside observer. The Asian tiger is not just threatening to dominate world economics; it seems to have already done so.

Nevertheless, eggs are broken when omelettes of this magnitude are made, and the famous Wolong valley, with its Panda reserve and research centre, is at the moment very inaccessible as new roads, tunnels and bridges are engineered. We were unable to proceed further over the famous Balang pass, and only extricated ourselves from the valley after many hours and with the greatest difficulty. However, while there we were able to spend part of a day walking a short distance up the Silver Mine path (further up a bridge was broken), and here we found one of my favourite plants, the giant Himalayan lily, Cardiocrinum (giganteum var.) yunnanense. On my return, appropriately, my own plant was in full fig with two spikes that had grown from side buds formed when the original seedling first flowered in 2005.

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More Chinese delights
Of course, this is a garden diary, not a travelogue, but my recent experiences prompt mention of other Chinese plants flowering here at present. Of these, I think the only one we encountered in the wild is the graze-resistant Iris bulleyana, so commonly encountered in the wild in Yunnan, but unaccountably absent further north. It grows beside the pond here, together with white and blue variegated forms of Iris pallida, and Iris sibirica that has already finished flowering.

More Chinese delights

We did poorly for Roscoeas, being limited to either one or two diminutive species that might or might not have been R. scillifolia on our last day at Zhongdian. Here in the garden, R. humeana, readily encountered further south in the Yulong Shan, is the earliest, so that the fine selection 'Rosemoor Plum' is already somewhat past its best.

I am a congenital lister, so that I can report, or boast, that we found 18 species of androsace, 32 species of rhododendron, and a phenomenal 37 species of primula. This really is the richest region of the world for alpines! Concentrating on primulas for a moment, we found three species of 'candelabras' (section Proliferae), including P. cockburniana, a Sichuan speciality I had not seen in the wild before. It has nearly finished flowering here, so I am figuring instead  hybrids between the purple and yellow forms of P. bulleyana. These marvellous garden plants also occur rather to the south of the regions we were exploring.

Two more from China
Firstly another primula, the well-known 'red-hot poker' primula,  one of Forrest's best introductions. He named it P. littoniana for his friend Henry Litton, the British vice-consul at Tengyueh. On the Burmese (Myanmar) border, this small town is now highly inaccessible, but in the days when Burma was under British control it seemed a home from home in comparison to the mysterious mass of western China. Forrest and the Edinburgh authorities were not to know that this unique primula had already been named P. vialii by the French. In the garden it is easily grown from seed, and if grown in a cool leafy soil in high humidity can survive for up to ten years here.

Two more from China

Finally in this Chinese section we will repair to the alpine house where that interesting gesneriad Briggsia muscicola is in full flower. Nothing like as attractive as the superb B. aurantiaca, it is a good deal easier to grow, and it has graced the north side of a piece of artificial tufa for several seasons now.

Hot numbers

Going under glass brings me to several midsummer specials. The hey-day of the alpine house is early spring, and many of its subjects are better off spending the long sunny days outside, in a cool plunge. Nevertheless, many authentic mountain plants are adapted to hot dry summers, and flower unperturbed through the warm dry conditions that are unavoidable under glass at this time of year.

First, here are two from the eastern Mediterranean that are flowering this week. Origanum amanum originates from limestone gorges in southern Turkey. It has been in cultivation for many years (the legendary Roy Elliott grew it well) but has not often been easy to acquire.

Hot numbers

When we were in north-eastern Greece last month, we could at times see Athos, far out to sea. This remote monastry-girt  peninsula is easier to visit than formerly, at least if you are male (it is said that eggs are hard to come by as all the fowl are cockerels!), but the high mountains there are still highly inaccessible. Nevertheless, many good plants come from there, including the delightful Helichrysum sibthorpii, once known as H. virgineum (rather inappropriately, perhaps, see above!). A popular alpine house plant , this is usually seen on the show-bench in its pink-budded phase, but it is also attractive in full bloom.

For the next hot number we travel to California where several Monardella decorate dry mountain slopes. I have my friend Terry Teal to thank for this attractive plant, grown from seed sent as M. nana subsp. arida. This taxon does not figure in the AGS Encyclopedia, but the species does, and is said to grow up to 1800m, from where it will certainly be hardy, if not necessarily resistant to winter wet.

We will finish in another hot continent, Australia. Not reknowned for high mountains for hardy plants, there are neverthless many attractive plants that will thrive under glass if protected from more than a few degrees of frost. Many belong to plant families that are unfamiliar in the rest of the world. The Kangaroo-paws, Anigozanthus, belong to the Haemoradoraceae. I collected a little seed of A. humilis in the Stirling range back in 1981, and have grown it for most of the intervening years. At times I have distributed a few divisions, and having finally lost it, was delighted to get it back again from Rod Leeds. Being bird-pollinated, it really is the most astonishing colour, fairly accurately represented here.

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