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A Northumberland Alpine Gardener's Diary

This entry: 03 June 2012 by John Richards

Northumberland Diary. Entry 216.

On our travels

We have enjoyed a busy week since I last wrote. From last Sunday to Thursday we joined our botanical 'Wednesday Walker' friends on their annual trip away. This year we eschewed the big mountains of the north (as befits our increasing years) and opted instead for the flatlands of East Anglia, more particularly the 'Breck'; that vast area of heathland, some of it calcareous, that is centred around Thetford around the borders of Norfolk, Suffolk and Cambridgeshire. Here we found a most comfortable B & B in the small feudal village of Elvedon (once owned by the Maharajah of Jaipur, sometime owner of the Koh-i-Noor) with an excellent new pub nearby.

Most of our readers will be uninterested to read about the special flora of the Breckland, which is largely characterised by being exceptionally minute and without discernible charms of any kind whatever. However, one day we made an excursion 20 miles to the west to visit the 'Devil's Dyke', that massive Saxon earthwork, where it crosses the vast expanses of the Newmarket racecourses. This is a most fascinating place, for the banks of the Dyke are composed of very rich chalk grassland. Here is a general view.

On our travels

This is a well-known site for the pasque-flower, Pulsatilla vulgaris, which we found in several places over two miles or more. Amazingly, it was still in flower in the last week of May, an unexpected bonus of the previously freezing weather (it was boiling hot when we were there however!).

Note the abundance of horseshoe vetch, Hippocrepis comosa, food of the Chalkhill Blue butterfly which also flies here in abundance in July.

There will not be many years when it would be possible to see the pulsatilla flowering and Lizard orchid (Himantoglossum hircinum) almost in flower, on the same day, but it has been a curious spring.

On Thursday, we  retreated north via Holehird Garden, just north of Ambleside, Windermere, in the southern Lake District. Not the most obvious way home perhaps, but I wanted to have a look at the Meconopsis trial which is duplicated there, as well as at Harlow Carr. Regular readers will recall that I visited Holehird recently in the early autumn, and was so impressed that I was looking forward to a spring visit.

We were not disappointed. The rain that chased us all day had ceased, and it was bright if somewhat chilly. The azaleas were magnificent, as one would hope for a good Lake District garden.

The walled garden, heart of the garden, was in the most immaculate condition. It was striking that in this garden, manned entirely by volunteers, that we did not see a single weed, in this most weedy of weeks!

A view of the rock garden is followed by one of the scree.

Here is the fascinating sunked alpine house, full of good plants at this time of year. It was converted many years ago from a Victorian fern-house, full of tufa.

I was greatly impressed by Helichrysum sessiloides, the biggest I have seen and flowering so well!

Here is Linum  suffruticosum subsp.salsoloides, in an excellent form.

It was interesting to see a good plant of Primula mollis in a shady corner. Perhaps because it is evergreen and not very hardy, this plant has become very scarce in cultivation after the recent hard winters.

The primulas outside were magnificent of course, and none more so than the planting of 'Red Hugh', not seen very often now, for which Holehird has become famous.

Back home, I was relieved to see that the measures I had taken before our departure has largely worked. Seedlings had grown hugely during the warm weather, with virtually zero losses. Now that it is (very) cool and drizzly again in this topsy-turvy spring (what a shame for the Jubilee!), those seeking the coolth have been resurrected from their shady tomb into the light and air again. All this caused me to ponder on the resilience of small seedlings. Like baby birds, or indeed humans, they are tougher than they look, with a great zest for life when they are very little, so that they smile at most misfortunes which would kill their older, miffy, selves in a trice!

Adult plants too, were mostly OK, although with a few singe-ed cushions were they had been left to roast in full sun. In most cases, work with tweezers and fine scissors to excise the yellow bits, and then to close up the cushion with underpacked grit works wonders. It will help if it stays cool and cloudy for a few days. Very unpatriotic!

I was delighted to see that Silene davidii was coming into flower in one of the troughs. This cushion catchfly comes from western Sichuan where it inhabits high tundra at above 4200 m on the big rather dry whalebacks. It is shy-flowering in cultivation, and as I saw it in 2007, in the wild too, but then again, so is its familiar counterpart S. acaulis in cultivation.

In another trough, Linum arboreum is flowering. This Cretan subject is unexpectedly hardy, having survived the three hard winters without protection, and self-sows in a modest way, as well as creeping around. I sent seed to the Exchange a couple of years ago.

Another plant that self-sows is the latest of all tulips, T. sprengeri. What a splendid, uncomplaining garden plant this is! If you don't grow it yet, I suggest you acquire it now.

Um, lots of weeds in the last photo, as well as a large Ramonda myconi! To finish with, here is the trellis (which covers an old garden swing) with the Wisteria foribunda we put there some 15 years ago, which which is only now reaching its full magnificence.

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