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A Northumberland Alpine Gardener's Diary

This entry: 04 June 2014 by John Richards

Northumberland Diary. Entry 274.

A defence of blogging.

As I creep towards my 300th diary entry, it occurs to me to wonder why I do it, and what its for. In fact, I think I know, so I thought it worthwhile putting my reasons on record.

Like other diarists such as John and Tim, I am an inveterate reader of old Alpine Garden Society Bulletins. In fact I normally read an article or so every day, in  circumstances that I shall leave to your imagination. Let it merely be said that my father used to peruse sections of an old copy of Bradshaw's Railway Timetable when similarly occupied. Recently I have been fascinated by vol. 8: 158-192 'The Effects of the Cold Spell, 1939-40', written and published in June 1940, the darkest days of the Second War. In this article, many leading growers of the time, legendary names, Cicley Crewdson, Gwendolyn Anley, Hugh Roger-Smith, Norman Hadden, produced voluminous information as to how many of their rarities survived, or succumbed during the freezing cold first winter of the war. I confess to being particularly taken by the memoirs of Randle Cooke, whose garden I tended some 40 years later (and nearly 40 years ago, now).

To me, the real value of this lengthy essay is the account of what species were being grown then, by people we now regard as luminaries. Very few such contemporary accounts survive. True, I am lucky enough to have Cooke's 'Garden Book', and very many of his early coloured photographs, but this is a rare archive. Publications, communications, colour photographs, archives were all much rarer then than now. Only a few such as E.B. Anderson and Sir Frederick Stern write about their gardens.

I dare suggest that our generation has yet to fully grasp the power, and historical significance, of computer files and images, emails and attachments, and especially, websites and the internet. It is now so easy to access and swap information, to check names, and to gain a good idea of what is being grown today. The next generation, and the generations that follow, should have an amazing grasp of what we grow and how we grow it, to a much greater extent than we have concerning our predecessors.

Of course there are people that have grasped the significance of this revolution and have that helped it flourish. Jim McGregor for the Alpine Garden Society, the Youngs and others for the Scottish Rock Garden Club, specialist genus websites run by the Saxifrage Society, the Meconopsis Group, Pam Eveleigh's excellent 'Primulaworld' and many others. However, for many garden enthusiasts, the internet is something to be avoided, or to approach gingerly and with extreme caution.

Personally, I believe that digital information has already completely transformed the world of plant enthusiasts. Consequently, I feel I have a duty to place on record, in however a modest way, what I grow, how I grow it, and what others grow, if only for the sake of future generations who we have to hope will step forward in the fullness of time. This is why I blog, and why I hope that diaries such as this will be kept as a permanent record.



Last weekend, Sheila and I motored across the Pennines and down the M6 to the National Nature Reserve at Gaitbarrow in Silverdale. This area of lowland limestone pavement and calcareous scrub and woodland has long been a favourite venue of mine, not least for the rare butterflies that thrive there, Pearl-bordered and Duke of Burgundy Fritillaries at this time of year, High-brown Fritillaries a little later. There is also a galaxy of scarce limestone plants, but in recent years these have been eclipsed by one very special plant. Many readers will know that by 1960, Cypripedium calceolus, the Lady's Slipper Orchid had become reduced in the UK to a single plant in the Grassington area of Yorkshire. Although this plant appeared to set seed, it was not until it was hand-pollinated that the seed was found to contain embryos. I believe some cross-pollinations were also made using a 'wild' plant which still survives elsewhere in Silverdale, but which is of dubious origin. More than 20 years ago, the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew developed a technique for growing cypripedium seed on media in flasks, and success was achieved with both 'pure' and 'hybrid' seed from the British plant. Ex-flask plants were given to expert growers to translate to soil and grow on, and many of these were planted out at a number of previous locations for the plant.

Gaitbarrow was earmarked as a site where seedlings could be displayed to the public once they reached flowering size, and for the last few years this has come to pass. Parking is something of a problem, but once on site you are directed by a series of excellent clear signs to the open areas on the other side of the reserve where the plants have become established (coincidentally, this is the main area where the Duke of Burgundy flies).

I must say, I was totally unprepared for the spectacle; there must be well in excess of 100 flowering plants, in great swathes and groups!


It is interesting how much variability there is. I have heard it said that native British plants had darker narrower tepals than most plants of continental origin. In this case, they would have mostly looked like this.

This would mean that plants like that below are not 'typically English', and possibly such plants are of Silverdale hybrid origin. However, lets not be too racist about this; they all look great to me!

So, through the efforts of Kew, and Natural England, the Uk has gone from having a single plant, to boasting some of the best stands of this iconic plant in Europe. A conservation success story if there was ever one, and a great fillip for those who, like me, believe in the use of garden techniques and cultivation for reintroduction schemes on behalf of rare and threatened plants. When I was President, I thought this was something the Society should become involved with, but at the time I received no support.

There are many other interesting plants at Gaitbarrow. To the south of the Reserve is a considerable, reed-fringed tarn, Haweswater. The limestone slopes down to here, allowing damp shallow calcareous grassland to develop which provides one of the few lowland homes for Primula farinosa. Years ago, my Research Associate, Dr Michelle Tremayne, undertook experiments here, under licence. She was interested in the importance of seed number and seed size in the survival of Birds-eye Primrose seedlings. In brief, she found that efficient cross-pollination resulted in many seeds, which meant that individual seeds were small. The resulting seedlings were less likely to survive when planted out, compared to those from large seeds, so that mothers who produced more seed (apparently 'more fit') actually had fewer surviving seedlings (in truth 'less fit'). This appears to be an unexpected benefit of 'inefficient' cross-pollination.

It was a pleasure to revisit Michelle's site and find the plants still there.


On the way home we called in at Holehird, just north of Windermere. I wrote an account of this lovely garden this time last year when we visited it as part of the assessment of blue meconopsis. This is a much earlier season, of course, and a different set of plants were on show.

Two berberis here. The nearer one is called 'Admiration'. What do you think? Um?


The Davidia was magnificent. Mine still hasn't flowered. 18 years and counting!

Last year I featured the tufa house, but this superb Helichrysum sessiloides wasn't in flower yet.

An exemplary Crinodendron hookerianum. Two flowers on mine this year. It still hasn't really recovered from being cut to the ground three years ago.

Holehird has four National Collections, Astilbe, Hydrangea, Polystichum and Hosta. The hostas are wonderful. Don't they have slugs?

One of their many rarities is the old primula hybrid 'Red Hugh'. This is said to breed true, and so is probably an allotetraploid. Its parentage is probably P. cockburniana x pulverulenta.

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