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A Northumberland Alpine Gardener's Diary

This entry: 01 June 2015 by John Richards

Northumberland Diary. Entry 298.


Now is the time of the columbine, which self-sow all over this garden if I forget to dead-head them. Nevertheless, there is still an ample sufficiency. On the whole I try to remember which ones I want to propagate themselves, especially what passes for A. pyrenaica here. The problem is of course that columbines show little discernment when it comes to the choice of a mate, (not just Harlequin!) so often a mishmash of types results. Most years some still come relatively dwarf, a good mid-blue and with only slightly curved spurs, which I like to think are not far from the original Pyrenean Columbine.

Aquilegia pyrenaica

More often, plants are taller, a purplish-blue, and with hooked spurs. These are typical Aquilegia vulgaris, and can be quite invasive and thuggish at times.

Aquilegia vulgaris

Of course, there are intermediates between these, and with the earlier-flowering, nearly black-flowered A. atrata.

Last year I grew a number of Aquilegia formosa from seed, hoping for some really good reds. In this I have ben disappointed, but they are elegant tall plants with attractively coloured foliage. The best have totally yellow flowers and are very close to A. chrysantha. We saw very similar plants many years ago in Zion Canyon, Utah.

Others, a salmony pink, are closer to what I consider to be more typical of A. formosa.

Aquilegia formosa

Another plant grown from seed which is not what it claimed on the seed list came as A. saximontana. This is indeed attractively dwarf, and the foliage resembles that of A. saximontana closely, but the flowers are bicoloured and a dark purple externally, suggesting that some garden columbine as been involved in their parentage. This is indeed the likely fate of any aquilegia raised from garden seed, so that seed of wild origin is to be preferred if possible. I have had good germination of some wild-origin A. jonesii this year. Yum! (potentially).


For some years now I have enjoyed Linum arboreum, from Cretan seed, which has flourished in a trough, and has spread in competition with Gentiana angustifolia to form quite a patch. I mention it only because it has been joined in two nearby fishbox troughs by L. capitatum, from AGS seed. The latter is a plant for which I have fond memories, as the MESE expedition collected seed on the high screes of Smolikas back in 1999. I would like to think that the present accession devolves from the original collection, but in fact have no knowledge either way. Perhaps any seed set will turn into 'Gemmell's hybrid?!. The first picture is of L. arboreum, followed by L. capitatum.


Time perhaps to concentrate on a few more subjects raised from last year's seed which are performing at present. First, Androsace strigillosa. I grew this Himalayan many years ago, and found it vigorous and starightforward. Latterly I have tried to raise it from seed twice, with limited success. This year's batch were raised from garden-gathered seed, which may be the trick, as it had already been selected to endure garden conditions. Plants have prospered in troughs, sand-beds, and in pots in the alpine house, suggesting that it is the source, rather than the growing conditions, that influence success in this case.

Another plant I had not grown for many years is one of alpines classic 'oddballs'. Like Physoplexis comosa or Campanula zoysii, Calceolaria uniflora has an endearing strangeness that has fascinated the growers of alpines for many decades. These plants were grown from wild seed and three seedlings have done remarkably well planted out on a north-facing slope of a sand-bed and remained unrpotected all winter.

Calceolaria uniflora Calceolaria uniflora

Is there not something of Wallace and Gromit about the Calceolaria? (quite forgetting former leaders of the Labour Party).

Meconopsis delavayi has been raised from a mixture of my own seed, and that from the Meconopsis group. The most successful were those planted out into a small fishbox in a cool place last summer and left uncovered over the winter. As you will see, they have flowered at different times (and indeed 'woke up' up to a month apart), so that one is in fruit, one in flower and one in bud (a fourth died).

Finally amongst plants raised from seed last year is this excellent form of Primula munroi (P. involucrata as was). This is the robust, Chinese form of a widespread species which stretches from the extreme west Himalaya all the way to central China.

Primula munroi.

Also grown from seed, but many years ago now is what passes for P. ioessa in this garden. I suspect this is hybrid, possibly with P. waltonii blood, but is a delicate and charming plant nevertheless, flowering well in advance of all the other Sikkimensis group primulas grown here.

One last Sinohimalayan special, and this time a plant I am indebted to the Aberconwy Nursery for. Adonis brevistyla is one of the comparative rarities Randle Cooke grew at Kilbryde, and which I revered in my early years with alpines. Latterly I have been fortunate to see it in the wild in China too, but I had never acquired it until three years ago. Planted at the edge of a peat bed in a cool place next to petiolarid primulas, it has slowly established, and this year it has consented to produce a few of its lovely flowers.

Adonis brevistyla

Timre to branch out into the garden, and first a couple of staples from raised sandbeds. Dianthus 'Whitehills' is one of the best really dwarf pinks, and has become a reliable performer here.

Dianthus 'Whitehills'

What may nor may not be Thlaspi tymphaeum has settled down to be an excellent garden plant which is making a real impact on several raised beds here. I see that I featured this in the diary as long ago as 2007 when I stated that it had been received as seed from the Bulgarian Pirin as T. bellidifolium but was not that unfailingly pink-to-purple flowered plant. Its name is still not settled, bit it is not a plant I would now be without.

In the wilder areas, I am pleased with this combination of naturalised Tulipa 'White Triumphator' (planted out after being used in tubs) and this Magnolia liliiflora form.

By the front entrance, these alliums have formed a good contrast with Doronicum austriacum.

And in another rather weedy corner, Paeonia broteroi is sufficiently vigorous to crowd out the bishops weed.

Paeonia broteroi

Finally, in the alpine house, the Jancaea heldreichii doesn't increase much, but it does flower unfailingly, year after year, secure in its block of home-made tufa. What a privilege!

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