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A Northumberland Alpine Gardener's Diary

This entry: 23 June 2016 by John Richards

Northumberland Diary. Entry 319.

Its an orchid time of year

Although the eye is much improved, we have felt constrained not to leave the country at present, and this has caused me to visit some local-ish sites I had not visited for some years. First of these is just over the county boundary into Cumberland (botanical Cumberland, vc 70, forget modern political shenanigans) at the popular recreation spot, Talkin Tarn (not misspelt, this is not a vociferous water body).

Talkin Tarn has long been known as a locality for one of our rarest and most beautiful orchids, Cephalanthera longifolia, the Sword-leaved Helleborine. These days the main site is fenced, against deer, and accidental trampling by walkers, although a few plants have established outside this area.

Cephalanthera longifolia

Much closer to home I paid an almost annual visit to a nearby wood to check out the local population of the saprophyte Neottia nidus-avis, the Birds-nest Orchid. usually only one or two spikes appear but I found four, and a friend tells me that on a later visit he found about 15, which is excellent news.

Neottia nidus-avis

A routine hospital visit into Newcastle for my wife provided a couple of spare hours, which caused me to visit the Northumberland Natural History Society Reserve at Gosforth Park to check out its orchid speciality, another saprophyte, the Coralroot Orchid, Corallorhiza trifida. Most were over but this one was still in good condition.

Back home it is also orchid time. Dactylorhiza purpurella, the Northern Marsh Orchid, a common plant round here, long since arrived in the garden on the wind, hybridised with D. elata and possibly with D. maderensis, and has sown throughout our troughs, fishboxes and to a lesser extent our raised beds. A greater surprise was revealed this spring when we decided to join 'Magnificent Meadows' in a modest way by leaving part of our lower lawn uncut. This area has been grass for a long time, certainly well before our tenure, and has become, shall we say, species-rich, which is a polite form for 'very weedy'. Full of buttercups, daisies, self-heal, white clover, ox-eye daisy and other forbs, it was nevertheless a shock when a number of Common Spotted Orchids (D. fuchsii) appeared and several of them proceeded to throw flower stems. Presumably seedlings had survived constant mowing in this lawn for years, but remained undetected until they were allowed to head. This reminds me of an episode at my school in Reading many decades ago when one hot summer the croquet lawn remained uncut (yes, it was that sort of school) and Autumn Ladies Tresses (Spiranthes autumnalis) appeared as if  by magic.

Here is a picture of our uncut lawn. You can just make out a few of the orchids.

To the right of the last picture is the large Magnolia soulangeana under which I keep a seat so that I can enjoy a cup of tea or something stronger while gazing out over the 'magnificent meadow'. Here is part of that view, featuring Salix helvetica, Chamaecyparis obtusa aurea nana and various self-sown Thalictrum aquilegifolium.

It is at this time of year that our collective style of gardening becomes most apparent. My terms for this are 'controlled chaos', and 'managed mayhem', and involve letting quite a lot of things, like the aforementioned thalictrum, and Polemonium caeruleum, to name but two, seed around, interspersed with planters which range from summer bedding (Sheila's speciality) to troughs and solitary pots containing specimen plants. Here are a few illustrations of what I mean. First, a few small fishboxes with succulents (some from Tenerife) etc amongst the many containers on the terrace.

Here is the next bit of the terrace, with larger containers containing e.g. Dianthus arvernensis, and you can see the self-sown marsh orchids.

Here is some of the bedding on the terrace.

And a close-up of the jumble of candelabra primulas and polemoniums. I am not a particularly tidy gardener. I like plants to cover my ground for me, with some gentle control by selective dead-heading and weeding, and I believe that close planting gives mutual shelter and high levels of humidity that many of my plants, especially primulas and meconopsis, seek.

Here lilies and autumn gentians in pots sit on the gravel mulch, surrounded by troughs and vegetation. Perhaps because of the shelter and humidity they never seem to need watering.

A final example of this plant-rich style, with more of Sheila's bedding, this time parked by the pond.

The pond is tiny but is nevertheless large enough to provide an adequate supply of frogs for molluscan patrol. Reinforcements arrived last week in the shape of another Potterian stalwart which we had not been able to welcome here for a number of years. The only ready means of egress into the garden is through the front gate as the garden was dog-proofed by our predecessors, and this may put hedgehogs off. Nevertheless, a shortage of evidence from roadkill suggests that they have in fact become very scarce in this area.

This year the cardiocrinum and crinodendron have flowered together (they are of course quite unrelated but both names are based on a classical stem for 'lily', literally 'heart lily', based on the leaf shape, and 'lily-tree' respectively. A ceanothus and yet another thalictrum add to the mix.

An unnamed hybrid rhodo we inherited and Physocarpus opulifolius 'Diabolo' make another effective combination.

In an article on wisterias in the latest edition of The Plantsman', James Compton writes 'wisterias....have a tendency to look ancient when they may in fact be only 30 to 40 years old'. Our Wisteria floribunda is in fact only about 20 years old, but it is gaining some considerable impact and stature.

Some later primulas

After a year or two off, our red-tinged Primula hopeana has condescended to flower again, encouraged by some liquid feeds with 'tomorite'..

Primula hopeana

Primula fasciculata spent last summer and winter in a small fishbox, with a winter cloche, but was then repotted into a plastic pot. It seems to enjoy life in containers, in dappled shade.

Primula fasciculata

This nice little candelabra came to me as seed labelled 'Primula prolifera ex Arunachal Pradesh'. Although only a year old it seems genuinely dwarf, but still seems to be P. prolifera rather than the enigmatic P. polonensis which should have a shorter corolla tube and fine leaf teeth. It will be interesting to see if it remains so dwarf.

Primula prolifera dwarf form

Here is Primula capitata bought from a local market last year and surviving in a rather weedy part of the garden with Trollius europaeus. This seems to be subspecies capitata and flowers rather earlier than some races.

The last but one photo showed a small bit of Symphyandra wanneri. This was grown from AGS seed labelled 'Campanula alpestris'. You have been warned! I can't believe that this mislabelling resulted from gross incompetence rather than sheer mischief, but, to be fair, the symphyandra is attractive and a good deal easier to grow than the campanula. Perhaps I should display a tad more generosity!

Symphyandra wanneri

Like other symphyandras, S. wanneri has ambitions to become a campanula itself. Here is a first-rate campanula, I think as its introducer (together with the other MESE team members) from Kajmatkcalan in 1999. C. foliosa is attractive, easy, good-tempered and not invasive. What more could you want? Well, somthing a little dwarfer perhaps?

Campanula foliosa

Staying with the Campanulaceae, this Codonopsis clematidea will never become a campanula however. This is a genus I struggle with and only this species has lasted with me.

Codonopsis clematidea

Two years ago, I was intrigued by the sound of Calceolaria 'John Innes'. This has turned out to be a good deal taller than I had anticipated, and the flowers are rather small, but it is easy to grow and makes a considerable show.

The wonderful Dicentra 'Burning Heart' is grown in a sand-bed and persists well. Who wants the difficult D. peregrina when its offspring is so much more attractive?

Dicentra 'Burning Heart'

Planted out in one of the alpine houses in sand plunge, Rehmannia angulata is enjoying itself.

Rehmannia angulata

Finally (goodness me, this does seem to have gone on!), I rarely show plants from the conservatory, but this Brugmansia has been sensational and smells wonderful in the evening!

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