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A Northumberland Alpine Gardener's Diary

This entry: 29 March 2010 by John Richards

Northumberland Diary. Entry 143.

Frozen bulbs

II shall start by talking about the very poor performance of my bulbs this year. I thought it was just me, but at recent Shows I have now had at least four different conversations with other exhibitors who have been complaining of similar symptoms: late appearence; buds which set and then abort, or open as tiny caricatures of the expected flower; foliage which is dying back very early; or in a few cases a total no-show. In general the symptoms seem to be worst in early narcissus, especially the North African romieuxiis and their kin, and reticulata irises. Interestingly, most Hyacinthaceae seem to be alright. Incidentally, these problems only occur in bulbs in pots, and mostly those in the glasshouse where the plunges are trays supported on pillars (in the other house, the plunges have sides made of pavers, and the plunge goes down to the ground).

I have noted that bulbs that are growing IN the plunge (pure sand; they are not meant to be there, but once they occur I leave them be) have done fine. As a side-comment, I mentioned this to Vic Aspland, and he said 'isn't it funny how many plants seem to do better in the plunge than in pots', and when I agreed 'why don't we just grow our plants planted out into pure sand under glass?'. When I said that I had indeed done just that in part of one of my alpine houses for more than four years he said (how like Vic!) 'I haven't read anything you have written about that', and I think he must be right, so next week perhaps.

I digress. All those I have discussed the problem of the poorly performing bulbs with agree that the problem is almost certainly because the bulbs in pots were frozen solid in the plunge for eight continuous weeks or more. There's nothing much to be done about that now, and it may not happen again in my lifetime, but I have a feeling that when I come to repot in August, I shall be growing only half the bulbs I had formerly.

It is of course gratifying to learn that there are some people out there like Vic actually reading this! Clearly the contributor to 'Alpine Anthology' in  current issue of  'The Alpine Gardener'  (78: 17-18) goes through these modest jottings with such thoroughness that he can name every instance that I have mentioned a plant on more than one occasion. To judge from the rest of the article he/she seemed to be making some point about the constancy or otherwise of flowering times (not upheld in the present extremely late spring!). But the reference to these notes merely seems to demonstrate how few plants I am moved to discuss. Which is probably true.

I do know that leading members of the Saxifrage Society occasionally 'drop in', because when I visited Waterperry Gardens three springs ago (contribution   ) they noted that I did not mention the Saxifraga National Collection that is housed there. This is a good point as I am a member of the Society. There were several reasons for this; mostly because it was not clearly signposted, I had forgotten it was there, and I was accompanied by a number of members of my family. All the more reason that when I took my mother, brother and wife there again last Tuesday, I made a special point of asking where the collection is.

The collection is in fact in a very accessible place, close to the exit into the sales area, but it is secluded behind palings and very easy to miss if you are not looking for it. Of course, it was an excellent time to vsit as many of the Porophyllum saxifrages were flowering well. Nearly all the plants are grown in or among tufa in raised beds, each of which has (at least at this time of year) a waterproof roof. Here is a general view, with my family showing considerable interest.

Another general view of the collection follows.

I would make two general points. One is that this is a magnificent collection of Porophyllum saxifrages (and silvers, which were of course fairly inconspicuous at this time of year; there seemed to be few if any representatives of the other sections of the genus), and that the porophyllums in particular were very well grown and in excellent 'character'. The other is that there is no effective labelling. It is true that there are rough sketch maps of the beds pinned above the staging in which some of the plants are named, but I found it exceptionally difficult to relate these maps to what was on the ground, and for many of the sections the map is now missing. Clearly this is a major issue. In a group in which there are so many confusingly similar hybrids, it is vital that each one is clearly  and unambiguously labelled. I only hope that the record has not been lost to the organisers. As it is, the educational value is seriously diminished, although the aesthetic impact is tremendous.

It follows that when I suggest some names in the pictures that following, I am usually guessing, and may well be wrong. Firstly, here are a few more general views.

I think the following may be S. 'Walter Irving', S. 'Gregor Mendel', 'Tvuj Uspech', 'Peter Burrow' and 'Coolock Gem' although I might well be wrong.

I am fairly sure this is the Caucasian species S. scleropoda, not often seen and rarely as good as this.

But what is this lovely menage a trois?

When I say 'menage a trois' I am not entirely kidding. Bees were very busy, and if they save seed, they may confuse things even more (but what lovely mysteries they might be!).

Just to show there were other saxifrages, here is a S. longifolia.

A minority of plants were grown very effectively in troughs, often constructed with crevices.

On another occasion I popped in to see the Reading University Botanic Garden which is a short walk from my mother's house. They grow Helleborus niger very well on the light gravelly soil (pH about 6.8). I find it ungrowable here in Hexham.

Another good plant there was Lonicera x purpusii, which my mother also grows well nearby. You can't photograph the scent!

Back home, I was delighted to see Primula elatior subsp. meyeri coming into flower. This purple, or even blue, oxlip is a high alpine in the Caucasus and far-eastern Turkey, and perhaps as a result tends to be much more difficult to grow than most oxlips. It is often known as P. amoena (and has several different names in Fl. URSS), but it is interfertile with yellow oxlips. This plant was grown from SRGC seed dating back to 2004, but this is the first time it has flowered. It is grown in a fishbox trough, along with petiolarid primulas, and is covered in winter. I wonder if the hard weather has suited it?

I was privileged to be given a cutting of Daphne blagayana 'Brenda Anderson' by its introducer many years ago.I grow it in far too much shade, where at least it survives and flowers,  but I propagated a bit and lifted it from its raised bed for exhibition at Hexham on Saturday. Bees had been eating the flowers, but it was much admired.

Another welcome gift came from our local group member Derek Lockey who raised some seedlings from Primula 'Tinney's Moonlight', itself a hybrid probably involving P.boothii alba and P. aureata and raised by the late Gerry Mundey. The only other plant Derek grew at the time was P. irregularis, so these very varied plants are probably three-way hybrids. They have great promise, and the vigour of youth.

I am finishing with another primula, P. allionii growing in the alpine house in artificial tufa. It doesn't grow much, but has been here four years now and looks terrific! The tuufa is embedded in the plunge, so in some way this is the precursor to the next epistle!

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