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A Northumberland Alpine Gardener's Diary

This entry: 21 March 2011 by John Richards

Northumberland Diary. Entry 177.

Sunshine days

 At last the sun has shone and the air warmed up. What a difference! I looked through the seed pots this morning and picked out 12 which had germinated overnight! And so many plants have finally burst into flower in the garden!. Here is a picture of the back garden from out of the conservatory showing the garden shed, the Magnolia x soulangeana, still in tight bud, and the pollarded Tulip Tree. As you can see, common garden crocuses and Narcissus 'Tete a Tete' are still flowering.

Sunshine days

 Narcissus 'Tete a Tete' is such a good plant. The other day I heard someone say that if it was dwarf and the heads were single, it meant it was virused, but I doubt if that is true. Grown hard, naturalised in grass and not fed, it is splendidly dwarf and floriferous, and I prefer it like this to the overfed, lanky, twin-headed softies.

 'Tete a Tete' is one of the two earliest Narcissi here. All the others are still in tight bud, except for this splendid plant which is always early, flowering even in early February in a mild winter. I have lost its name. I showed it in this diary a few years back, but no-one offered a name. I shall try again. Any offers? Its about 30 cm high.  The Chionodoxa is the true C. luciliae I think (most so-called C. luciliae aren't).

 One more early bulb, which as usual has appeared as if from nowhere, Erythronium dens-canis, the first and arguably the best of the dog-tooth violets (what a silly English name by the way!).

Supersaxes

 I showed a few saxifrages in the troughs last week, but this picture of the S. oppositifolia 'Splendens' featured last week will show how things have developed. This time I am also showing the S. scardica which grows alongside.

Supersaxes

 Its a good year for Saxifraga ferdinandi-coburgii, grown from S. Pirin seed. Here are two different forms in troughs, followed by one planted out in the alpine house.

 For me, you can't beat it; its the best of the lot and as good as any hybrid. Talking of hybrids, here is the plant I raised from Holubec seed the year before last under the name S. albertii. The seed must have been of garden origin and something else must have been involved, possibly S. ferdinandi-coburgii. It has very large flowers and I am beginning to think it is quite a good thing which I am tempted to name 'Albert Ferdinand'.

 According to Malcolm McGregor, Saxifraga 'Gregor Mendel' was only the second Porophyllum hybrid raised intentionally, by Suendermann in 1894. What a great start! When you think of the literally thousands of Porophyllum hybrids that have been raised since, scarcely any have proved to be such reliable, durable, or attractive garden plants. 'Gregor Mendel' is the  beginners sax. par excellence. Reading McGregor, it is interesting how many of the very early hybrids raised by William Boyd and Suendermann over a century ago proved to be superb garden plants which have lasted to the present day;  the S. x elizabethae hybrids, the S. x eudoxiana hybrids, the S. x suendermannii hybrids and so on. Perhaps the reason is that the early hybridists had very few species to play with, and most of these, S. marginata, S. ferdinandi-coburgii, S. sancta and S. burseriana for instance, are European species of fairly easy culture. 'Gregor Mendel' itself is a S. x apiculata cross, using S. sancta and S. marginata, both very vigorous in troughs here.

 A wild-occurring hybrid, S. x kochii, the cross between S. oppositifolia and S. biflora, is glowing in several troughs at present. This is Duncan Lowe's introduction, rather than Don Peace's later 'Firebrand'. I think S. kochii is one of my favourite of all alpines, reliable, long-lasting and such a fantastic colour.

A few primulas

 Before we go inside, one primula from a trough. I have said before that I am delighted that several individuals of P. spectabilis, grown from seed collected on the Nota Pass above Lake Garda in 2003, have proved persistent and continue to flower in troughs, which is far from the usual experience with Arthritica primulas. This one has done particularly well, but as you can see from the following photo, it still has some way to go to emulate individuals in the wild! (photographed in the same place last summer).

A few primulas

 When Jim Almond visited a few years back, he brought some rooted cuttings of European primulas. Most were of his own raising, but one, 'Lindum Moonlight' was raised, I discover, by Martin and Dreema Thompson. I have no idea what its parentage is, but for me its chief merit is that it reminds me of P. integrifolia, not an easy plant to grow. I don't know why this plant reminded its raisers of Moonlight, but it does seem to be a hearty grower.

 Primula 'Johanna' is a very different sort of hybrid primula, a cross raised by Henrik Zetterlund between two Asiatic section Oreophlomis species, both now scarce in cultivation, P. clarkei and P. warshenewskiana. Interestingly, it is taller than either parent. 'Johanna', which was named for Henrik's daughter, is now at least 30 years old, so it too has persisted well, although I have lost it several times myself.

This raises an interesting question which cropped up at the East Lancs Show last week and will be debated at the Judge's symposium at Hexham on Saturday. Most geographical classes state 'native to Asia', or 'from Asia' and thus refer to species or natural hybrids. However, the primula classes state 'Asiatic Primula' or 'European Primula' and have always been interpreted taxonomically, that is a plant belonging to a section of the genus which is found in Asia or Europe. In this context, garden hybrids have usually been permitted. It is suggested that the wording is changed to make this issue less ambiguous, and without invoking lese majeste, it seems likely that future schedules will read 'Primula species or hybrid between species originating in Asia' (or Europe).

 I thought readers might like to see Primula hoffmanniana. This is the plant which was originally introduced by Martyn Rix under the name of P. moupinensis, and indeed had been lost under this name in synonymy. However, it is quite distinct, having much thinner, thread-like stolons, different leaves and is much later flowering (P. moupinensis is long over here now). It is also less free-flowering, and nothing like so good a garden plant. I had grown it for many years, but my material eventually became so virused I threw it out. One of my chief pleasures last summer was to discover that Peter Cox's independent introduction of this central Sichuan species is still clean and vigorous, and I was delighted when he gave me a forkfull. This photo is followed by one of my original plant, heavily virused, and then the plant in the wild, beside a river south of the Menbi Pass, south of Markam, north-west Sichuan.

 Another rare asiatic primula. In recent years, Czech collectors have been sending back seed from Sichuan under the name P. graminifolia. This species was equated with P. sinoplantaginea by Smith & Fletcher and consequently lost under P. chionantha in 'Primula'. The insistence of the Czechs in keeping it separate has caused me to look again at original material, and it became clear that P. graminifolia rather referred to very narrow-leaved relatives of P. minor. Last year's seed grew well, and, as with several of my accessions last year I planted several seedlings in a pot. Last year the young plants were indeed very narrow-leaved, even grass-like. However this year they have surfaced with much wider leaves and the plant that has flowered seems to be indistinguishable from P. minor.

 Another plant raised from seed last year came as wild-collected Androsace laevigata. It is tiny, but very attractive.

Not surprisingly perhaps, the plant shown below caused some banter at Whitworth, most comments being on the lines of 'still using solid fuel then, John?'. Unfortunately it came against Geoff Rollinson's magnificent Pulsatilla 'Budapest seedling', many peoples' choice for the Farrer Medal (mine too!). This is the year I lift my Callianthemum anemonoides for exhibition. As soon it goes through, it is put straight back into the ground with new soil, and is given next year 'off'', before being lifted in the alternate year.

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