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A Northumberland Alpine Gardener's Diary

This entry: 18 March 2012 by John Richards

Northumberland Diary. Entry 209.

Behold, I tell you a mystery

It will come as no surprise to learn that nothing excites me more than a rare primula. I have been watching three plants with some interest for some months now. These were raised from seed sown 16 months ago. The seed originated from a roadside cliff on the way to Lugu Lake, east of Lijiang close to the Yunnan border. The small population was originally found out of flower by Pam Eveleigh who sent the coordinates to a friend who she knew was to visit the area in the autumn and a small amount of seed was subsequently collected and distributed.

In the wild, the appearence of this member of section Bullatae (P. forrestii and its relatives) was such that the short rounded leaf-blades and long narrow petioles suggested that it would prove to be the enigmatic P. rockii, a small yellow-flowered species which has not been in cultivation for more than 80 years. This would represent an extension of distribution southwards, as the known range of P. rockii encompasses the Kulu area of southern Sichuan. Curiously, none of my three plants have this appearence as yet, but instead the oblanceolate leaves have broad winged petioles which are poorly defined. Of course, it is possible that the leaf changes shape with season, as is the case for many primulas.

Nevertheless it was a great surprise when the first flower opened on Friday, just in time to grace the bench at the Blackpool Show yesterday.


Behold, I tell you a mystery

Yes, the flowers are pink! Most unexpected. Based on what I knew of the morphology and distribution I had expected the plant would be P. bullata, a dwarf yellow-flowered relative of P. forrestii from east of Lijiang. Of course, it is just possible that this is a freak and the remainder will turn out to be yellow. A pink P. forrestii (v. redolens) is known. However, Pam has unearthed herbarium material of a P. coelata from only about 60 km distant from this locality. That mat-forming plant with petiolate leaves had been sunk into P. bracteata, and from the herbarium material it is clear why. Clearly, our plant is NOT P. bracteata, but it is just possibly that when it matures P. coelata will prove to be its correct name.

I took a few other primulas to Blackpool. Here is a nice plant of the blue-flowered subspecies of the oxlip, P. elatior subsp. meyeri (often known as P. amoena). It failed to win, quite correctly as the judges found a small group of aphids enjoying their moment in the limelight, a brief spell of adulation, as they nestled amongst the flowers. Hopefully, they are no more!

That plant adjoined three asiatic primulas for which I was forced to look no further afield than the Middle East as my petiolarids have had such a poor year. The pink one is P. vulgaris subsp. sibthorpii, and the white one the excellent form that originated in the Lebanon.

Amongst the section Auricula hybrids, I know of no more satisfactory plant than the excellent 'Clarence Elliott', an old hybrid which is equally happy in the alpine house or outside in a trough.

Both the next two, 'Broxbourne' and 'Tony' were left at home as they had not opened fully (and Tony is not flowered well enough this year).

My old Callianthemum anemonoides just about lasted two shows, winning large classes at both Loughborough and Blackpool. It lives in a cool scree in the garden in a spot where it is sheletered from hot afternoon sun (not that we had much last year!). I dig it up about two weeks before the show into fresh compost with added dolomite and slow release fertiliser, and when it goes back into its hole this afternoon, the hole will be large enough to take the fresh compost too.

A plant that is becoming quite popular is Draba sphaeroides. This north American seems easy to grow, and has attractive needle-like foliage, although the flowers are tiny, resembling little star-bursts of yellow. Its main advantage is that it flowers a good three weeks earlier that most of the Asiatic species, which makes it suitable for Brassicaceae classes in the earlier shows!

The mild sunny weather over the last week has brought some rhododendrons into very advanced bloom. They survived last night which was forecast to descend to zero as the wind finally swings round into the north. I suspect that tonight will prove to be their swansong, as we are forecast a proper frost tonight, the first for several weeks. Here first is the pink form of Rh. chamaethomsonii, followed by that splendid leucaspis hybrid 'Snow Lady'.

Another plant which is magnificent at present, but it likely to receive the 'teabag treatment' tonight is our Pieris forrestii 'Firecrest'. At least, if we lose the flowers, the young leaves have not emerged yet, so they should be preserved for a later date.

The Ericaceae have a poor reputation for frost tolerance, but other early shrubs are immune to such problems. Here is Salix hookeri, followed by Corylopsis pauciflora, both at their best as I write.

One of the joys of the Blackpool Show is the afternoon lecture, which as far as I know is not replicated at any other Show, and adds immeasureably to the pleasure of the day. Yesterday, one of my fellow diarists, Diane Clement gave a really good talk on one of her specialities, hepaticas. She talked to a large audience who were highly appreciative. One of the many points she made was how unusual some of the older hybrids such as H. x media 'Ballardii' have become. I have now grown this for more than 40 years, indeed it was amongst the first plants I ever acquired. It is not particularly free-flowering which is I suspect why it is less often met at present, but this H. transsylvanica hybrid is giving me pleasure at present. I have its parent flowering quite well in a pot, and may feature that next week.


I used the mild weather last week to sort out a few of my troughs that have not been replanted for several years and in which the plants looked 'tired'. Here is my largest trough, an old Corbridge cattle trough. Note how the surface had sunk as the soil compacted over the years.

I lifted the plants and rocks, and emptied about half the trough (rooting depth of more) making sure that the drainage in the soil that was left remained acute. I then filled up to level with new compost (sieved leaf-mould, commercial potting compost, coarse sand, grit and perlite in about equal quantities), tamping it down hard, and then put the stone back in vertically.

Once the stones were in place I filled in with more compost until the surface was markedly convex. I think this is most important as the soil will settle so much. I then top-dressed with grit and replanted some of the area, cutting back both the top-growth and root of several subjects as I did so. The trough is not yet fully planted and I may show it when it is.

I also took the opportunity of replanting several smaller troughs, and replenished what I am pleased to call the 'New Zealand Trough' which contains little except 11 celmisia species.

We have been haunted recently by a pair of bullfinches, which far from taking all our rosaceous buds spend most of the time on our feeders. The male seemed very lackadasical for a bit and I wondered if he had eaten a bad nut. However he now seems fully recovered. Here he is, with a Greenfinch, to close this account.

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