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A Northumberland Alpine Gardener's Diary

This entry: 05 March 2013 by John Richards

Northumberland Diary. Entry 237.

Jack Frost

Another crunching frost last night! The max/min electronic dude in the greenhouse seems no longer to be remembering much (know the feeling!), but when I went out at 9 am this morning the old mercury thermometer on the outside of the alpine house was still registering -3C in the morning sun, so I guess it had been below this. I have several rhodos on the verge of flowering, showing colour, and I guess that at least the edges of the petals will have been burnt in bud. However, this lengthy run of frosts (it seems that we have been colder than the rest of the country over the last week or so) has been accompanied by lovely clear days. We are told that this will be the last of them, but at least the grey rainy weather to come will be associated with non-frosty nights, and alpines will start to make progress.

Early in the morning, all the frosted snowdrops lie flat on the ground, but they have a wonderful ability to bounce back upright again as soon as the air warms, absolutely pristine and quite untouched by the cold.  I expect the sticky, poisonous (but cancer-treating) goo with which snowdrops are made of acts as a powerful antifreeze. Snowdrop windscreen wash anyone?

Here are a couple of snowdrops amongst the many thousand in flower here at the moment. I think I have shown Galanthus woronowii 'Pat's Giant' before. G. woronowii is invasive and almost weedy here (but I like it!). Pat's Giant was in the previous garden of our friend Pat Gill in Hexham when she moved there many years ago. It is a huge snowdrop, taller than 'Straffan' and 'Atkinsii' here, and much earlier flowering than the other woronowiis here.

Jack Frost

From the sublime to the ridiculous! Years ago I discovered a small patch of 'Spikies' not far from Hexham, and removed a small part of several clumps to the garden. These have done badly and are poor garden plants, scarcely flowering. With them was the tiniest snowdrop I have ever seen with erect tiny double flowers in which the outers do not exceed the inners, like 'Blewbury Tart', or 'Fluff'.I called it 'Mini Muffin'. This year it has done quite well and has excelled itself by producing 10 flowers, only just opening now.

As a birder, I used to occasionally go on 'mass twitches', joining the throng to see some rare bird, but I soon sickened of it, and would much rather find my own rare bird (not a common event!). I feel rather the same way about snowdrops. I am happy to grow other people's special snowdrops, as long as I don't have to pay for them, but I would just as soon find my own, and, sourced locally, they often suit my garden conditions better. Incidentally, if this sounds  rapacious, snowdrops are not native plants but garden escapes, and I never dig the whole clumps, but put the majority of the bulbs back.

However, I am just as happy to look at other people's snowdrops. Last Saturday, Sheila and I went to a meeting of the Meconopsis Group in Edinburgh and spent two nights in that lovely, exciting city. I need hardly say that we spent several hours at the 'Botanics' (Royal Botanic Garden, Edinburgh), where I spent most of my time looking at snowdrops.

I was greatly impressed by their group of the Northumberland yellow G. nivalis 'Sandersii' (featured last issue), by far the largest I have ever seen. Either they are seeding there, or several clones have been planted together, for a good deal of variability was evident within the planting. This emphasises that 'Sandersii' is not a clone, but merely a grex based on one character alone, and that yellow snowdrops can be as variable as any other nivalis snowdrop.

I did not know Galanthus 'Ophelia', a Greatorex double with some plicatus parentage (as is 'Dionysus' which grows well here). The very broad inners are extremely distinctive.

I suppose that these plicate hybrids are technically G. x valentinei, the epithet for G. plicatus x nivalis, which seems rarely to be used. Equally, I was slightly taken aback to see a fine snowdrop at the Botanics labelled G. x grandiflorus. It turns out that according to 'Snowdrops' (Baker et al, 2004), this is a synonym for G. x hybridus, the valid binomial for G. plicatus x elwesii (and so the correct name for the 'Brechin' crosses I mentioned in the last issue). Now there are lots of clones attributed to this cross, so I suppose that Edinburgh were inferring that this splendid plant had not been identified to clonal level.

You will observe another mistake, in that this hybrid is identified on the label as G. nivalis x plicatus, for which as we have seen  the correct epithet is G. x valentinei. But, looking at the green basal mark on the inners, surely G. elwesii was involved?

I was not sure I liked the very sickly green leaves of G. nivalis 'Anglesey Abbey', but the colour is certainly distinctive.

One more picture from Edinburgh, a good stand of Iris histrioides on the rock garden. This superlative and formerly easy species is becoming very scarce, probably through 'ink disease'. I guess they are much more sfaely grown away from contamination in the open garden.

Back to my own garden, where a single, expensively purchased bulb of Iris winogradowii is flowering in a trough, with Saxifraga juniperinifolia. I had never grown the former before, waiting vainly for someone to give me some! It should like this cold garden and hopefully will increase.

Into the alpine house, where Draba sphaeroides is in flower. I am beginning to think that this newish arrival, grown from seed, is a first rate plant. There are many more attractive drabas, but none which flower so early and reliably, and suit the alpine house so readily, soon clumping into a sizeable cushion. Highly recommended!

I am ending with a trio of bulbs, all grown from Gothenburg seed. First Crocus biflorus subsp. pulchricolor, then C. reticulatus, and finally Corydalis popovii. I am delighted with the last-named, flowering for the first time after three years. I had a big popovii, which died in the 2010 hard winter, and it is not the easiest plant to get hold of so was delighted when seed was offered. It is very unlike the original plant I grew, obviously quite a different accession, but if anything, even nicer!

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