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A Northumberland Alpine Gardener's Diary

This entry: 11 March 2013 by John Richards

Northumberland Diary. Entry 238.

Snow down, its spring!

Less than a week since the last offering, but its zero degrees outside with 4 cm of snow, and a fellow has to do something! This is turning out to be a very late spring indeed, and one of the worst late winters in my memory. What a calamitous start to (my) show season too! Loughborough is usually the start of my Show season, eagerly anticipated for months as the lengthy winter creeps by. I am sure that my sentiments with regards to the hapless driver of the digger who fractured the gas main at Loughborough College are shared by many, not just exhibitors, but many of the honest burghers of Loughborough too. Probably, they should not be committed to a public medium!

In one way, the very cold weather is something of a blessing, in that exhibits that had been carefuly prepared over some weeks for the Loughborough Show may hang on for long enough to be presentable at Blackpool. At least they are under cover, but it was -5C in the alpine house last night, and the sight of the stems of Primula megaseifolia drooping to the ground this morning was not greatly encouraging. Its really the devil and the deep blue sea. When the sun shines on the alpine house, it warms rapidly and things go through, so I am dashing too and fro, moving things down to the floor, and then up onto a bench again.....madness really! We exhibitors are truly cuckoo. 

Anyway, here are snowy landscapes of the front and back, taken at 10 am this morning.


Snow down, its spring!

The potent buds of Rhododendron barbatum and Rh. 'Christmas Cheer' are covered with snow. I doubt if they will survive without severe damage to the flowers.

Luckily, many of the outside early subjects seem to be impervious with frost, being full of gooey antifreeze as discussed for snowdrops in the last entry. Here are some of the poor hellebores for instance, but they will bounce back unspoilt as soon as the frost lifts.

In this weather (and as I look out of the window its snowing again; will we be able to get to the AGS meeting this evening when Diane Clement is speaking, I wonder?), the best thing is to repair to the alpine house where plants are at least protected from the snow. Nevertheless, the cold is an interesting test of the cold-hardiness of the flowers of various show exhibits. Callianthemum anemonoides was stood right next to an open window exposed to the freezing wind, but the petals seem untouched.

Nearby stands a large pot of Primula moupinensis which spent the winter in a trough under a frame-light outside, but was lifted for exhibition about two weeks ago. Once again, it seems unharmed.

Near by is what I believe to be a very rare plant in cultivation, the true Primula vulgaris ssp. balearica, a very distinctive form of the primrose which is endemic to the Puig Major range of mountains in Mallorca. It has pale, softly furry leaves and large white flowers. Seed had been collected by a cytologist friend at a Midlands University, and a small pinch handed to me. This is the first time it has flowered for me. It has the reputation of being rather tender, and has spent the winter under glass (and the previous summer in a shady frame).

While we are on the topic of very rare primulas, the third of the seedlings of the mystery plant in section Bullatae grown from seed collected near Lugu Lake, east of Dali, Yunnan by a German friend is now flowering (the other two seedlings are doing well, but will not flower for several weeks). The present individual, grown from the same packet of seeds, has much smaller, paler flowers than the other two and is much less attractive, but it does show the range of variability in this mystery plant. Unlike the other two, it was planted out in the sand plunge, which might explain its smaller stature, but not the flower colour. Seed was collected as P. rockii, which it is not, and plants were exhibited last spring as P. 'sp. nov'. Later I thought it might be P. ulophylla, but the excellent type of that is the same as P. bullata.

Since then, we have made investigations at the Edinburgh herbarium and elsewhere, and all one can say is that the plot thickens! The P. bracteata folder there contains an extremely wide range of forms, which range from dwarf caespitose plants like those we grow, to much larger plants approaching P. forrestii, and some of which do indeed have yellow flowers. Some of these closely resemble the Lugu Lake plant, which is not to say that they are anything like 'our' bracteata. Perhaps the most persuasive have been labelled 'P. coelata' by Stapf, a species he never published, but which nevertheless clearly quite impressed Wright Smith, but who in the end just chucked them all into 'P. bracteata'.

It is still early days, but I am leaning towards the view that the pink caespitose plants that we grow, including white and yellow-flowered ones, should be separated off, in which case they would be known as P. henrici. As yet I have not yet seen the type of P. bracteata, but it is possible that this is the correct name for the Lugu Lake plant, pictured below. In the meantime, one possibility might be to call it 'P. 'coelata'.

Another plant grown planted out in the sand plunge in the alpine house is Dionysia aretioides. I think this is the variety 'Bevere', but this plant has been in this position, undisturbed, for so long (at least eight years), that its origins are lost in the mists of time. It only goes to show that this, the easiest of Dionysias, can make a reliable alpine if grown under cover.

A plant I had lifted from a trough as it seemed well-budded and a possible for exhibition, is one of several seedlings I grow from our collection MESE 566 from the Alpine Garden Society expedition in 1999. This is the dwarf high altitude form of Saxifraga marginata from the breccia at about 1750 m on Timfi in NW Greece.

After last week, two more little bulbs grown from Gothenburg seed have flowered for the first time. The first was received under the name Hyacinthella leucophaea v. aitchleyi, sown in 2009. I like it!

The final offering. also from Gothenburg seed, is the high altitude Turkish Crocus leichtlinii.

Note the wrinkled spathes; very distinctive!

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