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A Northumberland Alpine Gardener's Diary

This entry: 23 March 2014 by John Richards

Northumberland Diary. Entry 266.

Farrer controversy

Its not very often, I hope, that I write anything controversial in this column. Indeed I have aimed for the anodyne and mundane most of the time. However, nothing is more designed to get me going than when common sense is forsaken in favour of a slavish devotion to rules and regulations. When I say that Planning Committees are often particularly at fault here, most of you will know what I mean. Such an example befell to the East Lancs Show yesterday, where I was judging.

Last week at Kendal I was Show Reporter, and handed in my report the following morning. No doubt my report will see the light of day some time. When I last looked, none of the reports for 2014 had yet been posted. However, the reporter is asked to describe and research the winner of the Farrer Medal, which, faced with the Hoyles' magnificent Cyclamen pseudibericum, the finest yet seen, I felt privileged to do. One of the points Frank made was that it flowers for many weeks, and had possibly yet to peak last week. Sure enough, there it was again this week, and still in magnificent form, plainly once again 'best in Show'. However, a Farrer Medal cannot be won by the same plant twice in any one year (rightly so in my opinion). Thus, we the judges were instructed to consider the cyclamen when choosing the best plant in Show, which we naturally selected, thus precluding an award for the Farrer at this Show, despite the presence of several other deserving plants.

Now, in my opinion, this is wrong. It may be correct, according to the present rules, in which case, this particular law is an ass. In several past shows where a similar situation has arisen, judges have turned a blind eye to the previous week's Farrer winner, so that another deserving plant could gain the premier award. Surely this is not only common sense, but generous. If we the judges are to be instructed to follow the rules slavishly, then a new rule needs to be introduced, to the effect that any plant which has previously won a Farrer Medal at a Show during the same year should not be considered for 'best in Show'.


Frost warning

Back to the trivial and mundane! Last week I pictured Rhododendron 'Snow Lady' about to flower. Despite several nights during which we suffered a light frost, this is now in full flower, accompanied by a just-opening pink form of Rhododendron chamaethomsonii. As we are forecast a crunching frost tonight, one of the few this winter, I thought I would figure them before they turn to mush.

Frost warning

Nearby, a very close relative of Rh. chamaethomsonii is also coming into flower, probably to be ruined tonight. The former is really little more than a large form of the famous Rh. forrestii, and in the wild,  forms of varying stature link the two species. These intermediates, less than prostrate forms of Rh. forrestii, are termed v. tumescens. This very slow-growing plant originated at Randle Cooke's garden, 'Kilbryde' more than 40 years ago, but still persists.

In amongst the rhodos I am growing a range of forms of oxlip, my favourite amongst the relatives of the primrose. In the Caucasus and eastern Turkey, this complex has shown a good deal of adaptive radiation, and I have tried to collect several of the variants. First, P. elatior ssp. ruprechtii, with short round leaf-blades, and usually rather dark scapes. This is completely deciduous, and the flowers appear at the same time as the leaves, like a bulb, an adaptation to snow-melt conditions at flowering.

P. elatior ssp. pseudoelatior is similar, but shorter at flowering and with green scapes. It clumps up well into large clones. This old clone also originated at Kilbryde.

P. elatior ssp. pallasii, has large flowers, primrose size, and winged petioles, so that the leaf shape is also similar to that of a primrose. This is an eastern form, the distribution of which stretches into central Asia. 

Here is a photo of ssp. pallasii in eastern Turkey, taken by Jeanie Jones a few years ago.

Finally, one of the blue-flowered forms, P. elatior ssp. meyeri. I find that, like the others, this grows best planted out in a cool place in the open garden, but unlike the others appreciates a cloche in winter.

Several cowslips originally grown from seed collected in the French Maritime Alps are also flowering. This is P. veris ssp. canescens, with larger flowers than most British cowslips, leaves grey-hairy beneath, and flowering a good month earlier.

Three or more years ago, my friend Terry Teal gave me two small seedlings of Shortia uniflora v. grandiflora which he had very cleverly raised from seed. A very welcome present! I have sown shortia seed many times, and nothing has ever come up. These seedlings were planted in Swedish peat blocks in a cool shady place, where they have had a chequered career as the bed was reworked more than once and the plants have been moved from pillar to post. However, I am delighted to see that one has finally deigned  to flower!

One of the early plants featured in this diary, which at one stage was chosen by Jim McGregor as its frontispiece, is Trillium kurabayashii. Putting on my naughty hat again, I fail to understand why this overvigorous plant, which is invasive here and forms vast colonies, is presently so popular with the judges so that two plants won yesterday, defeating large classes of far more meritorious competitors.

The Trillium sets a good deal of seed some years, and seedlings do tend to turn up in new places, although not as yet as hybrids. However, there is no doubt that the corydalis that seed here have crossed between several varieties (mostly C. solida in the broad sense, but including C. incisa and C. integra), giving rise to a range fo statures and colours. Not all flower at the same time either. Here is an example of two self-sown seedlings, one a good pink and the other, later, an attractive blue-mauve.

Another group which has self-sown to give a range of colours are the Lenten Rose hellebores. Here are two pictures to give some idea of the range of colours that have arisen.

In the alpine house, the area of the plunge that I plant out, rather than use for pots, is full of colour.

To look at some of these subjects in more detail, here, first, are Primula floribunda and its offspring, P. kewensis. These are growing cheek by jowl as both are self-sown seedlings and I did not want to move then once established as their roots are tucked under tufa.

I potted another self-sown seedling of P. kewensis up, and took it to the Show yesterday.

In the next photo of the plunge, P. 'Broxbourne' (pink) and P. 'Clarence Elliott' are neigbours. Most of these plants originated as cuttings from loose rosettes that were dibbed into the plunged, rooted and were transplanted into more sand! It is a good way of keeping clones.  I have lost my big 'Broxbourne' now.

Here  is Primula 'Jackie Richards', together with Saxifraga 'Nancye' and S. 'Peter Burrow'. The latter two, too, were grown from cuttings after the big plants collapsed.

Primula allionii 'Crowsley' has lived in this tufa for more than ten years. It has not grown much!

Primula 'Tony' is much more vigorous and is flowering well this year. I am inclined to think of it as a pure allionii, but its vigour and size might indicate otherwise. It is a mch better plant than most white allioniis.

Alan Oatway, secretary for the Kendal Show, gave me two interesting primulas last autumn and both are flowering now. He received the first as seed purporting to be the American Primula laurentiana. The jury is out on this and it may prove just to be P. frondosa. Certainly it is very vigorous.

The identity of the other is not in doubt, and is the first time I have seen the western Himalayan P. erosa for about 38 years. I used to grow this low-level, rather tender Denticulata species but it finally succumbed to hard weather. It is a more delicate plant than P. denticulata, with hairy leaves which are evergreen, so that it lacks resting bud-scales.

Finally, what we are still calling P. bracteata, but  which should probably be known as either P. henrici or P. dubernardiana, depending on whether you think the yellow-flowered P. henrici is part of the same variable species. The taxonomy of these Bullatae species is a nightmare which is still being sorted out. The two-year old plant here is a pale pink, whereas the two younger plants are notably varied in colour. I must remember to cross them this afternoon!

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