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A Northumberland Alpine Gardener's Diary

This entry: 13 March 2015 by John Richards

Northumberland Diary. Entry 292.

Spring on hold.

Its a rather beastly day today; cold, raw and soggy, and spring has rather sprung back, as it were. After two Shows in a row, Kendal looms tomorrow and very little has advanced. I fear it may be rather a matter of 'deja vu'. Most of the snowdrops here are past their best, and we are in the realm of crocuses, scillas and some of the earlier saxifrages. This is certainly not an early spring, and probably none the worse for that. Many plants remain suitably dormant.

My fellow diarist John Good visited during the week, in the process of delivering a thought-provoking talk on the likely effect of climate change on alpines to our local Group. He asked, kindly enough, how I managed to find enough to talk about to provide new diary material every two weeks or so. The answer is of course, I don't, that is, the material is rarely new. Having written this diary for nearly a decade, I rarely find anything completely new to say. Hopefully folk forget, or are tolerant of repetition, and to be fair no two years are ever quite the same and I know that some readers like to compare the annual progress of their own patch with the seasonal advance up here. John noted that this year there seems to be no phenological difference between his own warm coastal North Wales garden and our cold north-eastern habitat.

One thing I will say, it is some time since we had a proper frost. We had a ground frost two nights ago and the grass was white, but the brilliant scarlet balls of Rhododendron barbatum, seen here with the matching scarlet berries of Skimmia x reevsiana, were happily untouched.

Rhoodendron barbatum

As I say, the wet weather has not helped the condition of waning snowdrops, but during the last week the main masses of Galanthus nivalis and G. woronowii still provided swathes of colour. Both species self-sow here and over quarter of a century have colonised most of the wilder parts of this woodsy garden.

I noted last week that Anglesey Abbey did not apparently grow Galanthus woronowii. I have frequently remarked on how vigorous, even invasive, it is here, self-sowing with gay abandon. It is, perhaps, not the showiest of species, but the broad shiny green leaves are cheerful at this early stage. It remains very distinct and does not hybridise (except I believe with G. ikariae which is mostly grown under glass here).

Galanthus woronowii

As I said, crocuses are well under way now. The best variety by far here is C. 'Violet Queen'. This is a little later and much more substantial than the ubiquitous 'tommies' (C. tommasinianus). The latter spreads around here alright, but rarely gets enough sun to open very much and quickly deteriorates to a mass of faded straggly blooms. 'Violet Queen' is often said to be  a C. sieberi selection, but it seems to have quite as much in common with C. tommasinianus, or even forms of its close relative C. vernus. It keeps distinct and seems not to hybridise, but I am not convinced that it self-sows, however vigorous and widespread it has become in this garden.

Crocus 'Violet Queen'

Here is Crocus 'Violet Queen' in association with C. chrysanthus 'Bowles Yellow'. Not all the chrysanthus varieties are persistent here, but I have grown 'Bowles Yellow' for many years.

The other really persistent C. chrysanthus variety here is C. chrysanthus 'Snow Bunting', which is clearly a C. biflorus cross. Interestingly, C. chrysanthus varieties have naturalised well on dual carriageway central reservations in the Gosforth Park area north-east of Newcastle. This area is a good deal drier than this garden (and also in full light) which may explain their success there.

Crocus 'Snow Bunting'

Scilla mischenkoana 'Tubergeniana' is another reliable and persistent bulb here. The area where it was originally planted has been overtaken by the growth of hododendrons and pieris and is now root-bound and heavily shaded, but this seems not to affect this good-tempered plant one whit.

Scilla mischenkoana 'Tubergeniana'

I also mentioned early Porophyllum saxifrages. These have tended to fulfill my prejudice that in this garden at least, species tend to be more persistent and better garden plants than all except a very few of the hybrids, mostly the older ones. To take one example, S. juniperinifolia never fails to please every spring.

Another ancient plant is the form of Saxifraga marginata that R B Cooke grew on his wall at Kilbryde. This clone, which was said to be a form of v. rocheliana, which I think means it originated in southern Italy, must be well in excess of a century old.

Saxifraga marginata v rocheliana

The Iranian S. wendelboi is a close relative of S. marginata, but tighter and slower than most forms of the latter. Once again it is persistent here in troughs, although occasionally it dies down from one side. Here is it growing with a small rooted cutting of S. 'Peter Burrow'.

Saxifraga scardica is another long-lived species. Originally grown from seed collected on the north side of Olimbos (far from the Reserve area) more than 30 years ago, it flowers reliably every spring.

Saxifraga scardica

Since the rain came, I have enjoyed the water droplets on the rosettes of Meconopsis wilsonii. I have found that I cannot overwinter the rosettes of monocarpic mecs here except under a cloche, and in this case the glass was removed last week. Definitely worth the trouble. This winter  I lost a large M. paniculata rosette which I had thought was too well established to suffer.

Meconopsis wilsonii

Regular readers will know that I am a devotee of decorative tree boles, and the trunk of my Acer crataegifolium caught my eye this morning, glistening in the cold rain. I love the 'crazy paving' pattern!

Deviating even further 'off-piste', I repotted several rosettes of Greenovia aurea a few days ago. These had been grown from a few tiny offshoots collected at 1600 m beside the road to Teide on Tenerife back in 2010. At this altitude the plants encounter some snow and frost, and I reasoned that they might be nearly hardy. Since then I have grown them on the windowsill of the back porch which occasionally drops close to zero. So far they have come to no harm whatever. Here first are photos of the population and a close up, folowed by the repotted plants, now grown to adulthood.

Greenovia aurea population Greenovia aurea

To finish with, I thought I would close with a couple more snowdrops, thus 'closing the circle'. Doubtless these will be the last of the year! First the lovely 'Blonde Inge', found in Germany, which has green ovaries, but yellow tepal marks.

Galanthus 'Blonde Inge'

And secondly, a big robust plicate, Galanthus 'John Long' which has proved very vigorous here.

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