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A Northumberland Alpine Gardener's Diary

This entry: 27 March 2016 by John Richards

Northumberland Diary. Entry 313.

Trough of despond

Something came in lots of packaging a couple of weeks ago, secured by two pieces of expanded polystyrene of a very suggestive shape; no not that sort of suggestive, when one is as aged and one-track minded as me, one is more likely to be thinking of suitable houses for alpines! They are very shallow, but I still thought 'semps'! Here they are as I acquired them.

Trough of despond

And here after I had used a drill to put in a few drainage holes. By the way, the cardboard is advisory, as will be seen in the next-but-one photo.

After that it was, on with the very old trousers, old apron, oldest trainers and marigolds, out with the paintbrush and the outside plasticated paint, chosen the colour of sandstone. While still wet (and this is the messy procedure) dry coarse sand is thrown at them, and then they are left to dry in the spare garage (potting shed) for a week.

Finally, slivers of shale were put over the drainage holes, and a very free-draining mix (about 50% coarse sand with added perlite, grit and Keith Shackleton's  compost) added, to be tamped in and mounded. The vertical crevices are constructed of the local shale. On something of a whim, one has been planted exclusively with Canarian Crassulaceae, primarily Aeonium species, but the largest rosette is my smallest Greenovia aurea. The other two remain in pots in the back porch where they regularly drop to zero or just below. G. aurea is said by a Japanese authority to be hardy to -10C, and as it grows above 1500m, and up to 2350 m in Tenerife, I am sure he is right. One day I shall have the temerity to put it on the showbench where I have every expectation that it will be totally ignored. The plan is to keep the trough outside except when frosts are forecast. It is so light and small that it is easy to carry into the back porch.

As yet the other trough remains to be planted. Watch this space!


Bird pollination

We have no specialist flower-feeding birds in Europe, because in a temperate climate there is no year-long assured supply of nectar. It is all very well for butterflies to spend the winter as pupae, or for bumble-bee queens to hibernate, but birds need to major on other foods during the winter, so obligate flower-feeders such as hummingbirds, sunbirds or honeyeaters are absent. It is noteworthy that none of the African sunbirds have evolved a migratory habit. In north America, flower-birds, and hence specialist bird flowers, reach north to Alaska, largely due to the migratory habit of one widespread hummingbird, so that scarlet bird-flowers are characteristic of the north American temperate flora (Aquilegia canadensis, Fritillaria recurva etc etc). Doubtless this is because north American mountain chains are orientated north-south, whereas the principle Eurasian mountains (and the Sahara) are positioned east-west, forming formidable barriers to flower-feeding birds.

The Himalayas, too, form a massive east-west barrier, but they offer widespread alpine habitat on their southern slopes which are thereby accessible to subirds of south Asian affinity. It is no great surprise to learn that the scarlet-flowered, nectar-rich, strong and waxy flowers of many rhododendrons are bird-pollinated, even those from high alpines habitats such as Rh. forrestii (still to open its flowers here). However, another classic bird-flower, Rh. barbatum, is currentlly at its best.


Rhododendron barbatum

Consequently, it is easy to assume that we have no bird-flowers in the British flora (probably correct, although Quentin Kay has noted that willow catkins are effectively pollinated by Blue Tits), and also the corollary, that no British birds visit flowers. This is certainly incorrect. After all, many of our small birds overwinter in Africa where they encounter and visit bird-flowers all the time, and if they encounter bird-flowers in our gardens when they travel north for the summer, they have the learnt behaviour to respond appropriately. I have seen Lesser Whitethroats on migration on our east coast with heads yellow with pollen from kniphofias, very confusing too!

What is less expected, perhaps, is that our resident birds visit garden flowers too. Willows have been mentioned, but Blue Tits regularly visit the flowers of our garden rhododendrons to drink the nectar. Here is a Blue Tit on our Rhododendron 'Christmas Cheer', photographed last week.

Staying with Ericaceae, our pieris have flowered rather early this year, first P. floribunda taiwanensis, then P. forrestii.

Pieris floribunda taiwanensis

Coruscating corydalis

One of the striking developments in alpine gardening over the last three decades has been the development of a wide range of stunning corydalis which make easy vigorous spring flowers. Most are referable to the widespread European species C. solida, and the red colours which characterise many of the more desirable varieties were originally sourced from the Rumanian mountains, often under the designation 'Transsylvanica'. I featured one of the most popular varieties, 'Beth Evans' in the last offering, but here, as in many gardens, they have sown around to the extent that it is difficult to be sure of the exact attribution of many plants.

I am fairly sure that this tall and vigorous plant is Corydalis 'Craigton Red', named for the garden of Ian and Maggi Young, but like many of the taller, nearly entire-bracted varieties with broad leaf segments, I am less sure of its parentage.

Corydalis 'Craigton Red'

Let me show you what I mean. The next plant figured is, I think, Corydalis cava 'Cedric Moris', a kind gift from Rod and Jane Leeds, which has not multiplied at all here,  which I find is true of most C. cava here, unlike C. solida.

Corydalis cava 'Cedric Morris'

Here is another C. cava, admittedly an awful plant which badly needs rescuing from some fern sporelings, but sharing the same aspect and growth habit as Cedric Morris.

And here is a plant which I am nearly sure is a self-sown hybrid between C. cava and C. solida.

See what mean? I think a strong case could be made for 'Craigton Red', and a number of other seedlings usually characterised as forms of C. solida, to be in fact hybrids with C. cava, to the extent that they should probably not be given specific epithets. Of course, it might be possible to solve the problem by examining the shape of tubers in presumptive hybrids (rather like half a tennis ball in C. cava). Whatever, they are all lovely, vigorous, garden plants and a great acquisition to our spring gardens.

Before I leave corydalis, I thought I would just mention that C. malkensis, vigorous to the point of weediness in many gardens, really struggles here and I persist with just a single plant!

Each year we purchase some tulip and narcissus bulbs for planters on the terrace. When they die down we lift them and store them in the garage. If they still look in good condition they might be planted a second year. More often they are plunged at the edge of the veg patch for a year to bulk up, or they are planted out in a 'wild' section. Here are the Tulipa greigii x kaufmaniana cross 'Shakespeare' with Narcissus 'Jetfire', followed by Tulipa 'Johann Strauss' which we have grown for a number of years.

Erythronium tolumnense grows all over this garden and is the first to flower. It is particularly good this year.

I enjoy a section of the alpine house where cuttings of primulas are planted out straight into the sand plunge with no extra nutriment but automatic drip watering. They grow to no real size, but stay beautifully in character. Here are a selection including 'Clarence Elliott', Broxbourne', 'Tony' and the species P. floribunda.

Finally, this diary does have its use, at least for me. Last year I mentioned that I had unaccountably lost the hybrid Primula 'David Valentine', named for my research supervisor who had raised it. It represents a cross between P. elatior and P. juliae. A kind reader slipped me a plant during last spring, so surreptitiously that I fear I have lost his/her name. Anyway, a most welcome gift. This time I shall propagate it!

Primula 'David Valentine'
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