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A Northumberland Alpine Gardener's Diary

This entry: 06 March 2017 by John Richards

Northumberland Diary. Entry 333.

Howick Gardens

One of our favourite gardens is up the Northumberland coast, a fair trek of more than an hour from here, but well-worth a visit. It is a huge garden, extending over the best part of three miles, and much of it is planted up with shrubs and trees grown from wild seed collected by the owner, Lord Howick.

One of the main features of the garden are its snowdrops, and it holds special snowdrop walks on key dates in the season. These would rather disappoint any 'Galanthophile' as although snowdrops occur by the many million over great swathes of ground, they do so in very little variety. Indeed, over a three-hour walk, apart from standard G. nivalis, and a lot of doubles (G. nivalis flore pleno), I can only report one small patch of unremarkable G. plicatus. Afficionados will know that a snowdrop is named for this garden 'Howick Yellow', and indeed this is figured in John Good's latest blog. 'Howick Yellow' is a rather small representative of the 'Northumberland Yellows' (G. nivalis 'Sandersii') which multiplies better than most. On a visit some ten years ago or more I remember seeing quite a few 'yellows', Howick Yellow or not, but they seem to have vanished, for in three hours I totalled only three yellow plants. This garden is out of the range of the 'native' yellows and it is said that the late Mary, Lady Howick (widow of Sir Evelyn Baring) was given 'Howick Yellow' by Sir Charles Aitchison, grandfather of Diana at Spindlestone.

This gives me the chance to correct a statement in by last offering. There I said that G. 'Primrose Warburg' was given to Primrose Warburg by Diana Aitchison. In fact, as a private correspondent noted, Diana's good friend Phillipa Craig sent it to Primrose, although it is very possible that the plant did arise at Spindlestone as Phillipa lives nearby.

Here is a picture of one of the vast swathes of snowdrops at Howick.

Howick Gardens

Snowdrops are not the only colourful ground cover at Howick in the early spring. In several areas what I suppose must be Petasites albus covers the ground. Later in the year the enormous leaves predominate; this is a plant for which you need a large estate!

Petasites albus

Another ground cover in the woodland at Howick which is less all-pervasive is the demure Trachystemon orientalis.

Trachystemon orientalis

John Good at Bodnant talked about early rhododendrons, although, in all conscience, nearly a month earlier than our Howick visit. But it is an early rhodo year. Not surprisingly, Rh. 'Praecox', offspring of Rh. mucronulatum, made a brave show.

Rhododendron 'Praecox'

As in my own garden, Rhododendron barbatum showed it can be one of the earliest of all rhodos (it is in full flower with me too). However, at Howick' undoubted pride of place went to the wonderful Rhododendron mallotum. My affections waver from year to year, and in this noble genus there is a huge amount of choice, but as we speak I think this is the very best of all the species rhododendrons. It is said not to be the hardiest, but here close to the Northumberland coast it is nothing short of superb.

Rhododendron mallotum Rhododendron mallotum

Before we leave Howick, I thought I would treat you to a picture of one of the best of the huge variety of species conifers at Howick, Picea smithiana. This is so much like a giant variety of the popular Picea breweri that I assumed that it too was Californian. Not so. Remarkably it comes from the western Himalaya. Again, a plant for the very large garden!

Picea smithiana

Back home

I have a long history with the next plant I want to report on. It is well-known that the extremely and deservedly popular winter-flowering viburnum, V. x bodnantense is a hybrid between two Sino-Himalyan species, V. farreri (formerly V. fragrans) and V. grandiflorum. V. farreri is of course a much loved garden subject in its own right. Of V. grandiflorum one hears much less. There seem to be two reasons for this. One is a reputation for tenderness which may or may not be true in this changing climate. The second is a probably justified stubborness when it comes to propagation. Nevertheless, V. grandiflorum is a lovely thing if you can find it, not least because it tends to flower all at once at the end of the winter, thus making a brave show. In contrast, V. x bodnantense persists in flowering over such a long period that the later display tends to be spoilt by the remains of dead flowers.

Lt. Col. Donald Lowndes was one of the first plant explorers to reach Nepal when it was reopened to foreign visitors in 1950. His discoveries there are legendary, and are celebrated by two famous if somewhat recalcitrant alpines, Rhododendron lowndesii and Saxifraga lowndesii. Amongst his other introductions was a form of Viburnum grandiflorum which is known as 'Donald Lowndes'. There was a fine tree of this at Randle Cooke's garden 'Kilbryde' when I helped to curate it in the 1970's. For all I know it might be still there. It was said that the only way it could be propagated was by layering the lowest whip-like stems if they were pressed against the soil with a rock.

We raised several young plants this way and three were grown at the now defunct Newcastle Botanic Garden (where they may also survive). I left another at my last garden as it was by then too big to move and had not been layered. My friend Alan Furness was also given one, and from this he gave me a propagant about six years ago. This was put in a less-than-ideal place, but since I took out a large Salix fargesii it has flourished and is in full flower now.



Viburnum grandiflorum 'Donald Lowndes' Viburnum grandiflorum 'Donald Lowndes'

Another lovely early shrub now at its best is Corylopsis pauciflora.

Corylopsis pauciflora

Most of the dwarf rhododendrons here are not yet in flower, but the Rh. microleucum hybrid .'Ptarmigan' is approaching its best. Interestingly, this has experienced several fairly light frosts recently but so far has remained unscorched.

Rhododendron 'Ptarmigan'

I now have quite a group of Callianthemum anemonoides which thrive outside in a sand-bed, uncovered. These were originally grown from seed from my original plant which still flourishes. Several have been lifted for shows in the past and this year I may leave them all be. Certainly they remain much tighter and more brightly coloured if left in the ground. Despite a rather exotic reputation, in my experience this is a first-rate garden plant which should be grown outside far more often.

Callianthemum anemonoides

I took a group of crocuses to the Harlow Show where, predictably, I woz robbed (isn't one always?). Anyway I thought some of these were really quite nice. First Crocus etruscus 'Zwanenburg'.

Crocus etruscus 'Zwanenburg'

I think Crocus biflorus 'Weldenii' is one of the finest in this lovely genus.

Crocus biuflorus 'Weldenii'

Finally, our MESE introduction from Kajmaktcalan. Crocus pelistericus. Now that folk have leant how to grow it (humus compost, plastic pot, lots of water all year, cool place in the summer, repot in autumn, feed), this introduction is becoming increasingly popular on the showbench where it may have become MESE's most popular introduction. Being seed-grown, my pot-full still suffers from not flowering all at once, but as the corms multiply there are more flowers at any one time.

Crocus pelistericus MESE 380

One last 'old stager'. Not long after I moved to Hexham 47 years ago, the Huntley family moved from Gateshead to the Hartside Pass above Alston to set up an alpine nursery, which under the proprietorship of Neil and Susan flourishes to this day. Neil's father Alan grew Primula allionii when it was still quite a scarce plant in cultivation, and he raised quite a number of seedlings. On Saturday, Robert Rolfe discussed with the Joint Rock Garden Committee how few of the early clones of P.allionii survive or are worth growing, perhaps because they have become weakened by virus, and that new seed-raised forms, many from Brian Burrow are far more reliable. This is undoubtedly true, but some of the old Huntley clones, mostly rather slow-growing and unspectacular but some with a notable cushion-forming habit, have persisted for half a century or more. This one, grown undisturbed in the sand plunge for 10 years, is I think 'Hartside No. 3'.

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