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A Northumberland Alpine Gardener's Diary

This entry: 21 March 2017 by John Richards

Northumberland Diary. Entry 334.

Life on Mars

Futuristic writers of yesteryear supposed that the curious straight lines that had been observed on the surface of Mars represented canals which had been crafted by the beleaguered inhabitats to protect them from an increasingly inimical environment. Only in the depths of these recesses could Martian life survive. At times I think of this county rather like that. Look at a population map and it becomes clear that nearly all Northumbrians live either at the bottoms of the river valleys (Tyne, Blyth, Wansbeck, Coquet, Tweed), or on the coast. Much of the rest of the county lies above 800' (250 m) altitude and endures a harsh climate suited chiefly to sheep.

On a day like today, it is only too clear why this should be. In Hexham, nestling just east of the junctions of the two rivers Tyne, it is a sunny, if rather blustery, spring day. This encouraged me to take my big lens into the upper reaches of Allendale to attempt to photograph a Blackcock lek I know there. As I reached the location, snow dusted the fells around and was continuing to fall horizontally, if intermittently, on a gale-force wind at just above zero centigrade. This arctic weather failed to inhibit the waders (Curlew, Lapwing, Redshank and Oystercatcher) which were displaying on their breeding territories in considerable numbers. The blackgame were more circumspect and between the squalls, all I was able to see for some time was a solitary greyhen.

Life on Mars

After a bit it became clear that the males were more wimpish and were sheltering under walls. Even the local blackface sheep seemed hardier and less influenced by the bitter wind.

Black Grouse are of course a local speciality and are now more readily seen in the uplands between here and Teesdale some 25 miles to the south than anywhere else in our islands. They are very choosy, preferring the edge zone where pasture borders moorland, usually with some shelter belts. They eschew improved grassland and, unlike their endemic counsin the much more successful Red Grouse, dislike uninterrupted heather land. It so happens that the unimproved meadows and pastures which are expensively maintained by stewardship schemes on behalf of our multitudinous breeding waders also suit the blackgame very well.

I expect you can see where this is leading. Much of the income for our stewardship schemes derives from Europe. Our upland sheep farms are uneconomic without them, and are unlikely to provide a living even if 'improved' within an inch of their lives. Without European aid, our upland farms are likely to disappear and this marginal land will revert to birch and willow scrub. The future of our internationally important breeding birds hangs in the balance. I have yet to meet a Conservationist who favours Brexit.


Down in the flesh-pots

But this is supposed to be a garden diary, not an environmental pressure group. It is however good news that the Alpine Garden Society plans to become involved in the botanical conservation of another Pennine system, not that far from here, where there are also rich populations of breeding waders.

This is prime time for Porophyllum saxifrages. In particular, S. ferdinandi-coburgii, derived from south Pirin seed in a long-standing population scattered through a number of troughs, containers and raised beds, has been splendid this year and has lasted several weeks. This species supports my contention that the European species tend to be better, longer-lasting garden plants than most of the hybrids.

Saxifraga ferdinandi-coburgii

The time for S. juniperinifolia, which also enjoyed a splendid season this year, is well past. The popular hybrid between this and S. ferdinandi-coburgii, S. x haagii, best known in the cultivar 'Gold Dust' is flowering now. In support of my contention, this has done much less well than either parent, but I like it much less than either progenitor, so maybe it has suffered more neglect.

Last October I searched cliffs on Pangeon (NE Greece) assiduously for signs of this hybrid, in areas where both parents grow side by side. As Adrian Young found when searching for another Porophyllum hybrid on neighbouring Falakron (reported in the latest issue of 'Alpine Gardener'), such hybrids are not easily detected out of flower. However the vegetative characters of the two species are not that similar and wild S. x haagii, if it occurs, is very scarce.

Saxifraga x haagii

Here is a shot of an old fishbox long planted up with S. marginata rocheliana originating at Kilbryde, Randle Cooke's garden, and sporting more S. ferdinandi-coburgii and self-sown Anemone blanda. It is something of a mystery how the latter manages to invade troughs. My theory is that the seeds are carried by ants.

Another near 'species' is the primary hybrid between Saxifraga oppositifolia and S. biflora, S. x kochii. Like many of the other species this persists well in the garden and if it never approaches exhibition standard, at least is gives me pleasure year on year.

Saxifraga x kochii

Nevertheless, several hybrids are doing well, amongst them the very compact 'Allendale Bravo', one of many hybrids which arose in the blackgame country to the south of here.

Saxifraga 'Allendale Bravo'

'Allendale Bravo' is I think a better plant than the very similar crosses between S. poluniniana and S. 'Winifred', S. 'Redpoll' and S. 'Peter Burrow'. Both have been consigned to the garden where blackbirds have soon made short work of the labels, so I am unsure which is which.



Yet another saxifrage species that has been liberated from confinement as an exhibition flunkey and 'put to grass' is S. andersonii. In common with the others, it may not look its best, but then it doesn't die either!

Saxifraga andersonii

And a few bulbs...

Remarkably in this early year, the snowdrop season it not quite over yet. The non-clumping, very late form of Galanthus elwesii v. monostictus (the old 'G. caucasicus') I grow in a planting on home-made tufa is still at its best. Unlike most elwesii, the leaves are distinctly channelled. G. plicatus 'The Linns' is still good too. Here is the monostictus.

Galanthus elwesii v monostictus

Many of the planters full of bulbs (tulips, narcissi) are going full bore. Crocus biflorus 'Bluebird' (apparently indistinguishable from C. biflorus ssp. alexandri) has also been a great success.

Crocus biflorus 'Bluebird'

By far the most successful (and earliest) of the trilliums here is T. kurabayashi. This has now formed several large colonies in various parts of the garden.

Trillium kurabayashii

Something new here is Pulsatilla grandis. This was grown from AGS seed in 2014 and the seedlings planted out in 2015. Last year they did not flower, but are now strong enough to make a few of the huge flowers.

Pulsatilla grandis

Another plant I don't think I have featured before is Rhododendron bulu. This is one of several confusing, and lets face it, rather uncharismatic members of s. Lapponica from the high moorlands of Sikkim. It was sent (I think Clarke seed, grown on by Mike and Polly Stone) as Rh. nitidulum, but having seen at lot of the latter in the wild, I think it is probably Rh. bulu. The kindest thing to say about it is that it is quite sculptural out of flower. The most accurate thing to say about me is that it is characteristicaly a plant I should have thrown out years ago and didn't have the heart.

Rhododendron bulu

Here by way of comparison is Rhododendron nitidulum from open moorland next to Kangding airport in central Sichuan, growing at over 4000 m in altitude.

Rhododendron nitidulum

Osmanthus delavayii is another Chinese shrub I have seen in the wild, but is a much more recent acquisition, from last weekend to be exact! On the way home from the splendid Kendal Show ( I was Show Reporter, so won't repeat myself) we called in on Larch Cottage, south of Penrith, looking for an evergreen shrub to fill a space by the gate. This is a plant which caught the eye immediately, something I have always been very fond of (not least the scent!) and have never owned previously.

One  final plant. Last spring I bought a specimen of Primula bhutanica, a plant I have not grown for a number of years. Petiolarids tend to have a very short life here at the moment. I have tended to grow them in one place and am sure that several clones that persisted are heavily infected with virus which is soon passed on to newcomers. It is no accident that the only real success currently has been P. aureata which does not leave the alpine house. So far I have kept the P. bhutanica well clear of the others and will continue to do so. I need to create an asylum for virus-free plants. P. bhutanica only exists in cultivation as a pin-eyed form which is relatively self-fertile, but does appear to be suffering from inbreeding depression. Interestingly, my current plant seems not to be 'Sherriff's var., so perhaps it is something new?

Primula bhutanica
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