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A Northumberland Alpine Gardener's Diary

This entry: 25 May 2008 by John Richards

Northumberland Diary. Entry 76.

Spring's end

As we move inexorably into summer, I find myself reflecting on how our cold dry spring has telescoped the season. When we enter June in a week's time, we will still have flowers on our Magnolia x soulangeana, while traditional June flowers such as the big blue poppies and candelabra primulas are already starting to make an appearence, punctual as ever.

Here is the first of the blue poppies, M. x sheldonii 'Mrs Jebb'. The monocarpic species M. racemosa and M. rudis have started to flower as well.

Spring's end

Some flowers last for months, like the trilliums in the photo above. Others are far more evanescent. We only get a brief week of glory from the Camassias (C. leichtlinii) so that I wonder sometimes if they are worth the space (otherwise, they are little trouble and very reliable). Nothing else, however, quite fits the bill.

New brooms
 I collected seed of the first subject by the shores of Italy's Lake Garda in July 2003, under the impression I think that it was a chamaecytisus (so not so new in fact!). However when it flowered I was both surprised and delighted to see the purple flowers of Cytisus purpureus. This is quite a small shrub, only about 30 cm high, and has proved very reliable so far.

New brooms

Most brooms are rather short-lived for shrubs, with a typical life-span of a decade or so. At the moment, C. x praecox 'Albus' is an important spring presence, lighting up its corner of the garden before retreating into a decent anonymity.

Raven's wing

Before we leave larger subjects that decorate peripheral areas, a brief homage to Anthriscus sylvestris 'Raven's wing'. This plant has become absurdly popular, available in most garden centres and seemingly important in almost every Chelsea Show garden, so that my wife fondly imagines that I squandered a future bathed in millionaire luxury when I released this plant without licence some 20 years ago!

The story has been told before, but possibly bears repetition in this forum. In 1980 I was leading an international dandelion meeting along a chalk lane not far from my home town of Reading (if you think this narrative has already far exceeded the bounds of probability, read no further!). Way down the lane, the ribbon of green cow parsley (for this was in late April, before the umbellifer flowering season) was broken by a single jet black plant. Astonished, I levered two tubers from the side of the plant, for, unusually, I was carrying a trowel for the disinternment of dandelions. In doing so I may have broken the law, and I was not in the habit of digging up wild plants even then, but from this humble beginning all Raven's wing arose. Luckily it proves to come fairly true from seed, although it is worth rogueing the less black individuals, and it should never be grown in the presence of green individuals.

Personally I have consigned it to a far, wooded corner of the garden where it has naturalised nicely. The late Bill Baker of Pangbourne, who first distributed this plant after I gave him a seedling, grew it in similar conditions. Incidentally both I and Bill always spelt it thus, not the nauseating 'Ravenswing' which sounds like an item in a children's playground.

Raven's wing

Teesdale alpines
Time for a short field trip to see some alpines in the wild. We are fortunate to live only some 30 miles north of the famous Pennine sites for alpines, in Upper Teesdale, Widdybank and Cronkley Fells. Widdybank is well worth a visit in late May (we visited on the 21st); it is a fairly short and level stroll on a good path to sugar limestone grasslands where Gentiana verna and (in wetter spots) Primula farinosa decorate the turf. We were delighted to find a splendid white-flowered group of the primula.

Teesdale alpines

We were also very pleased to find the very rare Teesdale Violet, Viola rupestris which only has five British stations. Like most plants that are supposedly difficult to identify, once recognised it is easy to spot, for the pale blue, darker-edged flowers are a different shape from the common wood violet V. riviniana.

Coralroot

A few days earlier, I had been a member of a party that were shown the rare saprophytic orchid,coralroot, Corallorhiza trifida, growing on rotten stumps and very wet sphagnum at the edge of a lake not far from Newcastle upon Tyne. It is tiny, and very much not a garden plant, but was still a privilege to see it.

Coralroot

Back to the garden
Here are some alpines that are currently giving interest in the garden at present. First, two anemones. I have grown A. sylvestris for some years, having found it for sale, rather improbably, in the gardens of Hatfield House in Hertfordshire. Although a European (albeit with a strangely scattered distribution) it seems not to be well known in cultivation. It is now several years since the Joint Rock Garden Committee of the RHS awarded my plant a Certificate of Preliminary Commendation, and the plant goes, if not from strength to strength, at least on!

Back to the garden

Not dissimilar, but far more spectacular than the so-called 'snowdrop anemone' (above) is the Sinohimalayan A. rupicola. I have been fortunate to see this in the wild in several localities; it is ecologically diverse, growing on cliffs above the Gan-ho-ba in the Yulong Shan at only some 3000 m, but also at 4500m above the Beima Shan. Perhaps this amplitude explains its compliance in the garden, for my plant has grown into quite an extensive patch. I love it!

Staying in the Himalayas, here is the little, creeping Polygonatum hookeri. Almost invasive here in a scree mix, this tiny plant does little harm and has a very short season.

In case you wondered what the little round variegated leaf was in the last photo, this is Cymbalaria hepaticifolia, a terrible creeping menance. Don't let it anywhere near your garden!

Two more plants from the Chinese end of the Himalayas. Primula florida is quite easy to raise from seed and flower, but it essentially monocarpic, so raise a batch and cross pin and thrum-flowered forms to raise seed!

Alexandra's rhubarb
My younger granddaughter is named Alex, so it is an additional pleasure when her wonderful rhubarb comes into flower. Only two flower spikes this year, so it probably needs a feed. This is another plant I know in the wild, from alpine riversides in western China; once again it is slightly improbable that this lovely thing thrives in the garden, but so it is.

Alexandra's rhubarb

We are about to retreat to the mountains again, so the next bulletin will perforce be delayed until the second week of June. We hope that our first stop will be Olimbos. Back in 1999 the MESE expedition collected seed of Dianthus haematocalyx  var. haematocalyx from outside the reserve there, and I have grown it ever since, in a pot in the alpine house. I have found that it rewards frequent propagation from cuttings taken just after flowering. It is a much more spectacular plant than the much vaunted var. pindicola, although less alpine in character.

See you in three weeks!

John Richards

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