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A Northumberland Alpine Gardener's Diary

This entry: 28 May 2011 by John Richards

Northumberland Diary. Entry 184.

Saxs galore

 March is often seen as the pinnacle of the saxifrage year as all the Porophyllum species and hybrids gladden our eyes after a hard winter. However, in this garden at least the early summer 'silvers' (section Ligulatae) and 'mossies' (section Saxifraga) have a much bigger impact in the garden, as well as providing wonderful foliage for much of the year. The downside is, perhaps, that most of them have white flowers, but not all do!

Another slight snag with the 'silvers' is that the flowering rosette is monocarpic (dies after flowering). Only one Ligulatae species fails to make side rosettes which can be grown on to make new plants in future years (S. longifolia). For most of the others the loss of the flowering rosette just makes a small hole in the cushion which soon fills in if the plant is growing well. At the other end of the spectrum are large-rosetted species such as S. cotyledon in which it is important to winkle out side rosettes and root them before the main plant dies after flowering, as the side rosettes often die with the parent. Here is the S. cotyledon that I took to the Southport Show last week. Happily it won against stiff opposition, and I should think so too! Judges are not always wrong, just most of the time! This plant was a gift from Beryl Bland, the 'Queen of Silvers' a couple of years ago, and hails from France. This is a species which ranges from Norway to Austria on acid cliffs, but is very scattered in its distribution.

Saxs galore

 S. cotyledon has donated to us a series of delightful seedlings, many of which have red blotches on the flowers. The original of these, 'Southside Seedling, is now 60 years old, and has itself engendered a number of by-blows which have become popular. Here is the original, flowering in a scree composed merely of stones and sand, although as it is cool,and north-facing, moss has tended to add to the humus content over the years.

 I grow a number of silver saxifrages in this poor scree where they stay in character and flower quite well. Also, they don't get invaded with weeds here, which has tended to be the case in some of our richer rock gardens! S. paniculata in the form 'Minutifolia' is perhaps the freest flowerer, although S. crustata, with its 'clamped in' silver bits, which Malcolm McGregor says is scarce in gardens, is almost its equal.

 The poor scree is also home to a number of mossy saxifrages, notably S. rosacea. The plant on the right of this photo is a self-sown seedling with good flowers which may be a new hybrid; I am uncertain, but it needs watching. The non-flowering 'silver' on the left is S. hostii hostii.

 In a dry year the vigorous S. continentalis starts to die back before it has finished flowering. This is one of a number of Spanish 'mossies' which aestivates, and greens up again magically in September (it is winter-green).

 The next plant was purchased many years ago as the west American S. bronchialis. This is not a 'mossy' but in the small section Trachyphyllum. Recourse to Malcolm's magisterial tome 'Saxifrages', tells me that this is not S. bronchialis in the strict sense, but S. vespertina, a local species from the western American Olympics and Cascades. It is not showy, but I am fond of it and it is very permanent in this spartan home.

 Elsewhere I grow a mix of silvers, mostly forms of S. paniculata and S. hostii, with Allium karataviense, which forms quite a successful combination. Tulipa sprengeri from seed and Ramonda myconi can also be seen. This area has become invaded with vetch, Vicia sepium, the worst weed in my garden!

 One more saxifrage before we move on. I collected seed of Saxifraga petraea from the country west of Lake Garda in 2003 and it has been with me ever since, not through any particular skill of mine, but because I let it self-seed into the sand-bed in one of my alpine houses. It likes to grow up against blocks of home-made tufa, and I humour it, making sure that some seed ripens before I remove it as a sticky tangle in the autumn.

Primula section Sikkimensis

 Now for another early summer group. In a normal year both the later saxifrages and the Sikkimensis primulas would be at their best in June, but this has been a very early spring However, now that we are well established in a cool, windy, moist Atlantic airflow, things have slowed down a good deal, and some of the later subjects, for instance Cardiocrinum, look as if they will appear very much on schedule.

First of all, Primula sikkimensis, firstly in its desirably dwarf high alpine form which does stay short in cultivation. It is confusingly known as subspecies pseudosikkimensis. This is followed by the rather leggy nominate subspecies, which I regard as a less attractive garden plant.

Primula section Sikkimensis

 Next, here is P. alpicola, both it its ethereal white form 'luna', and in its almost equally attractive colour race 'violacea' which here is pink. Both are much more attractive than the type which is yellow. The pink is scarcely in flower yet but I have put it in for the sake of completeness. Unlike P. sikkimensis, the leaves of P. alpicola have a narrow petiole, and the leaf blade base is rounded.

 Here is the nearest thing I have grown for many years to P. waltonii, ever since it was introduced by the AGSES 1983 expedition to Sikkim. There is probably no true P. waltonii left in cultivation, but a lot of its genes persist. This plant was grown from seed distribution seed labelled P. ioessa, which is undoubtedly a close relative, but has paler flowers of another shape. The distinctive character of P. waltonii, a mealy face to the flower but a farina-free 'eye' is shown in this plant.

 Some of the 'Candelabra' primulas (section Proliferae) look like section Sikkimensis species, but are not of that section. One of the rarest in cultivation has to be P. serratifolia, a species from the rather inaccessible far west of Yunnan on the Myanmar border, but with an eastern extension on the Cang Shan. I was surprised to have been able to overwinter this difficult plant successfully (under a frame light in the open ground). Possibly this latest introduction by the Rankins will prove more successful than previous endings.

 Much more widespread and familiar, and a much better garden plant, is P.secundiflora, which was wrongly classified as a Sikkimensis species for many years. It self-sows modestly here as both pins and thrums grow side by side.

Newcomers

 After the saxifrage and primula-fests, a few plants flowering for the first time from seed. Strictly speaking neither are newcomers, as both peonies and lilies need several years to get to flowering size, five in each case here I think. Both have struggled in pots until they were big enough to trust out in the garden, after which they have flowered the next year. First is Paeonia officinalis, grown from seed gathered on M. Baldo, back in 2003. Much nicer than the rather blousy double we found in the garden when we arrived!

Newcomers

 Thrilled that Lilium rhodopaeum from southern Bulgaria (and with one Greek locality) is flowering. This must be the most sumptuous Europaen lily! It is probably the same as another Bulgarian species I have seen in the wild, L. jankae from Vitosha, just behind the city of Sofia. I raised a number of seedlings,and it is also flowering at the Botanic Garden in Newcastle, where, in much more shelter, it is a good deal taller.

 Another exciting newcomer is Meconopsis lancifolia. This is a relative of M. henrici which I flowered back in April, but does not have the same swollen anther filaments and the leaves are stalked. Curiously, it seems that small leaves produced in the centre of the rosette as it flowers are basal bracts.

 Staying with monocarpic mecs, I have finally got to the bottom of the difference between M. racemosa and M. prattii. I have I think grown both here in recent years, but the plant that persists is M. prattii, which is distinguished from the former by having flowers subtended by leafy bracts.

 Finally, one of the later 'big blue poppies', one of the George Sherriff group which are later than most here. Here is 'Huntfield', possibly the best, with cup-shaped flowers of a peerless blue.

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