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A Northumberland Alpine Gardener's Diary

This entry: 30 May 2014 by John Richards

Northumberland Diary. Entry 273.

Back home

I am glad people seem to have enjoyed our diversion into Croatia, but we have now been back home for a fortnight, during the most floriferous time of year. There is certainly a lot to report, so without more ado, lets see what has been giving us pleasure over the last two weeks.

For years, our sole magnolia was a M. x soulangeana which we inherited as a mangled twig from our predecessors, and which has developed over quarter of a century into a magnificent, free-flowering tree. A few years ago we bought a M. 'Leonard Messel' which is now flowering well, much earlier than this. About the same time, I planted out a seedling of M. wilsonii which was one of a batch that I grew from seed that a moribund tree at the Newcastle Botanic Garden set in its death throes. The others were planted back into Moorbank where they are probably now smothered in weeds (we, the Volunteers, continue to be inexplicably excluded by the landlords, the Freemen of the City, and we must assume that the garden is now in rack and ruin). 

This year our M. wilsonii seedling produced its first flower (I think it is now six years old). Hopefully it will now go from strength to strength.


Back home

Two more magnolias are producing their first flowers. These both started life as young plants at Moorbank, and were removed at the last moment when it seemed likely that the Freemen were going to abandon the garden. This is a M. liliiflora hybrid.

And this lovely yellow flowered hybrid is called 'Susan'.

Its a good time of year for the later rhodos too. One of the most impressive of the 100 or more species of rhododendron that might still survive at Moorbank was a mighty Rh. oreotrephes, which originated at Randle Cooke's Corbridge garden 'Kilbryde', as most of the others there did too. I think the present plant was grown from a cutting taken from the original. I forget, as it must be some 25 years old itself.

The Saluenense series species are late flowering, and I often think of them as June plants. This year they have flowered in late May. Perhaps the best is a form of Rh. keleticum which I have grown since the 1970's and also originated at Kilbryde. It is quite easy to propagate as it often falls apart into bits when dug up.

There are lots of species names assigned to the Saluenensia, too many, and a number have been lost during later taxonomic revisions. The next plant was received as Rh. calciphilum, I think, but is probably best as a form of Rh. keleticum, or even as a form of Rh. saluenense itself. It is a neater plant that the previous one, but not quite as free-flowering. In this group, only the early-flowering Rh. calostrotum, and the prostrate Rh. radicans seem really distinct.

A couple of fine young Rh. yakusimanum came my way as we abandoned Moorbank, seedlings grown about 10 years ago. What a superb plant, and so much better than any of its 'horrid hybrids' (as dear old Mr Davidian would have it!).

Some mecs

By now, it is no secret that I love meconopsis species, and it is that time of year. It is difficult not to repeat myself too much, as I am so fond of them, but I must certainly show the first flowering of M. superba here for many years. This 'superb' species seems to have become more difficult in recent years, and the silky rosettes certainly appreciate being cloched during the winter. A second has survived but is in too much shade and will not flower this year.

Some mecs

Several Meconopsis pseudointegrifolia flowered last year, and set lots of seed so that I now have good seedlings. However, one rosette survived to the present, and I dug it up to take to Southport Show. Here it is back in the ground, together with a number of other mecs, including M. x cookei, M. quintuplinervia and the perennial form of M. punicea.

Its a great time of year for Peonies. The flowers may be fleeting, but they are so sumptuous, and the foliage so attractive, that I cannot have too many. Growing them from seed is usually straightforward, as long as one remembers that the above-ground shoot does not appear until the second year. Once planted out they usually take two or three years to flower. A lovely form of P. veitchii is amongst those to flower for the first time this year.

These P. officinalis, grown from seed gathered from Super Besse in the Alpes Maritimes, are flowering for the second time.

The Paeonia mascula are also from wild seed, this time gathered on the slopes of Monte Baldo.

These P. broteroi are of much longer standing, also resulting from wild seed gathered on a trip to Andalucia more than 20 years ago.

On to a few rock plants. I have two ancient Ramonda myconi that have both been in position for more than 15 years. One in particular has flowered unusually well this year. Note that it is not grown vertically. Given reasonable drainage and partial shade, they seem to well here in a horizontal position as well. We are off to the Pyrenees in a few weeks where we hope to see it flowering in the wild.

Another plant which is flowering better than usual is Ourisia coccinea.

I am also delighted with Penstemon rupicola.

Tulipa sprengeri is a wonderful plant which should be in everyone's garden, despite its almost invasive qualities, it is so beautiful that one can't have too much of it. The latest of all tulips, it flowers here with Allium karataviense, another self-sower, to create a memorable picture.

Celmisia longifolia is another excellent rock garden plant which is flowering well this year. I have said before that I tend to find the Australian celmisias easier than the Kiwi ones, and C. sericophylla and C. pugioniformis are also easy doers here.

As a final rock garden subject, I love the hybrid saxifrage 'Winifred Bevington'. When I rebuilt a raised bed as a sand bed last summer, I split up a plant of this, and it has thrived in its new habitat, each division having formed a free-flowering clump, so that the general effect is of a pink haze.

Certain plants are having a major effect in the garden. Our Wisteria sinensis is perhaps unusual in that it is not trained against a house wall, but is loosely associated with a trellis, but has almost become a free-standing large shrub in its own right. After years of neglect, it has become sufficiently starved that it produces very few vegetative whips, and a high proportion of flowering spurs, so it scarcely ever needs pruning.

In another area, Clematis alpina 'Willy' rambles for several metres over old lime tree stumps (interestingly, the problem of suckers from these stumps seems to have been largely solved by treating them with liquid glyphosate solution).

As you enter the garden, there is a large planting of Doronicum austriacum. This looked wonderful for several weeks, but is now getting tatty and is about to be cut back hard.

Simethis planifolia is another plant that covers several metres. It is highly invasive and brooks no competitors, but if you have room for such a plant in a wild part of the garden, there is nothing better for covering the ground and looking after itself.

And you can't beat Rhododendron 'Pink Pearl' for an overwhelming, completely reliable, effect.

Another plant which is well enough established to have a surprisingly major impact is Primula grandis. It might be thought that the leaves have most of the effect, for the individual flowers belie its name by being tiny. However, this is indeed a big plant, and the overall appearence is similar to P. florindae, the biggest of all primulas, which flowers much later. Interestingly, these two are not at all related. In fact P. grandis, which hails from the Caucasus, proves to be a close cousin of the primrose.

I am loving Lilium jankae, found on the mountain just outside Sofia in Bulgaria. Grown from seed, and a singleton, it is in a tub on the terrace.

To finish this long epistle, a couple of garden views.

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