A Northumberland Alpine Gardener's Diary
This entry: 24 May 2016 by John Richards
Northumberland Diary. Entry 317.
Long time no see
Four weeks since my last contribution, and the busiest time of the year. For once I have a good excuse. No sooner were we into May, than I was rushed to hospital with an eye emergency, leading to two operations a week apart. This has led to an extremely tedious convalescence most of which has been spent 'posturing', head at roughly 45 degrees (one direction only), and nights spent on only one side. I need hardly say that this has been hardly conducive to gardening, or indeed (especially) the writing of diaries. A visit to the consultant today has brought with it somewhat better news, and a considerable slackening of the regime. In the meantime I have been able to make a few photographic records of the progress of the garden over the last three weeks or so, and my new-found (relative) freedom allows me to sit at the computer long enough to post some of these. One eye is still out of action, hopefully only a temporary measure, so some of the pictures may not even reach my customary mediocre standard. In compensation, I hope that a few of the photographs may be of interest. Probably, this epistle will be compiled over several sessions.
Its been quite a good year for rhododendron flower here. A reasonably good show from the Maddenii hybrid Rh. 'Fragrantissimum' is a rarity here We should not be able to grow Maddeniis here at all really, too cold, too dry and too many late frosts. But I have had this plant a quarter of a century although I can count good flowering years on the fingers of one hand.
Rhododendron smirnovii has been good too. This was lifted to take to the E. Anglia Show (perforce in vain; I have had to miss two Shows), also a good excuse to get several pernicious weeds out of the rootball.
Rhododendron keiskei 'Yaku Fairy' wins my award for the best dwarf species (it won the International Farrer at Nottingham, 1981 for Kath Dryden). Here it is consigned to a tub in a rather shady spot where it receives no attention whatever and performs like this every year.
More awards to be handed out, this time to Rh. 'Chikor', which I have owned for some 44 years. It's not a great plant and has nearly died a couple of times, chiefly as a result of neglect. But it struggles on and reminds me of its distinguished parent Rh. ludlowii which I used to tend in Randle Cooke's garden.
Did you see Rhododendron roxieanum in flower in the last one? A distinguished if not very free-flowering plant (it has been better). I am always amused that such a class act seems to be named for a floosey! (no, I know the real reason, don't phone in).
As for hybrids, you can't beat 'King George', my favourite red, and brilliant every year without fail.
I have seen Rhododendron augustinii growing wild in the forests to the west of Wolong, Sichuan, at quite low altitude. It would not be a surprise were it tender, but it is in fact as tough as old boots, and an excellent parent to many hybrids. It was named for the plant explorer Augustine Henry who sounds like a French Missionary, but was in fact Irish! This is an unnamed form, grown from seed.
In the last issue I showed Rh. pseudochrysanthum in bud. It fulfilled its promise and is still flowering a month later.
One more rhodo before we pass to lesser mortals. Rh. oreotrephes is one of the latest here.
Rhodos and primulas tend to go together, two great Sinohimalayan genera of enormous diversity and beauty. Indeed I was once asked to give a lecture on rhododendrons and primulas which I have reprised several times. There have been some novelties flowering here this spring, several emenating from Stuart Pawley, past director of the Scottish Rock Garden Club seed exchange, who hads been raising hybrids between members of the Maximowiczii subsection. Perhaps the most successful has been this stunning cross between the yellow P. handeliana and the red P. maximowiczii.
Several of the others purport to be P. tangutica crosses but it is not clear to me to what extent they have been hybridised. I have raised several of a rather washy salmon or orangey hue which seem to be pure P. tangutica. Although this species is commonly a dark purple-brown in the wild, Holger Perner found populations with a very wide range of colours including many similar to these.
The next plant looks not unalike some straight P. maximowiczii but the leaves suggest that it may be the cross with P. tangutica. Unfortunately I have lost the label to this one.
It has also been a good time for the relatives of Primula chionantha. I was pleased that several of my own seedlings of the distinctive 'sinonivalis' form had overwintered successfully to flower for a second year. I also have a pot full of their seedlings.
Primula melanops has also been good, as has P. chionantha subsp. chionantha, rather out of focus here, my apologies!
A few years ago, Cyril Lafong kindly gifted me one of his seedlings of Primula aureata, a plant I had not grown for many years. Grown in a shady place under glass in a plastic pot, this has grown to a considerable size, but has made far too much leaf to be really attractive. I guess it has received too much nutrient, especially nitrogen, a cogent lesson!
What we must now call Primula bullata (formerly P. forrestii) has also been instructive. Of a batch of seedlings raised last summer, those grown in the alpine house in crock pots have not been successful, although another placed in a plastic pot in cooler consitions thrived, although rather leggily. More successful have been seedlings placed outside in fishboxes in a gritty compost in part shade, and cloched for the winter.
The very rare section Bullata species P. coelata has flowered almost too well, and I fear that it may soon be lost.
Finally, thanks to David Rankin's gift of seed, I am delighted to get back Primula malvacea, a plant I used to exhibit successfully. Despite a reputation for growing in rather dry dusty sites in lower rainfall regions of western China, I find this too is best in a plastic pot and avoiding too much hot sun.
With the exception of 'Old Rose', Meconopsis are only just starting to flower. One disappointment has been the following plant. Two years ago I raised two seedlings from my own plant of M. sulphurea (grown as M. pseudointegrifolia). One flowered last year and proved to be an elegant dwarf cream-flowered hybrid, apparently with M. delavayi. This 'went down' in good condition and I harboured the conceit that it would perennate (it set no seed). The other struggled and was thought lost (both were in identical plastic pots). However, when the survivor came to flower this May, plainly it was pure M. sulphurea, and so must have been the other seedling, the hybrid having died.
As inferred above, M. x cookei 'Old Rose' is thriving and has many dozens of flowers as I write. You don't need to see this excellent plant again, but as an excuse, one of six flowering individuals of M. delavayi has come up right alongside an 'Old Rose' and I think must be an overlooked self-sown seedling.
A few plants from the sand-bed terrace now. Seed-raised Dianthus microlepis has been slow but has remained tight and is now proving very floriferous.
A purchased plant of Androsace elegans has done well in similar conditions.
I had harboured hopes for this Lewisia tweedyi 'Rosea' for the Wymondham Show. Certainly, it had never been better. Never mind!
Saxifraga micans, a rather distinctive ally of S. andersonii with very abrasive leaves, has succeeded in a shallow pan stood outside, although it has yet to cover the surface.
To finish with, Haberlea 'Virginalis', originating from Randle Cooke's garden many decades ago, and a young plant of Magnolia 'Leonard Messel', the latter performing well for the first time.