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A Northumberland Alpine Gardener's Diary

This entry: 29 November 2009 by John Richards

Northumberland Diary. Entry 134.

The importance of wild collected seed

I was delighted to receive the AGS seed list a couple of days ago. I thought the list was very exciting this year with many greatly sought-after items, and possibly longer than ever before? Also, well done to Colin and his helpers for getting the list out so early; the last week in November is a triumph! It was great to have the possibility of ordering on-line for the first time, and if I failed to do so, this was down to my inability to remember my password! It comes up automatically for this column, which has made me lazy!

For some years now, the AGS has made the decision not to publish localities of wild-collected seed, although it is possible to obtain these details from Diane if they are needed. I have very rarely criticised the Society in this Diary, and I don't intend to start now. Nevertheless,  I resent any gesture made in response to the disastrous Convention on Biodiversity (CBD). The principles underwritten by this Convention were made on behalf of less privileged nations with large resources of untapped biodiversity. The aim was to ensure that they benefitted from any profits made by multinational drug or seed companies resulting from new introductions of plant material from the countries concerned.

You may consider this a laudable aim, and so do I, but only if restrictions on plant exports focus on the intended targets. These targets do NOT include legitimate research exploration by taxonomists or ecologists, often with habitat conservation principally in mind, nor do they involve small scale introduction of non-prohibited living material (preferably seed) from legal sources for the purposes of  'hobby gardening'.

A fundemental difficulty is that very few nations, politicians or officials, understand the concepts of 'natural history' or 'hobby gardening'. Outside the British Isles, old parts of 'the Empire' (including the USA!, don't panic, just winding you up!) and a few other mostly European countries (Netherlands, Germany, Sweden for example), the idea that plants are interesting for their own sake, or their beauty, is completely alien. Unless a plant can be eaten, or used as a medicine, clothing or building material, it is considered to be a useless weed!


Far from considering gardening as a trivial and meaningless exercise undertaken by rich and bored westerners with nothing to do, I have long contended that we gardeners (especially 'plantsman' type gardeners who grow a great diversity of wild species, Alpine Gardeners especially!) hold a great resource of threatened biodiversity in our care. As climate continues to change, seas to rise, forests to be burnt and felled, and the population of mankind continues to spiral out of control, rates of plant extinction increase alarmingly. Already there are many species that only survive in cultivation. I came across one example last spring in Borneo, the slipper orchid Paphilopedium rothschildianum. Granted its survival had originally been threatened by collectors as well as by habitat loss, but just because it had survived in cultivation, a programme could be planned to reintroduce it into the carefully controlled wild conditions from which it had disappeared, and this had been successfully achieved.

Now, I am the last person to justify the wholesale collection of rare plants from the wild. It is 35 years since I last uprooted even the tiniest scrap of a plant from the wild, and I strongly disapprove of any such activity. Nevertheless, I do believe that small-scale legal collection of wild seed, properly documented and well cultivated subsequently, is a valuable exercise, for without ongoing new inputs of this kind, the biodiversity preserved in our gardens will dwindle to the point at which it is no longer viable.

The wild-collected seed list that the AGS continues to support is a vital source of such inputs, but dare I suggest that it is a little mealy-mouthed not to publish the localities in which the material was collected? If it was collected illegally, the AGS should not be offering it anyway, but if it was legally collected, I see no reason why the details should not be published. Not to do so, is to give in to those professionals whopay craven lip-service to the non-binding dictates of the CBD. We, and our authorities, including those we pay to represent our interests in the Royal Botanic Gardens, should be standing up for our rights. It is vital that our professionals argue fiercely against decisions made for political expediency by those who have no understanding of the important issues involved.

Mellow yellow

Having got that off my chest, a glance round the gloomy, freezing, rain-soaked garden shows the importance of strategically placed evergreen, golden shrubs at this time of year, when they shine through the murk and cheer us all up! I thought I would figure a selection.

First is Euonymus fortunei 'Emerald and Gold'. A common (even Common?) plant perhaps, but clipped to a reasonable shape, an invaluable 'bone' in the winter garden.

Mellow yellow

In a similar vein is Pieris 'White Rim'. This used to be known as 'Variegata' and is larger, more variegated, and in theory at least more free-flowering than the popular 'Little Heath'. It does flower here some years, but not much.

By the way, the old  'milk tray' bottom right in the last photo is to stop blackbirds from scratching out recently planted primulas. No, it is not a Cadbury's (or even Kraft!) milk tray!

Golden conifers are important of course. I have two in my scree; Abies nordmanniana 'Golden Spreader' followed by Juniperus communis 'Depressa Aurea'. I have grown both for decades and the fact that they live in a very impoverished scree helps to keep them in bounds and tight.

Hollies are also important at this time of year of course, and hereby hangs a mystery. About 15 years ago, I wanted to brighten up a dull corner and purchased a Ilex x altaclarensis 'Golden King' and a Ilex aquifolium 'Silver Queen'. Many of you will know that both are misnamed, genderwise. It is often said that 'Golden King' is a female, but in fact the altaclarensis hybrids tend to be hermaphrodite. It any case, it sets berries, and holly berry is very good this year.

Ilex 'Silver Queen' is however said to be a male, however limp-prickled, and indeed by plant has never set seed for the 15 years I have owned it. Until this year that is!! So is it misnamed, or has it changed gender? Limp-prickled indeed!

Not all the golden plants making an impact at the moment are strictly evergreen. Physocarpus opulifolius 'Luteus' is yellow much of the year, yellowest when the leaves first emerge in spring, for it does lose the previous year's batch in late winter. But it makes a fine show until then, sheltering the door of one of my alpine houses.

Another subject that keeps its leaves until well after Christmas is that fine alpine willow (a rare Scottish native) Salix lanata. It is much too big for the rock garden, but has wonderful catkins.

Lastly, that invaluable dwarf bamboo, Pleioblastus auricomus. I don't cut this back until it becomes really tatty in March. It is as well to set the scene for the pristine young foliage when it appears a month later.

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