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A Northumberland Alpine Gardener's Diary

This entry: 24 November 2010 by John Richards

Northumberland Diary. Entry 167. The Botanics in winter.

The Botanics in winter.

'The Botanics', for those who don't know, are the Royal Botanic Gardens, Edinburgh, situated on the north side of that magnificent city, south-west of Leith docks. I am fortunate that my favourite Botanical Gardens are only a two-hour drive from here, so that it makes an acceptable day-trip, even if the roads north of the Border at Carter Bar must have the highest density of speed cameras anywhere on these islands. 'Welcome to Scotland' indeed! More like 'Sassenachs go home'. 'Flash!'. No, not this time, despite the appalling visibility for much of the journey.

I visited the Botanics last Saturday, to attend an interesting Meconopsis Group meeting. I enjoyed all the presentations, but especially Jim Cobb's wry and penetrative account of taxonomic difficulties in this most complex genus. It was great to escape from the 'big blues' to concentrate on the monocarpic species that I am so fond of growing.  I am not unhappy with the state of play in the M. horridula aggregate, but it does seem that great confusion still reigns in the big monocarpic species. It is all very well to say 'go back to the type specimens', but Alan Elliott showed us what appalling scraps most of the type specimens consist of. To me, and most of the remainder of the 50 or so souls who gathered on that 'dreich' day, they all looked alike!

I escaped for an hour at lunchtime to walk round the garden. Like all great gardens, the Botanics have great bones, so that they can loook magnificent in winter, even on a miserable grey dark late November day! I am starting with two vistas of the main rock garden, which seems to me to be in great shape at present.

The Botanics in winter.

Nearer the main buildings, but originating in the rock garden 'uplands', the 'torrent' was in full spate, creating a great spectacle. This feature was refurbished a few years ago and is now very impressive, although I still prefer the Holehird stream (issue 165). However, I thought that the use of the dead fronds of the Ostrich Fern, Matteucia struthiopteris, and various  rhodos with good foliage in subsection Taliensia lent a great atmosphere to this planting, just like a Chinese glen!

Three plants on the rock garden that still provided some colour. Firstly, Kniphofia triangularis. I presume that this striking species from moderate altitudes in the South African Drakensberg survived last winter in Edinburgh unscathed. Certainly, winter wet should not harm it, as it grows in wet swamps in the wild. This is one of the smaller species, well-suited to a large rock garden. Here it is at the Botanics a few days ago, followed by a photo from near the Sani Pass hotel, taken in 2008.

Next, Delphinium tatsienense. Many years ago I had an Iraqi lady student who worked on the karyology of some Delphinium species. D. tatsienense was one of the plants we grew then. It is part of the D. grandiflorum complex, but with smaller flowers with a longer spur and a different leaf shape and chromosome number. These excellent species are easily raised from seed, and if they are short-lived (rarely flowering more than twice), they set seed well if planted in a group. At present they seem to be profoundly unpopular, and deserve a higher profile. Incidentally, Tatsien-lu was the old name for the town of Kangding in west-central Sichuan, just below the Zhedou Pass. When we visited this area in 2007 we saw no sign of the delphinium, but it probably flowers much later in the year.

I used to have a great enthusiasm for the genus celmisia, 'New Zealand daisies', which was severely dented  when a -20C frost without snow cover  in 2001 carried away most of my species (I still grow about 15 however). It was wonderful to see so many in the wild in 2003. In general, the species endemic to the great Otago whaleback mountain tundras are considered difficult to grow and flower, so it was impressive to see C. brevifolia as an old mature specimen and still sprinkled with flowers. The Botanics still grow a very impressive range of New Zealand alpines, although  the popularity of this group of plants also seems presently to be at a low ebb.

This takes us to the alpine house area where two more New Zealanders flourish in their large collection of troughs. Here firstly is the popular Ozothamnus (Helichrysum) coralloides from the Marlborough screes, followed by the rather lesser known O. intermedius. The latter species, which now encompasses O. selago, is sometimes regarded as difficult, but this noble plant must be of some antquity.

On the main rock terrace grows a commendably dwarf specimen of the non-suckering form of Sorbus reducta.

In recent years, public gardens (Kew, Wisley, Harlow Carr) have built new alpine houses, and have tended to use them, not as a growing space, but merely as a show bench for plants in flower, which are brought from 'behind the scenes'. I have to say I rather disapprove of this strategy, as the public learns little about how to grow these plants, or what they look like out of flower.

All credit then to the Botanics, in that their alpine house devotes one side to ancient cushions (drabas, androsaces, raoulias, dionysias) in a permanent position. I suspect that the plants on the other side may be something more of a moveable feast, but certainly in late November only a small proportion were in flower. Here is one of the later crocuses, for that reason perhaps not often grown, C. cartwrightianus from the hills around Athens. It is generally considered to be the wild parent of the cultivated saffron, C. sativus.

This seems to be an early winter for the stylosa irises. The plant of Iris unguicularis 'Mary Barnard' at the Moorbank Botanic Garden as been in flower for two weeks already. I love 'Walter Butt', in flower against the greenhouses at Edinburgh. Such an unusual colour, reminiscent of I. lazica.


What of the home fires? Well, they are burning, chiefly courtesy of the large lime tree felled a couple of months ago, and very welcome in this cold snap, promised to become yet colder (sleet and snow already today, settling on slightly higher ground). Luckily we are not smokeless here, and I comfort myself, not only with the thought that most of the fuel is absolutely free, but also that it is not 'new' (i.e. fossil) carbon, but recycled carbon which will be taken up again by all the new trees we have planted. Anyway, splitting lime logs with an axe is one of the more therapeutic pastimes, and I am almost sorry that I have now finished them. They should do us for this winter anyway. In fact, yesterday's 'Times' predicted a warm late winter this year, result of a El Nina peak. Apparently, the last time it was so strong (back in 1973), the first half of our winter was cold and the second half very warm. Nous verrons!



The other news is that I have finished the leaves. Hurrah! The garden finally goes to bed, at least until the ritual sowing of the seed in the first few days of the New Year. I shall have to find something else to do until then. Sleep probably!


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