A Northumberland Alpine Gardener's Diary
This entry: 18 November 2007 by John Richards
Northumberland Diary. Entry 57.
Snapping unconsidered trifles
In 'The Winters Tale', appropriately enough, it was Autolycus who described himself as, like Mercury, a snapper-up of unconsidered trifles. This wonderfully modern phrase could be accurately applied to any collector, and most alpine gardeners are inveterate collectors. Usually, we are what are often rather unfortunately described as 'plantaholics', keen to try any novelty in the garden, whatever their merits, or often, demerits.
At this time of year, the phrase can assume a new meaning to the plant photographer as he scours withered vegetation for interesting remnants. There are a few subjects that are only just starting to flower however. One such is the relatively small Hesperantha that I think is correctly 'Viscountess Byng', and so named for one of the early heroines that carried the Society through difficult early days. You may think it is a form of Schizostylis coccinea, and you may well be right about the species, but in their native South Africa these plants are regarded as Hesperanthas. One good indication of this relationship is the willingness of H. coccinea to hybridise with the much smaller, later-flowering, pink H. baurii, a good little alpine that is not grown often enough. I would hazard the opinion that Viscountess Byng is actually a hybrid between these two species, and its colour, small size and very late flowering period would certainly support this idea.
In contrast, the much larger and very vigorous H. coccinea 'major' has been in flower for over three months, and still it continues to perform. What a fantastic garden plant!
Another autumn plant with a very long season is the curious Liriope muscari. This Chinese relative of the ophiopogons is that valuable commodity, an aficionado of dry shade. We seem only to be able to grow it against a dry wall and it has resisted several attempts to grow it in apparently more attractive situations. I grow it much less well than my mother does in the south of England, but I have only had it a few years and I think it takes ages to settle down and perform.
The same dry wall allows Jasminum nudiflorum to straggle through a Chaenomeles, a Deutzia and a couple of roses, plants that like the liriope thrive in the poor dusty soil that is still brick-hard this late autumn (we have had no appreciable rain for months, unlike the south of England). This is a first-rate plant for mid-winter which should not be disregarded merely because it is overfamiliar. We all have 'bad places' in the garden, and the trick is knowing what to do with them. Most people prune the jasmine hard against a sunny wall to get a mass of flower, but we let it straggle in semi-shade and it is still lovely.
Amongst the best shrubs for the winter garden are the hybrids between M. japonica and M. lomariifolia. We only have room for one, a relatively recent cross called 'Winter Sunshine' that is at its best at present.
This entry is developing a theme of evergreen, winter-flowering shrubs that are so important in maintaining interest in 'unconsidered trifles' throughout the year. Another good example is the 'Strawberry Tree', Arbutus unedo, that is also in full flower now. This has the engaging habit of producing its 'strawberries' from the year before at the same time as its flowers. Perhaps because last year was so warm, our plant has fruited for the first time this winter; the fruits have not coloured yet and I may figure them when they do. When red, they look appetising, but the species epithet 'unedo' says 'you only eat one'. They are not toxic, and a preserve is occasionally made from them, but they are very dry and inedible.
Another evergreen shrub of a very different character is this South African Helichrysum. I believe I featured this plant last year, but after the past summer it has performed particularly well and looks magnificent at present. It comes from the Drakensberg and is completely hardy. It comes readily from cuttings. The original plant grew on Randall Cookes wall at the garden 'Kilbryde', one of many magnificent plants he introduced. He knew it as H. trilineatum, but it has also been named H. splendidum, and according to John Grimshaw is typical of neither.
Finally, here is my second contribution to a collection of winter boles, a winters tale indeed! This is Acer griseum, often featured here for its autumn colour, but interesting right through the year.
Well, my experimental quiz attracted two answers! (in the discussion section). I shall probably try it again, so watch this space. Neither answer was right, but Peter Clarke was closest, as it was indeed an azara, but not the summer-flowering A. serrata that has narrower, more toothed leaves, but the more unusual March-flowering A. petiolaris. Sorry Peter, but it was a good try from very poor evidence!