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A Northumberland Alpine Gardener's Diary

This entry: 15 October 2006 by John Richards

Northumberland Diary. Entry 9.

Autumn gentians at Harlow Carr

Its been quite a busy week. Off to Harrogate on Wednesday to the RHS meeting on autumn gentians organised by the Joint Rock Garden Committee with our ex President Rod Leeds as its chairman. Despite pouring rain almost all day and an early start at 9.30, a most enjoyable day with good displays, most plants having been brought by our two lecturers, Keith Lever of Aberconwy Nursery, and Ian Christie from Kirriemuir. The lectures were most informative, and I learnt a good deal about a group of plants that I have admired but have never grown very well.

Some of the reasons for this became apparent during the day. Clearly, these are plants that you can't just ignore, but if you want to be successful you have to work at them, choosing the site and compost carefully, feeding regularly when in growth and propagating in early spring. The pH seems to be important, about pH 6-6.5 being best, and it is just as damaging to have soil too acid as too alkaline. Both the speakers add dolomite limestone to their composts! Also, although autumn gentians should never dry out, they also hate being too wet, which is odd because one of the parents of most varieties, G. sino-ornata, is a real bog plant in the wild. They also like quite a lot of sun.

It is clear that many modern hybrids tend to have a lot of G. veitchiorum genes predominating, as breeders have selected for a compact habit, and drought and heat tolerance. The violet tones and often multiflowered stems typical of the Silken group for instance reflect the dominance of this parent. Maybe the relatively high pH they demand today is also a requirement of this parent, which is often found on limestone downs in the wild (high in China or course!).

Both speakers emphasised that many varieties are  short-lived in cultivation unless a real effort is made, but that one or two varieties may often suit a a particular garden and may persist after others have long since disappeared. This certainly seems to be the case for the plant pictured below which I have had, unpropagated, for 15 years. I thought it was 'Susan Jane', but my records suggest that it is in fact 'Christine Jean' which may have been a sister seedling of the former.

Gentian awards
Two of the more exciting autumn gentians on display at Harlow Carr were displayed  at the meeting of the Joint Rock Garden Committee there, and were also covered with glory when they appeared on the bench at Ponteland the following Saturday. They are not figured here as they will doubtless illustrate the report of that, our last Show of the season, elsewhere on the website. Gentiana ?Limelight? has been developed by Ian Christie. It is a clean white, with lovely green striping externally, hence its name. It is also exceptionally floriferous, and was deservedly awarded the Farrer medal at the Ponteland Show as well as a Preliminary Commendation and Cultural Certificate at Harrogate. The Gentiana farreri strain that Aberconwy nursery has developed has not yet completely stabilised, so Keith Lever did not put it before the Committee, but it was awarded a Certificate of Merit at Ponteland. All the plants he showed were beautiful, but the best really fills Farrer?s description of ?single huge up-turned trumpet.....of an indescribably fierce luminous Cambridge blue within (with a clear white throat), while, without, long vandykes of periwinkle purple alternate with swelling panels of nankeen, outlined in violet and with a violet median line?. (ERG 1:381). Dear Reginald. But, when faced with a really outstanding plant as here, no-one has described plants better, and that certainly applies also to Keith, Rachel and their amazing gentian.

Two more crocuses
During the intervening week, many crocuses had come on apace and some had then faded again. In the case of C. oreocreticus, the Cretan relative of the saffron crocus, this was merely the forerunner of several subsequent flowers from each of the large corms, but as it did not make it on the bench, being 'between flowers', I show it here the day after the Show!

Two more crocuses

Here is another crocus that I did put on the bench. Several exhibitors commented that C. tournefortii from the Greek Cyclades is not seen very often. Its faults are only too obvious here, the lush leaves that seem to obscure the flowers, at least in this form. However, the flowers never shut which is a bonus, and the combination of red stigma, white anthers and lilac perianth is very lovely. I find it straightforward in a pot, dried out in summer and kept under cold glass in winter. It must be variable, as I saw a quite different form at Wisley on Wednesday, much smaller in all its parts, and one has to say, less spectacular.

Cyclamen graecum

I did talk briefly about the flowering of Cyclamen graecum in an earlier entry. My later, more floriferous plant is now in full flower, a full month after the earlier one had finished. Perhaps because of the hot summer it has flowered well by my standards, although there were still too few flowers for exhibition. However, I had to repot it this year as the corm had outgrown the last pot and was in danger of splitting it asunder. I think big cyclamen flower less well the autumn after a repot: we shall see.

Cyclamen graecum

Persian parrots

Finally a bit of autumn colour. Almost the first tree we planted more than 16 years ago was the persian ironwood, Parrotia persica, and no tree has repaid us better, as it starts to colour in August and continues with a variety of shades for three months. At the present stage it is really 'parrot-like', brilliant scarlet and bright green; exceptionally decorative. It is very vigorous in our cool acidic soil, and we have to prune it heavily every other winter or so. It produces masses of bright crimson flowers on the bare wood in spring too, tiny but vivid.

We have been away for a few days and as I complete last weeks entry, the colour in the garden has come on fast and I shall try to show a bit more tomorrow. I apologise for the initially incomplete, unillustrated first version of this entry. While we were away, the computer went away to hospital for a small operation. It seems much better now thank you. No cards.

Persian parrots
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