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A Northumberland Alpine Gardener's Diary

This entry: 05 October 2008 by John Richards

Northumberland Diary. Entry 93.

Loughborough Show

Back from the Loughborough Show yesterday. I didn't take a camera, so will leave it to others to post pictures and reports, but we both had a great  time. Doreen, Eric and family create a lovely atmosphere which makes this such a popular venue and the AGS are greatly in their debt for the amount of hard work they have put in over the years.

As reported last week, the crocuses have come relatively early this year, so they were perhaps the dominant genus on the bench for once, and the Farrer Medal suitably went to Jim McGregor's super C. kotschyanus. It has apparently not been a great season for show Cyclamen (perhaps they weren't baked enough in the poor summer), although I have to say they have been spectacular in the open ground, if very early. Also, none of us can remember such a poor season for autumn gentians and there were no good examples shown at all. Consequently, the benches looked a little thin and short on colour, doubtless the product of a poor season. A number of significant autumn exhibitors were absent, some due to illness in the family, but a number were known to be at the Scottish Weekend. It would be great if this clash could be avoided in the future, although this may not be easily achieved.

Here are a few of the crocuses I took to Loughborough. First, the ever reliable C. goulimyi and its white version 'Mani White'.

Loughborough Show

Here is C. niveus, the close neighbour of C. goulimyi in the southern Peloponnesos.

Crocus cancellatus is another Peloponnese crocus, although it is found chiefly in the north of the peninsula, on mountains. However, this beautifully coloured and marked form of subsp. mazziaricus is of Turkish origin. This potful was awarded a PC a number of years ago, since when it has failed to put in a decent display until this year. As a mountain plant, it may dislike a summer baking, and certainly didn't get one this year!

National Collections

Last summer Sheila and I were invited to a garden party held to celebrate the silver jubilee of the North-East England Group of the NCCPG. It was held in a lovely garden in a marquee, it didn't rain all of the time and a great time was had by all. We were flattered to have been asked, but I was shocked when it was revealed that I had been asked as I had been the first Chairman of the Group. I confess this was something that I had completely forgotten. I suspect that my subconscious had buried this piece of information inaccessibly deeply in response to the guilt I had felt when a catastrophic loss of Faith caused me to resign the post precipitously.

Don't get me wrong. I think the NCCPG is an admirable organisation with worthy aims. Its just that I don't happen to agree with any of them (for any non-Brits this is the National Council for the Conservation of Plants and Gardens, which is affiliated to the RHS).

OK, I accept that the conservation of very large (say, more than five acres), very well designed gardens of historic interest is a worthwhile objective, if the funding is forthcoming. However most, smaller gardens, rapidly become overmature to a point of no return. Branklyn Garden, Perth is almost the only case of smaller garden whose interest has survived the demise of its owners.

However, it is the conservation of plants that I wish to write about now, particularly the concept of 'National Collections;'. Certainly, a good case can be made for the establishment of arboreta with lots of space for modification and specimens that may last for centuries. However, even these are susceptible to what I call the 'Hospital Ward Syndrome'. Hospitals are full of sick people with unusual levels of infection load that come from a wide range of contacts and environments into a single enclosed space. Not surprisingly, many catch Clostridium difficile or MRSA and end up a lot sicker than when they went in.

Look at the way that new infections such as so-called 'sudden oak death' (Phytophthora ramorum and P. kernoviae) have prospered amongst collections of rare trees in the south-west of England and now in western Scotland (see my discussion of the subject in mid May) and it is not difficult to draw comparisons between collections of trees brought from many sources, and collections of hospital patients.

The value of seeds

If this is true for collections of trees, how much more true is it likely to be for collections of alpines which are usually much more short-lived and for which the collections will be much  more densely planted? Vegetative propagated material will soon accumulate disease, and the greater number of related congeners from diverse sources it meets (in a collection), the quicker it will become sick.

Anyone who grows material from seed will be struck by how vigorous and easily grown seed-raised material is compared to vegetatively propagated material. This is because seedlings are usually free of virus. The longer that material lives, vegetatively, the greater its viral load becomes. This argument is also largely true for other crippling diseases, eel-worm in saxifrages and mites in pleiones for instance.

However, National Collections mostly exist for the preservation and dissemination of old cultivars which had become rare. It is no secret why these once highly desirable plants had become rare. Their disease loads had turned them into mimps and cripples, no longer worth growing. Once introduced into a National Collection they will soon cross-infect any worthwhile plants that remain.

The answer is of course to grow plants from seed. National Collections are in the main loath to do this, because famous old cultivars are lost. But much better, more vigorous strains will result, and excellent new varieties too. (Why, by the way does the RHS disapprove of the word 'strain'. A distinctive, stablised seed-line should be the objective of any breeder of plants, and there is no other word for it).

What should the AGS be doing?

Anyone who maintains a large collection of alpines is appalled by the high rate of turnover amongst his subjects. Many alpines are difficult, short-lived, impermanent, and susceptible to disease. As a result it is both difficult and misleading to attempt inventories of alpines in cultivation. On various occasions the AGS has been pressured to attempt these, and has resisted these blandishments, quite correctly in my view. There are National Collections of alpines, for Porophyllum saxifrages, Asiatic Primulas, Primula marginata varieties, Primula allionii varieties and others. Some of these recognise that the way forward is to maintain collections of seed-raised material, but in my view the NCCPG should be doing far more to preserve seed of rare material in seed-banks, maintained through the latest, most expensive techniques (I read by the way that the Kew Seed Bank at Wakehurst Place is short of money and it would be a national tragedy if this was allowed to disintegrate).

I am convinced that the most important role played by the AGS in the Conservation of Plants is through its excellent seed-list. Long may it continue, and the quality and quantity of its seed collection increase annually! The AGS should be seeking to influence specialist one-genus groups that seed distribution and seed storage should be of the highest priority. Then perhaps NCCPG will get the message, drop the conservation of clonal cultivars, and embrace the conservation of seed!

Enough! I shall climb down from my soap-box and let you enjoy the bark of Prunus serrula, caught by the brilliant low sun that characterises this time of year.

What should the AGS be doing?

Do the funky chicken

For the last month we have been terrorised by a Bantam Cockerel. This crows early in the morning (thankfully, the dawn is now much later!), clucks continuously, and at least potentially damages plants, although to be fair I have yet to ascribe to it damage to a significant plant. It is very shy and runs like mad when spotted, but I have now cornered it twice and have laid hands on it, only for it to struggle free. We kept hens when I was a child, and I was a bird ringer (bander) so I am not unused to handling birds, but this cock has superavian strength. We have no idea where it has come from, but it has become quite famous in our locality, and my wife informs me that the Neighbourhood would take a very dim view should it end up in our casserole. This is the best portrait I have yet been able to achieve (and I reckon to be quite a good bird photographer!).

John Richards

Do the funky chicken
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