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A Northumberland Alpine Gardener's Diary

This entry: 12 October 2008 by John Richards

Northumberland Diary. Entry 94.

Goldener Oktober

Not only is the autumn colour early this year, but the cold nights and sunny days are promising to deliver a classic autumn, colourwise. We shall see, another month to go yet, but already there are some lovely pointers. We live at the head of a cul-de-sac, and the turning circle at the bottom circumvents a mature Acer cappadocicum, now approaching its best.

Goldener Oktober

At the end of our own garden, next to the main road, we planted a Betula ermanii about 12 years ago. As is the way of birches, it grew fast, and has already displayed the best autumn colour yet.

Alongside the betula is Stransvaesia davidiana, now often classified within Photinia I believe. This has also grown very rapidly, and after 15 years is more than 8 m in height. This means that its very real qualities are perhaps more evident to passers-by on the other side of the road than within the garden. I like the way that the leaves that turn red exact echo the colour of the berries.

One more large plant. The strawberry tree, Arbutus unedo, is getting to its best. Perhaps this year it will actually set some 'strawberries'! In past years it has flowered until Christmas, but I doubt if that will hold for this year.

One more plant before we leave our garden. Back in August (August 12th to be precise) I showed Lilium leichtlinii with an out-of-focus shrub in the background and asked if anyone could identify it. Unlike the puzzle set the previous year there were no takers, either because the task was impossibly difficult, or because no-one could be bothered. The former may well be true, because some very knowledgeable gardeners visited yesterday and asked if this plant was Rhododendron bureavii. This was a good guess, but in truth this is a much rarer relative in the section Taliensia, the northern Sichuan alpine Rh. rufum. Like many Taliensias this is very slow to flower, but is a lovely foliage subject. Here it is again, this time in focus.

I took our guests to visit the garden of my friend and neighbour, Alan Furness. Alan lives only three miles from here, but in the depths of the countryside where he has built one of the most inventive and interesting alpine gardens anywhere. He grows a massive range of alpines, but is perhaps best known for his interest and expertise with celmisias, for which he used to hold a National Collection, until his views tended to coincide with mine (see last week's entry!). The next picture shows one of his north-facing terraces and demonstrates how well celmisias grow with him; indeed they self-sow with such abandon that some of the trickier subjects are in danger of being overwhelmed with seedlings.

This gives me the chance to show a few of his more spectacular selections. First is a really good form of the much sought-after golden-pellicled form of Celmisia semicordata v. stricta. C. semicordata (once known as C. coriacea which is correctly the plant once known as C. lanceolata) is widespread throughout the South Island of New Zealand, but the variety stricta is localised in Canterbury, and is distinct enough to be regarded possibly as another species. It is usually silvery in tone, but in a few areas some plants adopt a wonderful golden hue and have been called 'aurigans', although the validity of this name is open to query. Whatever, it is a lovely thing.

Another 'golden' celmisia is C. armstrongii, also from west Canterbury. In reality the golden tone results from an orange stripe that runs down the leaf. Coming from a high rainfall area, this is a fiendishly difficult plant to grow. Alan has lost most of his, but this one splendid clone has flourished for a number of years.

One final rare celmisia from Alan's garden. This originated with Peter Erskine, whose garden was featured three weeks ago. It was acquired as C. densiflora, a localised relative of C. prorepens. Both share sticky leaves, but these are greyer in the former species. Alan's is a particularly silver selection, and very desirable.

I loved Alan's Aronia melanocarpa. This is one of the two 'chokeberries' from acid peats in eastern North America. Unlike many of the berried shrubs from this region, this is classified in Rosaceae, not Ericaceae. Neither the flowers or berries are up to much, but the autumn colour is magnificent.

Alan's Sorbus reducta are magnificent. He can give them more light than I can, and they respond accordingly, but I also think he has a superb form that is planted in many parts of his garden.

I shall finish with one of Alan's pans of what appears to be a dwarf form of Crocus boryi. None of his guests could understand why he did not exhibit this at the Newcastle Show yesterday, but to be fair the planting was a little unbalanced. What it is, to be a perfectionist!

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