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A Northumberland Alpine Gardener's Diary

This entry: 27 October 2013 by John Richards

Northumberland Diary. Entry 256.

The Edinburgh Botanics

Spent a lovely day at the Royal Botanic Gardens Edinburgh yesterday, attending a meeting of the Meconopsis Group. One of the many boons of being a member of this group, open to all on payment of a small sub, is that meetings are held within the hallowed precincts of the 'Botanics', with excellent facilities, and ready access to the botanical wonders without. We are fortunate that John Mitchell, who chairs meetings, is a faithful member of the group and eases these privileges. I am fortunate in being only a two hour journey away, so I can travel within daylight hours (just!) and still have a good day out and an hours trundle round the garden during the lunch break. And there are a lot of good friends with whom I can share garden and botanical chat.

I hadn't been since the early spring, when the new alpine house (so-called, its nothing like an alpine house!) was being constructed. Its now finished, and very dramatic it looks too.

The Edinburgh Botanics

As you can see, the main feature inside is a spectacular tufa wall, made of great blocks of imported German tufa cemented together (two lorry-loads crossed the water; the cost of the tufa was several thousand pounds and the transport cost more than the tufa). Hundreds of plants have been insrted into the tufa, with, at this early stage, varying degrees of success. However, many of the dionysias looked to bewell established and in fine fettle.

Curiously perhaps, small plants of Primula allionii cultivars and porophyllum saxifrages seemed less well established, but maybe they were planted at a later date. Anyway, it is a bold experiment (although, I am told, at a small fraction of the cost of the Davies Alpine House at Kew) which deserves every success, and when mature should be amongst the chief attractions of the garden. It will also be a major fillip for the cutting edge of alpine gardening.


I was slightly less sure of the large crevice bed which partly surrounds the new alpine house. I loved the sinuous design, and it is only just being planted up now so it looks very naked. However, for me it falls into the trap of several crevice beds I have seen in private gardens, but which the AGS garden at Pershore so notably and successfully avoided, that the stone is of too even (and thick) width. This makes it somewhat reminiscent of suburban paver fragments, set on edge.

The authorities at the Botanics are to be congratulated on finding space, so that these new developments lie beside the old 'classic'  features of the alpine area which have not changed substantially for the best part of the 40 years that I have known them. This gives a really splended contrast between the 'best of the old' and 'the best of the new'. For those who don't know it, here is a shot of the layout of the conventional alpine area with its plunges, frames, troughs, raised bed, and lovely old alpine house.

It is no secret as to where, so far, the best plants are to be found!. Here is a shot of the bulbs, mostly crocuses, that were in flower in the alpine house, yesterday. It should be mentioned that this side of the house does not have permanent exhibits. Just through the wall in the last photo are the extensive 'behind the scenes' collections in frames and under glass, so that material in the peak of display can be brought though into the public area and exhibited for a few weeks in the alpine house.

Yes, did I hear 'wow'? Quite right!

Here are a couple of crocuses I don't see very often. Firstly, the Turkish Crocus cancellatus ssp. cancellatus. This is a lot more dainty than ssp. mazzariacus from further west, including Greece, which is more usually seen in cultivation.

And Crocus medius, a species from the central north Mediterranean, Italy and France, which again is rather uncommon in cultivation.

Outside, it was of no surprise that the greatest interest in the peat walls (so-called, there aren't many peat walls actually left) were autumn gentians. These were a little past their best, but the azure sheets of colour could still be seen from some distance. I was very taken with that fine old hybrid 'Strathmore', such a lovely pale colour.

I was particularly surprised how well they were doing with G. ternifolia 'Dali'. This introduction dates back to the first post-revolution expeditions in the 1980's, when Dali and the Cangshan were the first areas opened to western botanists. G. ternifolia was an unknown then, and has on the whole not been a great success in cultivation, but it seems to retain a particular affection for the Botanics.

When I was about to walk round the garden, John Mitchell, whose team deserves great credit for much of the foregoing, said that I should be sure to visit the Saxifraga fortunei in the peat walls. As I wrote last week, I have problems flowering this well outside, but this seems to be no problem at all at Edinburgh! I think thats another 'wow' then!

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