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A Northumberland Alpine Gardener's Diary

This entry: 26 October 2014 by John Richards

Northumberland Diary. Entry 286.

North Wales

We escaped to North Wales for a few days last week, staying on the front at Llandudno, with its magnificent architecture and stunning views of the Great Orme and Little Orme, those spectacular limestone headlands. A quick drive around the Great Orme revealed a number of rare plants such as Hoary Rockrose, Helianthemum oelandicum (which is abundant), Sorbus rupicola and even a plant of the endemic Cotoneaster cambricus which is found nowhere else and is dangerously rare, although some new plants have been propagated. This was too inaccessible for photography, as were the wild white goats.

Another day we drove up to Idwal Cottage and walked up the track to Llyn Ldwal. Here we were hit by a ferocious gale, so that we could scarcely stand up.

North Wales

At least the wind had the benefit that aquatics were washed ashore including copious quantities of Isoetes, Quillwort. This curious plant is a very primitive and ancient fern relative in which the sporangia are found in the sheathing leaf bases.

There are two aquatic Isoetes, and both occur on the bottom of Llyn Idwal. They are best told apart by examining the sporangia with a good hand lens. The individual spores are so large that they can easily be seen. Those of the rarer I. echinospora are spiky, and those of I. lacustris rough, but not spined.

We had planned to walk round to the boulder field below Cwm Idwal, where a number of rare alpines can be found, but the wind deterred us. The narrow defile above is Twll Ddu, the Devil's Kitchen, formerly a habitat for Lloydia serotina, the Snowdon Lily.

I have never seen Lloydia in Wales (its only British sites), but I have nevertheless seen this widespread plant on three continents, in the Rockies, Alps and China. Here it is on the Pordoi Pass in the Dolomites.

It only takes about twenty minutes to walk up to Llyn Idwal from the road, but several common British alpines were on view including Parsley Fern, Cryptogramma crispa, and Huperzia selago, the Fir Clubmoss.

On other days, we enjoyed visits to Anglesey, where another little fern, Sea Spleenwort, Asplenium marinum, was common on limestone sea-cliffs.

However, more spectacular was its neighbour, the maritime umbellifer Crithmum maritimum. This may nor may not be the source of Shakespeare's 'he gathered samphire, dreadful trade', although this cliff-dweller was formerly pickled and used as a condiment. What are sold as samphire today are the salt-marsh annual glassworts, Salicornia. Gathering these is unlikely to be 'dreadful' unless the tide was coming in very fast! Crithmum is rather ordinary in flower, but in fruit it turns into something rather special.

Naturally, we visited several gardens during our visit, concentrating on those with good autumn colour. Bodnant, in the Conwy Valley, is amongst the finest gardens in Britain, and the acers were just at their best.

We were lucky to visit Bodnant on a sunny day, and in places the mixture of colours was truly dazzling.

Vines, Vitis cognetiae, transformed the terraces into something wonderful. Apparently, the five main terraces were dug out by hand, about 100 men being employed for five years!

On another day we visited Plas Newydd, on the Menai shore of Anglesey. Next to the 'sea', this is nevertheless a wonderfully sheltered site which harbours many of the less hardy, moisture-loving species which favour our Atlantic coasts. I was amazed to see the Chilean firebush, Embothrium coccineum, in full splendid scarlet flower, as it normally blooms in late May.

On the way home we visited Thorpe Perrow for the first time. This is situated in north Yorkshire, just west of Bedale, and only 10 minutes from the Leeming Bar junction of the A1. I am surprised that we had not heard of this superb collection of trees before as it is scarcely an hours drive south of where we live. As well as the garden there are collections of animals and birds, and an excellent cafe.The large arboretum has one of the best collection of autumn-coloured trees and shrubs, and, furthermore, these have been planted with a real 'eye'. Often, autumn collection plantings seem rather haphazard, but this is certainly not the case at Thorpe Perrow, as I hope the following photos testify..

On Saturday I was on the road again, this time to the Botanics at Edinburgh for a Meconopsis Group meeting. Here we enjoyed four of the most enjoyable lectures I can recall, two from Kit Grey-Wilson on the species and classification in his new Meconopsis monograph, and travel talks from David Rankin and Margaret Thorne. The garden was in excellent form, and needed a good deal more than the 50 minutes or so that the lunch break provided. Nevertheless, it wsas good to chew the fat over the alpine house area with luminaries such as Peter Cox and Henry and Margaret Taylor.

We were all impressed by how well many of the plantings has grown in the new protected tufa wall, notably the dionysias and Primula allionii. I featured some of these plantings a year ago when they were still new, and it is remarkable that some of the dionysias have grown to some 12 cm in diameter and looked extremely healthy.

I am sure it is not necessary to plant the rare Croatian endemic Degenia velebitica in such a habitat, but it does look great.

Note the Primula henrici in the last photo by the way. Yes folks, that is the correct name for the popular show plant, originally introduced by the ACE expedition under the name of P. bracteata. David Rankin talked more about primulas than mecs, and after visiting all the type localities involved, has shown that P. bracteata, P. rufa, P. ulophylla and P. bullata are all just forms of what we call P. forrestii, for which the prior name is P. bullata. So we lose George Forrest from primula epithets! There are several names available for the small cushion relative we have called P. bracteata, namely P. dubernardiana, P. pulvinata and P. henrici. P. henrici is the prior, but we were of the opinion that this species is yellow-flowered. David has shown that the type of P. henrici is in fact pink (and flower colour seems to be unimportant in this group anyway). So we have to rename our P. bracteata P. henrici.

Happily, the Botanics still have their traditional alpine house, and as always this was well worth a visit. This timre I concentrated on the non-flowering side, where I was pleased to note a quite well-developed Haastia pulvinaris (albeit under the name H. recurva which it is not).

It was also interesting to see Raoulia x petrimia, the cross between the cushion forming R. eximia and the creeping R. petriei. These New Zealand 'sheep' are very rare in private collections nowadays.

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A problem with this garden is how late autumn subjects seem to flower, in that they are always too late for the October Shows. Two of the smaller Saxifraga fortunei are now at their best, 'Mt Fuji', followed by 'Autumn Tribute'.

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Scutellaria laeteviolacea is another worthwhile late subject for the alpine house.

And, to finish with, in what has been a rather poor autumn for crocuses here, C. laevigatus.

Autumn Colour

A bit of self-advertising, but it will be clear to regular readers that I have a particular enthusiasm for autumn-coloured trees and shrubs and have amassed quite a large collection of images. I am starting to attempt to build these into a website. I have not hosted my own site before, it is early days, and I suspect things will progress slowly through the winter, and I have hardly started as yet. Nevertheless, should you want to check it out you will find it under www.autumncolour.co.uk.

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