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A Northumberland Alpine Gardener's Diary

This entry: 08 September 2008 by John Richards

Kew in autumn. Entry 90.

Off to Kew

We have been in the south of England almost all week, first visiting relatives, and then I attended the excellent one-day conference held at North Mundham, near Chichester. My daughter and her husband had to attend a funeral, so we had the sole care of their three-year old for a day. As they live only about three miles from Kew we spent the day there, and we all had a great time, not least because parts of the Royal Gardens are well-equipped to please three-year olds.

Naturally, we got round to the rock garden in the fullness of time. Not surprisingly in early September there was not a great deal of colour outside. I was most impressed by a colchicum labelled C. pannonicum. This is an elegant species which looks as if might well have been the parent of some of the purple-tubed hybrids.

Off to Kew

Not for the first time, I was surprised how cramped the 'new' alpine house seems. The extraordinary outline is unique, but it is difficult to see how a design could be conceived that would be more likely to constrain the growing space therein. In fact, it appears to be little more than an extremely expensive showcase for temporary exhibits that are brought in from the excellent growing facilities behind the scenes. As if to highlight this, I was not impressed by what appears to be an attempt at a tufa wall. Not only does it look clumsy, but most of the plants did not seem to be particularly fit.

Another thing that struck me was how few of the plants grown there were 'real' alpines. Most of the subjects on display originated from mediterranean or cool xeric climates rather than alpine areas. I know London has a difficult climate for the cultivation of high alpines, but this has been a notably cool and moist summer, and I thought the whole point of the new ('Davies') Alpine House was to provide cool growing conditions under glass.

Having said this, there were some very interesting plants on display and I thought I would showcase a few. Biarum bovei is just coming into flower here at Hexham, but I thought that the Anatolian B. ditschianum was extraordinary. I would be surprised if with its mushroom-like spadix it will prove to be related to the rest of the genus, but it is definitely desirable, and even, dare one suggest, rather rude!

Another interesting plant comes from the highlands of Mexico, a very underexploited region for semi-hardy plants. Bessera elegans has the look of some Tasmanian subjects such as Blandfordia punicea, and is clearly designed for bird-pollination.

Only a few months ago we were enjoying Scilla natalensis in the South African Drakensberg. Not surprisingly, Madeira has a very pronounced African component to its mid-Atlantic flora, and although Scilla maderensis must be separated from Kwa-Zulu Natal by 6,000 km, the two species have much in common. As I am growing the former from wild-collected seed, it is interesting to see how the latter thrives at Kew.

Another plant I am currently trialling from seed, this time courtesy of the AGS, is the South African G. carmineus. This is perhaps the daintiest of the species, and the most suited to the Alpine House. Hopefully it will prove to be as straightforward in cultivation as G. flanaganii. It looked great at Kew.

Back on the rock garden, I was pleased to see Dianthus fruticosus. I have seen a couple of the subspecies of this large shrubby species in Crete, where they are amongst only a few plants that flower through the furnace-like hear of late summer. However, subspecies amorginus originates from a few of the southern Cyclades where it decorates sea-cliffs.

Much as we enjoyed our visit to Kew, I have not been uncritical of the alpine Department. However, I am reserving most of my displeasure for the exhibit of the Wollemi Pine. This magnificent discovery fourteen years ago has resulted in a vigorous, easily-grown tree that is certain to grace many of our parks and gardens in future years, just as the much lauded metasequoia, another 'fossil tree', did 60 years ago. Already, Wollemia is readily acquired, if at a price. Why then cage it in such a hideous dungeon that it is difficult to see the tree at all? Ironically, if some malefactor wanted to snaffle some cuttings, or disfigure the plant, they could still do so, whereas the whole plant could only now be removed with a JCB, impossible within the confines of Kew's walled exterior. Kew, PLEASE take the cage away!

Enough! Later in the week I thoroughly enjoyed seeing Peter Erskine's Sussex garden, as I believe many of the participants of the Chichester weekend did on the Sunday. I am including just a few of the highlights of our visit there.

I have tried to grow the magnificent shrubby lily-relative Philesia magellanica on several occasions but have always struggled with it. This is maddening, as it thrived at Randle Cooke's garden 'Kilbryde' only three miles away on the same side of the Tyne Valley. Thus, my admiration of Peter's plant was tinged with envy!

I loved Agapanthus inapertus, so much more refined than A. umbellatus. I had seen this before in South African gardens, but not in Britain.

Peter is a great enthusiast of daphnes. Here are three yellow Chinese plants, first D. gemmata (previously a wilkstroemia) that I have seen growing above the Yangtse gorges en route to the Beima Shan.

Two forms of Daphne calcicola are becoming popular in cultivation, when you can get hold of them! The close-up is of 'Gang-ho-Ba', followed by 'Sichuan Gold'. I think the latter comes from the Maam Pass, south of Xiangcheng, where we found it growing on roadside cliffs last year (the final photo here).

One more photo, this time from my own garden. The gorgeous Kiringeshoma palmata is at its best now. I have featured it before, but it deserves praise every year!

John Richards

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