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A Northumberland Alpine Gardener's Diary

This entry: 15 September 2010 by John Richards

Northumberland Dairy. Entry 159.

On the go

After a rather sedentary August, September has been much busier. After some of the family visited for a week at the end of last month, activity really started with a trip to the Late Bulb Display of the Scottish Rock Garden Club at the Edinburgh Botanics on September 4th. As always with the Scots, this was a hugely entertaining gathering, and we enjoyed the two lectures by Professor Adil Guner from Istanbul. However, it did not do what it said on the tin, for there was only one bulb on display and almost no sales or exchanges. My prime motive for being there was to collect Pam 'Primulaworld' Eveleigh who was over from Canada with her family for an International Rock Climbing event in which her elder son was participating.

Pam was staying with the Rankins who live close to the Climbing Hall, but spent two days with us, and we took her to see the Primula farinosa in Upper Teesdale on the Sunday. On the Monday we had an excellent day, spending a few hours with Ron and Susan McBeath en route back to Edinburgh, and then a long time examining the very rich collection of Primulas that the Rankins grow, both in Stella's huge nursery (Kevock) and in their precipitous garden.

Firstly, here are some of the very many fascinating plants we saw with Ron at Lamberton.

We were delighted to find Ron in robust health, full of energy, and he has made many changes to his garden, encouraged in part by the very dry start to the year, after such a cold winter. I was fascinated by some of his new raised beds which are filled primarily with the local reddish loam, based on local sandstones, but heavy and rich. Ron mixes this with a modicum of peat, and this unlikely mix seems to grow many rare and difficult alpines very well. It is well to remember how exposed and windy his site is, and the plants certainly look in character. Here is one of the beds.

A few of the plants more thoroughly established in more mature raised beds. I had never heard of the narrowly endemic Arenaria alvacariensis, clearly a very tight relative of the better known A. tetraquetra.

Years ago, I was fascinated by another local endemic, Daphne kosaninii from the Bulgarian Pirin. In fact I grow a couple of seedlings in pots, but they are too young to have flowered yet. On the strength of Ron's magnificent plant, covered with the strange orangey-pink flowers that never open properly, I should plant them out in a well-drained spot.

A couple of gentians next. First G. stragulata with its pinched flowers. I grew this more than 30 years ago, when it was frequently seen, but it is rarely encountered now. It is not hard to succeed with, but I found it rather short-lived.

Of course, Ron worked for many years at the Edinburgh Botanics, in Inverleith, and still grows the hybrid gentian named for that locality. It is one of the best, but, again, not often seen now.

Ron has a wonderful collection of rare plants. One of the most desirable of all has not flowered yet, although it looks very fit. Only recently have we become aware of a Pulsatilla-like plant from Sakhalin, which has entire leaves, Miyakea integrifolia. There is a move to place this oddity within Pulsatilla. It was mentioned in the Bulletin a few issues ago, but few westerners have as yet set eyes on it.

Pam and I spent a couple of evenings reviewing collections of photographs. One of the subjects that cropped up was that neither of us could remember having seen the once-familiar muscarioid Primula concholoba in recent years, odd because this little plant is self-fertile and not hard to grow (but essentially biennial). It was almost inevitable that we were to see oodles of it at both Ron's and Stella's, the next day! Here it is at Lamberton.

On to the Rankins, who live just off the A7, south-west of Edinburgh. They have a very beautiful garden on one of the most extraordinary sites I have ever seen. It must be like gardening in a cliff. As you can see, the house crests the cliff, and has the most superb view.

Stella grows a huge range of primulas in her nursery, and we were fascinated to see many rare plants, often grown from their own wild-collected seed. Scarce primulas such as P. serratifolia, P. tangutica, P. maximowiczii and many others are grown in very large numbers. We were fascinated by many hundreds of the black-flowered P. euprepes from the Zhedou Pass in Sichuan which I featured in an article in the Bulletin in 2008, and which is also figured in the current issue. Stella had had this most desirable plant micropropagated, and this engendered a discussion as to the merits of microprop, which can cause genetic damage to some of the propagants. For instance, P. aureata was microproped about 15 years ago, and has emerged a poor and almost unrecognisable shadow of its former glory. To be fair, many of Stellas euprepes look extremely healthy and I very much look forward to seeing them in flower. But some were clearly struggling, although her collections of the related species tangutica and maximowiczii were in robust health. We shall see, but I do think it was a worthwhile experiment for a very rare subject.

Another once-familiar plant that Pam and I had not seen for many years was the tiny Kashmir endemic Primula clarkei, inaccessible in the wild for many years due to the political troubles there. It was a great pleasure to find that Stella is still growing it.

A couple of years ago I published in The Plantsman a new muscarioid species, P. lilacina, which we had encountered in southern Sichuan. David and Stella already knew this species well and had grown it (as indeed I had), but it took me some time to realise that the two were the same thing. It is some years since I had it, but it is alive and well at Lasswade.

Another rare primula there is P. gemmifera. P. zambalensis has become quite familiar in recent years as seed has been sent back on several occasions from the Beima Shan and elsewhere and it is quite amenable to northern gardens. At best, the zygomorphic flowers are relatively large and sky-blue. It was originally treated as a var. chrysopa of P. gemmifera, and has the same mat-forming habit. Both resemble P. involucrata (munroi if you wish), but lack the hanging bract-sacs of that group. P. gemmifera itself has a dwarf, one-flowered variety monantha which looks lovely but is not in cultivtion. The straight P. gemmifera is the least charismatic, but quite pretty with pink, rotate flowers.

Finally from the Rankins, here is a strange plant flowering from northern Vietnam; We now think it is probably a relative of P. obconica, but feasibly a new species with masses of rusty hairs.

After this activity, it was down to the south of England for a week, from which we have just returned. I thoroughly enjoyed talking to the East Kent group, a very kind and receptive audience. I stayed with Mike and Edith Darvill near Lenham, who have one of the finest private gardens I have ever seen. If you are ever down there when the garden is open, go! Tomorrow I go to the Lancaster Group, and I am also looking forward to this. I am privileged to see so many fine plants and gardens this way!

Back to my own patch, autumn is really upon us, season of Cyclamens (C. hederifolium), Colchicums (mixed) and Zauschnerias (Z. angustifolia). I was amazed to see that the latter, which is a colourful weed here, is not in the AGS collective Index. Is it really that unusual?

Its still warm here, but wet and VERY windy! Many of the pots outside have been soaked and I am starting to take the more vulnerable subjects into the alpine house. The plunge is dry, and this will act as a wick to start with. We have also taken the house plants back into the conservatory as we are promised colder nights from now on. Its downhill all the way! It was certainly downhill for the runner beans and sweet peas, both of which blew down in the gale. Sheila does the sweet peas; we have been picking them for months and the whole neighbourhood is scented with them.

Thalictrum dipterocarpum 'Hewitt's Double' to finish with. I may have mentioned that my mother's maiden name was Hewitt, so my family has always tried to grow this autumnal subject. However I was at my uncle's house last week, and found that they had been sold a pup and were growing the (infinitely more desirable!) single form!

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