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A Northumberland Alpine Gardener's Diary

This entry: 20 September 2012 by John Richards

Northumberland Diary. Entry 224.

A New Zealand trough

I am fortunate to have visited New Zealand and its alpines on two occasions, the most recently ten years ago, and I doubt if I shall ever revisit now, as the lengths of the air-flights involved are daunting. In a previous Hexham garden I grew quite a lot of New Zealanders, but the present garden doesn't seem to suit them as well (less light and air perhaps?), or perhaps they have become more difficult as climate change progresses.

In fact, there was a step-change in January 2001 when we experienced the coldest night over the more than four decades we have gardened here, -21C, accompanied by very little snow. At the time I grew more than 30 celmisias, and after the holocaust, perhaps eight. On the whole they are very hardy, but they do hate a cold snap without snow cover. After that I rather lost heart, and I doubt if I grow more than 15 species today. I need hardly say that my friend and neighbour Alan Furness three miles up the road (and in a much colder and more exposed garden) has the most complete collection of this magnificent genus in the northern hemisphere, indeed perhaps anywhere, for they seem to grow much better for him than in most Kiwi gardens.

Most of my meagre collection is now confined to a single trough (indeed fishbox) on the terrace. This was planted up with cuttings gifted by Alan about eight years ago and has been disturbed very little since, except for an occasional weed, prune, top-dress and to add the odd seedling. Here is a picture of the trough from the side.

A New Zealand trough

There are eleven celmisia species in this trough. I shall mention some of them in a minute, but the large dark green shrub at the back is C. walkeri, and the grey-leaved plant  drooping to the front is C. du-retzii. The identity of the silver shrub centre right is debatable. Most growers consider it to be a form of C. angustifolia, and it has even received an award under the handle C. angustifolia 'Edrom'. Having seen a lot of this species in the wild, none of which resemble this plant, I am convinced it is hybrid, possibly with C. hectori, but this is a minority opinion (probably of one!).

Probably my favourite is C. hieracifolia. This small golden-backed relative of C. dallii is restricted to a small area at the north end of South Island. It has proved trouble-free and even flowered modestly this year, although it does not increase much.

At the left side of the trough grow several narrow-leaved species. In fact, two of these originate not from New Zealand, but from the mountains of Australia. The longest leaves belong to C. longifolia, and the rather shorter ones to its close relative C. pugioniformis.

The silver shrub bottom left is C. hectori, with which I struggle, and the mottled plant top left and right is C. gracilenta, which is also featured below.

Returning to the trough, here is a vertical view.

I have yet to mention C. discolor, which lies just above C. hieracifolia, and C. dubia, which is to the left of the C. angustifolia.These are both local, and dare one say, rather charmless little species from the Nelson mountains.

There is also a small bit of C. allanii which is by far the most successful species in this garden. It is very easy to propagate and there are several large patches elsewhere. It was raining when these photographs were taken, but the silver still shines through.

On plant of C. allanii is nearly two metres across!

C. sericophylla is another Aussie which is successful here. Like several of the others it is best grown in scree, indeed in pure stones! where it has survived for more than a decade without any trouble. It is far more attractive than this photo suggests. Rain again!

I only acquired the 'North Island Edelweiss', Leucogynes leontopodium (in fact it does stray onto the northern end of South Island as well) in the spring, but it has settled down in a little raised bed, again mostly stones! I guess the wet summer suited it. This can grow into a large plant in this area given perfect drainage and not too much hot drought, so I have hopes for the future.

I bought two little aciphyllas from Robert Potterton rather over a year ago and planted them out in north-facing crevices in the rock garden. They have grown very little, but then again they haven't died either! Here is A. montana, followed by A. crosby-smithii, one of the very best.

My final New Zealander is a plant I have grown for three decades, again in pure scree, and of which I am very fond, although it doesn't flower. But Hebe haastii is a fascinating little shrub, a high alpine from the great 'whalebacks' of central Otago, which ought to be very difficult in cultivation, but seems not to be. I grow it in several places; this bit has just been moved to the new sand-bed where it ought to thrive.

Moving on, it is the time of the colchicum, which are presently looking their very best, at the stage before they start to droop and tatter. Here are two of my favourites, 'Lilac Wonder' followed by 'Rosy Dawn'.

Two weeks ago we visited the Savill Garden, taking my mother. We meant to visit Wisley, not realising that it was the first day of the Great Autumn Show. We should have guessed from the queues off the M25 onto the A3, let alone the west bound queues on the A3 as far as the bridge, let alone the queues east-bound to the Wisley turn! We did not wait to see what the little lanes to Wisley were like, but finally beat a strategic retreat back onto the M25 after an hour stuck in queues and went to Savill instead! I shall spare you the dazzling borders, and the fantastic hydrangeas, but will show a shot of Colchicum 'tenori' en masse.

Cyclamen hederifolium 'album' at Savill.

And standard hederifoliums back here at home.

One rather special little plant to finish with. I have grown a number of wild-collected Erigeron aurantiacus from Holubec seed, collected in the mountains of central Asia. Some are planted out in the new sand bed, and some in pots plunged in the alpine house. Only one has flowered (it is only four months old!), but what a colour!

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