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A Northumberland Alpine Gardener's Diary

This entry: 16 September 2007 by John Richards

Northumberland Diary. Entry 51.

A late drought

It seems ridiculous after all the rain England has received this summer, but it has scarcely rained at all for all of August and half of September, and things are very dry. I woke in the middle of last night to hear what I thought was a torrential downpour. 'At last' I thought, but it was merely a hot dry wind, rather ennervating, that we have suffered all day. These dessicating conditions are the worst imaginable for this humid, woodsy garden. We are promised rain by the hour; there are severe weather warnings just to the west of us, and for hours local reports have said that it is raining on the Roman Wall, just to the north. But here, still, nothing as yet.

During the summer the south of England wasmuch wetter than us, but on a visit this week it seemed to have become just as dry as we are. Soil is like concrete and prohibits any planting, even of bulbs. As well as the not very exciting RHS Show we visited Saville Gardens, and these were simply terrific. If there is a better all-round garden in Britain I should like to know of it. This is the season of the herbaceous border, and they were sensationally good, as were the 'subtropical' borders. Although not of this garden or region, or indeed of alpines,I thought I would share a couple of pictures with you.

A late drought

On the way south we spent a couple of hours at Newby Hall, not far ffrom Thirsk in north Yorkshire. This garden is also famous for its borders, and has some wonderful small areas designed to peak at the end of the season. Here is the Memorial Garden, followed by part of the autumn garden.

Greek fires

While I was in the south, I gave a talk to the large and very enthusiastic Chiltern Group of the AGS. My subject was the Greek Peloponnesos, and not surprisingly the subject of the damaging and tragic fires that have raged there this summer came to the fore. I have strong and perhaps unconventional views as to the underlying reason for these fires, and in an attempt to whip up a little comment and discussion I thought I would air them here.

Like all areas with a mediterranean vegetation (parts of Australia, South Africa and California for instance), the low-lying regions of Greece carry plant communitires that have been adapted to withstand fire. These areas are very hot and dry in the summer when many of the more interesting plants (geophytes, annuals etc) disappear. In contrast, many of the perennial woody plants are very flammable, but can regenerate from the base after fire. In South Africa and Australia at least,the seeds of many plants will not germinate until they are experienced smoke, so they are adapted to germinate once the fire has passed. Many of the annuals and geophytes benefit from fires, as competition and disease is checked, and nutrients released from the ash. A few years after fire, the displays of bulbs and orchids can be magnificent. These plant communities are termed 'fire climaxes', and natural fire (from thunderstorms) is an essential element in the system.

When the vegetation is short (phrygana, garrigue) fires are cool and easily controlled; you can even walk through them unharmed. Like British heather fires they are started on purpose andcarefully managed to provide succulent young growth for grazing. However in many parts of Greece (and Australia, California etc), management by fire is no longer possible. Properties have been built and forests planted for timber, so that the native vegetation grows tall (into so-called 'maquis, or macchia'). When these unmanaged areas burn, as they surely will, fires are lethal and many lives can be lost, asduring this summer. Probably, most of the special plants will survive and even thrive. Those discontents who set fire in an effort to devalue areas protected for wildlife or forest, so that housing and roads can be built instead, often for tourism, rather miss the point The wildlife is adapted to these fires. It is the humans, on whose behalf the fires are mistakenly set, who are not.

Colchicum 'Lilac Wonder' is just such a geophyte, although of garden origin. Identified by the crease down the petals (thank you Rod Leeds, 'Autumn Bulbs' for this information) it has a rather floppy habit, but is a rapid spreader here.

Greek fires

Returning to this entry after several hours, I can report that it has rained, quite hard, for an hour of so, but has already stopped with an air of finality. It was that rare phenomenon this far north, 'warm rain', so it was possible to walk about comfortably in heavy rain, wearing just a shirt (I am well past the Colin Firth stage by the way! In fact, there was never any competition!).

Primula boothii 'Annapurna autumn' is coming into flower, much earlier than last year, and is flowering far more freely, so I took the opportunity of the rain to lever a couple of rosettes into pots ready for the first autumn Show (Ponteland this year) in less than a fortnight. Despite the drought latterly, it clearly loved the 'monsoon summer'.

Gentiana 'Sapphire selection'

This autumn, several large Garden Centres in north-eastern England have featured hundreds of beautifully grown autumn gentians under the name 'Sapphire Selection', offered at very reasonable prices (mostly 3.49 each). These are remarkable in two ways. Firstly they are fine distinctive plants with a very strict, upright habit, very short stems and flowers mostly of a piercing dark blue. Of the various potential parents, they resemble G. veitchiorum more than the others, so may well be relatively drought and lime tolerant. Secondly, every one is different, so they are clearly grown from seed, but from a distinct selected line. Nevertheless, this is not very stable, for a proportion, perhaps 20%, are good whites and a further few are quartered white and pale blue. Last autumn, plants similar to all three types were seen by the RHS Joint Rock Garden Committee when presented by both Ian Christie and Ian McNaughton, so it is tempting to suppose that one or both growers have distributed seed to European wholesalers. Whatever their origin they are outstanding plants that might transform the culture of autumn gentians. The Joint Rock discussed these plants on Tuesday. It seems that they are not being offered in the English midlands or south as yet; let us know if you know different!

Gentiana 'Sapphire selection'

Here is another gentian in flower at the moment, one of many G. acaulis clones grown here. They quite often throw a flower or three in the autumn.

The first of the cyclamen to flower in the alpine house is the clone of C. cilicium I have in a pot. Typically it flowers before the leaves, whereas the much smaller plants of the same species that survive outside don't flower for another two to three weeks, with the leaves.

Red Rosaceae
I am finishing with a very unalpine plant, but one that grows in the wild in the company of distinguished native alpines such as Helianthemum oelandicum, Veronica spicata, Viola rupestris and Epipactis atrorubens. In the British Isles we harbour a large number of apomictic polyploid whitebeams, and hybrids between whitebeams and service tree, and whitebeams and rowan. Most of these apomictic (no sex please, we're British!) species are very localised and rare, usually confined to limestone cliffs. One, Sorbus lancastriensis is only found in the Morecambe Bay. One year I put a single berry in my pocket, and several seedlings, of which this is one, resulted. I tend to give seeds to those of my friends who have the misfortune to have been raised to the west of the Pennines.

Red Rosaceae
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