Any Other Topics: Random Nuggets from the Bulletin
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Those who have scanned through the various headings in these discussion pages may have discovered some of these already under ?The Alpine Gardener? section. Since this latter is really meant for comments about the present Journal, here may be a better place to discover little gems from earlier in the Society?s history.
The very first contribution to the Bulletin was on the gesneriads, Ramondia, Haberlea and Jankaea by G. P. Baker. Jankaea has always been special and is now of course a highly protected plant in Nature on Mount Olympus. But before 1930 the danger was to the collector and not to the plant, quote: ?The scarcity of the plant has no doubt been due to the danger of collecting, by reason of brigandage which, for many years, has been associated with travelling in the hinterland of Greece...? (this shows a sea change in the way we view collecting plants, which I will return to later - but collecting seed and novel forms of species from the wild must still be a central motivation of many members, so long as it is acheived in ways that don't damage natural populations or the sensibilities of legalise).
A little later F. H. Fisher (who went on to be the Editor and historian of the Society) wrote in his review of The Annual Show - ?In the class for Ramondia, Mr G. P. Baker offered six fine pans, comprising R. Nathaliae, a form of R. pyrenaica, from Montserrat, R. serbica, Haberlea rhodopensis, H. Ferdinandi Coburgi, and Jankaea Heldreichii (the pride of Thessaly and its shady walls). The above exhibit would have been of still greater interest had the plants been in flower. (From the clarity of his writing here and later, it is clear that this was a simple statement of fact - because the plants were extremely interesting - but the absence of flowers does seem to say it all).
The ambivalence that lies behind discovering plants in the wild, and the temptation they have for gardeners, is summed up later on by Fisher with reference to the ravishing Primula sonchifolia. Kingdom Ward describes this glowingly in ?The Romance of Plant Hunting? but then casts doubt on whether it will ever be possible to grow in this country, raising and dashing the hopes of gardeners in a few lines. But the tale of these first few Bulletins of the AGS is how this primula was introduced, grown and seed collected, and Fisher is on the side of the gardener in ?his magnificent uphill fight of endless experiment with soils and climates.? Great stuff!
One of the most fascinating articles published in the early Bulletins was a survey of the ?Alpine Plants of the Snowdon Range? by Norman Woodhead (from the University College of Bangor). Naturalists and botanists have not surprisingly found Snowdonia a place of great interest for centuries, and a recent book on ?The Plant Life of Snowdonia' (edited by Peter Rhind and David Evans) summarises this beautifully. The undoubted ?Queen of Snowdon? is the little lily Lloydia serotina, even though only known to a few, and it caused a kerfuffle in these early days of the Alpine Garden Society, which rare and localised plants have always been likely to do, but perhaps not so seriously. Lloydia is one of the most rare and localised of British plants, found on just a few cliffs in Snowdonia. Its nearest relatives are in the Alps and it is thought to have survived as a relict species, either in refuges free of ice in the last Ice Age, or by following the retreating ice as temperatures warmed. There is a danger in being rare and special and sad to say members of the AGS were brought to task for uprooting bulbs of Lloydia serotina at a Nature Lovers? Conference in September 1934. The AGS obviously abhorred such an incident, but what also comes across is a sense of the Society being stung by the criticism, which must have related to the feeling of many gardeners that they also were custodians of plants. The final sentence of the AGS reply was: ?As the driving force of the Conservation Board and the AGS is the love of plants, cannot a unity of action be established between them towards the furtherance of its demonstration?? Here is the age old dilemma of arguing from the specific to the general - it can?t be done and each case has to be argued on its own merits.
Nowadays the reaction to such an incident would be very strong and many more people would probably be aware of the ?Snowdon Lily?. Then, the final and wisest words came from Prof. D. Thoday, Professor of Botany at Bangor, who made the simple statement that Ltoydia had survived for thousands of years in its natural home and was unlikely to do so for more than a few decades in cultivation, even at a Botanic Garden. Conservationists would always say that it is the environment that should be protected, but ironically it could be that this little lily is more at risk from rock climbers who would only see it as another tuft of grass. So a sophisticated and balanced view of plants and the environment is most likely to come from the awareness that gardening brings, even when it is such extreme and negative cases that catch the headlines.
In this modern information age we are beset by ?blogs?, presumably what many in the past would have kept to themselves as diaries. These must serve two purposes, one to marshall the thoughts of the blogger, and two to actually say something useful to the blogee. These excursions into the Bulletins do the same thing and show that fascinating writing, and a desire to share experiences, have always been at the heart of the AGS. A lovely and apposite example is ?An Alpine Calender? (a blog by any other name) written by Gwendolyn Anley throughout 1935. Now here would be an interesting thing to repeat! She starts on March 3rd with Primula Winteri, which is mentioned regularly in early Bulletins. On March 5th she describes a shaft of sunlight falling on Iris reticulata ?Cantab?, and a closed bud opening and releasing its scent just as she watched. A lovely experience. Gwendolyn Anley was a very fine grower who also wrote a classic little book on ?Alpine House Culture for Amateurs?, and in other early Bulletins she, in a very accessible way, talks about how she grows plants. At one point she remarks ?What a pleasure it is to show one?s treasures to an intelligent person!? Like those who show plants today she found ways of presenting plants to best effect - for example using jet black pebbles to set off the silver-white foliage of Artemisia glacialis and Veronica bombycina. By May: ?The Photographer (E. Cahen) accuses me of having become more dogmatic since he was here last. I say I have become more experienced - which is probably the same thing?. For those of us who do write (or blog), there comes a nice supplementary paragraph, viz: ?Reading over the gist of the conversation (if it can be described as a conversation when one person does all the talking) I am not sure he is not right. Maybe I am dogmatic.?
At various moments a mysterious Potts is mentioned and it is unclear whether this refers to a spouse or gardener - whichever, they are relegated to more mundane tasks. Like all really good growers she has much to say on composts and comes up with a wonderful analogy: ?A famous forbear of mine when asked what he mixed his pigments with to obtain such depth and richness of colouring replied testily. ?With brains?.? Some of us us of course would prefer more of a helping hand.
I wonder how many members today grow over sixty dwarf conifers? But she does mention a pest, then as now, vine weevil, which can be a serious problem in the poor acidic composts of conifers and other woody plants in pots. On Aug. 3rd she was given ?A truly munificent gift? - a 22ft x 6ft steel frame (a similar one is nicely pictured in her book) and by Aug. 15th ?Gentiana Macaulayi has opened the first of its 118 buds?, filling a trough. Aug.20th: Calceolaria Darwinii ?sits smug and self-satisfied, smirking at me with the over-sweet smile of a benign old gentleman whose dentist has supplied him with a denture just a suspicion too perfect.? It would be hard to describe this plant any better!
And then the calender comes to an end on Oct. 14th with a list of those plants that have given the longest and best display in the Alpine house over the year. These include some interesting and rarely seen species today amongst them, such as Grevillea alpina (which flowers through September to June), the tiny and delicate Calceolaria tenella and surprisingly Silene virginica.
?Should anyone ask me ?What do you consider the most necessary adjunct to the modern rock garden?? my answer would be, unhesitatingly, ?The Scree?, scree or moraine or even a sand bed if you like, it approximates closely to the same thing.? (Walter Ingwersen, 1933).
In the 1930?s many alpine gardeners were writing about screes and moraines, and just like the crevice gardens of today this sharing of information must have helped stimulate more members into discovering that growing alpines wasn?t just the preserve of the expert few. But it was the expert few who persevered and experimented with different growing conditions and freely shared their knowledge. Earlier, more complex moraines with subterranean watering were constructed and described in rock gardening books, the idea being to mimic the freely flowing water at depth in mountain screes. However, these were not effective and Walter Ingwersen ?found in a very long practice that the underground watering is not necessary, and may be a source of danger?.
Nearly the whole of Bulletin Vol. 2, No. 4 (December 1933) was devoted to the scree, both in Nature and in the garden. If you are used to double digging you will be less put out by the advice to dig out 2 to 3 feet (or even more on heavy soils) before infilling with scree mixture. (In the small sand bed I have just made I removed ca. 12 to 18 inches, and this was a huge amount of work! A small excavator is called for and would do the job easily and quickly - but what to do with all that soil?) Walter Ingwersen describes a wide variety of gravels, grits and sands with which to make a scree, the coarser materials requiring proportionately more leafmould or peat added to aid water retention. At Branklyn, Perthshire, Dorothy Renton used river gravel/sand and leafmould/loam in the proportions 5/1. Will Ingwersen advised 75% stone chippings to 25% leafmould and sharp silver sand, and recommended that ?The real enthusiast will want two screes, one for limestone loving plants, and one for those preferring a granitic soil.? Certainly that would be good, and experimenting with different conditions for different plants is the essence of success. In the wetter climate of central Ireland pure limestone chips or red sandstone/leafmould (5/2) were both recommendations.
Pictures of the flat screes at Edinburgh Botanic Garden and at Branklyn, show how very effective these are, and allow many very choice plants to be grown. At Edinburgh in a dry climate the yellow American Lithospermum canescens, species of Onosma, various lewisias (including rediviva) and many saxifrages and gentians thrived. At Branklyn, many of the same plants and primulas like the beautiful and strongly scented reidii. Not with standing these, however, very many fine alpines can be grown by the simple expedient of planting in 4 or 5 inches of gravel over soil, as shown by Robin and Sue White at Blackthorn Nursery; more choice species being grown in raised beds and tufa. The ground level scree though is aesthetically very pleasing and effective for otherwise very tricky plants, and is ideal associated with a rock garden, even if few gardeners construct these in the 21st Century.
These pictures show just a little of the remarkable variety of plants grown at Blackthorn Nursery in a simple gravel bed, and show what a wonderful feature this can make in the garden without initial extensive preparations.
One of our members, who was an entomologist, delighted in telling us about the various highly poisonous insects and related creatures that he discovered in his tent after camping in far flung parts of the world. He could well have written this letter in Vol.2 of the Bulletin, though may have have had a job making it quite so hilarious:-
In response to your time honourable question have to state that weather been to audacious acrimonious for collector to pearce Kamchatka this season the miserable jackanapes have no sox except for half specimen, for top bit. If you will duly transmit via Siberia bundle of same even if divergent they are happily welcome but thick are best and drops of Cinnamon oil will frighten moth away. Wife?s honourable mother has been bit with unsuspecting scorpion regretfully, and your humble friend kept busy employed as cannot sit. Hope no biting scorps in English land for very embarrisive in summer espec. on wife?s mothers. Will send Diapensia when got in the meantime forward kind regards,
Yours fully T. M.
In 1935 the Society had some 1200 members of which only 4% exhibited plants, though then as now reports on these formed one of the strongest features of the Bulletins. Then as now there was always the plea for new people to become involved in showing plants leading to this rather nice spur from the Editor, F. H. Fisher:-
?There is a tendency for members to regard the Shows as set meals served by a few expert chefs rather than as bottle parties, or an Irish fight, to which all are welcome.?
The idea of an AGS Show having the attributes of a ?bottle party? or ?Irish fight?, though, is hard to imagine. By contrast the Plant Sales often involve a lot of elbows!.
Later Fisher wrote:-
?One criticism frequently levelled at the AGS Shows is that the same plants are brought up time after time. Naturally amateurs are limited in the quantity of plants they can grow, and it is up to the hitherto non-competing members to remedy this defect, if defect it is, by knocking out the old stagers with something new and strange.?
?Expert chefs? must have always led the way, along with the judges who enjoy the meal. So what do us other 96% do?
Hypericums have never held first rank amongst alpine plants and yet there are some really fine species amongst them. I have always remembered the article written by Nicholas Turland on Cretan St. John?s Worts in Vol. 58, p. 310, which has excellent illustrations of H. amblycalyx and, even more choice, H. jovis - both growing naturally as chasmophytes and endemic to Crete. The former I grew from his wild collected seed, and propagated from cuttings for a number of years. A third endemic, also mentioned in the article, H. kelleri, receives high praise from the renowned botanist Peter Davis, writing earlier in the Bulletin (Vol. 7, p.52). It is doubtful if any of these are still in cultivation, and they would probably benefit from winter protection in the same way as H. aegypticum. This latter grows in Crete but has a more extensive distribution around the Mediterranean, including North Africa. Its neat glaucous foliage, upright habit and small flowers make it a highly attractive alpine shrublet.
Good plants always attract the eye, and much earlier, in 1937, T. C. Mansfield wrote of ?Thirteen Hypericums?. His article is attractively, and rarely, illustrated with pen and ink sketches. A few species are unfamiliar - H. anagalloides from California with orange-yellow flowers sounds interesting. Others are highly praised - H. nummularium from the Pyrenees and H. cuneatum (now pallens) from Asia Minor and Syria (which Will Ingwersen in his book ?Alpines? warns has very brittle stems and requires alpine house protection). One of the best, which we grow now in a sand bed, is H. rhodoppeum (now known as cerastoides), and which Mansfield highly recommends tumbling from a wall.
Dr P. L. Giuseppi (for whom see the next entry) was the first to describe H. ericoides in the Bulletin (Vol. 2, p.211 - ?New or Interesting Spanish Plants?) as ?a glorious plant with tiny imbricated leaves arranged on the woody stems and completely covering them exactly as a cassiope?. This species was referred to a few times in early Bulletins, with the most valuable cultural advice coming from Will Ingwersen (Vol. 10, p.74). As difficult, and transient, in cultivation must have been H. capitatum from Turkey, listed in Jim and Jenny Archibald?s 1990-91 seed list as ?sub-shrubby with 15cm stems of flowers in a unique shade of penetrating, intense burnt-orange to scarlet?. Wow! The only reference to this in the Bulletin comes from John Watson who also collected seed of this in 1966.
These may be quite esoteric plants only for the specialist but there are many neat and small hypericums easily grown in troughs, raised beds and rock gardens - species such as athoum, coris, olympicum and repens (linarioides) - which can certainly stand comparison with many more popularly grown alpines.
These three are H. nummularium, H. repens (linarioides) and H. cerastoides.
Another very interesting contribution, Tim. Please be assured, people ARE reading and enjoying them, even if feedback is sporadic or on occasions, non-existent.
Thank you Cliff - I am very grateful. The reason I write them is because I hugely enjoy reading back through the Bulletin and comparing how members saw these plants in the past compared with now, and equally I think you can learn a great amount this way, not least some tremendous writing (see Dwight Ripley to come). A third reason is that I would love to see more vitality and communication in these discussion pages but all I can try and do is be a catalyst.
Well if this was true in 1937, how much more true must it be now, and if so it has sad implications for the value of these occasional notes. But is this true?
The articles written in the war years tell a different story and show how memories of travelling to see plants in the wild and the ability still to tend plants in such turbulent times, maintained that enthusiasm and transmitted it to others via the Bulletin. Dr. Paul Giuseppi, Treasurer to the Society since its inception, wrote particularly poignantly about the places and plants that he knew. An inveterate and intrepid traveller and superb cultivator, he can be seen pictured in Vol. 5, p.193. In ?Pages from the Society?s History?, Fisher revealingly describes him (in the context of his response to rather petty complaints about the Show schedules): ?It was typical of the enthusiastic, hard as nails, loveable little doctor.? His articles on Albania and the Caucasus are the very stuff of travellers tales, wide ranging, gripping, informative and personal. And the excitement he gains from the plants is palpable. In Shqypnia (?The Land of the Eagles?), what we know as Albania, his ?heart stood still for a second, for here was Viola koshanini, the last of the three violas of the Delphioidea section which I had sought for so long...?. With this on the Eocene cliffs of Shkala Rapsa grew Ramonda serbica. Elsewhere by the road near to Korcha he describes Convolvulus cochlearis, like C. nitidus (boissieri) ?but far more beautiful on account of its tiny grooved and snow-white leaves packed into rosettes, and crowned with enormous white flowers - a first class plant if ever there was one.?
?A Journey to the Caucasus? in summer 1935, a region that has recently been so beautifully documented by Voltech Holubec and Pavel Krivka, began through Poland and Russia with interesting reflections on the Communist system and the contrasts of life in different places. Reaching Kasbek, a region ?famous for its beauty... perhaps the most beautiful of all the plants was a pink form of Anemone narcissiflora?. Giuseppi regarded Primula nivalis var. Bayernii as ?one of the finest primulas in the world?. At Zei ?the cliffs were covered in wonderful plants, the best among them being Draba mollissima, which formed huge tussocks of delightful grey on the brown rocks?. In a remote mountain village, sheltering from rain in a chemist?s shop, he is surprised that ?one woman actually bought face powder and lipstick? - perhaps because the region was cut off from civilisation for six months of the year. He finishes by describing Omphalodes rupestris, with white foliage and larger more striking flowers than O. luciliae; but did he actually see the very close O. lojkae(?), perhaps one of the finest plants to be introduced from the Caucasus in recent years.
Just a few years later P. L. Giuseppi was writing of ?Day Dreams from the Felixstowe Front Line?. For a doctor, humane, widely travelled and fascinated by the alpine flora that he knew and grew so well, reminiscing on these must have brought relief. He mentions some wonderful plants that he either was still growing or had grown; the Guatemalan form of Weldenia candida; Verbena micrantha, Ourisia microphylla and Nototriche pedicularifolia from South America; a whole collection of choice European violas; the ?remarkable? Raoulia grandiflora from New Zealand; dionysias from Iran, which he was amongst the first to introduce and grow.
I think you would have to conclude that words really can carry the day, even if photographs distil the beauty of flowers and mountain scenery.
Just in case you should think that your pearls are being cast before the rest of us and being ignored (and as a diarist I know the feeling only too well!), I thought I would reassure you Tim that you are not the only person to find information, entertainment and stimulation from past issues of the Bulletin. Indeed, a small selection can usually be found on the windowsill of the smallest room in this house, where they can lead to happy hours of contemplation!! Years ago, faced with a lengthy spell in hospital, I took a selection to my bedside from which I derived succour and comfort in addition to the other worthy attributes listed above. And the early authors did write SO well! My personal favourites are Peter Davis, and the great John Raven, father of Sarah, both writing brilliantly about Crete all those years ago.
Thank you John - it is very kind of you, and reassuring to know that others are reading these. I have just begun to meet with Peter Davis and I see what you mean. In a moment of extravagance I bought a set of bound copies of the Bulletin from Mike Park at the Harlow Show (which nicely fitted the run I already had), spending all the profits from our plant sales. Ever since I have wanted to work through them properly, so this is a very good excuse. Good writing is quite timeless I think.
Ways of growing alpines have always been varied and fascinating, from the crevice garden of today (the Crevice Garden at Pershore is nicely described by Ron Beeston in Vol. 73, p. 236) to the ?Alpine Lawn?, which Clarence Elliott pioneered in the 1930?s (see Vol. 4, p. 373), where the place of grasses was taken by carpeting thymes - and reminiscent of recent ideas explored by Keith Wiley in his book ?On the Wild Side?. The early Bulletins are particularly fascinating in this regard as different growers shared very differing ways of growing plants. Nowadays some of the most attractive displays at Alpine Shows are those of plants grown in tufa; more naturalistic than plants grown in pots and very effective for tricky species of all sorts. The idea of setting plants off in a more aesthetic sense is much stronger in Japan than the UK.
(Crevice trough by Jon Evans at the Hillside Centre, Wisley; Tufa planting by David Philbey, see Vol. 69, p.443; Miniature Tufa planting by Alex O'Sullivan at the Kent Spring Show).
In 1936 Capt. H. P. Leschallas developed the ?Rock Pot?; in his words, ?Briefly, the suggestion which I want to convey in these notes is that of plants growing in their natural surroundings among rocks, instead of such obviously man-made contraptions as are supplied by the inestimable Mr. Sankey? (Vol. 4, p. 310). The results, as shown in several photographs, are effective and imaginative. In Vol. 9, p. 281, F. H. Fisher shows the results, after five years of trial, of making and planting ?Hypertupha? rocks, and these look pretty much as good as a photograph in the earlier Bulletin of authentic tufa planted up by Clarence Elliott.
One great advantage alpine gardeners had in the 1930?s was access to plentiful natural stone troughs. R. C. C. Clay in his account of ?Trough Gardening? (Vol. 7, p. 16) obtained ?upwards of 50 of my troughs [as] thanks-offerings from patients...?. Nowadays you would have to be an exceptional doctor to achieve such largesse! He advises to ?Always plant for effect and not for natural association. The most beautiful plants do not grow together in nature any more than do the most beautiful women. Make a picture: do not illustrate a textbook.? Nice words. With such a large number of troughs many can be used for single varieties or families of plants, or in themes such as ericaceous species or silver leaved plants.
(Saxifrage trough and Saxifraga 'Penelope' at Wisley)
In the absence of troughs, and as a sort of hybrid between the ?Rock Pot? and trough, is the use of stone (or nowadays concrete) paving slabs, edged with rocks. These can look very effective as the example pictured in Vol. 2, facing p. 108, shows. Malcolm McLaren also writes convincingly about these in Vol. 13, p. 178.
Variations on these themes, such as the wonderful slate troughs constructed by a member of the Norfolk Group, could introduce variety and novelty to the Alpine Shows, and suggest to visitors that plants can be equally as well grown in the garden as in pots.
(A rather good picture displayed at Wisley Hillside Centre, with an exhibition of photographs of growing alpine plants. Now how would this go down at an Alpine Show? It certainly might lighten the mood!)
I think many plant-lovers must have elements of Don Quixote about them, often with good reason, and none more so than shown in the opening paragraph of ‚??Plants of Southern California and Adjacent Mexico‚?? by Dwight Ripley (Vol. 11, p. 65, 1943). California has one of the richest and most diverse floras in the world, but the region is also heavily populated and highly developed, leading to habitat loss and limited recognition of the native flowers. Dwight Ripley is just one of a number of exceptional individuals, such as Lester Rowntree, and latterly Wayne Roderick, who have studied and written about the Californian flora. His prose in the Bulletin is unique and entertaining and gives the impression that he would have been an illuminating person to meet. He had that lucky combination of wealth and brains; a renowned artist and linguist (he spoke 15 languages and is said to have been able to read 30!), as well as a serious botanist and patron of the Tibor De Nagy gallery in New York.
The flowers of California are less well known and cultivated than species from the similar climatic regions of the Mediterranean and South Africa. Ripley recommends the ‚??Beach Pea‚?? Lathyrus littoralis for the rock garden,‚??remarkable for its coat of silver hairs‚??. The Surf or ‚??Spray‚?? Loving Thistle, Cirsium rothophilum, has extraordinary folded and felted silver-grey leaves, and is found only very locally in the Nipomo-Guadalupe Dunes. Both of these plants are pictured in the superb book, ‚??California‚??s Wild Gardens‚??, edited by Phyllis M. Faber and published by The California Native Plant Society. Solanum Hindsianum sounds attractive, ‚??a fine shrub with tomentose leaves and branches and bright-blue flowers‚??. The genus Abronia is mentioned a few times in early Bulletins, and its species alpina, the ‚??most desirable of all sand-verbenas‚??. Most of these unfortunately are likely to be tender except
in favoured gardens, but many exciting plants grow further inland and should be cold hardy given dry situations.
Before moving to the US, Dwight Ripley lived at Horam in Sussex and specialised in the Mediterranean flora, notably rare and endemic species. In Vol. 13, p. 1, Walter Ingwersen writes about ‚??The Cliff House‚?? that Ripley constructed, effectively made as an open sided greenhouse against a wall, and similar to the famous Tufa Cliff of Roy Elliott‚??s. Here grew such plants as Lithospermum rosmarinifolium, Helleborus lividus, Ranunculus calandrinoides and the extraordinary Californian Dicentra (now Ehrendorferia) chrysantha. Though this might be beyond the capabilities of many gardeners, a simple open sided glass covered area is easily made and would be a fascinating way of growing plants from summer-dry climates. Amongst these could be the rare Centaurea Clementei, mentioned by Ripley in ‚??A Journey Through Spain‚?? (Vol. 12, p.38), which is grown at Kew, and has probably the most dramatic foliage of any centaurea. On Cerro Trevenque the endemic Helianthemum pannosum, ‚??bearing rounded leaves of purest silver and abundant yellow rock-roses‚??, sounds very appealing; it grows with two other endemic plants, Santolina elegans (quite often seen at Shows but which I have never managed to establish in a sand bed) and Scabiosa pulsatilloides, ‚??one of the most desirable, and least accessible, of all Spanish alpines‚??.
I was interested to learn of the wide distribution of the sub-shrubby Digitalis obscura and also of the related species (or variety) D. laciniata, with sharply toothed leaves, new to me. Echium albicans, a small species ‚??plated all over with brilliant silver hairs‚??, is definitely worthy of re-introduction, even if short lived. (This is mentioned in Bob Gibbon‚??s superlative book ‚??Wildflower Wonders of the World‚??). For lovers of the weird he ‚??was met everywhere‚?? by Biarum tenuifolium, but failed to find another much rarer aroid, Ischarum Haenseleri (now Biarum carratracense).
Ripley‚??s botanical forays are fascinating for the devoted plant-lover, even if many of the species mentioned would be next to impossible to grow in the garden. He writes with an assurance which shows a wide knowledge and study of the regions he visited, and perhaps the eye of the artist as much as the botanist, which gives a refreshing cast to his words.
Who in the AGS today spent their childhood climbing into 30ft trees of Rhododendron arboreum, and surveying the scene from high in the topmost branches? Gwendolyn Anley starts her account of miniature rhododendrons (Vol. 8, p.125) with the sentence: ‚??The young, as we know, live with their heads in the clouds, and accept beauty as a matter of course, and not as a gift from heaven‚??. She retains the same feelings much later as she ‚??find[s] infinite pleasure in dwarf rhododendrons, and realise[s] that the smallest of the family are by no means the least beautiful‚??.
Dwarf rhododendrons, and small ericaceous plants in general, form a discrete and special group, needing poor acid soils and moist humid conditions that many gardeners, like myself, cannot easily provide. In consequence they develop a certain mystique which sets them apart from other plants. This makes them all the more fascinating and the idea of building a lath shade house with sand plunge for such species, as described by Gwendolyn Anley, is especially appealing.
My memories of such plants date back to a student visit to Iceland and the extraordinary little ‚??Mountain Azalea‚??, Loiseleuria procumbens. There are numerous references to this in the Bulletin, with some excellent advice on cultivation of a Japanese form by Harry Roberts (Vol. 63, p.128). Gwendolyn Anley describes around 40 miniature species of rhododendron, and quite a few more forms of these: she grows them in a mix of 3 parts lime-free loam/ 1 part oak leafmould/ 1 part sphagnum peat/ and 1 part of the coarsest silver sand available. In winter the plants were protected from excess rain by dutch lights.
It must be difficult to choose favourites, but she picks out R. crebeflorum and R. pumilum ‚??Pink Baby‚?? as gems in pink and rose. The blood red flowers of R. repens and R. forrestii must be very striking but she found these shy flowering. Rhododendron myrtilloides is distinct for its tiny plum-coloured flowers, and I recall a fine specimen of this at Greencombe Garden, near Porlock in Somerset, a garden famous for its collections of Polystichum species and forms, and erythroniums.
The only species we have grown previously in our dry garden in Kent are R. racemosum ‚??Forrest‚??s Dwarf‚?? and R. williamsianum (along with a few recent hybrids), and these certainly encourage the idea of growing more if the right conditions can be provided.
Returning to the Bulletin, ‚??R. Keiskei is an altogether delightful plant; the foliage has a peculiar matt surface, giving the appearance of velvet‚??; the flowers are soft-yellow and ‚??so numerous as completely to hide the foliage‚??. As a final comment she mentions that many species have such pungent foliage that it is ‚??possible to shut the eyes and name each species as the hand caresses it‚??.
Her last paragraph is as charming as her first: ‚??Even the names are a delight, and so poetical as to lead one to suspect that botanists are sometimes human and blessed with an unexpected streak of sentiment in their make-up. What could appeal more to the imagination than amandum (lovable); megeratum (passing lovely); charidotes (giving joy)? Such names as these make the Rhododendron Year Book read like a tender love story rather than a botanical index.‚??
(A good place tp plant small ericaceous species in a relatively hot and dry garden such as ours, is on the north side of a raised bed where moisture levels and humidity are kept as high as possible throughout the year. These are a few examples, again highlighting the fact that the foliage of plants - present all year long - has as great a value in a garden setting as flowers, and dwarf rhododendrons do have fascinating variation in form and habit which is less appreciated until you begin to grow more of them. These are R. megeratum 'Bodnant', R. impeditum 'Indigo', R. 'Oban', and the lovely related Andromeda polifolia 'Blue Ice').
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