Plant of the Month
Kabschia saxifrages are the jewels of the garden in March. They form slow-growing mounds studded with vibrant flowers, equally at home on the show bench or growing over tufa or in rock crevices. They require excellent drainage and must not be overshadowed by taller plants if planted in the rock garden. Saxifraga ‘Laka’ is one of the many new cultivars raised in the Czech Republic in recent years, with sessile mid pink flowers and a darker eye. There is now a wonderful range of colours available from pale to deep pink, red, purple, yellow, orange and white.
Saxifraga callosa var. australis ‘Lantoscana Limelight’ is a reliable plant, increasing slowly and flowering regularly in June, with delicate panicles of white flowers. The species comes from the Maritime Alps and western Italy. Although snowdrops, crocus and cyclamen are beginning to emerge after the snow a framework of small shrubs and attractive foliage is important to maintain interest. Silver saxifrages are indispensible for the rock garden as their foliage is attractive all year round. In winter a hoar frost magnifies their beauty. As the days lengthen the silver encrustation on the rosettes intensifies until the flower buds emerge in May.
Daphne bholua‘ Darjeeling’ is a tall, upright shrub with white flowers and pink buds, which comes from the eastern Himalayas. It is one of the hardiest and most evergreen forms of this invaluable species, sometimes flowering as early as November and continuing well into the new year. It is deliciously fragrant and an ideal shrub to grow near the house, where it will benefit from a little protection. Despite dire warnings that it should not be heavily pruned this one has twice been cut to within a 40 cm or so of the ground as it obscured the kitchen window. It has bounced back but it should be borne in mind when planting that it can grow to well over two metres.
Crocus laevigatus comes from Greece including the Cyclades and Crete and flowers from late autumn to early spring. C. laevigatus ‘Fontenayi’ is a lilac form with conspicuous dark feathering, which lights up the dark days of November. As it is quite small it deserves a sheltered spot on a raised bed or trough.
Cyclamen graecum comes from southern Greece, the Peloponnese, the Aegean Isles, Crete, Rhodes, the south coast of Turkey and part of north Cyprus. It can be found at sea level up to 1,200m and grows in rocky areas and also in pine needle litter. The flowers appear just before, or with the leaves, and vary from pale pink to deep carmine, with a magenta blotch at the base. The leaves are endlessly variable, basically dark green with striking combinations of cream, grey, silver and shades of green. It is reputed to survive outside if deeply planted but this has not been my experience. However, I have found it to be easy in an unheated greenhouse, in deep pots as the corky tubers have strong, thong-like roots. Although it helps flowering if it receives a summer baking the plunge should always be kept a little damp. It is distinct in that, after pollination, the flower stems coil from the centre, not from the top or bottom like other species.
The recent longed-for rain should hasten the appearance of autumn crocus. Most need a sunny, dry site but Crocus nudiflorus comes from moist pastures, alpine meadows and woodland clearings in South West France and Northern Spain, particularly the Pyrenees. In the garden it likes semi-shade with soil enriched with leaf mould or other forms of humus and it won’t have appreciated our dry summer. The large purple flowers have long tubes and yellow anthers and they spread slowly from stolons.
Seed of this tiny Eucomis schijffii was bought from Jim and Jenny Archibald in 1997. It was collected south of the Sani Pass in the Drakensberg at 2,850 m and as it comes from such high altitudes it has proved hardy on a raised bed. A flat rosette of broad, glaucous leaves, tinged with purple, appears in June. This is followed in August by a fat, purple-spotted stem of 4-10cm rising from the centre, packed with purple-red flowers and with a top-knot of purplish bracts. Eventually the stem dries and would blow away if it were not for the observant gardener eager to collect seed.
Campanulas add so much to the rock garden in July and C. cochleariifolia is one of the easiest and daintiest. This month’s plant is Campanula x haylodgensis ‘Plena’, a seedling from a cross between C. cochleariifolia and C. carpatica. It slowly forms a mat and is deciduous. The double flowers on 12 cm stems are powder blue in colour. C. cochleariifolia ‘Elizabeth Oliver’ is a similar plant but the flowers are slightly smaller and less open.
Sisyrinchium 'Californian Skies' is an easy-going plant for a sunny position. The sky-blue flowers are dark blue at the base with a yellow throat. Starting in June it has a long flowering season and needs little attention, slowly spreading into a good mat. This plant came from the celebrated and much-missed Washfield Nusery.
Much as one admires the cushion-forming androsaces that make an appearance at the shows they need skilful cultivation so it is fortunate that many species are easy to grow in the rock garden, raised bed or trough. This Androsace sarmentosa yunnanensis has survived for over twenty years in a trough without any protection. The woolly rosettes look attractive in winter and in May they cover themselves with umbels of bright pink flowers on 4" stems. It has a stoloniferous habit and is easily propagated from new rosettes in summer.
Although Morisia monanthos looks like a typical alpine plant it comes from the coastal sands of Corsica and Sardinia. ‘Fred Hemingway’ is a form with much larger flowers than the type. The bright yellow flowers are set off by dark, glossy, saw-toothed leaves. Not surprisingly it needs sharp drainage and a sunny site and is ideal for troughs. It needs to be propagated by root cuttings, easily done inadvertently if you keep a pan plunged in the alpine house!
The delightful Crocus tommasinianus spreads freely by seed, popping up in paths and crevices. It is wonderful for naturalising in grass and could almost be called a weed were it not for the glorious range of colours from pale lilac to deep purple. They are much loved by bees and these are some of the results from open pollination of Crocus tommasinianus ‘Roseus’ and seed from the AGS seed exchange.
This is the most exciting month of the year for galanthophiles and even those who claim that all snowdrops look alike must find their hearts lifted by these delicate flowers blooming exuberantly in the cold weather. Galanthus 'Robin Hood' has distinctive inner segement markings likened to a pair of crossing sabres by Richard Nutt or the shape of a spanner by Aaron Davis.
Cyclamen coum can be relied upon to flower throughout the winter, often appearing through the snow. Although recommended for shade it also seeds and grows happily in full sun in the UK. This plant was raised from seed collected in Turkey by the Cyclamen Society.
In this dark damp month it is a joy to see the first narcissi bloom in the alpine house. Narcissus 'Taffeta' can be relied upon to flower in December or even earlier. It was raised in about 1950 from the cross N. romieuxii x N. cantabricus var. foliosus by Douglas Blanchard, father of John.
Saxifraga fortunei 'Pink Cloud'
One of the benefits of attending the two national shows in Kent is the opportunity to buy plants from specialist nuseries. This compact form of Saxifraga fortunei comes from Aberconwy Nursery and the clouds of pale pink flowers light up a shady corner in October and November.