Northumberland AGS/SRGC Show, 2017
The last days of March were unseasonably warm in many parts of Britain, with strong sun and often a noticeable breeze too. In a generally early season, this left many exhibitors disappointed as plants they had hoped to exhibit gradually went over during the course of the preceding Thursday or Friday. The wise left them at home; others brought them anyway. Some of the plants customarily seen at this show were in short supply; fortunately, exhibitors still brought plenty of others.
One thing you can rely upon: when a show falls on April 1st (All Fools Day), some members will use their imagination to entertain us. A pan of mixed Corydalis solida seedings in red, white and blue (well, dirty purple, but meant to be blue) was labelled Corydalis ‘Brexit’. The accompanying note alleged that ‘the cultural requirements are peculiar to Britain… it will not tolerate continental conditions.’ Nearby, an apparently attractive cushion in the cushion class looked surprisingly like a head of broccoli. Labelled April follius it was exhibited by ‘Fyn Hetko from Sainsbury, Preston’.
The late David Boyd was a genial, generous, much-loved member of the North East England Group. He came to showing alpines after years of showing chrysanthemums and dahlias. Focusing his exhibiting on one or two genera, he produced large numbers of plants. In later years Hepatica was his preferred genus and he would bring scores of superbly grown plants to the Hexham Show, entering them in every possible class. The new David Boyd Award, a memorial to him, is given for the first time to the best Hepatica in a 19cm pot. Sadly, this year (after a number of weeks when many fine hepaticas were seen on the bench) this was one of those genera suffering from the weather, and there were only three for the judges to consider. The award went to Alan Newton’s plant, labelled Hepatica nobilis var. japonica.
I was more interested in Diane Clement’s plant of Hepatica falconeri, shown in the new in cultivation class. The flowers were white, small and fairly insignificant. The leaves were three-lobed as is commonplace in this genus but the lobes were toothed. The ancients (who believed that the shape or markings of the plant were a sign of the part of the body it would heal) would not have felt that this plant would heal the liver. To your reporter, the spots on the leaves made them look like Ranunculus repens, although there are plenty of closely-related anemones that have similar leaves.
The judges considered five large plants for the Farrer Medal, any of which would have graced the award (the remaining four received Certificates of Merit). It is not uncommon for the best plants to be brought by a friend if the exhibitor cannot attend in person, and in this case the son (also a regular exhibitor) brought his parents’ plant. It was Tim Lever’s turn to run the Aberconwy Nursery stall, bringing with him Keith and Rachel Lever’s plant of Sebaea thomasii ‘Bychan’. A quick look in my Welsh dictionary tells me that ‘bychan’ means ‘small.’ That seemed unlikely, the plant shown dwarf yet anything but small, with flowers seemingly the normal size. Apparently it was selected from a broadly similar batch because, at that stage, it was noticeably smaller and slower-growing than the rest. It is clearly more compact, giving more flowers to the square inch (or square foot) than any other form.
A quick look through the Intermediate and Novice Sections usually reveals some nice plants, and my attention was caught by Pulsatilla vernalis, exhibited by Gemma Hayes. I like this small and elegant plant because it reminds me so much of spring in the Alps. There is also an impressive, muscular form of Pulsatilla vernalis often seen at shows, covered with relatively large flowers; a fine show plant which seems to have relatively little to do with the wild forms. Frank and Barbara Hoyle had one in the Large Open which surely required a strong man to carry it in (fortunately, Frank fits the bill!) Both are fine plants that I would be glad to own and exhibit. But the smaller of them is the one which reminds me of the mountains.
We are privileged at many of our shows to see a superb range of hardy orchids. Often, orchid growing is seen as a hobby for the specialist and a few growers have established this as their main interest. Some advocate the usage of very different composts. At Hexham, a fine potful of Calanthe brevicornu with 14 flower spikes was exhibited by Carole & Ian Bainbridge, who grow a huge range of alpines very well indeed, the conditions provided similar to many other plants in their collection. Although I tend to think of Calanthe as a Japanese genus, its members are spread over a wide part of Asia and indeed Australia; C. brevicornu comes from China and the Himalayas. More or less hardy, it is kept in a frost-free greenhouse over winter. In the summer, it is moved outside into a lightly shaded position and kept reasonably moist, the compost containing plenty of bark, leaf-mould, and pumice. In these conditions, the clump has bulked up steadily over the years. Like many in the genus, C. brevicornu keeps its leaves into the winter, these removed when the new growth comes through in January-February
The class stipulating three foliage plants for effect gives quiet interest, reminding us that flowers aren’t everything. Freshness and immaculate condition of the foliage are obviously required, after which most judges prefer a range of form and colour. Then there is that indefinable criterion: do the plants ‘go together’? Many appear repeatedly in different exhibitor’s entries, becoming familiar friends over the years. However, every now and then something different and less familiar turns up, prompting you to find out more, including what it would look like in flower. Ron & Hilary Price’s winning three included Tofieldia coccinea, shown as a large rosette of spiky leaves, overlapping one another and more or less flat to the soil. They have never seen it flower. Native to eastern Siberia, Korea, Japan and North America (where it delights in names like Northern False Asphodel, Scarlet Asphodel, and Purple Featherling), despite both English and Latin names suggesting a bright red flower, it is normally cream or yellow tinged with pink, red or purple, the flowers arranged in a not particularly impressive spike. Tofieldia used to be included in Liliaceae but since that has been divided up it is usually assigned to Tofieldiaceae, though some authors have included it in Melanthiaceae.
The Oncocyclus irises have a reputation for being easy to kill and sometimes difficult to flower. Most Iris flowers only last a few days, so it is quite possible for your plant to produce its only flower on a Sunday or Monday, this subsequently shrivelled long before the next show. Quite an achievement, as such, for John Bunn to show a plant of Iris sari with seven fully open flowers. These were an intriguing shade of reddish brown and repaid close examination of their intricate patterning. Received from Norman Stevens, it is grown in a sand plunge bed, deploying the sort of perforated pots often used for aquatic plants. This enables him to lift and double-pot it for exhibition. He does not allow the compost to dry out completely during the summer, so the shoots tend to remain green even during the plant’s normal dormant period.
Viola douglasii comes from Oregon, California, and New Mexico, growing in places which are wet in the spring but very dry later in the year. It has deep roots and is summer dormant. George Young grows his plants in long toms, watering well when the plant comes into growth in the spring. During the summer, the plant is positioned so that the bottom of the pot is still in the plunge, so preventing the roots from drying out completely.
Of course there is much more to the show than the competitive classes. A fine display from RBGE Edinburgh graced the end of the hall and received a Gold Special Award. There was a good range of juno irises and other bulbs, of which the ones that stood out most were huge pots of Narcissus fernandesii (several different clones were present).
The show, as usual, received large numbers of visitors, both members and non-members, to learn from and marvel at the exhibits and to buy from the many sales tables. It benefits from a prime site next to the town centre car park and its proximity to the Waitrose supermarket. Perhaps every show should be held next to a supermarket? A feature of the Hexham Show is the large number of supermarket trolleys employed to take plants out at the end of the day.
Our thanks to Angus Thompson and his team for a well-run and successful show. Angus, in his first show as show secretary, maintained a calmness and a confidence you might expect from a seasoned campaigner. Well done everyone.
Author: Peter Hood
Photographer: Mike Dale