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Cleveland AGS Show, 2017

Early May is typically lilac-time in England; hawthorn has long been known to country dwellers as ‘May’ with good reason, and laburnum arches such as the renowned one at Bodnant are usually at their best in the second half of that month. Yet as my train thundered its way up to Darlington, flowering specimens of all three plants could be seen out of the window, north of York. Arriving just as judging began, I quickly reconnoitred the show benches and noted that here too, various plants associated with earliest summer - Tulbaghia comminsii, a scattering of dwarf alliums, Zaluzianskya ovata and a couple of eriogonums – had infiltrated the ranks of more characteristically mid-spring flowering representatives.

Cassiope wardii

This really has been a tremendous spring for dwarf Ericaceae in many parts of the country, despite a lack of rain that has seen water butts emptied and hoses deployed as early as March. Two exhibitors from the North East had the pick of the crop at this show. Ian Kidman won the large Open Section class for three plants belonging to this family, his entry made up of x Kalmiothamnus ‘Sindelberg’, an abundantly-flowered, flat to the mat presentation of Cassiope lycopodioides, and the plum component, a plant shown as C. wardii hybrid [right] that is surely one and the same as C. ‘Slipstream’, recipient of a Farrer Medal at the 1989 AGS/ SRGC Newcastle Show under the guise C. wardii but betraying the co-parental input of C. fastigiata in its more slender shoots and the flared rather than tubby flowers, so densely stacked (a count of 20+ per shoot is routine) and held so close to the foliage that the flowers  sometimes cannot open fully and appear slightly squashed, in Pekinese manner. (Nearby, Trevor Harding’s example of the same cross was closer to C. wardii and looked very much like C. ‘George Taylor’, named for the man who first chanced upon this hybrid in 1938.)

Cassiope wardii x selaginoides

The finest, if not the dwarfest clone of C. selaginoides remains the one introduced by Ludlow, Sherriff and Elliott in 1950 under the collectors’ number L,S&E 13284. This is the largest-flowered member of the genus but any overcrowding is avoided by the distancing allowed by the elegant, 2cm or longer pale green pedicels from which the corollas hang, their spacing remarkably even. And so to the second heavyweight contender: Alan Furness followed up his outstanding exhibit of C. ‘Muirhead’ (= wardii x lycopodioides) at Hexham a fortnight earlier with a rarely-seen affiliate of Mike & Polly Stone’s C. Snow-wreath Group (= wardii x selaginoides), clearly inheriting all the virtues of the 1950 exemplar but with slightly thicker, hairier shoots and pedicels of similar length yet so minutely white-hairy as to be frosted (the only time that ‘frosted’ in conjunction with this genus has been used as a mark of approbation, not regret following an overnight browning of the flowers). Both Ian and Alan received a Certificate of Merit for their plants.

I’ll come back to a few of their other entries but for now wish to draw attention to the most diminutive member of the Ericaceae, Brian Burrow’s Gaultheria trichophylla, a stowaway in a clump of moss harbouring another plant, brought back from Nepal by George Smith in 1986 and handed, as was his custom, to Brian soon after his return. This has spent most of the intervening years under the shelter of a Rhododendron until it was potted up two years ago, encouraging it to yield a scattering of pink, lily-of-the-valley like, single flowers, and even berry without a mate. John Richards, who recalls a large mat of this at Kilbryde, onetime garden of Randle Cooke, concurs that it probably represents the taxon var. eciliata, first described in the Flora of Bhutan, although one might add that quite often it is only the new shoots that have margins furnished with short hairs; these are shed as the foliage matures.

Leucopogon suaveolens

Back to another couple of Ian’s plants; firstly Leucopogon suaveolens (which won its class for a plant from the southern hemisphere). Presently included under the Ericaceae banner but until quite recently placed in the family Epacridaceae, this is initially very dwarf and slow-growing, although ultimately the mats can reach a diameter of 2m.  While given as this in various New Zealand floras, from 2005 onwards a distinction has been upheld between populations from New Guinea and Borneo, now transferred to Acrothamnus suaveolens, and those from New Zealand’s North and South islands at up to 1,600m, once given as Cyathodes colensoi, now A. colensoi. The plant seen, with greyish leaves and clusters of tiny, highly fragrant (pear drop with a hint of spice), pale pink, fringed flowers, is presumably of the latter kind. More straightforwardly, he showed a demure pan of a descendant of Kath Dryden’s Trillium rivale Winifred Murray Group, uniquely with a heavily pink-stained midrib to each petal, and a pronounced picotée effect that one hopes is fixed, not a seasonal quirk.

Dianthus microlepis

Alan Furness, his rival in several closely-contested classes, also brought along mature, floriferous plants of Rhododendron calostrotum ‘Gigha’ and Phyllodoce nipponica, and briefly considered entering these as a three-pan before redeploying them singly, to good effect. He also had a lovely Dianthus microlepis [left] from a January 2012 sowing, floriferous as you could wish, and short of stem.

Primula reidii var. williamsii

Other notable plants with declared raised from seed status included Lionel Clarkson’s Himalayan Anemone rupicola (sown in December 2014 and according to one exhibitor almost rampant in his garden from a Kath Baker introduction, though most gardeners struggle to establish plants), Clare Oates’ Primula reidii var. williamsii [right] (January 2015, its perfume an antidote to the unsavoury fug emitted by the cassiopes) and – most notably – Don Peace’s Farrer Medal-winning Androsace vandellii [below], which from a September 2008 sowing has formed a tight cushion 16 cm in diameter, with purest white flowers of good size forming a complete covering. This and other specimens he has grown have been in close contention for best in show over a number of years; this was the first time he had secured the award with this species.

Androsace vandellii

Apart from showing several other smaller, equally floriferous examples of Androsace vandellii in other classes, either in three-pan exhibits  or as stand-alone entries (all secured first prizes, and some had been grown from cuttings, which supposedly yield inferior results to seedlings: on this evidence, case dismissed!), Don also won the small six-pan and an AGS Medal – his party trick, as at most of the spring shows this year, the Ivor Barton Memorial Trophy for six monocots (all of them fritillarias, stood outdoors in clement weather to prevent them from etiolating) and, by some margin, the Open Section aggregate prize.

Primula elatior

Cowslips were in full flower on the railway banks just outside Darlington train station; primroses are at their peak countrywide, and I’m told that the oxlips are a delight in their Suffolk enclaves. But not just in East Anglia: Mike Dale dug up a voluptuous clump from his Felton (near Newcastle) garden that richly deserved its Certificate of Merit: in all my years of visiting shows, I’ve not seen its equal. In general this likes a rich, loamy soil with humus incorporated and is much better in the open ground than when confined to a pot. Also lifted from the open ground, his Sanguinaria canadensis f. multiplex ‘Plena’ hadn’t shed a single petal and looked resplendent in the shafts of sunlight that permeated the hall.

Iris sprengeri

Frank & Barbara Hoyle weren’t able to attend in person but had plants taken for them, including a well-established (10 flowers fully open and further buds about to break), fairly tall Iris acutiloba. Robin Pickering showed its later ego, I. sprengeri with much larger flowers on stems only a quarter the height, though as yet with only slight evidence of spreading by the couch grass-like stolons that characterise this narrow endemic from the steppe and volcanic slopes of central Turkey, first introduced to cultivation in 1903, and still a challenge to maintain: aphids are its nemesis.

Trilliums were also a feature of the show, including late-running examples of the earlier-mentioned T. rivale, and on upwards in scale to T. grandiflorum: Chris lilley had a mature plant of this in his large six-pan entry, but also showed a very dwarf example of T. luteum, at most 6cm tall, rescued in dormancy from the languishing collection of the late John Dennis. This had all the makings of a first-rate clump, given the five to ten years that such plants take to augment their size and convert their promising status to that of a show-stopper.

Author: Robert Rolfe
Photographers: Don Peace and Robert Rolfe

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