South West AGS Show, 2017
A change of venue can alter the character of a show as much as can a significant change of date. What might changing both at once bring? After at least 25 years at various schools in Exeter city (the limit of our memories), the South West Show struck out for the mud and cows of North Devon, relocating to the RHS Garden, Rosemoor. The anticipated new hall not being finished, show and trade stands had to be separated, with a short walk through the garden in between. With free access to the entire garden on the day for AGS members, this was no hardship for visitors, and any logistical difficulties were overcome, with cheerful and efficient organization by Kana and Jon Webster and their team. Most visitors’ first sight would have been Simon Bond, who appeared to have drawn a particularly short straw, cap pulled firmly down over his eyes against lively April showers, hunched under the eaves of a building with his trade stand. So nothing changes that much...
Scheduled a month earlier than last year, the show was now firmly back in bulb season, with Fritillaria the on-form genus. A large, well-flowered and pristine potful of Fritillaria reuteri (Bob & Rannveig Wallis) made a splendid sight, and was judged best plant in show. For the sheer beauty of its individual flowers we admired George Elder’s F. mutabilis [left], with its broad, shallow bells, each purple tepal highlighted by a vivid green median stripe.
But in a genus beloved of bulb frame specialists, many of us are really on the lookout for good forms of species which can be grown out on the rock garden, and our eyes were caught by F. acmopetala subsp. wendelboi (Jim Loring). The broad, chunky, almost square flowers set it apart from other forms of the species, and the complex pattern in this clone’s ‘chocolate lime’ colour scheme was especially attractive. As Bad Frit Growers, we were heartened that another, much more illustrious AGS figure was also adding this plant to her must-have list.
Easy garden plants can win first prize, of course. Probably the only onions in the show were two pots of Allium paradoxum var. normale (Anne Vale) - and both won firsts. With perfectly, opaquely white flowers and shining bright green leaves, it’s an alluring thing. Without the bulbils of A. p. var. paradoxum, it’s safe to plant in the rock garden or trough, although it can seed around.
A far less likely prospect for the open garden (but never say never) is Eucomis regia, the only described species from the Western Cape winter rainfall area and hence in growth through the winter. George Elder’s pot of three large bulbs, each with a thick spike of pale green flowers drooling nectar, was both impressive and difficult to achieve. The bulbs take a long time to reach full size, and even then can flower unpredictably. ‘Lots of water!’ says George. Not only is his pot plunged but it is watered especially frequently. When flowering it shows striking similarity to Whiteheadia bifolia, a mouse-pollinated South African bulb. Recently, evidence has been published supporting what has been suspected for a while: Eucomis regia is pollinated by rodents in the wild. In cultivation, the main visitors are ants, and even on the show bench one local ant had found its way to the nectar. The heavy, musty odour of the flowers is not for the faint hearted, and it can’t have been the best travelling companion on the long drive home from Wales.
It’s bearded iris season, too. The vivid golden yellow flowers of Iris pumila J&JA 199590 are highlighted by deep brown-purple fall patches and feathering on the standards, much admired on Lee & Julie Martin’s plant. They also exhibited a huge potful of greenish-cream flowered I. suaveolens [right], densely flowered and near its brief peak. ‘You’ll have to write about this one,’ groaned Jon Evans as he staggered past with it, on his way to the show photographer’s official patch of daylight, ‘it’s the heaviest plant in the show!’ One of the loveliest, as well.
Beautiful dwarf shrubs are a regular delight at shows; truly unfamiliar ones are not. Roger Clarke’s Agapetes smithiana var. major, exhibited in an Ericaceae class, is just such a plant. A Himalayan evergreen, with arching stems and hanging, broadly tubular, lemon yellow flowers, it was about 40cm tall as exhibited, although it can become taller. With judicious pruning, bearing in mind that Agapetes flower on the previous year’s growth, it would certainly be in scale with the larger rock garden, on acidic soil in milder parts of Britain. Roger’s plant, two years on from a cutting he was given, has not been tried outside here in South Devon – yet. A talking point for all sorts of reasons, a scurrilous (and doubtless false) rumour circulated that the judges were unsure at first as to whether this was even a member of the Ericaceae!
AGS purists sometimes shake their heads over that sort of plant. No such questions concerning another yellow flowered beauty, Viola brevistipulata subsp. hidakana (Lionel Clarkson). This rhizomatous species from Japan has rather thick, erect stems carrying dark-tinted leaves. Were it not for the squat yellow violets at the tips, it could almost have been one of the freely-running perennial types of Impatiens. There seems to be a North-South divide over this alpine house subject. We couldn’t find a fellow local who would admit to ever having seen it, except in photographs, but we’re told it quite often appears at northern shows. We’re all indebted to exhibitors who are prepared to bring their plants such long distances (a round trip of about 600 miles in Lionel’s case, we calculate).
The cut flower classes sometimes seem peripheral to the show, but they can be entered by any of us who grow alpines, regardless of whether or not we have alpine houses or sand plunges full of show pots. Realistically, it’s also the only way some rock garden plants will ever appear in a show. Barry Starling’s collection of six generously filled vases of lovely things was a case in point. ‘I don’t have much in pots these days,’ Barry told us modestly - but this peerless grower of ericaceous plants and more has nothing to prove in AGS circles. His selection included Cassiope ‘George Taylor’ and Erythronium revolutum ‘God’s Valley’, a seed strain with large, richly coloured flowers and particularly well marked leaves, originating in the Coast Range of northern Oregon. Also connected to the Pacific Northwest was Shortia ‘Leona’, a hybrid between S. galacifolia and S. uniflora raised by the late Steve Doonan in Washington state. How many of us have enough of that to pick a vaseful?
Dick Fulcher’s Primula nghialoensis got the red ticket in a Primula class, but could just as well have been entered as ‘new’ or ‘rare in cultivation’. Only described in 2010, this Vietnamese member of Section Chartacea has blue-purple flowers with attractively fringed petals, in a single whorl on each stem, over dark green, wavy-margined leaves. Its closest remotely familiar relative is P. petelotii. Dick’s plant, in a black plastic pot attractively dressed with moss, is kept in a polytunnel at present, and quite heavily watered. We suspect that keeping this species in long term cultivation will be a great challenge.
Staying with Primulaceae, we must mention an alleged experimental hybrid exhibited under the unpublished name X Cyclonysia intermedia. Looking to the untrained eye (and probably also to the trained eye) like a Dionysia cushion studded with Cyclamen flowers in the shape of a grinning face, it caused general mirth and genuine - if short lived - interest from at least one person who really should have known better. The exhibitor was, of course, one April Fewell of Kabul (or was that Chippenham?)
Authors: Sarah and Julian Sutton
Photographer: Jon Evans