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February Flowers

February 13, 2019
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Here we go again..!

For those of us who have gardened in one place over a period of time, one of the few advantages of the advancing years is that the early spring display just gets better, year on year.

If, early on, one has introduced a judicious mix of good single-flowered snowdrop varieties (but not hybrids), winter aconites, Cyclamen coum, Crocus tommasinianus in variety, Crocus chrystanthus/biflorus ditto and Lenten Roses, all of them should self-sow and naturalise to create an early, weather-proof carpet of colour in February and early March. This general picture (below), can essentially be duplicated in many parts of the garden.

It should be added that, in this garden at least, a ‘second string’ of early naturalisers takes over in mid March, so that Anemone blanda, A. nemorosa, Primula elatior, Omphalodes verna, Trillium, Erythronium and others have a similar impact a month later. The great thing about nearly all of these is that they die down quite early, so that they don’t interfere with later displays in the way that the autumn-flowering colchicums do. I might make an exception here for the later snowdrops such as Galanthus woronowii, and the snowflakes, whose overlush foliage can linger on into June. But who would be without them? The February display is the most precious of the year, following the dreary winter months.

From the diarist’s point of view, the bad news about the early spring display is that it tends to be spectacular rather rather species-rich. Of course, those who specialise in early bulbs under glass have a much greater variety to play with. This north-sloping garden with a high horizon gets no winter sun, and the sun does not reach our alpine houses until the end of February. I have long-since learnt that whereas ‘easy’ bulbs thrive in the garden, specialist species are not on the whole a success here.

Trawling through early spring entries over the last few years, I find myself in danger of repetition ad nauseam. So, what follows is really a hotch-pot of novelties; plants that have not featured here before, or at least not recently. For instance, the area that I developed last summer, once the Korean fir had been demolished, was planted with a range of early bulbs, the first of which have started to flower. I am fond of the variety of Crocus (sieberi subsp.) atticus called ‘Firefly’. I already have a small rather overgrown patch in one corner of the garden, so I knew it would multiply here. Being a native of the northern Peloponnese it has a special place in my heart.

Crocus chrysanthus ‘Cream Beauty’ has also started to flower here.

This pan of Crocus biflorus ‘Ladykiller’ in the alpine house dates from several years ago. In truth I had forgotten it and it was labelled something else on repotting, the original label having been lost. This time I have made a note to plant it out in the garden at repotting time, as it is more likely to thrive there (apart from anything else the mice seem more active in the alpine house). So far, the birds seem to have left the crocus flowers outside alone.

Completing this short section on early crocus, Crocus paschei is new to me. This comes from the collection of our much-missed local group member Ray Johnstone who passed in the summer. He grew it from seed. This photo is perhaps a tad early as there are a number of flowers to come.

Looking through the photos of snowdrops that I have recorded over the recent years, I seem not to have mentioned an interesting early pair of Classical ladies, ‘Cordelia’ and ‘Hippolyta’. Both were rather tricky characters as I recall, notably Hippolyta who gave Theseus a right run-around. Anyway, here first is ‘Cordelia’ with her interestingly-shaped flower  and unusual marking.

And here is Galanthus ‘Hippolyta’.

As you can see, the ladies are clearly related and quite similar, but vary chiefly in the shape of the green mark on the inner tepal.

Some years ago, I was told by a friend that someone had tipped a load of garden waste in a hedgebank near Haydon Bridge and this had included many Galanthus elwesii, many of which had rooted and started to naturalise. Clearly this was too great an opportunity to miss, and although this is a species which on the whole does not thrive in this cold garden with its heavy soil, when I went to see for myself, I brought a few bulbs home. Interestingly, the source population must have been self-sowing, for each of the small clumps which have developed from the 1-2 bulbs I had individually planted have proved to be quite distinct. The plant I am figuring here most unusually starts to flower before the leaves emerge, a trait which is not shared by the others. Later (as shown here), the leaves start to develop, but not long before the very precocious flowers start to fade. Incidentally, I planted them in a sand bed in front of the alpine house. This gets no sun early on, but is a hot bed (by our standards) into the later spring, and the good drainage suits this species here.

Folk are generous. Last year, a member of our group (I will spare his blushes) came up to me in a meeting and asked if I wanted a flowering-sized Daphne bholua. This is a plant which I have owned twice, each time losing it during an exceptional winter, the second time in 2009. He gave it to me at one of the spring shows, and it has established well in a sheltered corner (I seem to remember it hates winds). Although still something of a stick, it has started to produce its wonderfully scented flowers.

I am happy to say that the ‘Northumberland Yellow’ snowdrop, Galanthus nivalis ‘Sandersii’, which I am fortunate to grow in several parts of the garden, self-sows in a very modest way, so that occasional singletons crop up unexpectedly. The late Ruby Baker showed that the yellow trait is inherited, half the seedlings exhibiting it. This one has embedded itself in the heart of a Lenten Rose, itself self-sown, which brings me back to where I started. By the way, this was taken two weeks ago when we enjoyed a week of snow, now a distant memory.

This is really quite inappropriate and out of context, but I can’t help being proud to announce that two of what I call my ‘Canaries’ seem to be entering a reproductive phase. These areoniums and relatives live in the back porch, where, although sheltered from the worst of the winter, they regularly experience some frost. Here first is Greenovia aurea from the lower slopes of Tenerife’s Teide, where it grows on roadside cliffs in the Canary Pine zone. As you see it has produced a magnificent ‘V-sign’.

The fascinating Aeonium tabuliforme, from cliffs in N.W. Tenerife, seems to be producing something equally inappropriate!

Image of John Richards John Richards

John Richards has lived in south Northumberland for 50 years and has been a keen grower of alpines, and visitor to the mountains, throughout the half-century. He and his wife Sheila have been in their present garden 30 years and John has been writing this diary about the garden since 2006.

John is Emeritus Professor of Botany at the University of Newcastle, where his research interests centre on the evolution and genetics of plant breeding systems. He is an authority on the genera Primula and Taraxacum (dandelions!). John is an AGS judge, exhibitor and Vice-President and previous President (2003-6).