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Meconopsis and others (May 2019)

May 18, 2019
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Read previous diary entries here.

See what’s in flower in our Northumberland diarist’s garden this month.

Early mecs

The better we have come to know the eastern Himalaya and western China in recent years, the more it has become apparent that Meconopsis, which I once thought of as a relatively modest genus, has at least doubled in size over the last 25 years as these remote areas have opened up, politically and physically and remote areas have become more familiar.

Leading the way in this have been the indefatigable Japanese Toshio Yoshida and our own Chris Grey-Wilson, who has been involved in the publication of two handsome monographs of the genus in recent years. More and more species are entering cultivation, at least for the select few with the enthusiasm and suitable garden conditions. Most (and indeed most species in the genus) are monocarpic, that is to say they die after flowering. If they are to continue in cultivation, seed needs to be set, saved and stored correctly. It does not help that many monocarpic species seem to be self-incompatible (will only set seed after crosses between different individuals (not flowers!)). And, in any case, seedlings are almost always stronger when they result from crosses between individuals. This means that if seedlings flower at different times (and often only a few flowers are set), it is necessary to store ripe anthers in a fridge until the later specimen flowers. This technique was espoused by Henry and Margaret Taylor many years ago and I employ it with success, already with M. integrifolia and M. delavayi this year.

So here we are in mid May, in a not very forward year, none of the ‘big blues’ have flowered yet and already eleven species or hybrids have flowered here. What is astonishing about this genus, apart from the flower size, is the range of colours: white, cream, yellow, red, pink, purple, blue, violet – a veritable rainbow!

The first species to flower here this year was Meconopsis integrifolia subsp. integrifolia, grown from seed last year, which started at the end of April and is now nearly finished. However, other individuals are still budded, having grown more slowly last summer.

Meconopsis integrifolia subsp. souliei grows in a different area, to the south in west Sichuan. It differs in details of the stigma, but in my experience tends to be dwarfer and a deeper yellow. It is in flower here now, with a few to come.

I should have said that subsp. souliei tends to have the more upright flowers too. One of the M. integrifolia group (they were not split into four species then so it is difficult to be sure which) was crossed with a perennial blue species (probably M. grandis) to give rise to the white to cream perennial M. x ‘Beamishii’. This has dwindled over the years and needs propagating but is flowering now too.

I must admit that the second species to flower here has been a disappointment. I raised two seedlings of M. sinomaculata, a recently described species from the Balang Shan. Photos show this to be a fabulous thing with black centres to the royal blue flowers. It may be new to cultivation. One seedling struggled but the other grew well and produced a single flower. Unfortunately, this developed abnormally so that some petals contained sepalar material and did not open properly. I am showing photos at its best, for the historical records. The plant itself still looks very well and I hope for late-season flowers.

Talking of possibly less charismatic species from the Balang Shan, I have also raised a few M. balangensis. As yet only one has flowered. This is a relative of the more attractive M. rudis (yet to flower here this year) with the same pimply leaves (not clear in this photo) but different, attractive but rather washy flowers.

It is worth pointing out that several of the smaller species seedlings were planted out into fishbox troughs once things had cooled down a bit last summer. Here they were liquid-fed with dilute ‘tomorite’ until they died down in November, when they were covered with cloches until they started to move in March.

This is the recipe I have followed for some years for my favourite, the minature M. delavayi, which I was lucky to see in the Gan he-ba back in 1995. I have about six this year, of which three have flowered so far, non-overlapping, hence the pollen storage.

We move on to some hopefully perennial species. The ‘Harebell Poppy’, M. quintuplinervia has never thrived with me so it is many years since I tried it, possibly in another garden even. It is said to be one of the easier species and certainly thrived for R.B. Cooke down the road at ‘Kilbryde’ where he first raised its hybrid with M. punicea, M. x cookei. However, a  plant purchased last year and overwintered under a cloche has produced several flowers.

I was able to raise quite a lot of the wonderful ‘red flag’, M. punicea and have at least 15 planted out. The first three have now just come into flower.

For the sake of completeness, here is the hybrid M. x cookei ‘Old Rose’, which is vigorous here and grows in many areas.

Some years ago now, Ian Christie released and publicised a perennial seedling of the monocarpic M. punicea (both the ‘Harebell Poppy’ and ‘Old Rose’ are perennial) which he called ‘Sichuan Silk’. He very kindly gave me a bit a couple of years ago and it has done well and is flowering now. It is earlier than M. punicea, which adds to the suspicion that it is in fact a backcross to a M. x cookei as the scarlet is not the same shade as in M. punicea. Whatever, it is a fine plant I am glad to have.

When I said that none of my ‘big blues’ are yet flowering, this is strictly correct, as the M. gakyidiana (formerly M. grandis subsp. orientalis) now in flower is in fact a rich red-purple, as indeed are many grandis types. This was also grown from seed last year.

And in fact as I write, I find that a M. grandis, possibly ‘Himal Sky’ but not in good form, has also deigned to flower.

And the others…

A lot more to write about and not much space.

I was amused by this seedling of reputed Gentiana ligustica. It is definitely one plant so it has mutated and is a chimaera with two different genotypes. Now I wonder if the seed from the pale flowers will come true?

I don’t think Lewisia stebbinsii is very often seen? I have grown this very local Californian endemic for some years but it does not often flower. By the by, G. Ledyard Stebbins was one of the great plant evolutionists and writer of several books which inspired me as a student. He was reputed to mow his front lawn completely unclothed!

Here is another very rare pant, Primula hidakana, probably because it too rarely flowers. I have grown it for more than 10 years but any buds usually abort. Two is the record here! A localised Japanese endemic.

In my book ‘Primula’, I classified P. melanops within P. chionantha. It grows rather to the north of P. chionantha and for some years now I have regarded it as distinct. Rachel Lever (from Aberconwy Nursery) gave me a plant last year which she received as P. macrophylla, asking to suggest whart it might be when it flowered. Note the large dark eyed rounded flowers, wide rounded leaves and very mealy calyx.

Here for contrast is the sinopurpurea form of P. chionantha, one of several flowering here at present.

And finally, from Edrom Nursery last year, two splendid plants of the very rare Primula violacea, a Muscarioides species endemic once again to the Balang Shan. And one is thrum and the other pin!

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).