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Didn’t it rain! (August 2019)

August 10, 2019
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Read previous diary entries here.

One of the most characteristic meteorological features of recent years, doubtless a result of climate change, has been the August monsoon.

Once again we have had a mostly pleasant summer, having avoided nearly all the extreme heat experienced by the southern half of England, with temperatures generally peaking in the low to mid ’20s. This is still too hot for some of the Himalayan specialities I tend to toy with, but the nights have rarely exceeded 14°C at the coolest and levels of humidity have remained on the high side, aided by intermittent showers, so that I have scarcely needed to apply any water to the garden. Remarkably, some keystone species such as Meconopsis delavayi and Primula reidii (of which more later) have perennated in apparently good shape.

However, and increasingly characteristically, as soon as we hit August the depressions roll in from the Atlantic, charged with successions of heavy cloud-bursts. In the last ten days we have received almost as many inches of rain. As this is hilly country, we are usually spared the worst of the flooding experienced further south but the garden becomes sodden. We can’t cut the grass or the hay, or indeed the hedges without becoming soaked to the skin and the perennial borders become smashed or drunken in posture. Heigh ho! At least we are spared the worst of the heat, gales or floods.

One of the features of this summer here, and in most places I guess, has been the influx of Painted Lady butterflies (and its less infrequent companion the Red Admiral). Now that the buddleias are out (only whites and very dark ones here, religiously pruned to 2m before they seed), we have enjoyed more than a dozen at a time.

It has also been a great year for resident butterflies. We have recorded several Holly Blues in the garden for the first time (a recent arrival in NE England and mostly confined to the big gardens and cemetries of north Newcastle, Jesmond and Gosforth). Elsewhere, it was a bumper year for Dark-green Fritillaries and Small Pearl-bordered Fritillaries. In the garden, the nymphalid hibernators; Peacock, Small Tortoiseshell and Comma have appeared in unprecedented numbers. Doubtless they are now looking for somewhere dry to spend the winter! Here are a pair of Peacocks.

As frequently stated, this is not an August garden and even the usual standbys have gone through rapidly after the cloudbursts. We enjoy a small collection of Dierama, the earliest of which is D. pendulum ‘Album’, which has now formed a magnificent clump where it associates with a Crocosmia and foxgloves.

Elsewhere, we grow the standard pinky-purple form of D. pendulum – a good 2.5m high more or less, where the ‘Angel’s Fishing Rods’ can hang over our (tiny) pond. On a much smaller scale is D. dracomontanum, also grown from seed and positioned in several sheltered corners of the garden. Here it is with white and yellow forms of Verbascum chaixii which sow around here rather too much, irrespective of colour, but which are tolerated in many places as late-flowering space fillers.

Here is Dierama dracomontanum photographed on the slopes below the Sani on the Lesotho border during our trip there back in 2008.

Another survivor here is what is probably a hybrid between D. igneum and D. pauciflorum. At one stage a hybrid swarm between these species self-sowed here but scarcely survived the 2010 winter and have been hit by subsequent freeze-ups. However, they are once again starting to gain control. Characteristically, there is a slight brownish tint to the pink flowers.

Staying with scarlet: bird-pollinated flowers from the southern hemisphere, but this time from Chile. I have long been a fan of the three scarlet gesneriad subshrubs from that region: Asteranthera, Sarmienta and Mitraria. They should flourish in this humid garden, but I have not succeeded with any of these until now.

However, a plant of Mitraria coccinea, purchased from Edrom Nurseries about two years ago, which sulked in a pot in an alpine house (thus doubtless protecting it from the worst vicissitudes of winter), was planted out in a shady, leaf-mould rich corner this spring. It’s since put on new growth and a sprinkling of the scarlet flowers. I guess the monsoon should suit it, as it comes from the Chilean temperate rainforests.

Another novelty to the garden, also a subshrub from the Americas but a beautiful oyster-leaved, white-belled Ericaceae is Zenobia pulverulenta. This was a most unexpected discovery; a singleton in a tiny business just up the road from here which rarely has much to offer, but just the occasional treasure which invites the odd stop-over. I have just finished re-reading Edgar Anderson’s wonderful Seven Gardens, and I see he grew it in a dry position in high-rainfall Porlock. I have chosen a raised but semi-shaded corner. I suspect its complete hardiness, but we will see.

This gentian was grown from seed two years ago and has flowered in several places. In shade it has seemed happier but leggier and some plants have proved more attractive than others. I think the seed came as G. kurroo, but it is also possible that more than one accession name was involved. G. kurroo is, I think, native to Kashmir, and thus not accessible to outsiders at the present time. Therefore, garden stock may have hybridised with other north-west Himalayas such as G. decumbens, G. gracilipes, G. tibetica (white) and even the fabled G. cashmeriana, which is a lovely thing (much more attractive than this). In short, I think the garden taxonomy of these late-flowering west Himalayan gentians is a mess, a Cinderella group which might reward more attention.

Roscoea is another genus which provides some late interest here. R. alpina is over here now but for a short time held the award for the best plant in the garden – that day!

In this not very good photo, a standard pink Roscoea humeana combines with Primula alpicola var. luna.

Curiously, the latest flowering of the ‘candelabra’ primulas here is what I think must be the hybrid P. x chunglenta; the hybrid between P. chungensis and P. pulverulenta, both of which I have usually grown, and indeed still do. The rather small tomato-red flowers hail from P. chungensis, but the stout very farinose stems and leaf shape are reminiscent of the other presumptive parent. I think this cross is rare these days.

I am delighted to once again be flowering the form of Lilium martagon that we (MESE expedition) collected seed of on Vermion, Greece in 1999. We named the deep claret flowers after the excellent local wine, little known outside its country of origin, ‘Naoussa Boutari’ (Naoussa is the local small hill-town). For some reason, it does not persist as well here as the more typical form which flourishes in the garden and indeed in many wild woods beside the River North Tyne (second photo).

A couple of general matters in the garden. First, our Liriodendron tulipifera. I have always loved the oddly bias-cut leaves of the tulip tree which colour such a lovely yellow, but it grows far too big for our garden. For at least fifteen years now, we have ‘stooled’ (coppiced) it every three years and, although it will never flower, it makes a fine specimen at one end of our tiny meadow. (The meadow is now waiting desperately for the rain to stop so it can be cut.)

Second, the small mound at the opposite end of the ‘meadow’ is seeded with Common Bent (Agrostis capillaris), a major grass component of most lawns. I think that the very fine, mist-like inflorescences of this grass make an excellent frame for brilliant bedding, as in the case of this container full of begonias which shine through the ‘mist’.

This is perhaps a good place to finish with a couple of scenes of Sheila’s main perennial border. By the way, stop press, I have just discovered some buds on the Philesia magellanica, another magical Chilean. Next time!

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).