March was mostly a horrible month here with few days until the last week when it has been pleasurable to stroll round, or work in, the garden. Nevertheless, some of the plants seemed to like it and most are coming in somewhat ahead of schedule. The camellias and magnolias have been spectacular, as free flowering as I have ever known. Visits to nearby Bodnant have shown that there too the lack of any air frosts or cold winds have resulted in an unusually unblemished display.
I have always, as an ecologist, been particularly interested in genetic variation amongst plant populations in the wild, but also in our garden. This is not so much to find and propagate ‘superior’ forms (i.e. bigger, more colourful flowers, more interesting foliage, extending the season of interest), although that is exciting when they crop up, but just out of interest.
Trilliums are particularly rewarding in this regard as I hope the photos below show. I hope they also issue a gentle reminder that amongst plants, as people, all is not necessarily what it seems. Caution should be exercised when purchasing plants or growing them from seed (including from our wonderful seed exchange) over the veracity of names. Of course, many plants in the trade are propagated vegetatively or are of species or varieties that generally come ‘true’ from seed. However, particularly when a plant has been in cultivation for a long time and is in demand, the temptation to ascribe well-known names to seedlings may result in inaccuracies. Of course, there is a particular problem in relation to the seed exchange, which has often been aired and I need not repeat in detail here, that most donations are of open pollinated seed, generally with little knowledge of what the pollen parent might be.
Anyway, you can see variation, some subtle (T. albidum hybrids), some more obvious (T. kurabayashii, T. rivale ‘Purple Heart’ seedlings) in the shots below taken here recently. As a result of the likelihood of ‘superior’ forms turning up (although this is unlikely in the case of seedlings of such a special selection as T. ‘Purple Heart’) I tend to leave self-set seedlings of trilliums until at least the true quality of the foliage (not the first year leaves) is revealed. If they can be left until the first flowers appear (3-5 years here), even better.
I grow the smaller T. rivale forms mainly in raised beds, not because they need cosseting but because they are easier to appreciate fully nearer eye level. I have not managed to establish the perhaps even more beautiful T. nivale in the open ground here and struggle with it in pots. I know that it needs alkaline soil whereas most other species do best in slightly acid or neutral soils but trying various soil mixes has not solved the problem. If you have had similar difficulties and have overcome them I shall be glad to hear from you.
In my last entry, I included a photo of Pulsatilla vernalis covered with an upturned pickle jar to protect the overwintering flower buds. This worked a treat, as the photograph here shows. This plant, which was grown from seed collected in Norway, is diminutive in every way compared with the more usually encountered examples from the Alps. The flowers are only about 3.5cm wide when fully opened, on stalks only 8cm tall. The hairs are, I think, a particularly dark shade of golden cinnamon which I’m sure you will agree play no small part in enhancing the ‘wow’ factor always associated with this exquisite species. A sister seedling planted in a similar spot without winter protection is not doing as well and the single flower bud is only just starting to open.
These two glorious Carpathian pulsatillas flower at about the same time and, while individual flowers don’t last long, if the blooms are removed as they fade a succession is ensured for up to three weeks. I have written before of the rather complicated history of P. ‘Budapest’ so will not repeat myself here, suffice it to say that there is general agreement among taxonomists that the name given here is correct. There is little doubt that no plants still exist of the original clone ‘Budapest’. Although in saying so I may be opening myself up to indignant assertions to the contrary. But by careful selection of seedlings it is possible to get something very near to the original and, in any case, all are beautiful and well worth a place in the garden.
The plant of P. slavica illustrated here is a seedling from another which in turn was raised from seed collected in the Carpathians by the late Jaroslav Kazbal in the late 1970s. These were kindly given to me when he visited our former garden during a visit to this country before the end of the Communist era in what was then Czechoslovakia. Jaroslav was a government employee (lawyer I think?) and I remember him telling me that he had to report to the Czechoslovakian embassy in London once a week in person while here. Anyway, the plants I raised originally lived for many years in various situations in the garden without any attention. When they finally became too old and woody to flower as well as formerly, I brought on a new generation of seedlings.
P. x pubescens (P. auricula x P. hirsuta [syn. P. rubra]) ‘Freedom’ is a very old hybrid. I certainly grew it in the 1970s and have had it ever since. The plant shown which is growing through a mat of Dianthus noeanus is at least twenty years old. It is noteworthy because unlike many of the older European primula hybrids it is little affected by the virus (cucumber mosaic is the usual culprit, but there are others) that has weakened so many of them. That does not mean to say that it does not have the virus, merely that it is relatively unaffected, at least in terms of vigour and the general appearance of the plant.
Others which are still good include P. ‘Mrs J.H. Wilson’ and P. ‘Clarence Elliott’. Primula allionii x auricula ‘Lindum Hills’ is, on the other hand, a relatively new hybrid. It is one of a good many in the ‘Lindum’ stable raised by Martin and Dreena Thompson. I have yet to see a better yellow allionii hybrid and it has proved hardy and floriferous here in wet North Wales growing in a flat-topped raised scree bed.
This very compact form of I. sempervirens, a species which is usually at least twice the size, has been living in this crevice for a decade or more. It is not a ‘stunner’ but provides a nice white focus on dull days at this time of year. Even smaller, quite miniscule in fact, is I pruitii, which is only around 2.5cm high. Both like a hot sunny spot and it is best to trim off the spent blooms to keep them compact.
Rhododendron leucaspis is one of those infuriating plants that often flatters only to deceive. It is an early flowerer and its entrancing milk-white flowers with their claret anthers are very frost sensitive, so in most seasons they are browned off here either by frost or cold winds. This year is one of the exceptions and a lovelier dwarf rhododendron is hard to imagine when it escapes the vagaries of a Welsh winter. I must remember to mulch it with a tree bark and leafmould mix after it has flowered.
And now, to finish with a touch of what some alpine purists might regard as vulgarity. Here are a few pictures of some of the bergenias that, I must say, give considerable satisfaction here at this time of year… despite the depredations of vine weevils which tatter the edges of the leaves. Anyway, here are three that I have had many years and can recommend, with two caveats: all can spread much faster than you think; B. ciliata is a good deal less hardy than the others and may be severely damaged in hard late frosts.
John Good is a retired research forest ecologist with a lifelong interest in all aspects of the observation and cultivation of plants, alpines and woodlanders being of particular appeal. He has lived in North Wales for more than 40 years and he and his wife, Pam, have lived in their current hillside home and garden overlooking the sea for 27. He is an Emeritus Professor of Environmental Forestry at Bangor University and maintains a strong interest in all matters related to land use in general and the balance between agriculture and forestry in particular.
He has been a member of the AGS for more than 50 years and a judge at our shows for half of these, as well as being a member (now friend) of the RHS’ Joint Rock Garden Plant Committee. He has travelled and lectured widely on alpines and written many articles and several books on the subject, the latter leading to his having served as AGS Director of Publications and Assistant Editor of our journal. He has also always been heavily involved in his local North Wales Group.