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A mainly miserable, murky September

October 1, 2019
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September can be one of the most beautiful and rewarding months here on the North Wales coast but not this year. Apart from a few warm sunny days when we could sit out and enjoy the late flowers and, given the weather, remarkably abundant butterflies, it has been dark and dismal, often windy, with frequent heavy rain.

This has made it difficult to work in the garden and as we have been away from home quite a lot too things have got a bit out of hand. Oh for a week of warm days to get things back in order before winter finally closes in! So, not a lot to talk about or to show you I’m afraid. Although, one or two plants have performed well and provided a lift when strolling around the garden between the showers. The fruits of Podophyllum always elicit “oohs” and “aahs” from visitors at this time of year, often reaching the size of a good plum tomato. Whether they taste as good, I haven’t a clue as I have never taken the plunge and tasted one, although they are reported to be ‘edible but insipid’ in a Wikipedia article!

Fascicularia bicolor

This interesting and rather extraordinary plant is a member of the pineapple family (Bromeliaceae) from Chile and Argentina. Its natural habitat is as an epiphyte on tree trunks or occasionally rocky hillsides. This one looks as if it should, like its cousins, need at the very least a cool conservatory to thrive but it is actually remarkably hardy (I know of long-lived plants in inland gardens as far north as Yorkshire).

It is fairly unremarkable for much of the year but once the leaves surrounding the flowers start to colour up and become almost sealing wax red (anyone remember sealing wax being used?), it demands attention and when the clusters of pale duck egg blue flowers appear it is glorious to behold.

It likes the hottest, driest spot you can give it; I have seen good specimens growing in chinks in a dry-stone wall with almost no soil and as long established pot plants. I have never collected seed (you would need a good pair of leather gloves and long tweezers to do so because of its quite vicious backward pointing hooked spines) but offshoots are not difficult to remove with a few bits of root and they will generally establish well in very gritty compost.

Colchicum boissieri

This delightful, fragile-looking species thrives and increases for me in pots like no other but can I grow it in the open ground here in N. Wales? No, I can’t! I have tried it in various sunny positions but it has never established, let alone flowered. In pots it fills the base each year with a cluster of its strange elongated corms, none are ever found nearer the surface but, bearing this in mind, I have planted it deeper than seems sensible for so small a thing outside without success. Unlike many autumn-flowering colchicums, it has narrow, quite insignificant leaves which are not a nuisance in the cold frame.

Cyclamen mirabile  ‘Tilebarn Nicholas’

Cyclamen mirabile is very like C. cilicium and they both come from S. Turkey, but C. mirabile grows at lower, drier, chiefly coastal locations whereas C. cilicium is an alpine plant growing from 200-2000m in the Taurus Mountains. Because of this habitat difference, while C. cilicium is a good and reliable plant for outdoors throughout Britain, C. mirabile is really only suitable as a pot plant. Its particular appeal is the pink flush which brightens the newly emerging foliage and this character has been successfully selected and bred for in forms such as ‘Tilebarn Nicholas’. This is quite a slow growing plant with rounded tubers that may be no bigger than a golf ball at 10 years old.

Hypericum delphicum (?) and Geranium sanguineum

This little Hypericum, which I had many years ago under the name given here, but which doesn’t seem to quite match photos of the plant in the wild in Greece, seeds all around this garden and flowers for most of the year. It can be a bit of a nuisance but seedlings are not too hard to pull out so I tolerate it and am grateful for it during the lean months when there is little else in flower. Here it is growing with bloody cranesbill (G. sanguineum) under the light shade of an autumn-flowering cherry.

Rhododendron keleticum subsp. radicans

Rhododendrons flowering for a second time in autumn is nothing new but it is unusual for the autumn display to be better than that of spring, which is the case here with this delectable dwarf. It is only 5cm high in flower while R. keleticum subsp. keleticum growing nearby rises to 25cm. The dwarf form is growing in semi-shade in a crevice bed which never dry out. Its neighbours are celmisias, dwarf willows and Asiatic primulas.

Propagating Cassiope wardii

I wrote recently of the wonderful plant of C. wardii given to me by my late lamented friend, Brian Russ, and how it has settled in here nicely in a peaty, sunny border. It is notoriously slow to grow from seed while cuttings are normally found to be very difficult to root. While it spreads by underground stems, these do not produce much in the way of roots and, if removed, are often difficult to establish and grow on (hence its rarity in cultivation).

I thought I would try the old trick, which I often employ for such plants, of trying to encourage more vigorous root production by severing the suckers while they are in place and then leaving the plants for a few months before removing them. So I cut around some of them with a sharp knife in June and just today I dug them up and potted them in a mix of granulated peat, composted pine bark and perlite (2:2:1). We shall see if they come through the winter where they will be kept in a cold frame.

Image of John Good John Good

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.

John 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.