The week immediately preceding 1 June had been cool and unsettled across the country – a fact that can hardly have escaped the notice of growers and visitors alike.
When the day itself dawned somewhat warmer and more humid, those whose perception of weather forecasters is a little jaundiced would have been taken aback by the accuracy of modern forecasting and began blaming that most current of topics, global warming. As the day wore on, temperatures in the well-lit hall rose to the dizzy heights of the upper 20s, and exhibitors started to voice concern for their cherished plants.
A first glance around the hall might have led one to believe that flowers were going to be at a premium for the dominant colour was green, in all its various shades, as ferns, conifers and non-flowering cushions appeared to hold sway. This was far from the truth: closer inspection quickly disabused the viewer of this nonsense as blossoms came into focus and the beholder became aware of the reds of the many cacti, the pinks of rhododendrons and lewisias, the blues of campanulas and their kin and yellow as represented by Euryops and Triteleia.
Beyond the show benches, the nurseries vied for business in a small but adequate downstairs room, each doing what seemed a good trade as visitors and exhibitors waited for judging to be completed. The commonly held belief that these providers of next year’s winning plants make a good living out of shows may be a little wide of the mark but their presence is to be welcomed and encouraged. Just outside the main entrance, a gentleman found shelter beneath his umbrella, suspended from the open doors of his van, fending off occasional light showers. He was selling troughs made form polystyrene fish boxes, a useful product for those who, new to alpines, might wish to make a tentative start on this hobby.
Upstairs, the ladies (and a few gents) were doing brisk business in the catering line as early risers and others sought food and relaxation. Those whose weekend lie-ins are as rare as hens’ teeth took lunch, or afternoon tea, or both. Anyone wishing to eat outside the hall could find much to satisfy them in the cafes and eating houses of the small shopping community a hundred yards or so away in Bramhall, or could indulge in what in nowadays known as ‘retail therapy’
A fine form of Rhododendron campylogynum, the only species in its subsection, was exhibited by Carol Kellett in a one pan Ericaceae Class. Given the varietal name myrtilloides, this is just one of several selections available commercially. Native to NE India, NE Myanmar, Yunnan and parts of Xizang, it is small wonder that there have been as many as a dozen cultivar or varietal names. Forming a neat mound of glossy leaves, this attractive shrub carried plenty of the burgundy blooms associated with this particular from. The specimen on show was reckoned to be about five years old and no more than 20cm or so, high and across. Grown in a pot for the duration of its life, it is kept cool in part-shade outside and occasionally given a weak, high potash liquid feed during the growing season.
The Durmitor National Park, a World Heritage Site in Montenegro, is bisected by the Tara River which, eventually, drains roughly northwards into the Danube. Cutting through the karst limestone of the Dinaric Alps, the Tara River carves out a canyon of considerable dimensions, on the cliffs of which grows Edraianthus glisicii. Shunning the sun, it prefers to inhabit crevices on north-east facing cliffs.
The plant shown by Pauline Carless clearly featured the characteristics of the species, most notably the single, almost sessile flowers, with upturned chalices rather than pendant bells of the most beautiful clear, deep blue. The narrow, spoon-shaped leaves, fringed with tiny hairs, were almost completely hidden by the large flowers. The informed observer might be forgiven for wondering if a subspecies of Edraianthus serpyllifolius was not masquerading under a new name. But no; it and E. glisicii are included in the same aggregate.
There should, surely, be some concern amongst us all that the concentration on learning to cultivate the new may be at the expense of the old. The vogue for dionysias (both species and hybrids), for example, might be obsessive and bring about the demise of good and venerable stalwarts as efforts are focussed in that direction. It was encouraging, therefore to see John & Clare Dower’s fine exhibit of a well-known seedling of Saxifraga cotyledon, first introduced commercially by the Sussex nurseryman Will Ingwersen and differing from the species by being covered in red spots like a child with measles. S. ‘Southside Seedling’ often flowers profusely at the expense of propagating material: a sound, practical strategy is to cut away a developing flower spike or two to provide a good rosette for a new generation. Of course, this may well result in a plant being insufficiently balanced, floristically, to meet with the judges’ approval. The plant shown was perfect: the judges approved.
In his scholarly book Botanical Latin, William Stern cites the Greek word ‘pogon’ as meaning ‘beard’ and ‘ophio’ as ‘pertaining to snakes’. Put the two words together and hey presto, one gets the generic name Pogonia and the epithet ophioglossoides. In the class for one pan Orchidaceae, excluding Dactylorhiza, a lovely, pale and delicate clump of the Snakehead Orchid won first place for Steve Clements.
There are two species in the genus, North American P. ophioglossoides stretching in distribution down the eastern side from Canada to Florida and Texas, in neutral to acid peaty bogs and wet places. These conditions pertain in cultivation, emphasised by the pot of the plant on show standing in a shallow saucer of water. The other species is native to Asia, in case you were wondering, occurring in Japan, Korea and widely in China, including that nowadays oft-visited province, Yunnan.
Another Chinese plant, not yet in full flower but fascinating for its tendency to produce foliar embryos in the sinus of the basal leaf blades, Saxifraga epiphylla is a forest-dweller. The specimen shown by Mark Childerhouse was from Baoxing, Sichuan under the collector’s number BWJ8177 and first described in the millennium year. Growing in light to bright shade in rocky crevices, it is not a plant to set the heart racing unless one takes the trouble to turn the kidney-shaped leaves over, whereupon the maroon underside becomes immediately apparent. Even then it will probably not cause cardiac arrest. In the Irregularis Section, typified by the two lower petals being long and pointed, it is grown without protection in a shady part of the garden and propagated by simply removing leaves with ‘babies’ and laying them flat on moist seed compost.
How do you like your pickle? If of the cucumber variety such as gherkins, then maybe, just maybe, Delosperma echinata (exhibited by John & Clare Dower) is for you. Not, of course, that you should consider adding this to your salads. The genus is usually associated with low-growing, mat-forming and brightly coloured, daisy-like flowers but this was less attractive, more grotesque, with its cornichon growths clustered like one of those children’s constructions toys haphazardly put together.
What of its origins? Native to South Africa, it is from the East Cape in Albany District, near the sea, where it rarely experiences much in the way of frost. In cultivation, given a sunny position to encourage the development of its waxy cuticle, a well-drained soil and little in the way of additional nutrients it might survive about -5C outside in the UK. Given its appearance, no wonder it is known colloquially as the Pickle Plant
It is not often that we see a well-filled pot full of one our native orchids so beautifully grown and presented. As happens so often, as the flowers open, the foliage begins its descent into dormancy. This is natural and should not be down-pointed on the show bench.
Below ground there are two tubers, one producing leaves and flowers, the other developing to form next year’s growth. The dominant feature of the genus Ophrys is the fleshy, spurless lip which is often hairy – Ophrys translates as eyebrow. The Bee Orchid, Ophrys apifera, is unique in that it is the only species to be almost entirely self-pollinated. In the Intermediate Section small six-pan class, Michael Myers’ pot of some seven stems or eight originated from a site being prepared for development and so were lawfully rescued.
In 1985 there was the miners’ strike, riots in Tottenham, inflation stood at 6.1%, the first call from a mobile phone was made and the exhibitor of the best plant in show and Farrer Medal winner sowed seed of Lewisia rediviva. Thirty-four years later this resulted in surely the largest, most floriferous example of the species ever seen on AGS show benches. Repotted annually, it was testament to the skill of the grower, Alan Furness, who has demonstrated his talents many times before (this was his thirtieth Farrer Medal). It was magnificent: those who were fortunate to see it must let it distil as a memory and for those who did not, well, you must rely on the photograph and your imagination.
Author: Peter Cunnington
Photographers: Don Peace and Robert Rolfe