Whitworth Civic Hall was the venue for yet another splendid assembly of the best mid-season plants in the alpine world, displayed courtesy of 62 exhibitors.
There were plants for everyone, from choice cushions to orchids, the old and the new, traditional miniature gardens plus even a rustic, art nouveau frying pan utilised as a container! No-one went hungry either with a constant supply of bacon sandwiches, followed by cakes and, of course, the classic ‘pie and peas’ for lunch.
Standing out from the crowd, in a more conservative container, the Farrer Medal was awarded to Don Peace for his impeccable pan of Cypripedium parviflorum subsp. parviflorum. A previous winner at the Wisley Show in 2018, it had now produced an estimated 70 blooms – a significant increase on the previous year’s 30!
This plant doesn’t get pampered or protected whilst in growth (when copious amounts of water are given) but during dormancy this is much reduced and minimal moisture is made available via a sand plunge. Nor does Don use a special orchid compost mix, relying on his tried and tested two parts John Innes No. 3, mixed with one-part grit. The result was clear for all to see. ‘Pretend it’s a Frit’ he said with a smile; the watering regime is the key! Don also confirmed his versatility by collecting a Certificate of Merit for a large, snowball-sized Androsace vandelli in an 20cm pan. I didn’t attempt to count the number of flowers!
A second Certificate of Merit recipient, New Zealand endemic Pimelea oreophila is a low-growing shrub seldom seen at shows. Ian and Maria Leslie grew their specimen from seed obtained from the New Zealand Alpine Garden Society seed exchange. The small white flowers are generous to a fault, their protruding yellow stamens adding a lovely contrast. Despite its small stature, this plant is reasonably rapid in growth and after five years, the 15cm clay pot in which it is grown is now plunged in a second larger pot to give the exhibit ‘show bench presence’, which worked very nicely. The growing medium consists of 60% ericaceous compost plus 40% grit and the plant thrives if given a moist regime in the alpine house for most of the year. It doesn’t appear to be pining for its native mountains.
Also from New Zealand and proving it is still every inch a plant well worth growing is Clematis marmoraria. The judges thought so too and awarded the Jim Lever Memorial Trophy (best pan of Ranunculaceae) to Clare Oates for her fine pan.
The late 90s and early noughties were the heyday of this species, which spawned various high street hybrids. I particularly recall (in 2001) a large plant receiving the premier award at the East Cheshire Show when grown by a younger Robert Rolfe! The species could do it again! Clare’s six-year old plant is coming on nicely and has responded well to cultivation in the alpine house, using a plastic pot. The extra moisture retention this provides, coupled with a well-drained, humus-rich compost appears to encourage vigorous new growth at the rim of the pot, increasing the coverage of flowers.
Many exhibitors are motivated to grow plants from the specimens they see on the show bench. Others are inspired by plants encountered in the wild. Frank and Barbara Hoyle chose the latter route, following a mountain holiday in North America. Hymenoxys acaulis was the object of their desire, a widespread plant found at high level throughout the mountains of central Canada south to Nevada and Texas. The species is quite variable throughout its range and Frank recalled sparsely flowered clumps dotted here and there.
In cultivation, their plant has exceeded his expectations and the downy mat of foliage routinely produces many flowers on short stems. Raised from Alplains seed, this plant is grown in a sand plunge within the alpine house all year round. A gritty John Innes No. 2 mix is used and the pot is plunged in a bath of water during January to initiate growth. A simple but effective regime which works and the memories come flooding back each year, even if the plant is too floriferous in comparison!
Oncocyclus Iris are beguiling plants but need a careful cultivation regime to give of their best. Peter Hood was tempted by a small pot containing a ‘starter pack’ of Iris paradoxa at an autumn AGS show some three years ago and set to work by employing perceived wisdom! He repotted the plant shortly afterwards in a gritty John Innes No. 3 mix with (optional) added limestone fragments and dolomite granules within a clay pot.
Three years later we could all admire four gorgeous, velvet-textured flowers, held above sickle-shaped leaves. The watering regime is key, with the compost kept just moist during the summer through to the arrival of spring. Plenty of water is then given during active growth, with a supplementary weekly high potash liquid feed. Other growers may develop different tactics but this method will serve the first-time grower in good stead.
The East Lancashire Show has a long list of awards, some fondly remembering Local Group members. The best plant in the Intermediate section (and as such recipient of the Merlewood Trophy) was judged to be Fritillaria pyrenaica ‘Kathleen Hall’, grown by Tony Hollingworth. Tony also exhibited a large plastic pot of Fritillaria affinis ‘yellow form’. Obtained six years previously, the bulbs had now bulked up in both garden and this pot, with over 30 flowers on view.
He favours a potting mix comprising equal parts of John Innes compost, grit and perlite. Whilst this species is tolerant of winter wet, some protection is advisable and the pot spends the winter in the garage, where it receives a monthly mini-watering. Once the first hint of top growth appears, it is placed outside and remains there for the rest of the year, though it is temporarily moved under cover if severe frost threatens.
When raised from seed, yellow forms of many Fritillaria species can occur randomly and a surprise yellow seedling eventually arose when George Young raised a potful of Fritillaria epirotica from Jim & Jenny Archibald’s seed (JJA 495200), sown in 2001. I say eventually, as it was in 2010, after a nine-year wait, that the yellow form became apparent among the normal plum-coloured flowers. Yellow forms of F. epirotica are known in the wild, on Smolikas most notably, but are rare even on that mountain. The bulbs have now increased and are potted in a pan kept in a bulb frame all year round. The potting mix used consists of John Innes No. 2, grit and some added fine grade, composted bark.
Brian Burrow brought some interesting bulbs, two of which particularly caught my eye. Gagea graeca grows in Greece, south-western Turkey, Crete and Cyprus but despite these warm climes it is a very hardy species. Favouring dry, rocky habitats in nature, it grows well in pots and has been reintroduced into cultivation from seed, marking a very welcome return after an absence from the show scene of more than 30 years.
Scilla verna is a British native that more widely occurs throughout western Europe, showing some variability throughout its range. British plants reputedly have smaller flowers but are nevertheless attractive. Don’t expect it to bulk up in a hurry: this grouping has taken 10 years to reach its present numbers, from seed of Welsh origin. Brian grows both the above in his standard mix of two parts John Innes No. 1, two parts composted bark and six parts grit. It’s a lean compost that requires more watering but it works very effectively for him.
Rounding up more of the award winners, Michael Osborn was presented with the Booker Trophy for the best plant in the Novice Section. Oxalis ‘Slacks 53’, is a hybrid raised by Slack Top Nursery which has now been renamed O. ‘Slack’s Peacock’ and is a reliable hardy plant for both garden and pot cultivation.
Michael has been growing and bulking this up for five years in an alpine house plunge and open trough. Water is given all year round although the pot spends the dormant period with less moisture, under an alpine house bench.
There were two awards for multiple pan classes. Lionel Clarkson received an AGS Medal for his small six-pan entry. Tommy Anderson took the Leander Trophy for the best three-pan exhibit in the Open (2) Intermediate (2) and Novice Sections. The Allanson Trophy was clinched by Mala Janes with her pan containing three rock plants for colour effect (Hepatica ‘Millstream Merlin’, Celmisia semicordata and Primula forrestii).
Well done to the aggregate winners too: Lawrence Peet (Open), Michael Myers (Intermediate), Michael Wild (Novice) and Carol Kellett (most first prize points by an East Lancashire Group member). The East Lancashire Trophy was awarded in class 142 to a new exhibitor, Eddie Jones, who took the award for his pan of Aquilegia vulgaris.
Author: Jim Almond
Photographers: Don Peace and Jim Almond