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November 21, 2022

Cyclamen at Hexham

This year, the three autumn shows fell on successive Saturdays, many of the plants reappearing at two or even three of them, but only receiving full acclaim when they reached their best. The long hot summer worked wonders with Cyclamen; other genera were more mixed in their results. It might have been hoped that Hexham, as a joint show with the Scottish Rock Garden Society, would bring more variety. A few Scottish members did indeed bring a large number of plants but almost all the trophies and awards went south. Indeed, most took the long journey to Wales. Bob and Rannveig Wallis travelled from Carmarthen with their usual high standard collection of plants, returning with two medals, three trophies and two Certificates of Merit. Almost – but not quite – a clean sweep.

Bob and Rannveigh Wallis

Bob and Rannveigh Wallis - winners at Hexham Autumn Show - credit Razvan Chisu

The Farrer Medal went to the aforementioned couple for a fine ensemble of Biarum marmarisense. The main competition came from two Cyclamen, both also theirs, both receiving Certificates of Merit, one for Cyclamen hederifolium subsp. crassifolium, the other for C. rohlfsianum. If your reporter had one plant he would really have liked to take home with him, it was the smallest of their awardees, Narcissus cavanillesii. This won the Patricia Furness Vase for the best plant in the Open (2), Intermediate (2) and the Novice Section (excluding Cyclamen.) These are essentially the sections of the show for small plants and the Narcissus was definitely small.

Narcissus cavanillesii is generally believed to be a very primitive daffodil: indeed, for many years it was segregated as Tapeinanthus humilis. The flower is without a corona. It comes from North Africa and Southern Spain. Bulbs are prone to split up without flowering if they are disturbed too often, so exhibitors Bob & Rannveig Wallis only repot them about every four years. Kept dry until mid-September, once watered responding quickly, the bulbs either produce a single green flower stem with a single flower or very fine leaves, but not both, in any one year. The flower stem should be kept green as long as possible to build up reserves. Kept in full sun in the greenhouse and fed with half-strength Tomorite three or four times a year, water is withheld once the plants enter dormancy.

Biarum marmarisense is well known at our autumn shows, where a good exhibit is rather like a potful of little gnomes: cute but not pretty. The typical arum type spathes, short and fat, cream to almost pink coloured, sit on the surface of the soil, to be followed later by the foliage. Coming from south-west Turkey, it responds to the usual autumn bulb treatment; water after planting in late summer, then flood when growth shows, cautiously watering in winter and reducing this when the leaves die back. It needs a well-ventilated, cool greenhouse and planting in a 50/50 grit and soil-based compost. Although almost all Aroids are more or less smelly, this one less unpleasant than most.

Cyclamen rohlfsianum is quite distinctive, the stamens protruding from the flower (a bit like Dodecatheon) and the leaves distinctly lobed. It is not always generous with its flowers and is unlikely to produce the sort of display often seen from species like C. graecum or C. hederifolium. The plant shown still had a good display of flowers of a rich shade; it was also at its best because the leaves were not fully open. As they start to open, the lobes point upwards sharply in a most attractive way. Nevertheless, there remains an elephant in the room. At autumn shows, the judges are often very strict about hardiness. C. rohlfsianum comes from North Africa, and is generally regarded as one of the least hardy of all its tribe. It is lovely to see it alongside collections of the other, hardier species, but can it really be described as hardy?

Cyclamen rohlfsianum

Cyclamen rohlfsianum - credit Razvan Chisu

Two awards that didn’t go to South Wales were for foliage plants. Tommy Anderson won the Millennium Trophy with Epimedium grandiflorum ‘Queen Esta’. As so often at this time of year, the best foliage plant went to a plant with autumn colour. But few would have predicted that it would see off a challenge from a plant of Shortia soldanelloides that won this trophy for the last two years. The Shortia was perhaps not quite as kempt as in some years, and the Epimedium was neat and tidy, its leaves, instead of their normal mid-green colour, a beautiful shade of what I would call pastel orange. The judges I think surprised themselves in their voting. Tommy had lifted the plant and put it in a pot to take to a show early in the summer. He had not got round to returning it to the ground and maybe the colour was a response to the plant to spending the long hot summer in a pot. Not perhaps a treatment to be recommended, but it worked on this occasion.

Epimedium 'Queen Esta'

Epimedium 'Queen Esta' - Millennium Trophy - credit Peter Maguire

The David Boyd Award, in memory of a much-loved former member of the North East Group, goes to a different class each year, this time to Cyclamen exhibited for foliage effect. This often leads to debate over whether any flowers should be removed. Certainly, they should not distract from the foliage, nor in any way spoil the overall effect. Don Peace, who won the class, did not leave it to chance; there were none present in his winning Cyclamen mirabile ‘Tilebarn Nicholas’. The leaves of this very distinctive form of C. mirabile have a sharp, dark green ‘Christmas Tree’ with a silver surround (which turns that colour from dark red early on). Don’s plant had no red remaining – so at first sight not so dramatic. But as often with his plants, every leaf was in exactly the right position. The overall effect was of a neat, perfectly symmetrical plant.

Cyclamen mirabile

Cyclamen mirabile exhibited by Don Peace - credit Peter Maguire

Don had grown his plant from seed sown in 2014, and he did not label it ‘Tilebarn Nicholas’, although it was grown from seed of this and matched the description perfectly. It highlights an enduring problem with named varieties of the genus, which are almost always grown from seed, not all of which comes true. Specialists say that you should only use the varietal name if the plant matches the description perfectly. But many growers growing from seed, perhaps from a seed exchange, don’t have access to a definitive description. Certainly, a look round any show will reveal some incorrectly labelled. And even with vigilance, it is likely that varieties will change over the years as each generation introduces differences. Checking my plants labelled ’Tilebarn Nicholas’, some have larger Christmas Trees than others, some sharper defined, some more reliably red when young than others.

Scottish exhibitors will be familiar with Nick Boss’s plants but they only rarely come south. In a number of classes there were exhibits of cushion plants, not in perfect form but slightly hummocky; sometimes the leaflets looked tired. They certainly didn’t look overfed; indeed, many exhibitors would suggest they were hungry. The topdressing had not been changed, but this meant that some of the plants had their own seedlings growing around them. That is the point. They were healthy enough to survive and set seed. There was no dieback. Above all they were clearly growing well. They reminded me not of show plants but of plants in Nature. You felt they could be growing in a mountain scree.

The list of plants I noted included Saxifraga cespitosa, Androsace alpina, Gentiana brachyphylla, Saxifraga iranica, Gypsophila aretioides, Draba acaulis, Calandrinia caespitosa and Androsace vandellii (A. argentea); plants that many AGS members have stopped growing as too difficult. I think most of our readers will have drawn their breath at one or two. Of these, Saxifraga cespitosa is a very rare Scottish (and even rarer Welsh) native. Its worldwide distribution is mainly Arctic, and this plant came from an Iceland strain. In my experience it is rare in cultivation. Androsace alpina is notorious for becoming drawn under glass, and for rotting off if in damp, mild winters. Yet this plant was commendably compact and healthy.

To get to the bottom of this, there are a number of questions.

  1. Where are they grown? Deeside, at 500ft; not completely arctic conditions, but cold and relatively dry.
  2. Why are they grown? Not primarily for show but to study.
  3. What is most important to the grower? Happy and healthy plants.
  4. How are they grown? In a poor, well-drained soil with little organic matter, in a north-facing, raised plunge bed, covered in the winter with no watering while dormant. Most but not all are uncovered for the rest of the year.

I was reminded of the talks, articles and skill of the late Duncan Lowe. Often, we hear that it is no longer possible to grow such plants due to global warming. Maybe we should relocate to the Scottish Highlands of Scotland? Or perhaps we should try a little harder?

Empodium flexile

Empodium flexile

South African Empodium species are nowadays regular attendees at our autumn shows. Bob & Rannveig Wallis brought along two, one previously labelled E. flexile, before that E. namaquensis. The other one had previously been known as Empodium plicatum. Alan Newton had two plants of this second, labelled (until corrected) Curculigo namaquensis. Peter Farkasch had one plant of this labelled Empodium flexile, though he is almost certain it had another different genus and species name when he first obtained it. Time to clarify!

A number of growers consulted with experts, especially Dee Snijman, who confirmed that the one previously labelled Empodium flexile in fact matches E. elongatum, while the other, tentatively labelled E. plicatum, is a good match for E. flexile.

Thanks then to all who helped set up this show, especially the show secretary and his team, struggling for helpers in these difficult post-Covid times, and the judges, ably directed by Diane Clement. For anyone who wonders about how these shows work, come along and you will be amazed by the plants. Next year you will might be helping out, and the year after, you perhaps too will be exhibiting.

Author: Peter Hood

Photographer: Peter Maguire