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Hyde Hall AGS Show, 2021

November 18, 2021

The last AGS show I attended seems a lifetime ago, all of us having to deal with strange, difficult times. It was therefore with considerable excitement – and some trepidation – that I arrived at Hyde Hall on a chilly but dry Saturday morning in late October. The show was held in the impressive Hilltop Lodge that sits on the highest point of this satellite RHS garden. The light, airy hall had wonderful views over the impressive, terraced Dry Garden and the rolling Essex countryside beyond. The shows benches were surprisingly laden with 250 plants, filling the hall. No mean achievement considering the challenging time of year for showing alpine plants and the long absence of any shows.

Most classes had at least one entry, with a wide range of plants shown. There were even some splashes of autumn colour, despite the relatively mild autumn. A compact Viburnum opulus ‘Nanum’ shown by Don Peace, won the Large Open Section class for a plant showing autumn coloured foliage, its many variants of seasonal hues ranging from deep dark green through carmine red to dusky rust.

The Artistic Section had some impressive botanical portraits. Gemma Hayes entered a monochrome pen drawing of Saxifrage ‘Klondyke’ – a wonderfully detailed portrait that perfectly picked out the sharply pointed leaf tips and glandular hairy stems holding the delicate flowers above a tight, firm cushion. Rannveig Wallis showed her skills as an artist as well as a renowned grower. Her exquisite trio of paintings included eye-catching Iris afghanica, the delicate yellow blooms of Tulipa hissarica, and one of my favourites, the unusual Gymnospermium albertii (a member of the Berberidaceae). She won the AGS Artistic Award for the most points in the Artistic Open Section.

Cyclamen were well represented on the show benches, Bob and Rannveig Wallis’s C. maritimum winning the Farrer Medal and by default the Saunders Award for best of its genus. It was not only about flower power as many others caught my eye for their beautiful foliage. Ian Roberson showed a notable C. graecum subsp. candicum, its leaves in contrasting, concentric shades of grey and green, their heart silhouettes marking each leaf. A very fine, small form of C. hederifolium in a three-pan class was shown by the Wallises. This had perfectly formed small leaves with typical Christmas tree-shaped markings.

Other geophytes included Hyacinthoides and several large pans of Crocus. My favourite was Ian Robertson’s Crocus niveus, the pure white inner tepals contrasting perfectly with the light mauve outer ones.

The green domed cushions of Dionysia, Benthamiella and Draba always attract attention, even without their flowers that will appear next spring. Paul and Gill Ranson had a three-pan entry including an immaculate Dionysia tapetodes ‘Peter Edwards’.

Oxalis species were one of the stars of the benches with their bright trumpet shaped flowers filling several pots. The genus always adds a great splash of colour at this time of year and many of them will grow well if given some protection from the worst of the elements. The best of those exhibited were grown by Barbara Chapman, who had a particularly good trio in the class for three pans of rock plants in the Intermediate Section. Her Oxalis flava was particularly fine, the almost fluorescent blooms shining out in the afternoon light, whereas O. versicolor needed just a little more sun and warmth for more blooms to open. Barbara, who hadn’t exhibited for several years, explained that she repots them all every year, positioning the individual tubers in two layers and making sure not to plant them too thickly. They are then feed sparingly, and grown unplunged in an unheated greenhouse. A Humex-based (high humus), gritty compost is used. Unusually, deep yellow O. melanosticta ‘Ken Aslet’ is kept outside with little protection from the challenges of the Essex weather.

The great variability in form, habit and flowering time means that saxifrages are represented at most shows throughout the year. Autumn is when Saxifraga fortunei and its many cultivars take to the stage. There were many at this show, reflecting the growing popularity of this fantastic group of plants. Don Peace won the Saxifraga Group Salver for best Saxifraga in show with Saxifraga fortunei ’Eiga’, covered with hundreds of light red flowers held above fresh, apple green fleshy foliage. There were several entries of the white-flowered Saxifraga fortunei ‘Shiranami’, Don’s plant in Class 2 (one pan rock plant in flower) standing out. Mark Childerhouse’s much rarer Saxifraga berica received a Certificate of Merit. This IUCN Vulnerable listed species from the Colli Berici north of Vicenza is a real delight: at Cambridge University Botanic Garden it is in bloom for over nine months of the year. This performance is boosted if spent flowers are removed every so often. In pot culture it seems reasonably undemanding, but it definitely needs a cool, shaded position and prefers a rich humus compost. Just beware of the dreaded vine weevil.

A second such award went to a fine Sulcorebutia rauschii f. violacidermis shown by Anne Vale of Braintree. This multi-cluster-headed member of the Cactaceae is from Sucre, Bolivia. In order to bloom successfully, producing large, deep magenta flowers in summer, it is essential that it experiences cool dry winters and a clear difference between day and night temperatures in the spring. Alex O’Sullivan’s rare Viola cotyledon also won a Certificate of Merit. A rarely cultivated Andean rosulate species little seen at shows, it is hoped that Alex’s plant develops and can be coaxed into flower. He also won the Kent Trophy for most first prize points in the Intermediate Section.

Wandering round the show, I came upon Michael Sullivan’s very fine Correa reflexa ‘Brisbane Rangers’, attracting admirers, its fantastic, tubular, pendent red flowers tipped light yellow.

There were a few autumn-flowering Galanthus, Don Peace showing two particularly good entries. His G. reginae-olgae ‘Cambridge’ had five fully open, robust flowers held like mini street lamps above emerging leaves. G. peshmenii ‘Kastellorizo’ justifiably won first place in its class. It was good to see a few pots of Narcissus viridiflorus shown by both Bob and Rannveig Wallis and Jon Evans. This unusual species from a small area of Andalusia and more widely in north Morocco can be a fussy plant and is best grown in a well-ventilated alpine house. Its small, jade green, heavily reflexed flowers hover high above thin, strappy, glaucous green foliage. It is also endowed with a strong scent that to mind is a cross between five spice-powder and pine-scented toilet bleach. A real Marmite plant: love it or hate it.

Reporter: Simon Wallis

Photographers: Jon Evans and Doug Joyce