The torrential cloudbursts of recent days had dispersed by the time exhibitors arrived at the start of a dry and sunny day.
There were rather fewer entries than two years ago, reflecting the earlier date combined with a late-running season for some genera and, once again, emphasising how much these events are becoming dependent on a relatively small number of stalwart supporters who bring large entries. When one or two are absent for reasons outside their control, it shows. However, on entering the hall, one was struck by the wide and colourful range of exhibits, with foliage, cushion and flowering plants all contributing to a fine display.
The classes for cushion and foliage plants contained several noteworthy plants, including Paul & Gill Ranson’s unusually large Dionysia archibaldii, while an enterprising entry from Alan Newton of Roscoea purpurea f. rubra ‘Gurkha Redstem’ drew attention to a plant that is not normally valued for its autumn colour.
The Sussex Trophy (Novice Section aggregate) was won by Alex O’Sullivan whose entries included a reasonably compact cushion, 6cm or so in diameter and yet to bloom (the racemes number one to five white flowers, borne more or less sessile), of the principally Patagonian steppe crucifer Lithodraba mendocinensis.
Many of the large number of varieties and cultivars of the Far Eastern Saxifraga fortunei that are now available make fine plants for the autumn shows. Don Peace showed three medium-sized, different coloured cultivars, with the deep red ‘Eiga’ much admired. The plants exhibited had been grown under glass and kept just damp during their winter dormancy but these and other forms of this species, apart from the smallest cultivars which benefit from some protection, make excellent plants for the open garden where they flourish in moist, well-drained soil in partial shade.
The six pan entry from Bob and Rannveig Wallis that won an AGS medal contained a lovely exhibit of the Australian terrestrial orchid Pterostylis coccina, which was awarded the Keith Moorhouse Trophy for the best plant in a pan not exceeding 19cm.This hardy species from mountain forest in eastern Australia grows well in a mix of John Innes compost, perlite and bark but abhors any additional fertiliser. Kept warm and dry during its summer dormancy and repotted every other year in June, it flowers best when grown in their shade house.
Much of the colour on the benches was provided by Cyclamen and bulbs from areas with Mediterranean climates. As always at the autumn shows, there were plenty of the former on display though few were in the peak condition seen in former years, having come to their best rather earlier. Nevertheless, Don Peace won the Halstead Trophy for the best pan in seed raised classes with a compact and floriferous Cyclamen cilicium, while a creditable Cyclamen graecum subsp. candicum was among the entries that gained the Kent Trophy (Intermediate Section aggregate) for David and Liz Livermore.
Among the bulbs on show, there were several pans of Hyacinthoides lingulata and H. ciliolata (formerly the two subspecies of Scilla lingulata) providing a useful opportunity to compare the two. The latter made a neater exhibit with smaller, dark-green leaves and flowers of a slightly deeper blue. A large, floriferous pan of this species in perfect condition won the Farrer Medal (Best in Show) for Bob and Rannveig Wallis. Both species come from North Africa and require a warm, dry summer rest like so many circum-Mediterranean bulbs.
Lee and Julie Martin (Pevensey) won the Harold Bishop Trophy (Open Section aggregate) by dint of showing a fine variety of foliage and flowering plants. Their exhibits included one of Lee’s masterly flower arrangements which was noticeably fresh in appearance, despite the somewhat ephemeral nature of some of its components. They also exhibited two large pans of the variable Crocus goulimyi: a pure white selection in their winning entry of three rock plants of different genera and, to my mind, the more attractive subspecies leucanthus.
Crocus cartwrightianus is another variable species with colours ranging from deep purple to pure white. Some of the most sought-after forms are white with a purple throat as in the clone shown by Don Peace. This species is one of the few in which the flowers do not close once they have opened, a property appreciated by exhibitors and photographers alike.
Other much-admired exhibits of Crocus species were a delicate white C. laevigatus from Ann & Michael Morton and Bob & Rannveig Wallis’ C. nerimaniae, blue with very prominent black anthers, a striking but rare species from the edge of pine forests in south-western Turkey.
The appearance on the benches of three of the six species of autumn-flowering Narcissus listed in the World Checklist was salutable. Narcissus viridiflorus is mainly a plant of low-lying coastal regions in Morocco but also occurs around Algeciras in southern Spain. This little jonquil is unique among daffodils in that its flowers are entirely olive-green in colour; it is notoriously difficult to flower with any regularity. Well-flowered examples were shown by Bob & Rannveig Wallis and by Jon Evans.
Similarly difficult in cultivation and also found around the Mediterranean coast including North Africa are the species with small, upward-facing, pure white petals. These are not always easy to distinguish and it was useful to have the opportunity to compare N. elegans, which is widespread around the north and south coasts of the western Mediterranean and grouped in Section Tazettae, with examples of N. obsoletus from the eastern Mediterranean. Both were shown by Bob & Rannveig Wallis.
The former species has broader, caniculate leaves with minute ribs on the reverse and a very short but clearly defined, dull orange corona, whereas the leaves of N. obsoletus are thread-like and the yellowish corona is even shorter. In all three species, the leaves come mainly or only from non-flowering bulbs, so it is important not to remove the flowering stems which photosynthesize for the developing bulbs.
To get these species to flower well, Bob & Rannveig recommend a John Innes-based compost with infrequent repotting, perhaps every 3-5 years, as they find the bulbs do much better when pot-bound. Every second year, the compost above the bulbs is replaced. When the foliage starts to fade, the bulbs need a warm, dry rest, to at least 25°C, before being started into growth with a thorough drenching in mid-September.
Representatives of the South African genus Polyxena have long been a feature of the autumn shows. However, these are now (confusingly for gardeners) placed in Lachenalia under subgenus Polyxena. A large pan of Lachenalia tenuifolia subsp. ensifolia (George Elder) was awarded a Certificate of Merit.
The other subspecies, L. ensifolia subsp. maughanii, appeared in a three-pan entry of Lachenalia belonging to subgenus Polyxena. They require standard treatment for bulbs from the winter rainfall region of South Africa but it is difficult to keep their leaves close to horizontal as in the wild, unless we have a very sunny autumn. Otherwise the leaves envelop the flowers, particularly in subspecies maughanii, facilitating Botrytis. I find that it is essential to remove the flowers of this subspecies as soon as they fade if one wishes to avoid rapid fungal decay.
Lachenalia longituba in the same three-pan entry was awarded a Certificate of Cultural Commendation by the RHS Joint Rock Garden Plant Committee. This species was rediscovered on the Komsberg in 2000 and named Polyxena longituba in 2001. Although, unknown to South African botanists, it had been cultivated in the UK for many years under the names Polyxena ensifolia and P. odorata.
The bulbs shown were raised from seed distributed in 2001 by Rod & Rachel Saunders of Silverhill Seeds as Polyxena sp. nova. They differ from the stock long grown in this country, which was probably introduced by the Kirstenbosch horticulturalist Harry Hall about 45 years ago, in their more prominent purple markings and by flowering a little later. As soon as shoots appeared, the plants were kept outside in full light (and exposed to this year’s heavy rainfall) until the flowers began to open, in order to prevent the leaves outstripping the flowers.
Staying south of the equator but moving to Uruguay and eastern Argentina, Jon Evans showed two bulbs from that region: Nothoscordum (now Tristagma) hirtellum and a particularly well-flowered pan of N. montevidense. Although these bulbs come from a region with all year-round rainfall, Jon finds that they need a warm, dry summer if they are to flower well or even at all.
Many thanks are due to Adrian Cooper and his team who once again provided a superbly organised event and looked after us all so well throughout the day. As exhibitors departed for home, they could all look back with pleasure on a fitting end to the show season.
Author: George Elder
Photographer: Jon Evans