It was with excitement and some anticipation that I attended the venue for this new May spring show at the RHS’s flagship Wisley Garden. It offered a great opportunity for the Society to reach out to new members of the public who previously might not have visited a show dedicated to the fantastic world of alpine plants. Thankfully for all the plants, the day’s weather was significantly cooler than at the previous week’s East Anglia Show, for the main display was staged in a marquee opposite the Hillside Events Centre (never the best place to be on a warm, sunny day!)
Despite the relatively small number of entries – especially in the Novice Section, where they numbered only five – the show benches still had a wide range of plants. Particularly well represented were some extremely good Cypripedium, many brightly-coloured Lewisia and several large cushions of mossy saxifrages.
The deserved recipient of the Farrer Medal was Don Peace’s beautifully presented Cypripedium parviflorum subsp. parviflorum. He told me that it was only at three o’clock on the morning of the show that he decided to enter this orchid; a real last minute decision that turned out to be a real winner. This fantastically grown five-year-old plant was perfectly proportioned with its 30 blooms evenly distributed over the compact fresh green foliage. A native of the eastern United States and Canada, it gets little special treatment, spending only the winter months undercover. Once the new growth emerges it is taken outside and left open to the elements. Don also had another impressive orchid on the show benches, his Pleione Vesuvius gx ‘Phoenix filling its terracotta pot with a multitude of large, nodding, Barbara Cartland bright pink flowers.
Perhaps the highlight of the show was an outstanding Iris iberica grown by Paul Hide, a new exhibitor in the Novice Section this unsurprisingly gained a Certificate of Merit. This impressive, difficult to cultivate Oncocyclus species had six large, bedazzlingly bicoloured blooms sitting above compact, healthy, grey-green foliage. A careful repot for next year may possibly produce even greater rewards. Iris iberica grows on open rocky slopes at up to 3000 m in the Caucasus, with often hot baking summers coupled with dry, cold winters – a juxtaposition that can be difficult to replicate in the generally cooler, damper British climate.
Ben and Paddy Parmee won the Gable Memorial Trophy with a wide variety of good plants in the Intermediate Section, these including a compact, floriferous Rhododendron ‘Arctic Tern’ and an attractive Anemone obtusiloba ‘Big Blue’.
Arisaemas always make their first appearances at this time of year and there were a few on the benches at Wisley. Arisaema amurense is notably variable and those on the benches certainly confirmed this observation. Anne Vale’s Korean form had typically large, bold spathes with dark brown markings and pronounced venation, positioned below the tall, lush foliage. In comparison, the version grown by Martin Rogerson was much more compact, with nine smaller, Arum-like inflorescences.
Lewisias really brightened up the benches, from the extensive, bold colour ranges of Lewisia cotyledon and L. tweedyi to the more restrained hues of Lewisia columbiana. In the strongly contested classes for this genus, it was a three-large pan entry from Martin Rogerson that really caught my eye. All three were festooned with masses of flowers, held above lush green, semi-succulent rosettes. Particularly attractive was a hybrid between L. cotyledonand L. columbiana, its reddish-purple flowers with throats flushed golden orange.
For sheer flower-power, few plants could match Lee and Julie Martin’s Campanula andrewsii (another plant that received a Certificate of Merit). This large specimen had long, arching stems of light lilac flowers that almost obscured the velvety-pubescent leaves. In the same class, for three rock plants distinct, they also exhibited Abies koreana ‘Blauer Eskimo’ and Petrocoptis glaucifolia. The latter, an attractive Caryophyllaceae representative found only in northern Spain, makes a fine plant for the rock garden and typically flowers for weeks on end through to early summer.
Alan Newton won an AGS medal for his fine small six-pan collection. The one that clearly stood out was an exquisite, compact Ramonda nathaliae. This was a very neat, clean plant with unblemished crinkled foliage and deep violet flowers held vertically on glandular, red-tinged stems. One of the few gesneriads not native to the warmer, pan-tropical regions of the world, this is native to the Balkans, normally frequenting shady ravines on northern slopes and occasionally more open sites. Other plants making up Alan’s six pan entry included a small, tight Ranunculus alpestris and a Saxifraga pubescens ‘Snowcap’.
The mossy saxifrages always make an appearance at this time of year and it was a large Saxifraga cebennensis grown by Anne Vale of Braintree that caught my eye. This large domed cushion was unsurprisingly covered in pure white flowers. However, it was the variegated foliage that was particularly unusual. Each soft, hairy, cuneate leaf was the normal light matt green but the edges were fringed light cream with the variegation running along the leaf veins. This could make an attractive plant for the alpine house, especially if grown in tufa. Endemic to southern France, it grows on limestone rocks (usually on the sides of steep gorges) at altitudes ranging from 500-1,600m.
Plants not in flower were also well represented with several classes of sempervivums filling their large terracotta pans. It was Diana Clement’s winning three pans of rock plants for foliage effect that stood out. All of these shown were well presented with the foliage clean and unblemished: the charming, diminutive Hosta ‘Cracker Crumbs’ had bright green ‘Granny Smith’ green foliage while the perfectly proportioned Viburnum opulus ‘Compactum’ had very attractively ridged, palmate leaves, flushed with shades of red and light orange. Prolific pure white lace-cap flowers appear in late spring, followed by attractive bright red berries in the autumn.
Over in the Hillside Centre, there was a small selection of nurseries offering plants for sale. Jean Morris had a very impressive display of embroidery that deservedly won a Large Gold Award. There were some real gems amongst her large collection including a particularly beautiful representation of Tulipa whittallii with its unusual bronzy-orange blooms and three panels that depicted twenty-five British orchid species. The time and detail that goes into Jean’s work is admirable.
Author: Simon Wallis
Photographer: Jon Evans