Sunday 31 December 2017

Plant of the Year 2017: Narcissus 'Thalia'

Narcissus 'Thalia'
In selecting plants of the year my usual thought has been to nominate something that gives a long season of interest, but this year I've selected a plant that on one gorgeous April day caught my attention and provided a lovely set of images. Not that Narcissus 'Thalia' is ephemeral - in most years one will have flowers for several weeks in April, though in this year's fine weather they didn't last as long as they can do.

'Thalia' was raised by the breeder Van Waveren in Holland pror to 1916, so it must be classed as an old daffodil now - and like the early hybrids it retains an elegance and charm that so many lack. Its vigour is seemingly not significantly reduced by the virus load it carries, evident in the streaks and mottlings of yellow or paler green in the foliage and stems, though it would be nice to see what clean stock could do.  In the past few years we have planted many thousands of 'Thalia' in the Yorkshire Arboretum, especially on the low eminence known as Bracken Hill. Here a cap of sandy soil sits above the clay, providing ideal conditions for this descendant of Narcissus triandrus, which is planted in the grass below the trees - young oaks and birch especially.  No other daffodils grow with them, the impact of the display coming from the serenity of thousands of white flowers, though as they fade Camassia leichtlinii 'Caerulea' comes into flower and carries the display into May. The images below were taken there.

Narcissus 'Thalia' on Bracken Hill in the Yorkshire Arboretum.

Seeing this display on such a day reminded me of a line from Tolkien describing the passage of the Elves as 'a swift shimmer under the trees, or a light and shadow flowing through the grass.'

Potted 'Thalia' on the arboretum's cafe terrace.
Every year I plant some large terracotta pots with 40-50 bulbs each of 'Thalia' stuffed in cheek by jowl in two layers of bulbs. The pots live in a cool, frost-free shed until roots are well-formed and the shoots advancing and are then placed on the arboretum's cafe terrace where they never fail to attract attention. The elegance of the individual flowers is perhaps subsumed in the mass, but the effect is splendid.

Saturday 30 December 2017

Garden People 2017

Proud 'parent': Bill Baker with Roscoea purpurea f. rubra BBMS 45, his introduction from Nepal in 1992.

Absorbed: Keith Rushforth leads a discussion on Sorbus and other Rosaceae. Hugh McAllister on right.

Jurors: Maurizio Usai confers with other members of a jury panel at Murabilia, Lucca. Rosie Atkins left centre.

Garden visitors: Sue Gray, Ann Fritchley, David Barnes

Author: Bobby Ward, Raleigh, North Carolina

Director: Mark Weathington, with Lagerstroemia fauriei 'Fantasy' at JC Raulston Arboretum, Raleigh

Botanist: Kris Fenderson, in the Green Swap Reserve, North Carolina...

...teasing a Venus Fly-trap. Seeing Dionaea in the wild was my botanical highlight of the year.

Uber-plantsman: Tony Avent, with new 'urbanite' crevice garden at Juniper Level Botanic Garden, NC

Doyenne: Nancy Goodwin, creator of the garden at Montrose, Hillsborough, NC

Right-hand man: Neil Batty, Operations Manager at the Yorkshire Arboretum, with new Gator

Mentor (and pupil): Ken Burras with JMG, plus Sciadopitys umbellata donated by Ken to the Yorkshire Arboretum 

Tuesday 11 April 2017

Cherry Tree Arboretum

Magnolia 'Shirazz'
On Saturday Alastair and I went to Cherry Tree Arboretum on the Shropshire/Cheshire border near Woore. This is the private collection of John and Elizabeth Ravenscroft, former proprietors of Bridgemere Garden World, and has been planted across the 50 acre site over the past twelve years or so. Despite this youth it is one of the most interesting collections of trees in the country, concentrating on good ornamentals, especially Magnolia and other flowering trees in spring, and those with good autumn colour later. The magnolias and cherries stole the show on an exceptionally warm and beautiful spring day, but there was a great deal to see and enjoy beyond these, not least the beauty of the site, with collection blending into the countryside of old hedges and field trees.

Cherry Tree Arboretum is more than just a retirement hobby, as there is a very active nursery on the site, producing large numbers of beautifully grown young trees. The primary focus is on really good magnolias, but again they produce a wide assortment of unusual trees, most of which are seldom grown by other nurseries. The aim is for the nursery to bear the costs of running the collection and hopefully to be able to do so long term. Sales are wholesale only, though we were recently able to acquire a selection for the Yorkshire Arboretum, and the arboretum isn't open to the public, so we're very grateful to the Ravenscrofts for a chance to see it.

The upper part of the site has a more gardened feel, with beds of shrubs and trees; here Magnolia 'Tina Durio' is spectacularly paired with a Spiraea.

There is an interesting collection of rhododendrons and azaleas, like everything else grown in full sun and none the worse for it. This is the old hybrid 'Sir Charles Lemon', supposedly a chance wild hybrid that arose in seed collected by Joseph Hooker in 1849.

Magnolia 'Elisa Odenwald' with the arboretum spread out beyond it.

Magnolia stellata 'Jane Platt'

The curiously named 'Golden Pond', a lovely soft creamy yellow.

The magnolias and cherries were dominant on this occasion, eclipsing all the other great trees grown there.

Prunus 'Tai-haku' - well deserves its sobriquet Great White Cherry.

The curious old cultivar 'Kobuka-zakura'

and a delightful more recent selection, 'Shirayukahime'.

Bursting buds of Sorbus insignis.

I had not previously encountered Sorbus 'Matthew Ridley', a selection from Blsgdon, Northumberland, of unknown antecedents. The new leaves are very lovely.

The corky-barked branches of Ulmus minor 'Suberosa' give a slightly sinister outline against the sky.

Magnolia 'Sybille'  has immense white flowers - a superb selection from Arboretum Wespelaar.

Friday 6 January 2017

Lembris Kephas Mollel 1972-2017

Lembris Kephas Mollel - a smile to lighten the world
Lembris Kephas Mollel, who died on Wednesday, was one of my field assistants when I was working on Kilimanjaro, Tanzania, between 1990 and 1994, and was someone I am very happy to be able to have called a friend.

A member of the Waarusha tribe, Lembris lived all his life in the small dusty village of Lerang'wa on the northwestern corner of Kilimanjaro, occupying a small homestead of traditional round huts and cultivating a few acres of maize and beans when the seasons permitted. When Charles Foley and I arrived to undertake a census of the Kilimanjaro elephants in 1990 he was one of the young men of the village to work for us as a porter on our lengthy transects through the forest, and on my return in 1992 he became one of my field assistants alongside Mtapa Abdallah and Obedi Daniel. In this capacity he helped carry the kit, set out quadrats, make camp and cook - we spent many nights huddled round a campfire together, eating an unappetizing meal of ugali and fried cabbage. He and Mtapa were with me on the occasion we walked unawares into a pride of lions and had to take evasive action into the (fortunately) giant heather trees (Erica excelsa). On another occasion he was deputed to take my parents for a walk in the forest; they came across some buffalo dung and my mother asked 'Where are buffalo now, Lembris?'  He said 'oh, far away' - at which point, inevitably, two buffalo burst from cover and dashed off in the other direction (also fortunately).

In addition to his help 'outside' Lembris also assisted Obedi in drying and managing my herbarium specimens, even mounting many of them onto cards, some of which are still to be found in the herbarium at Kew, and contributed to my ethnobotanical records of the uses of forest species. It was Lembris and Mtapa who guide me to the only known small stand of bamboo on Kilimanjaro (now Oldeania alpina,  which uses the Maasai word for bamboo, oldeani, to form the generic name) and, on my last day of the fieldwork, to the tree that was to give the clue to my thesis. This was a huge Juniperus procera, standing alone in broad-leaved forest; since it requires open bare ground to germinate and establish it was evident that the vegetation in that spot, far from being immutable climax forest, had been bare hillside about three hundred years previously.

Lembris (left) and Mtapa at the foot of the solitary Juniperus procera., August 1994
 After I left Tanzania we kept in touch and Lembris became a village game scout, largely trying to keep wild animals away from the crops. On one occasion he called me to let me hear the noise of a herd of elephants in a maize field - I couldn't actually hear it, but it was a lovely thought. Later he became the leader of an anti-poaching team based on West Kilimanjaro, funded by the Big Life Foundation, and head of the tracker dog team deployed to follow up poachers. He achieved a modicum of fame through this, and images and accounts are to be found on various websites.

Commander Lembris 
Inevitably we did not meet very often, but in 1997 Lembris helped porter for an Alpine Garden Society expedition to Kilimanjaro, and I would see him on the occasions I was able to visit Lerang'wa over the years. In 2009 I was presented with a sheep - as an elder I needed a flock - which was promptly turned over to Lembris's care. She bore a pair of twin lambs, but unfortunately they were all taken by a leopard.

Lembris and Lerang'wa village Chairman Joseph with my sheep, 2009.
 In 2014 while on patrol Lembris collapsed and was taken to the Aga Khan Hospital in Arusha, where a brain tumour was diagnosed. He was taken from there to the sister Aga Khan Hospital in Nairobi, one of the best in East Africa. The operation (funded by Big Life Foundation) to remove the tumour was successful but the damage was done and he never regained his full faculties. 25 years ago communicating with Lerang'wa was difficult and slow, but the sad news came by Facebook message the same day he died, and many Tanzanians have posted their tributes to him on friends' pages. He leaves his wife Anna, and their children Eliudi, Shedrack, Naomi, Meshak, Abednego, Elirha and Elia, to whom I send my deep sympathies.

Anna and Elia
A deeply religious man, and self-styled Mtoto wa Jesu, I can think of no better words to commemorate him with than the Epitaph from Gray's Elegy, though many other lines also apply:

Here rests his head upon the lap of Earth 
       A youth to Fortune and to Fame unknown. 
Fair Science frown'd not on his humble birth, 
       And Melancholy mark'd him for her own. 

Large was his bounty, and his soul sincere, 
       Heav'n did a recompense as largely send: 
He gave to Mis'ry all he had, a tear, 
       He gain'd from Heav'n ('twas all he wish'd) a friend. 

No farther seek his merits to disclose, 
       Or draw his frailties from their dread abode, 
(There they alike in trembling hope repose) 
       The bosom of his Father and his God. 

Kwa heri, Rafiki

Saturday 31 December 2016

Plant of the Year 2016: Ampelodesmos mauritanicus

The arching inflorescences of Ampelodesmos mauritanicus developing in June.
 In the course of the year many plants have their season of excellence, coming up to prominence, doing their thing and retreating. Some have a longer season and catch the eye for longer; for none has this been more true this year than my clump of Ampelodesmos mauritanicus. I've known this grass for a while, and admired it in other gardens, but hadn't grown it myself. In 2014 I acquired a small plant, which has grown steadily into a significant tuft of dark green, pampas-like leaves - though only about 90 cm long  they are just as sharp. Last year it produced one inflorescence but this year a whole sheath of them appeared in June. They flowered in  July and since then have waved in the background on stems at least 1.8 m long, arching over plants and the path, giving a beautiful leitmotif to the garden for the past six months.

The modern country of Mauritania seems a long way from North Yorkshire, but in classical times Mauritania referred to the western portion of the Maghreb, in present day Morocco. The grass is found there and in southern Europe and presumably there is some variation in hardiness. Books say it is not entirely hardy in northern Britain, so we shall see how it fares long term (the past two winters having been very mild), but this year it has been a star.

The flowers opened in mid-July.

The flowering heads took their place among the summer profusion of flowers, here in July. The tuft of dark green leaves is just visible.

Catching the light  on a late August evening

- and on a frosty morning in November.

Still firmly arching and framing the border this week.

Friday 30 December 2016

Garden People 2016

Volunteer: Mary Sykes helps collect Rhododendron blooms for the Harlow Carr show.

Plant Records Officer: Nicola Hall receives new labels from Kew, after a very long wait.

Tree planters: Will Hinchliffe, Tom Christian, Jamie Single from Airpots, David Knott, at RBG Edinburgh with Nothofagus alessandrii.

Irish head gardeners: Alex Slazenger (Powerscourt), Neil Porteous (Mount Stewart).

Botanist: Hugh McAllister, with Sorbus hughmcallisteri, at Ness Botanic Gardens.

Hortihorts; Alastair, Darran, Nick, Matteo, (unknown), Jon, Joseph, at Great Dixter Plant Fair

Students: Jack, Igor, Emily, with Pinus stylesii

Garden visitors: my open day, 18th September

Significant other: Alastair Gunn at Dove Cottage Nursery