Saturday, 22 November 2014

Ethiopian alpines: 1

The fabulous dwarf form of Kniphofia isoetifolia, apparently known only from this ridge.

In 2003, travelling on what was then a rotten road, and in a hurry to get to our lodging with no time to stop, I spied a flash of an orange flower in alpine turf as we crossed a high pass on the flanks of the Bale mountains. Luckily, on the way back we were able to investigate, and found it to be an extraordinary dwarf Kniphofia - a truly exciting plant. It didn't key out to anything in the flora, but later research in the herbaria in Addis Ababa and Kew showed it to be a dwarf form of K. isoetifolia, apparently only known from this ridge. When I took an Alpine Garden Society tout to Ethiopia in 2007 this spot was again a calling point, so I was keen to visit again this year.

Since then a new tarmac road has been built along that route and while it means one can zip along in comfort, it was evident that much damage had occurred to roadside vegetation. My worst fears were realised when we got to the top of the pass: a heap of road spoil covered the classic site, and an electricity pylon was planted on it too: in addition, agriculture had crept up the valley sides and thin fields of barley were covering every scrap of cultivable ground. Only the rockiest areas are left untouched. Given that this pass is at 3600 m the crop is likely to be minimal, but such is the pressure on the land of the incredibly fast-growing Ethiopian population - which makes all conservation there a tremendous challenge.

Barley in the foreground: the white scar is the site of the original 'dwarf poker knoll'.

My companions (Kirsty Shaw & Suzanne Sharrock from Botanic Gardens Conservation International, Boyce Tankersley from Chicago BG) photographing flowers in a relict rocky patch of alpine habitat - an island in a sea of barley.

On this occasion we had plenty of time to explore the area, in beautiful (but burning) sunshine, and found it full of flowers, in about as colourful a display of alpine plants as one finds in tropical Africa. The dwarf Kniphofia was on its secondary spikes and there were only remnants of the larger species that also grows there, but everything else seemed to be in full flower. Here are some images of these plants, in a very threatened locality - one wonders if anything of this display will be left in a year or two.

Above the road, in very short turf over rocks, are sheets of prostrate clovers, one with pink flowers and another with mauve: I think they are different species, but don't have a name for the mauve one.
The pink species seems to be Trifolium acaule.
The hemiparasitic Hedbergia abyssinica, named after the doyen of Afroalpine botany, the late Olov Hedberg.
Plectocephalus varians has big, Centaurea-like flowers nestled into the turf.

Hard prostrate clumps of Haplocarpha schimperi recolonizing roadside gravel.

Rumex abyssinicus, Salvia merjamie and the beautiful but horticulturally unfamiliar Hebenstretia angolensis (Selaginaceae)

Salvia merjamie is quite a striking plant, with light blue corollas emerging from darker calyces, but it has a distinctly 'musky' odour. It tends to favour disturbed places. 
A mixture of alpine perennials: Plectocephalus, a Senecio, and Scabiosa columbaria, with various other little things.

The dwarf Kniphofia isoetifolia has very bright orange-red flowers. In this habitat island it is accompanied by a larger Kniphofia, and masses of the white Anthemis tigreensis.

Cineraria deltoidea and a Cynoglossum framed by lichen-covered rocks.

Umbilicus botryoides among the rocks.

Sunday, 16 November 2014

Margaret Owen, MBE 1930-2014

Margaret Owen, among the old fashioned daffodils she championed in Acton Burnell churchyard.
The death of Margaret Owen in late October, sad though it is, came as no great surprise: she had never really recovered from heart surgery earlier in the year. It was entirely typical of her, though, that she had insisted on postponing the operation until after the end of the snowdrop season and its culmination in her lunch party and then open day and sale at her garden, The Patch.

Margaret was a redoubtable figure in horticulture and the wider community in Shropshire, her adopted county. As her obituary in the Daily Telegraph put it, rather delicately, 'she had a flair for organising people.' The obituary is good on her horticulture, but it plays down her contributions to wider society - the campaigning on behalf of the Shrewsbury Museum, the leading of a team of seamstresses in recreating a valance for the 16th century Corbet bed, organising the flower rota in Shrewsbury Hospital and charity bridge competitions, among many other good works. It was for this community service that she was awarded the MBE in 2010.

As a gardening friend one only saw the fringes of this - for example when instructed to sign a petition to save the museum, or similar. We knew her as an indefatigable gardener, turning up all over the place, especially in the counties of the Severn valley but also regularly attending the RHS shows in London or events at Wisley. Her opinions of the RHS and some of its staff were decidedly firm, and frequently expressed at some length: eminent persons on Council were known to dread an encounter with her. This did not stop the RHS awarding her the Veitch Memorial Medal in 2012 in recognition of her contributions to horticulture, which were many.

Margaret Owen (L), with guests at her snowdrop lunch at The Patch this February.
 As with so many gardeners, she was at her best in her own garden. With her husband Godfrey, Margaret had farmed land around Acton Pigot, in Shropshire, but his early death in 1983 had led to her passing the farm to her son, and moving out of the farmhouse to live in Shrewsbury. She retained an acre or so of land from the farm, however, to create a garden: it became known as The Patch. It consisted of many beds separated by narrow paths, in which she grew a diversity of plants from shrubs and trees to small bulbs, becoming famous for her outstanding snowdrop collection, but with very many other good things represented too. She had founded the Shropshire Group of Plant Heritage and held National Plant Collections of Veratrum, Camassia, Dictamnus and hardy Nerine: an RHS trial of these is currently underway at The Patch. It is an ideal garden for testing hardiness, being an unforgivingly cold site. A charming short film of her explaining the joy of snowdrops is to be found here.

Never knowingly seen without an imposing hat or bonnet on her head, Margaret was a forthright individual and fell out with people on a regular basis, though quarrels were generally made up. Friends would be invited - or summoned - to her snowdrop lunches at The Patch. Getting there, down miles of winding lanes, was always something of an expedition, but it was worthwhile for the excellent company gathered, the interest of the garden and the lunches provided by Margaret and her helpers. The lunch itself was held in a shed, known to some as the pigsty, and despite large space heaters, it was worth being well wrapped up. Seating was so tight that it was almost impossible to move, but food and drink was passed along the tables and nobody went hungry.

Margaret making a point to Chris Sanders.

The last snowdrop lunch at The Patch - galanthophilic notables squashed into the shed for an excellent meal.
I never attended one of the open days at The Patch, but they were very popular occasions and the sale of snowdrops, lifted there and then from the garden, raised remarkable sums for the Multiple Sclerosis Society. Margaret's most famous snowdrop discovery was G. elwesii 'Godfrey Owen', a form with six outer and inner segments, giving a very attractive floral shape. As a good grower it has become very popular. Others were less noteworthy, perhaps, but I like G. plicatus 'John Long', a very free-flowering clone forming dense clumps. In due course a large G. elwesii var. monostictus was named 'Margaret Owen', but it's unfortunate that she's not commemorated by something more distinctive. Her own default position was to name good plants after her late husband, so there are an Iris, Bergenia and Nerine named 'Godfrey Owen' in addition to the snowdrop.

Galanthus elwesii 'Margaret Owen'
In recent years Margaret had developed a passion for old-fashioned daffodils and in 2012 held the first of what was intended to be a series of study weekends on them. It turned out to be the only one, but everyone who attended will remember it fondly. It exemplified Margaret's passionate plantsmanship and her skill and determination at organising things: battleaxe she may have been, but we shall miss her hugely.

Margaret Owen discussing old daffodils, April 2012, with Tom Mitchell, Catherine Erskine and others.

Friday, 14 November 2014

Some Ethiopian plants

The fabulous Acanthus sennii, a prickly brute of a suckering shrub with satin flowers, common in scrubby roadside places at 2500-3000 m.
I have been in Ethiopia for a couple of weeks, principally to take part in a workshop for Ethiopian botanical gardens (of which more anon), but with the chance to do some travelling around as well. It was my third time in this beautiful and fascinating country, with its extraordinary diversity of scenery, long proud history, charming people (with a delicious cuisine), and a very rich flora. Sadly most of the natural vegetation in the highlands has been destroyed by agriculture and settlement, but here a few interesting plants, and more will follow.

Rosa abyssinica is the only rose native to sub-Saharan Africa, common in dry montane forest, often with Juniperus procera. It's a scratchy dog-rose, with a faint scent.

The exquisite grass Andropogon abyssinicus (so I was told, but that's supposedly annual and this looked perennial), catching the sun at Gullele Botanic Garden on the outskirts of Addis Ababa. It is a favoured pasture grass.

Probably Crotalaria rosenii, a shrub of about a metre, in disturbed places at Gullele.

The epiphytic fern Drynaria volkensii on a tree in the Wondo Genet Arboretum. It has fronds of two forms: short sterile versions held close to the tree trunk and pointing upwards, and larger fertile fronds borne only for a season and currently turning brown prior to falling off. The persistent sterile leaves catch debris and moisture.

A very vicious nettle, Girardinia diversifolia - an old enemy from Tanzanian days.

A first glimpse of Ethiopian 'botanical big game' - a hedge of the extraordinary Echinops ellenbeckii. The shrubby plants are up to 4-5 m tall, and the capitula are 15-25 cm in diameter. When mature the flowers are red.

And finally - a Black-and-White Colobus (C. guereza) in the Wondo Genet Arboretum, feeding on  Bombax leaves. The presence of folivorous monkeys is not something we have to worry about here!

Friday, 17 October 2014

Autumn colour in the Yorkshire Arboretum

Pyrus fauriei
A surprisingly lovely day and the chance to get out into the arboretum revealed some really lovely examples of autumn colour on a wide range of trees - of which this is a small selection.

Betula maximowicziana and Euonymus europaeus

Quercus × ludoviciana

Betula medwediewii

Acer rubrum 'October Glory' - one of our signature trees - on Cedar Vista

'October Glory'

Lindera umbellata

Carya glabra

Quercus 'Pondaim'

Aesculus 'Dallimorei'

Unnamed Acer palmatum seedlings by the lake.

Friday, 26 September 2014

An autumn afternoon

A Painted Lady on Symphyotrichum novae-angliae 'Primrose Upward'. The warm sunny this week have seen good numbers of butterflies in the garden, after rather a scarcity of them all summer.

Symphyotrichum 'Little Carlow' - invariably outstanding.

Colchicum speciosum 'Atrorubens'. The colchicums have avoided being bashed about by the weather in this rather dry and sunny autumn.

The crinkly segments of the Drakensberg version of Nerine bowdenii are very distinctive.

Kniphofia 'Cool Knip'

Roscoea purpurea 'Cinnamon Stick'. This species flowers for a very long time in late summer. 

Small Tortoiseshell on Argyranthemum 'Levada Cream'.

Billowing masses of Symphyotrichum novae-angliae 'Rosa Sieger': thinning the stems in spring gives them space to develop to maximum effect.

Red Admiral on 'Rosa Sieger'.

Wednesday, 10 September 2014

Murabilia di Lucca

An eye-catching display on entering the show from Lumen Plantes Vivaces.
I spent last week in the beautiful Tuscan town of Lucca, having been kindly invited to judge at the Murabilia 2014 flower show, which is held annually on the medieval walls and bastions that form the perimeter of the old part of the town. Known as the 'wooded circle', these  form a broad promenade 4 km long, lined throughout by avenues of trees of varying species, in sections - Tilia here, then perhaps Celtis or Liriodendron, greatly valued by the Lucchesi as a place for recreation and a delight to walk round. Dropping from the walls into the town one finds a fascinating network of alleys, squares, churches and towers to explore, but all very much part of a living place, with busy shopping streets and laundry hanging from residences, though there are very few cars. And excellent restaurants and gelateria...

Part of the centre of Lucca, seen from the medieval Torre dei Guinigi, which bears a grove of Quercus ilex 44 m above the street.

The Murabilia was opened with some pomp, including a posse of drummers in traditional clothing.

The Murabilia show is, like many English flower shows, a mix of nursery displays of plants, interspersed with crafts and local products, edibles and machinery demonstrations (the John Deere self-propelled, laser-guided lawnmower was a great hit). Nurseries had come from all over Italy and southern France, with a few from further afield, including German cactus growers and Crug Farm Nursery from Wales, with the result that there was a huge diversity of material on display. Unlike one of the big English shows, however, the display was also the sales stock, so it diminished over time and one saw the stall holders rearranging their plants to remain attractive. We judged on Friday morning, before sales commenced, in panels formed of a couple of overseas guests and a couple of Italians. I was on the woody plant judging group with my Belgian friend Abraham Rammeloo, Guido Piacenza and Alberto Grossi, and we had an enjoyable morning assessing all the stands exhibiting shrubs or trees. We were looking for the best three displays on the basis of the best assortment on display, the quality of the plants, with their rarity given a consideration too, with a secondary assignment to locate the single best Acer specimen in the show. As there weren't very many this was not too onerous and it was an easy decision to give it to one of Crug Farm's Acer sikkimense, looking lovely with its shiny green and red foliage. The first place in the woody section went to the French nursery Botanique des Vaugines, with a fascinating display of all sorts of choice shrubs from Mediterranean climates - inexplicably I omitted to take a picture.

Busy trade under the trees on one of the bastions on Saturday.
This year the theme of the show, which is held over three days, was edible plants from around the world, so there was a particular emphasis on this, with stalls highlighting anything even remotely edible. With 240 exhibitors, on the walls and in the adjacent botanic garden, there was a lot to see and a lot to buy! Perhaps a limited luggage allowance on the plane was a good thing after all...

Not a 'Brown Turkey' in sight: a wonderful display of different figs and grapes from Belfiore Vivai Azienda Agricola, which specialises in heritage fruit cultivars.

There were several stands with diverse assortments of cucurbits in all shapes and sizes

...and the same was true of chillies. This is 'Avata', also labelled "Viagra 2" and said to be of piccantezza alta.

I resisted the temptation to buy 2 kg of Borlotti beans for €5

It was lovely to see an old East African friend, Crotalaria agatiflora, among many unusual things on Pellizario Dino's stand.

The uniquely orange flowers of Sesbania punicea.

Also with unusual flower colour is Nymphaea ' Green Smoke' - alas it is a tender tropical variety.
A highlight for me was the very comprehensive assortment of Salvia and Phlomis species from Le Essenze di Lea.

More salvias featured in a nicely arranged display from Ratto Angelo Paulo Vivaio.

The arrangement of repeat-flowering Dianthus in wooden tubs by Val Roya Floricola was very attractive, but not many were scented.

The end of a successful day - a family going home with their acquisitions along the broad tree-lined walls of Lucca.