Monday, 31 January 2011

Crocuses, by Jānis Rukšāns

Crocus atticus subsp. sublimis 'Tricolor'

At intervals of 30-40 years, for the past two centuries, a major monograph on the genus Crocus has appeared in English. The sequence starts in 1809 with Adrian Haworth's 'On the cultivation of crocuses with a short account of the different species known at present', followed by William Herbert's 'A History of the species of Crocus' in 1847. George Maw's beautifully illustrated Monograph of the Genus Crocus appeared in 1886, and remained the dominant botanical monograph for nearly a century. For gardeners, however, the most useful and comfortable reference was E.A. Bowles's A Handbook of Crocus and Colchicum, which interspersed personal experience with botanical fact in a charming and very readable way. It first appeared in 1924, with a revised edition in 1952. In 1982 Brian Mathew published his The Crocus, a then up-to-date account of the genus, and although now showing its age, it remains an invaluable reference. Each of these, and innumerable lesser publications, has built up our knowledge of this remarkable and beautiful genus, whose morphological complexity is belied by the apparent similarity of flower shape in most of its members.

Crocus malyi
 This distinguished line has now been joined by Crocuses, a complete guide to the genus, by the Latvian bulb expert and enthusiast, Jānis Rukšāns, just released by Timber Press. I heard of it circulating in the United States about ten days ago: it was a great relief when my copy arrived on Saturday.  It is seldom that I have sufficient time - or interest - to read a hortico-botanical book through from cover to cover but, despite various distractions over the weekend, I have done it with this fascinating book, and enjoyed every page.

One of my Crocus tommasinianus x C. vernus selections, also illustrated in the book.
This is a botanically-minded gardener's view of crocuses, in the Bowlesian tradition, rather than a botanical monograph like those of Maw or Mathew, but Jānis has the advantage over all his predecessors of having seen the vast majority of the plants he describes in the wild. This gives him a unique perspective into variation within the genus, and within species. With a reasonably generous allocation of photographs, this variation is illustrated as never before in a published work, with the images being of uniformly excellent quality. I note, however, that the image labelled C. korolkowii 'Snow Leopard' is of a different clone to the true entity, featured here last week. On the other hand, one of the pictures (of a Crocus tommasinianus x C. vernus seedling) was taken in this garden, and Jānis is kind enough to mention that he has seen the extreme variability in colour possible in C. tommasinianus here too. 

Crocus heuffelianus selections made by Jānis Rukšāns
Inevitably there are a number of taxonomic changes that will result in familiar plants being relabelled: most garden clones generally called C. sieberi (strictly a Cretan species) should be assigned to C. atticus (mainland Greece), and C. albiflorus (alpine meadows) and C. heuffelianus (northern Central European mountains) are segregated from C. vernus, from more southerly lower places. These make a lot of sense, and I'm sure will be widely accepted, but the proliferation of subspecific taxa (22 at present) in the Crocus biflorus group is mind-boggling and one has to query, as indeed Rukšāns does, if such subdivison by small populations is really useful.

Pinkish selection of C. tommasinianus
It is a great tragedy that cheese-paring by Timber Press led to the excision of 20% of the manuscript of this not particularly large book (only 216 pages) and this economy seems to have been applied to their copy-editing too. Jānis has an idiosyncratic style in English and a voice that needs to be preserved, but the failure to render some sentences grammatical does him and his text no services. An omission that will be felt by many is coverage of familiar clones available in 'the trade' - these are definitely not the author's interest, but it is always handy to be able to check on a comment on something one is more or less familiar with. A very interesting point, however, made repeatedly, is how frequently mass-produced clones are heavily virus-infected and are neither safe nor fit to grow. The reader will need to make compensation for the cultivation notes being derived from Latvan conditions, which are so different to those pertaining in, for example, southern England, but there is a very useful table indicating the conditions each species requires.

Crocuses give me more pleasure in their season than any other flower, and although I make no attempt to grow the more demanding taxa (and there are many!), this book will inspire me afresh to delve deeper into their wonderful diversity. Thank you, Jānis!

Crocus "chrysanthus" 'Cream Beauty'

Galanthus plicatus 'E.A.Bowles' - some corrections

My blog entry from last week on the record price fetched by Galanthus plicatus 'E.A.Bowles' seems to have been widely read and has been picked up on by the press. Unfortunately, innacuracies have crept into the accounts given by The Mail on Sunday (here), the website thisismoney (both written by Toby Walne) and elsewhere, especially an article on This claims that the bulb sold was produced at Colesbourne Park, which is not the case.

G. plicatus 'E.A. Bowles' was discovered at Myddelton House, Enfield, (the former home of E.A. Bowles, 1865-1954)  in 2002 by Michael Myers, and was immediately recognized to be an exceptional variety. The garden, run by Lea Valley Parks, made an arrangement with Joe Sharman of Monksilver Nursery that allowed him to propagate the plant in exchange for a royalty on each plant sold. This arrangement has been faithfully adhered to, including the Ebay sales last week, although by error it was stated (and repeated in my post) that the recipient of the funds would be the E.A. Bowles of Myddelton House Society. Andrew Turvey, Head Gardener at Myddelton House, wishes it to make it clear that the funds are actually paid to the garden, not the society.

A press release from Myddelton House Gardens, dated 28 January 2011 states:

Blooming marvellous

Prized snowdrop bulb fetches record breaking amount

A new record was set this week when a single Galanthus plicatus ‘E A Bowles’ snowdrop bulb was sold for £357 at auction.

Two thirds of the profits from the sale will go towards the current restoration project at Myddelton House Gardens, the original gardens and home of renowned plantsman and horticulturalist Edward Augustus Bowles. The Gardens were awarded a Heritage Lottery Fund Grant of nearly £500,000 in 2009 to return them to their former Victorian glory.

Andrew Turvey, Head Gardener, Myddelton House Gardens, near Enfield just north of London, said: “This is phenomenal news. We were ecstatic to find that one of our bulbs had fetched such a hefty sum – breaking the previous record for a single snowdrop bulb by £92. The profit received will go towards the completion of the restoration of Mr Bowles Gardens.”

Andrew continued: “It is timely as we will be hosting the Early Spring Flower Show at Myddelton House Gardens on Saturday 12 February, and we will be selling five of these prized bulbs. Bulbs are limited and will be sold on a first come, first served basis so we advise people to come early.”

This will be the first flower show in the Gardens since Mr Bowles’ death in 1954. The event runs from 12:00 – 16:00 and also includes a Snowdrop and Hellebore Guided Walk by a Senior Gardener, from 13:00 – 15:00. Booking is essential via or 08456 770 600.

Myddelton House Gardens, Bulls Cross, Enfield, Middlesex, EN2 9HG, is part of the 10,000 acre, 26 mile long Lee Valley Regional Park. The Gardens boast a diverse plant collection, beautiful carp lake, conservatory, rock garden and a number of historical artifacts.
Myddelton House Gardens Early Spring Flower Show is being held in conjunction with the British Irish Society. It is the first flower show to be held within the Gardens since the death of Mr Bowles in 1954.

The prized bulbs have been multiplied by Monksilver Nursery.

Wednesday, 26 January 2011

Iris 'Scramble'

Iris 'Scramble'
The 2011 catalogue from Bob Brown's Cotswold Garden Flowers arrived a few days ago. As usual it is packed with all sorts of temptations, in all classes of plants - the definition of 'garden flowers' is splendidly broad.

One of the new introductions, appearing in commerce for the first time, is an Iris I selected a few years ago from a batch of seedlings raised from named clones of Sibirica irises, though unfortunately the label recording the maternal parent got lost. It is short and produces masses of large, pale bicolor yellow and rich cream flowers - scrambled egg colours, in fact. Although they are overtopped by a few leaves this is not a significant problem and a clump in full flower, as above, is a fine sight. Three years ago I gave a plant to Bob, who not only concurred that it was worth having but decided it was worth propagating too.

Emmanuel Saiko

I am hoping that it will prove popular and sell in large quantities, as Bob will pay me a small voluntary royalty on each plant sold in the first three years (it's not a protected variety, so anyone can propagate it). Any such proceeds are earmarked to help fund the Secondary School education of Emmanuel Saiko, a Maasai lad from 'my' village in Tanzania, who I am supporting.

Tuesday, 25 January 2011

A new record price for a snowdrop

Galanthus plicatus 'E.A. Bowles'
An anonymous bidder last night spent £357 on a bulb of Galanthus plicatus 'E.A. Bowles' sold on Ebay by the vendor "mrohowes", who stated that the proceeds will be going to E.A. Bowles of Myddelton House Society to help conserve the historic garden (in which this clone, and several other good poculiform G. plicatus have been found). The generous bidder has paid well over the odds to aid this good cause, since 'E.A. Bowles' was listed for only £150 by Monksilver Nursery last year.

Saturday, 22 January 2011

First lessons from the 'New Testament'

Galanthus elwesii, unnamed poculiform clone
An important event in the history of Galanthophilia occurred this week: the arrival in my inbox of Matt Bishop's first draft of the chapter on Galanthus elwesii cultivars for Snowdrops 2. At this stage, with publication still some years away, the text is inevitably incomplete and unpolished, but it is still exciting, for me at least, to see actual text and descriptions coming together.

A "Trym-like" G. elwesii
- sadly this discovery by Carolyn Elwes
has not survived.
Snowdrops 2 charts the development of the diversity of snowdrop cultivars since our book Snowdrops - widely known as 'the bible' in the community - was completed just about ten years ago. Huge numbers of new cultivars have been named, many unnecesarily, and part of the challenge we face with Snowdrops 2 - dubbed the 'new testament' by some wag  - is how to deal with all the names. In this we are helped by the division system instituted in Snowdrops, in which all cultivars sharing a certain set of easily recognized characters are placed together, thus avoiding the need for a lot of repetition explaining basic characters in the text and enabling simple keying-out to division level. The division system has proven to be flexible enough to absorb all new combinations of characters easily, which is a great relief. In Snowdrops, cultivars of G. elwesii were placed in four primary divisions, with 13 subdivisions. In the current draft this has expanded to six divisions, with 26 subdivisions, demonstrating the range of novelties in flower formation and colour combinations now known. Notable new subdivisions in 'Division O, Other conspicuous characters'  are  'O5. Outer segments shaped and marked like inner segments' - in other words, "Trym-like", a completely new development in G. elwesii, but now with three known extant cultivars, and 'O6. Outer or inner segments (or both) with orange suffusion.' This is a new subdivision, but will include the original 'orange snowdrop' 'Joy Cozens' and (at present) four other clones, including 'Anglesey Orange Tip', for which the Snowdrops 2 entry currently reads: "A fine display of potted snowdrops in the foyer of the new entrance building to Anglesey Abbey Garden in 2010 included what was the first pubic view of 'Anglesey Orange Tip'..." Typos can happen to anyone!

G. elwesii 'Pat Mason'
In Snowdrops, only two poculiform clones of G. elwesii could be described, but they will be joined by at least four more in Snowdrops 2, all apparently showing more vigour than 'The Bride'. Another class in which there have been great strides are green-tipped G. elwesii, both in single-marked clones (var. monostictus) and those with more extensive marking (var. elwesii). Two notable green-tipped var. elwesii are shown here: 'Pat Mason', of which Matt says: 'This clone is straight-forward to tell apart from other clones in the division for a number of reasons. The foliage alone is distinctive, with strongly incurved margins that give stiffness to their splayed position. With a large X marking on the inner segments, the flowers are proportionately on the large side with broad outer segments, the discreet marking comprising green lines which merge to a sharp point towards the apex.' Of 'Beany' he writes "this is undoubtedly one of the very best green-tipped G. elwesii..."

Galathus elwesii 'Beany'
Work on Snowdrops 2 continues apace and will take several more years to complete, but to ensure that it is as comprehensive as possible we need anyone with new, name-worthy snowdrops to let us know about them, preferably with a good picture, as soon as possible, so that we can gather in the details. The important point here is 'name-worthy' - there are far too many indistinct selections around already. Our suggestions made in the AGS Bulletin in 1998 (Some Superior Snowdrops, M. Bishop, A. Davis, J.Grimshaw), still hold good: 'Proportion and quality of flower, as well as vigour, but not mere size, are desirable characteristics to consider when evaluating a potential snowdrop cultivar. Even more important is the need to compare it diligently with existing cultivars, ascertaining that it is distinct from, at least equals, and preferably excels, the qualities of previously named clones. Only then may the application of a name be desirable.'

A green-tipped G. elwesii of no great merit and indistinguishable
from many others: this one is best left unnamed.

Friday, 21 January 2011

An old friend at Wisley

Crocus korolkowii 'Snow Leopard' at Wisley
One of several meetings this week took me to Wisley for the first time this year. It was a grey day unfortunately, but as we finished our deliberations in good time I was able to get out into the garden. Most of my time was spent in the glasshouse, enjoying the butterflies and the fabulous planting there, but I walked through the rock garden to visit the alpine house to see the treasures there too. As expected it was full of colour and interest from early-flowering bulbs and alpines, but of all of them I was most pleased to see a small pot containing a couple of crocus shoots and a large label.

The plant is Crocus korolkowii 'Snow Leopard', an effectively white-flowered version of this usually yellow species from Central Asia. It's not an albino, as it has all the dark pigment expected, but there's no trace of yellow. The dark speckles on the pale background have what my mother accurately described as a cod-skin effect, while the dark throat shows it is not a form of the the related C. alatavicus, which has a yellow throat. My interest comes from having raised it myself: seed from ordinary 'trade' C. korolkowii was sown in 1985, and this clone first flowered in 1989. Unfortunately it is not very vigorous so it's only grown by a few keen croconuts - I have lost it completely, so it was lovely to see it again, apparently happy and healthy at Wisley.

Tuesday, 18 January 2011

A beautiful day at Colesbourne

Galanthus elwesii var. monostictus 'J. Haydn'
- the best of the 'composers'

Dogwood and willow stems

Salix caprea 'Colesbourne' - a free-flowering,
very early pussy-willow, found here.

Will Fletcher's lines of raked leaves snake
 round the paths like an art installation.

Lonicera 'Winter Beauty'

Galanthus plicatus 'Colossus'

Berberis - unknown species/cultivar.
The berries are a superb feature all winter, and must be
very nasty to avoid being scoffed by the birds.

Sunday, 16 January 2011

A taxonomic spoof

Wild Aquilegia vulgaris, Yorkshire Dales, June 2008

This amusing spoof was posted recently to Alpine-L, the Electronic Rock Garden Society (to join, visit and is reproduced here by kind permission of its author, Mark McDonough from Massachusetts. Take it only with the humour it deserves, and please note that I (JMG) take no responsibility for the propagation of the word 'thusly'...

Revision of the Genus Aquilegia - Highlights


Wild Aquilegia canadensis, Pennsylvania, April 2009
All red-flowered "Columbines" east of the Mississippi have been reduced to a new monotypic genus Canadensuilegia canadensis.

All red-flowered "Columbines" west of the Mississippi have been reduced to a new monotypic genus Elegantuilegia elegantula.

Demiaquilegia becomes the new genus holding all of the dwarf European species (bertolonii, discolor, etc.)

Hemiaquilegia becomes the new genus holding any species with flowers half-hidden within the foliage (laramiensis) or with hemispherical flowers (fragrans).

The pre-existing genus Semiaquilegia becomes Quasiaquilegia, to make room for Semiaquilegia caerulea (the new name for A. caerulea), named thusly because it grows halfway between the east and west coasts of the

The real Semiaquilegia ecalcarata,
catching willow seed on its sticky glandular hairs, Oxford,  June 2010

Aquilegia jonesii must now be called Nanaquilegia jonesiaquilegia, a monotypic genus native to the Northern Rockies.

All dwarf Japanese species with glaucous foliage and blue flowers are now within the new genus Flabellaquilegia.

All dwarf Japanese species with glaucous foliage and white flowers arenow within the new genus Flabellalbaquilegia.

Any "Aquilegia" grown from garden collected seed is assigned to the new genus Hortaquilegia.

An indubitable "Hortaquilegia", Aquilegia States Series 'Kansas'

All common European columbines are now within the new genus Vulgaquilegia.

Aquilegia itself becomes a monotypic genus, holding only a single species. Previously known as A. vulgaris, the new name by which the single Aquilegia species must be called is Aquilegia pseudoaquilegioides. A subspecies that seeds around too much has been proposed as "ssp. vulgaris".

All new "aquilegia" species named hereafter shall be within the new genus Postaquilegia.

The genus Paraquilegia is considered null and void, and synonymous with Duplaquilegia "Nora Barlow" (syn. Malaquilegia).

A new-to-science species was found in Wasilla Alaska, it is known as Saraquilegia palinii. It is reputedly very difficult to grow and quits growing half way through the season. Regardless of its non-flowering, the plant pops up all over the place.

The mysterious Aquilegia kuhistanica & all other nursery-conjured species become Phantasmaquilegia stanica-stanica.

This revision takes precedence over all other Aquilegia taxonomic treatments.

Just kidding,

Mark McDonough

Aquilegia vulgaris 'Greenapples'

Carrie Thomas, holder of the National Plant Collection of Aquilegia, and proprietor of Touchwood Plants, had this to add, in the same fantasy spirit:

"My 'Aquilegia hybrids' Collection (covering red, pink and yellow doubles) is undergoing the validation necessary to become recognised as the new taxon of Doublaquilegia volcanica-fantasmagoricalii.

I understand some expert taxonmists are unhappy with the hyphenation within this specific epithet and/or its length. Therefore it may not be valid. Until the acceptance of this (or rejection) it is nevertheless a useful working name."

The final word went to Paige Woodward, of British Columbia: "Aquilegia s.l. to is too often confused with Aqualegia, the water plant."

Friday, 14 January 2011


Eranthis hyemalis 'Zitronenfalter'
The weather this week has been mild and wet and progress in the garden has been dramatic. Snowdrop shoots are spearing up and different cultivars are opening by the day. That is good to see, but I was also pleased to see today that there is a smattering of flowers on two lemon-yellow selections of Eranthis hyemalis. Despite their different orifgins - 'Lightning' was found in Pennsylvania while 'Zitronenfalter' is from Germany - it is remarkable that the should both flower early in the season, long before any other Eranthis is visible. They're really more or less indistinguishable in appearance, but there is a gene for double flowers in the 'Lightning' strain, so it's probably worth keeping them apart.

The first Cyclamen coum flowers have also opened this week, bringing a few sparks of colour here and there. It is funny to get excited about a few odd flowers when in a few weeks there will be sheets of them, but after the prolonged frost and snow any flower is welcome - and perhaps a posy of winter flowers is more delightful than a bouquet in summer.

Monday, 10 January 2011

Snowdrop Mania: a BBC Radio 4 programme on snowdrops

A nice selection of Galanthus nivalis
A BBC Radio 4 programme produced and first broadcast last year, entitled 'Snowdrop Mania', with well-known enthusiasts speaking to the presenter at the Galanthus Gala last year, was re-broadcast yesterday. It can be heard on - hopefully all over the world.

Saturday, 8 January 2011

Back into the garden

Berkheya multijuga
For the first time in what seems like months I've had chance to get into the garden and carry on with cutting down - at least for two hours in the afternoon. It enabled me to get all the old hellebore leaves removed, and the most offensive of the standing perennial stems (i.e. almost all). There's a lot more to do, but the garden looks very much better for it. What is nice, on getting down among the plant bases, is to see all the signs of new growth that are developing - progress has been rapid in the past frost-free week. Hellebore buds are coming on well, and the first curves of Eranthis stems are visible, backing out of the ground. A few pictures of new growth and burgeoning buds are below.

Hellebore leaves, on and off the plants

Euphorbia cv. (reversion from 'Blackbird')

Corydalis anthriscifolia - how did these leaves cope with -15?

Primula 'Amy Smith'

Friday, 7 January 2011

Weather statistics

Colesbourne Park lake, 19 December 2010
The BBC website is currently featuring a piece on the cold weather in December, in which various chilly statistics are supplied: that it was the coldest December in the past 100 years; the second coldest in central England since 1659; the average temperature across the country for the month was -1oC; it was the third sunniest and driest December on record (the sun was evidently elsewhere, certainly not here). The journalists and readers of such erudite literature as the Daily Mail seize on such statistics as proof that global warming is not happening, but another statistic provided is that 2010 was, globally, the second warmest since 1979. The difference between weather and the climate seems to be difficult for some people to grasp.

Gardeners are inevitably interested in the weather, but without making records it is remarkable how quickly one forgets what climatic conditions occurred when. I measure the rainfall as diligently as I can, and given the time to do so by prolonged rain today, I took the opportunity to tot-up the 2010 total. It confirmed what the river is clearly saying, that rainfall in the past year has been very low. Here are the figures recorded from the rain gauge on my lawn for the past four and a half years:

2006 (Jul-Dec)    547.2 mm

2007                  1024.7

2008                  1079.0

2009                    774.7

2010                    630.0

Mean rainfall for the past four full years is 877 mm (35.1 inches).

A gratuitous but warming view of succulents at Kirstenbosch, September 2010

Monday, 3 January 2011

Snowdrop Christmas cards

For some strange reason people have a habit of sending me Christmas cards featuring snowdrops, and this year there was a bumper crop of them. The images used range from lovely to hideous - here, in random sequence and without identification by sender, is a selection of them - one or two others are visible above. The really dreadful snowdrop ornament visible was found in a free box outside a garden centre in the Hamptons last summer, having found no purchaser. I can't imagine why not...

'Frosty Snowdrops' (i.e. with glitter...) - in aid of Age UK
'Spring' - in aid of Hope House Children's Hospices

'Snowdrops with books' by Anne Cotterill

'First Light - Fresh Snow' - in aid of the RHS

'Frosted Snowdrops' - this came in two formats,
in aid of the Alzheimer's Society
and St Richard's Hospice

in aid of Self Unlimited

in aid of Oxfam. Flowers and foliage stuck into the 'snow'
(probably from a freezer drawer...)
'S. Arnott' from Avon Bulbs

in aid of Parkinsons UK. More stuck-in flowers...
Galanthus elwesii planted in quails' eggshells,
photographed at the 2010 snowdrop day at Kalmthout Arboretum
by Tomoko Miyashita