Wednesday 31 March 2010

Bergenia emeiensis

A cold winter can have advantages. Among them is the delayed flowering it induces in species that are apt to flower early in the year and often get nipped by frost in consequence; the delay gives them the chance to open in milder weather with less risk of frost damage. Magnolias are the classic example of this, but Bergenia emeiensis is another that really benefits from a late season. It is now looking good here, flowering freely on a clump that has been in situ for about four years.

Bergenia emeiensis is a native of limestone cliffs in Sichuan, where it often grows under overhangs, gaining its moisture from seeps in the rock. Although first collected in 1935, on Emeishan (Mt Omei), it was not named until 1988, and is now known from about four mountain areas (seee Ogisu & Rix, 2007, in Curtis's Botanical Magazine 24: 2-6 for an excellent account of the species and its relatives). It was first introduced to cultivation in the West by Mikinori Ogisu, who collected it at 1750 m on Emeishan in 1982 under his collection number Ogisu 82003. My plant is referable to this collection, having been given by Mikinori to Ruby Baker, who passed it to me.

When first introduced it was regarded as tender and cosseted in pots under cover. This enables the flowers to develop reliably, but the plant itself is completely hardy, maintaining its attractive deep green leaves unscathed all winter. For a Bergenia it is a very tidy and neat plant and when in flower it is very elegant. My plant grows in the open, unprotected, though above a low wall over which it hangs, and receives next to no attention through the year.

Clivia miniata 'Foster's Yellow'

Flowering in the living room now.

Saturday 27 March 2010

Poculiform snowdrops

My favourite group of aberrant snowdrops are those with entirely white flowers, caused by the replacement of the normal inner segments with an extra whorl of outer segments. Ideally this should be a perfect replacement, resulting in six equal, pure white segments, but occasionally this is not quite fully achieved. This flower type is known as poculiform, a strange word that derives from the Latin poculus, a little cup: I always think that the Revd. Harpur-Crewe, who coined the name 'Poculiformis' for a G. nivalis clone, was showing off his dog-Latin. This form of variation is not particularly uncommon and since it is impossible to keep track of all the poculifom clones of G. nivalis, we placed them all in a Poculiformis Group in our book Snowdrops. The group is defined by having elongated inner segments resembling outer segments in shape, not by purity of whiteness, as green marks can still occur in such flowers.

The first three pictures show three clones of poculiform Galanthus elwesii, in order: 'Don Armstrong' a shapely clone named after a gardener from Vancouver; another Canadian clone, as yet unnamed, with less perfectly shaped flowers but great vigour (but this is not the same as 'Snocus', which has still not been released by its originator, and 'The Bride', Phil Cornish's discovery which for many years has been the only poculiform G. elwesii around. It is not a robust plant and has weak scapes, causing the flowers to sag close to the ground, but it is a myth that needs a hot dry place to succeed.

The fourth picture shows a lovely example of G. nivalis Poculiformis Group sent to us at Colesbourne by Lord Forteviot: it has particularly shapely flowers that never seem to show any green markings. Below it is an imperfect poc from Colesbourne - the inner segments are elongated, but don't equal the outers, and they have a trace of green honey guides on them. By virtue of its elongated inners 'Angelique' counts as poculiform, but in this case they are intermediate in morphology, showing an apical mark and notch. More even are plants such as 'Alan's Treat' (not illustrated) in which all six segments have green tips. I think these have to be admitted to the poculiform fold on the basis of their morphology, broadening the concept away from pure white flowers.

The next (seventh) picture is not a poculiform flower, however, but what is known as an albino, having almost pure white flowers but of normal shape. It is G. nivalis 'Snow White's Gnome', from Wolfgang Kletzing. Only the tiniest of green dots show on the outer surace of the inner segments, but the green honeyguide lines inside are normal. It is a tiny plant, and like most Czech snowdrops, very late to flower.

The only poculiform hybrid (nivalis x plicatus) I know of is 'Bridesmaid' (eighth pic). It seems to be vigorous and has a nice flower shape.

Galanthus plicatus has also produced poculiforms, though they are still few in number. The penultimate image shows 'Seraph', which has had an angelic resurrection since being proclaimed extinct in Snowdrops. It is pretty but has a slightly droopy flower shape that makes it impossible to confuse with 'E.A. Bowles', seen in the final image. This is indisputably one of the finest of recent discoveries, originating a few years ago at Myddelton House. It has achieved some notoriety as the most expensive listed snowdrop, being offered (and selling) for £150 by Monksilver Nursery. So far it seems to be vigorous and a good doer, with broad leaves and flowering late in the season.

Friday 26 March 2010

The Sahin Viola trial

Experimental line; Viola Floral Powers Series 'White Rose Wing' and 'Light Orange'; Diony de Bont; Janny Haak; part of the trial

On Monday morning we spent two happy hours looking round the nursery of the seed company K. Sahin, Zaden B.V. (, for whom I used to work. The nursery is located in Honselersdijk, part of the Westland district, an extraordinary proportion of which is covered by glasshouses - see - growing everything from anthurium to aubergines.

The principle feature of interest at this time was the viola breeding trial, a visual and olfactory spectacle that we were shown by Diony de Bont, the company's senior breeder. Each year he sows out thousands of individual 'lines' of viola seed - some are varieties already on sale, being checked for purity; others are experimental breeding lines nearing perfection; others are test crosses between potential parents, and some are the parent lines from which the F1 hybrids are produced. It is a huge undertaking, of great importance to the company, and it is attended to with meticulous care by nursery manager Jaap Grosscurt and his team, so that the plants perform to their highest potential. Each line is observed and evaluated by Diony before he takes out any promising looking plants for experimental breeding work, or selects sets of parents for pollination; a team of five ladies led by Janny Haak works at this. When, eventually, a hybrid is selected for the catalogue, the ladies will produce enough stock seed for a crop of the parents to be grown in China, where the hybrid seed will be produced. It is sold to commercial growers rather than amateur gardeners, so the availability of these cultivars does depend on whether a local nursery is using Sahin products.

I had not seen the Sahin viola trial since 2003, when I returned to the UK and the improvements in quality seen now are dramatic, with a new series called Floral Powers being outstanding. These are tuft-forming, free flowering plants in many dfferent colours that are often unique in bedding violas; they are rightly winning high praise in the industry. The aim of producing a series is to have all the different flower colours on plants that are as uniform in habit and flowering period as possible, enabling effective growing and marketing. This is a huge challenge and many otherwise excellent lines are abandoned because they don't quite conform to the requirements for the series, but some colours are tricky to achieve to these standards - orange, for example, and red is very difficult in bedding violas for some reason, but there are excellent examples of both in the Floral Powers series.

The definition of bedding violas is becoming difficult: they are always of a smaller size than a traditional pansy, and used to have a distinctive look derived from the wild Heartsease Viola tricolor original parents, i.e. four larger petals above the lip, usually with the two uppermost being larger and often darker in colour than the rest, while pansies are traditionally much rounder in shape, with less differentiation in size between the petals. Some bedding violas retain the Heartsease shape but others are tending to look more like small pansies. Not that it matters because they are all lovely plants, and really much more useful in the garden than ordinary pansies.

Wednesday 24 March 2010

Extraordinary Ranunculus

In Amsterdam on Sunday our route to the Rijksmuseum 'somehow' took us past the flowermarket on Singel. In one of the florist's shops I noticed bunches of some extraordinary Florists' Ranunuculus, in which some or all of the floral parts were foliose (i.e. converted into leaf-like structures). This is not uncommon in the Ranunculaceae (as evident in the Eranthis post) and I have occasionally seen it in Florists' Ranunculus, but never so well developed as in these cases. The most striking had several whorls of red petals surmounted by a tufted of lobed leaflets, while two others had different forms of completely foliose flowers that for anyone fond of green flowers, as I am, were quite irresistable. Unfortunately I did not have a camera with me, so we had to return later in the day to buy bunches for photography. At that point we found that they were only sold in huge bunches of 50 stems for 5 euros per bunch... As 150 mutant Ranunculus were too many to cope with I bought only the two most remarkable. It seems that they are grown in Italy, as clonal plants, for the cut flower market, but I wish I could get hold of tubers to grow here.

The natural habitat of Tierenteyn mustard

We have been away for a long weekend to the Low Countries. There were several excuses for going - getting away together, visiting friends, etc, but the most pressing reason was that we were getting low on Tierenteyn mustard. This is more than just a condiment, being not far from addictive: a dab at the back of the mouth sends the most remarkable sensations flaring upwards through the nose and apparently the brain, rather as I imagine a rush of cocaine does, and one just wants more.

The only problem is that this wonderful substance is only available from the shop of Veuve Tierenteyn-Verlent, in the Groentenmarkt, Ghent, where it is dispensed by hand from a vat at the back of the shop, into containers of whatever size one requires. It has no preservatives, so needs to be consumed fresh (though it lasts a while in the fridge, and freezes well) and is therefore only sold from the shop. In consequence a trip to Ghent every now and then is a necessity, either in person or by proxy.

Apart from the visit to the Mostaard Fabriek, Ghent has numerous attractions, notably of course the Lams Gods, the great altarpiece by Hubert and Jan van Eyck in Sint Baaf's Cathedral (in which, according to the guidebook, 42 species of plant are identifiable, with Lilium candidum, Iris germanica and Paeonia mascula being conspicuous). But the thing I enjoy most is a visit to the Cafe den Turk, which dates to 1228 and somehow eludes a ban on smoking in its dingy interior, where alongside the beer (our choice was Delirium Tremens, served in glasses decorated with pink elephants) one is served dry sausages and a dish of Tierenteyn mustard to dip them in. Horribly unhealthy, but absolutely delicious.

Friday 19 March 2010

Wall Street Journal article on snowdrops

Anne Marie Chaker has written about snowdrops for the Wall Street Journal:

Not perhaps their usual subject matter, but perhaps they think snowdrops would make a good investment...

Thursday 18 March 2010

Elizabeth Parker-Jervis 1931-2010

With her impressive stature and (it has to be said) somewhat bossy ways Elizabeth Parker-Jervis was a notable, even redoubtable figure in Oxfordshire horticultural circles for many years. With her husband John she had established the specialist P-J Nursery at Longworth in the 1970s: it was an important source of choice plants at a time when these were less freely available than they are today, and many of us started our collections of snowdrops and colchicums with P-J stock. I well remember a visit to the nursery in 1987 with Elizabeth dispensing good advice as she did up Colchicum corms in net bags.

Much of the stock sold through the P-J Nursery had been inherited by Elizabeth from her father Dick Trotter, a banker and sometime Treasurer of the RHS, who had gardened at Leith Vale, Surrey, and later at Brin in Inverness-shire. Through the RHS, Dick Trotter became a great friend of E.A. Bowles, who regularly visited Leith Vale, where he was known as Uncle G. As Elizabeth was fond of remarking, she 'was brought up on Bowles's knee' and he imparted his particular way of looking at plants in detail and with humour to her. His influence remained with her all her life: last Saturday she brightened at the sight of some crocuses I had brought her and spoke fondly of her beloved Uncle G. She was a Vice-President of the E.A. Bowles of Myddelton House Society, and of the Oxford & District Group of the Alpine Garden Society.

After the death of her husband Elizabeth gave up the nursery and moved into a smaller, but still spacious home nearby. Over the years she became less mobile (but until quite recently seldom let this interfere with her getting to events) and somewhat eccentric, bringing a nest of baby hedgehogs she was rearing to a garden party, for example. She remained determined to pass on good plants, bringing bales of seed heads to meetings up to last autumn, and her generosity and general kindness were legendary. Late last year she decided to place herself in a nursing home, unfortunately deteriorating in condition rapidly thereafter: she died yesterday.

Wednesday 17 March 2010

Great plants at Cistus Nursery

Cistus Design Nursery sculpture by Mark Bulwinkle; Edgeworthia chrysantha 'Nanjing Gold', 'Akebono'; Chaenomeles japonica 'Atsuya Hamada' - the nicest Chaenomeles I've ever seen, with velvety flowers; Pittosporum tobira 'Dr Yokoi's Ghost' - amazing white new growth; Trochodendron aralioides 'Curried Gold' - a highly desirable Cistus selection, but not easy to propagate; Trillium 'Volcano' - selected by Barry Sligh in New Zealand [Amended 24/10/2011]; Podophyllum delavayi; Echium candicans 'Star of Madeira'; Yucca pallida.

Cistus Nursery (, located on Sauvie Island near Portland, Oregon, is one of the world's great horticultural hotbeds and an almost overwhelming experience for any plantsman, being stuffed with an incredible asortment of the choicest plants - some of which are illustrated above. Founded by Sean Hogan and his late partner Parker Sanderson, and now run by Sean, Nathan Limprecht and a dedicated team of fellow plant enthusiasts, it comprises ornamental plantings, the retail nursery and a series of large polytunnels behind the scenes (where the excitement perhaps reaches its peak).

Sean's mission is to promote the cultivation of the best plants for the Portland area, sometimes pushing the barriers of hardiness, but really focussing on things that will flourish in this Mediterranean climate area and enliven the normally dull planting palette. Nowhere is this better seen than in the streets around his own home where trademark evergreen oaks (especially Quercus hypoleucoides) are now flourishing as street trees, and the gardens all seem to sport something that could only have come from Cistus Nursery.

Tuesday 16 March 2010


Dan Hinkley, Sue and Bleddyn Wynn-Jones - the plant-hunting trio identified in perpetuity as HWJ on plant-labels worldwide - out of their usual habitat at Thenford House on Monday.

Eranthis cultivars

Eranthis hyemalis, the Winter Aconite, is one of the most welcome sights of early spring, enlivening the garden with its typically bright yellow flowers. In some places here at Colesbourne they are still fresh and in full beauty, which is remarkable in mid-March. In other areas they are beginning to fade, however.

Along with a few other galanthophiles I have a collection of different forms of Eranthis hyemalis, some of which are illustrated here. At the top, just coming into full beauty, is an extraordinary clone in which the anthers are replaced by foliose structures, rather as they are in some Japanese Hepatica cultivars - an as-yet unnamed rarity very kindly shared with me by a friend last year. Several doubles are now known, of which Joe Sharman's selection 'Lady Lamortagne' is much finer than the more frequently seen 'Noel Ayres' (not illustrated). 'Orange Glow', when fresh, is a particularly rich orangy-yellow. It comes true from seed - my plants are derived from some seed kindly sent by Mat Murray from Australia. Conversely there are several seed-raised selections in which the flower colour is paler than average. 'Zitronenfalter' (not illustrated) is a German selection with lemon-yellow flowers, and is not very distinguishable from 'Lightning', shown here, which was found in an old garden in Philadelphia by Carol Lim some years ago. It comes more or less true from seed, but darker versions need to be rogued out, and it also has the pleasant habit of sometimes producing doubles in the same colour. My favourite of the paler aconites is 'Schwefelglanz', also from Germany. It opens a rich soft apricot (penultimate picture) and fades through straw to ivory as sen in the final image.

Saturday 13 March 2010

Two outstanding lectures in Oxford

Two great plantsmen, Harry Jans (left) from The Netherlands and Dan Hinkley from Seattle, visited Oxford this week and gave outstanding lectures.

On Wednesday Harry spoke to the the Oxford & District Alpine Garden Society Group about the expedition by jeep from Chengdu in Sichuan over the mountains to Lhasa that he organised and led last year. Having travelled with Harry in Ethiopia and Kenya I knew we would have a fantastic talk, and so it proved, with stunning images of plants, people and 'incidents' along the way. Having travelled extensively in western China and the Tibetan borderlands over many years, but while safely ensconced in my armchair, many of the plants were at least somewhat familiar to me, but to see images of great swathes of Meconopsis baileyi and mountainsides of Rheum nobile was a delight. In addition, however, Harry showed us many pictures of unheard of gentians and tiny delights such as Silene davidii with large pink flowers that have never adorned the alpine house or rock garden.

Dan's talk on Thursday, as part of the University Botanic Garden's lecture series, was quite different, looking at plants that have won his approval, or caused disappointment, in the garden at his home Windcliff, set on a bluff above the Puget Sound with views to Seattle and Mount Rainier beyond. It is a stunning setting, but the location has its challenges; not only is it windy but it is in the rain shadow of the Olympic Peninsula and thus comparatively dry. One of the most amusing images was of Gunnera manicata with its fading leaves spray-painted silver and blue and looking rather stunning. Interspersed with the 'stills' were video clips, including one of Dan on the trail of Tetrapanax, whose suckering habit he deplores. The garden at Windcliff has been created within the past decade and is sure to be hailed as one of the inspirational gardens of the twenty-first century by many in the United States and elsewhere.

Friday 12 March 2010

Crocus chrysanthus 'E.A. Bowles'

A long-running debate among croconuts has been the apparent disappearance from cultivation of Crocus chrysanthus 'E.A. Bowles', a circumstance greatly regretted by those who cherish the memory of the great plantsman.

In My Garden in Spring (1914) Bowles described the moment he first set eyes on the plant: 'The 22nd of February 1905, stands out as an event in the Crocus world for me, for a little packet post-marked Haarlem lay on my breakfast table, and had brought me five blooms from Mr. Hoog of C. chrysanthus pallidus seedlings which for size and delicious creamy moonlight yellows surpassed anything I had dreamt of. One had a band of deep purple on the outer segment, another greenish-blue feathering, and the largest of all was as soft a yellow as the pat of butter in front of me, and with a feathering patch of warm brown-madder at the base of each segment that set off the yellow in much the same manner as the apical patch of brownish black does on the forewing of the lovely Pale Clouded Yellow Butterfly. My admiration of this new race went to Holland by return of post and had a pleasant sequel in a generous gift of corms of these varieties and the naming of the butter-coloured giant after me.'

Having written his thank-you letter, he promptly painted the five flowers on a sheet now preserved in the Natural History Museum (copyright Andrew Parker Bowles) and reproduced here thanks to Roger Holland, with a detail of the flower of 'E.A. Bowles'.

Roger Holland, erstwhile Chairman of the E.A. Bowles of Myddelton House Society and holder of the National Plant Collection of Crocus chrysanthus and C. biflorus cultivars on behalf of the Society, has been trying to track down material of 'E.A. Bowles' for years, with a conspicuous lack of success. Material received has always proved to not match the description and images available of the cultivar, even when of apparently reliable provenance. This is odd, considering that until comparatively recently, 'E.A. Bowles' was offered in bulb catalogues at very cheap prices. In the back of my copy of Bowles's A Handbook of Crocus and Colchicum for Gardeners I note that I acquired corms of 'E.A. Bowles' from the bulb merchant Jacques Amand (then with premises in Beethoven Street, London), in 1984. Sometime after that, though, it disappeared from the trade and apparently from gardens too.

On Tuesday morning, while recuperating from my flight from Portland at my parents' in Maidenhead, I noticed a fine yellow Crocus chrysanthus in the lawn (planted with a diversity of Crocus in 1991, and now better than ever) and immediately connected it with my mental image of 'E.A. Bowles' from 25 years or so ago. I took photos and a flower to send to Roger; studying these he has come to the view that this is indeed the long-lost 'E.A. Bowles' and considering the similarity between the current flowers and the exquisite painting one has to agree.

So why has this once commonly grown plant diminished to this state of obscurity? It seems that even in Bowles's lifetime commercially grown stocks were muddled with other clones (teste a letter from EAB to Dick Trotter, 1943) and presumably by the mid-1980s it was felt that it was no longer a viable crop for the Dutch growers - or possibly grower. There is a parallel case in Iris histrioides 'Major', once a common and cheaply available bulb, but which was only produced by a single grower whose stock was one year afflicted by virus and so it disappeared from the trade. Nobody particularly worried about maintaining such 'common' and 'easily available' plants until it was too late and they had all but died out of gardens, proving the validity of the concept of National Plant Collections. A corm or two of 'E.A. Bowles' will find their way to Roger Holland later in the year.

Tuesday 9 March 2010

Spring in the Siskiyous

Fritillaria recurva; Trillium rivale; Dodecatheon (?) pulchellum; Viola hallii; Darlingtonia californica; plant-hunting posse: Jason Scott, Kelly Dodson, Sue Milliken, Sean Hogan; Arctostaphylos (?) patula, or a hybrid; Mahonia repens; Umbellularia californica (compact serpentine form); Pinus jeffreyi; Siskiyou view

I've just returned home from a quick trip to Oregon, where I was speaking at the North American Rock Garden Society's Western Winter Study Weekend in Medford. This was a great event, with good speakers and good company (and good plants to buy for those not trammelled by international restrictions: Shortia uniflora for $6 and not all sold!) and it was a huge pleasure to be there. Further broadening the mind, the adjacent Shenanigans bar offered a memorable cultural experience on Saturday night, especially if you like lamb dressed as mutton and a beer called Arrogant Bastard.

But Medford is not very far away from the Siskiyou mountains, a botanical hotspot of note, with remarkable plant diversity and a high level of endemism. This is largely due to the the turbulent geology of the region, amongst which are large areas of serpentine. This shiny, often slightly greenish rock contains high levels of heavy metals, especially chromium and nickel, and thus fosters a fascinating flora of plants able to tolerate this normally toxic substrate. In general the mountain slopes are covered with conifer-dominated forest (especially Douglas Fir (Pseudotsuga menziesii) with Incense Cedar (Calocedrus decurrens), Lawson's Cypress (Chamaecyparis lawsoniana) and several pines) but among the conifers is a remarkable assortment of broad-leaved evergreens capable of tolerating the long period of summer drought. Most notably these include Arbutus menziesii with lovely pinkish-orange bark, the 'headache tree' Umbellularia californica, and a diversity of oak relatives such Chrysolepis chrysophylla, Lithocarpus densiflorus, Quercus chrysolepis, Q. vacciniifolia and several others. Where the tree cover thins out, a chaparral-type vegetation develops of low, evergreen shrubs, including many of the above in short-growing forms, but also a diversity of the ericaceous Arctostaphylos and a couple of rhododendrons, as well as such things as Ceanothus, Garrya, Mahonia and Rhamnus. Open grassy places host a mixture of annuals and bulbs that spend the summer in dormancy, while above them is often the deciduous Quercus garryana. Bogs and seeps have their own specialities, one of the most remarkable being the carnivorous Darlingtonia californica, often called the Cobra Lily and one of my favourite plants.

Not surprisingly then, my host and driver, Sean Hogan, and I were seduced away from the conference and into the mountains for as much time as we could squeeze into the three days available. Although not nearly enough, this gave us chance to see a lot of plants and habitats, some of which are illustrated here. The season was perhaps a little later than expected, with the result that many species that could have been epected were not yet visible or blooming - a few more of the glorious days we enjoyed would bring out a mass of erythroniums at several sites we visited. The photos above give a taster of the delights we found, but for me the highlight was undoubtedly the Fritillaria recurva, growing on a sunny bluff above the Rogue River.