Friday 29 April 2011

Options for a bridal bouquet

Anemone nemorosa 'Vestal'

Convallaria majalis 'Vic Pawlowski's Gold'

Lunaria annua 'Alba Variegata'

Viburnum plicatum 'Popcorn'

Tiarella cordifolia

Ornithogalum nutans

Trillium grandiflorum

Viburnum 'Eskimo'

Tulbaghia cominsii

Choisya arizonica 'Whetstone'

Asphodelus albus

Thursday 28 April 2011

Tuesday 26 April 2011

The sparkling Thames

The Thames at Goring
It all started last week with Adrian asking 'What is the Goring Gap'? As geographical questions go it's not quite in the same league as 'What did the Caspian Sea?' but it's not bad.  I explained that the Goring Gap is the point at which the River Thames cuts through the low chalk hills of the Chilterns, and alongside it goes Brunel's Great Western Railway, carried over the river on a rather attractive bridge. It's no tremendous gorge, but a very pleasant bit of scenery and I suggested that we went to see it on our way to lunch at my parents' on Easter Monday.

The journey turned into something of a refresher course on the upper and mid-Thames valley and associated drainages, though missing out the Wiltshire section. In the Cotswolds we crossed the upper reaches of the rivers Churn, Coln, Leach and  later the Windrush, all draining eastwards to the Thames. We reached and first crossed the Thames proper at Newbridge in Oxfordshire and then again at Abingdon, travelling south on the Oxfordshire side to Goring.

At this point I should confess that I had an ulterior motive in undertaking this mobile geography lesson. Just outside Goring is the Berkshire, Buckinghamshire and Oxfordshire Wildlife Trust's Hartlock Reserve, a scrap of Chiltern chalk grassland that has avoided being ploughed or fertilized; as you go along on the train it's the only bit of grey-looking grassland to be seen in the whole Thames valley - grey is always good, amid the lush green of fertilized but non-flowery fields. For decades Hartslock has been the only site outside Kent known for the Monkey Orchid, Orchis simia, which was once widely found in the Chilterns. From the low point in 1950, when only a tiny number of plants were known, the population has been carefully managed and last year 448 plants were counted (according to Bill Temple in the January 2011 Journal of the Hardy Orchid Society). Unfortunately, despite the earliness of the season, the Monkey Orchids were not in flower yesterday, visible only as still-furled inflorescences.

Orchis purpurea
The conservation of the Monkey Orchid was a great success story. Then, perhaps about ten years ago now, a specimen of a Lady Orchid, Orchis purpurea, appeared at Hartslock. This is the most handsome, and largest, of our native Orchis species, with a flower that suggests a lady in a dress and poke bonnet. It is comparatively common in Kent, but very rare anywhere else. It was soon rumoured that it had been planted there, and DNA analysis has since confirmed that it is from a French population. As nobody has owned-up and it is just conceivable that it blew in as seed, the plant was allowed to remain, and very beautiful it was when I first saw it in 2004. The Lady Orchids - there are now several - were in peak flower yesterday, so the journey was certainly not wasted.

Orchis x angusticruris
Orchids being as promiscuous as plants can be, it was not long before the Monkeys mated with the Lady, and hybrids started to appear. Given the unattractive name 'Lonkey' Orchids, they are formally known as Orchis x angusticruris and are the first known occurrence of this hybrid in Britain. They are extremely striking plants, large and vigorous, unlike the very diminutive Monkey Orchids at Hartslock, with richly coloured flowers. BUT - they are also fertile and are increasing rapidly (309 in 2010), and I fear for the long term survival of the native genepool represented by the original Orchis simia at Hartslock. There has been much learned debate about this, and eminent authorities have declared that it is a natural experiment in progress, so the interlopers have been tolerated. The DNA evidence again shows that the Hartslock Monkeys share DNA with the other Chiltern speciality, Orchis militaris, and are therefore not pure to begin with - though my view is that they are the plants indigenous to the area, whatever their genetic background, and that the 'natural' experiment would be much better if it it was being carried on somewhere else.

A Hartslock hybrid - Orchis x angusticruris (O. purpurea x O. simia)
Having admired both the orchids and the glorious view of the river and the Goring Gap, we realised we had three minutes to be at lunch, so had to go the fastest way to go the thirty miles to Maidenhead, crossing the Thames from Goring to Streatley, following it along past Pangbourne to Theale and there abandoning the river, opting for a speedy journey along the M4. To complete the circuit, however, we returned by the scenic route, first crossing the river at Henley, and then crossing and recrossing at Wallingford, Shillingford, Oxford and Swinford - on bridges of course - and so home.

Orchids at Hartslock: the bare patch is erosion
caused by photographers

Sunday 24 April 2011

A late Easter but an early spring

Narcissus poeticus 'Recurvus'

Some images of flowers at Colesbourne Park and in the cottage garden today. Happy Easter!

Malus 'Comtesse de Paris'

Rosa spinosissima (altaica)

Paeonia mlokosewitschii
Hybrid candelabra primula

Epimedium fargesii

Phlox divaricata

Iris "Jeff's Blue"

Iris 'Webelos'
Viola 'Smugglers'Moon' and interloping dark seedling

Bluebells, Hyacinthoides non-scripta

Friday 22 April 2011

Ramsons at Newark Park

Newark Park
We spent yesterday afternoon visiting Newark Park, a National Trust property near Wotton-under-Edge, Gloucestershire. Its principal feature is the house, a Georgian mansion incorporating a Tudor hunting lodge that is still very evident. It has been entirely restored and renovated by its tenants and thus feels very much like a private home. The house perches on the very edge of the Cotswold escarpment, which plunges away vertiginously below it, and has a most magnificent view over the valley below and across a vast tract of apparently almost uninhabited countryside - a very special place.

Newark Park Peacock

There are smallish, peacock-inhabited, areas of formal gardens and lawns on the level ground beside and above the house, not looking their best at the moment, with spring flowers fading and summer yet to come. There were masses of Cyclamen repandum in the grass, but they were rather frizzled by the prevailing heat and drought. Elsewhere the grounds are picturesque rather than intensely gardened, with walks down the slope and through the trees onto lawns and to a pool. The bluff below the house is spectacularly covered by a rogues gallery of the worst invasive horticultural weeds, a textbook for the anti-aliens brigade, all woven through with thriving stands of nettles.

Ramsons, Allium ursinum
 Another plant was also present in vast abundance, clearly invading, but at least native and looking very attractive. This was Allium ursinum, our native Ramsons or Wild Garlic, a spring-growing woodland species with a narrow soft bulb and a pair of broad leaves from between which the inflorescence appears. It is a very pretty plant, with lovely umbels of starry white flowers, and has the great advantage of growing in dry shade, where not much else could (though not much else can, when it is well established). Apart from its invasiveness the other drawback is the very strong alliaceous smell it releases all the time - the woods smell strongly of it (it's not quite garlic and not quite onion in flavour) and I really don't need either of those characters in the garden. It is edible, and I believe it is even sometimes gathered and sold as a culinary item.

Ramsons at Newark Park

Thursday 21 April 2011

Some South African irids

Ixia maculata
Inspired by seeing them in the wild and in cultivation at the Cape, I attempt to grow a few South African bulbous plants, with a particular interest in the wonderful diversity of Cape Iridaceae. In the single-regime greenhouse available here they are not all perfectly happy, as it is probably not really light and airy enough for them, and I often wonder why I bother with these scrappy pots of thin foliage. Then they flower and all is forgiven. These are a few that have bloomed recently.

Sparaxis tricolor - although it is rather darker in colour than
wild plants usually seem to be, so may be a horticultural hybrid.
Gladiolus huttonii
 As regular readers of the Diary may recall, I am very fond of Gladiolus and it's particularly exciting when a new one flowers. This is G. huttonii, an Eastern Cape species, currently flowering here. The seed was obtained from the seed room at Kirstenbosch in 2004, but inexplicably not sown until August 2006. It is an interesting little plant (this specimen is about 20 cm tall), with flowers apparently adapted for bird pollination (red coloration, long tube), but it is so flimsy it is difficult to imagine a sunbird being able to perch on it. It and some of its relatives were formerly placed in the genus Homoglossum on account of the floral differences, but they were long ago sunk into Gladiolus. The only remembrance of the name Homoglossum in horticulture is in the so-called 'homoglads', the rather amusing name for hybrids between the former Homoglossum watsonium (now Gladiolus watsonius) and Gladiolus tristis, but probably also including G. huttonii, which form a swarm of elegant, attractively coloured plants ideal for early flowering in Mediterranean climates or under glass further north. Julian Sutton, proprietor of the very aptly named Desirable Plants nursery, is breeding within the group in search of cut-flower potential and brought a batch of his rejects to the Alpines without Frontiers conference last week. Rejects to him, perhaps, but manna to everyone else, and his table was cleared of them in about ten minutes. I helped.

 Two of Julian Sutton's hybrids

Tuesday 19 April 2011

An invitation

The cottage garden in June
We have decided to open the cottage garden on 11 June (2-5 pm) in aid of the Lerang’wa Primary School in Tanzania, which I’ve supported for many years. Entry will be £7.50, including tea & cakes. If you wish to come, please let me know by Wednesday 8 June  via, as I will need to send you directions and information about parking arrangements, and we also need to know numbers for catering. If there are too many people wishing to visit we will have to restrict numbers: prior booking is essential, please. It would be great to meet some of my Diary readers and followers on this occasion!

Pupils at Lerang'wa Primary School filing to class

Monday 18 April 2011

Alpines Without Frontiers

Gentiana acaulis

I spent Thursday to Sunday at the 8th International Rock Garden Conference - 'Alpines Without Frontiers', held at the East Midlands Conference Centre at the University of Nottingham. About 300 people attended, from 20 countries, ranging from South Africa to Japan and Romania as well as more likely provenances. Such a gathering is immensely stimulating, bringing together people from all backgrounds and levels of experience in the broad field of rock gardening. Many friends were there, some made at the last conference in Edinburgh in 2001, and not seen since, others seen more regularly, and of course there were new friends to be made. 

Veterans of the International Rock Garden Conferences:
Ray Cobb (L) attended the first in 1951, while Otto Fauser from Melbourne has attended the past six

We had the opportunity to hear 19 lectures (which I did, more or less - funny how a dark hall induces drowsiness...) and attend two afternoons of workshops. On Saturday a superb show was staged, with some magnificent specimens on the benches, at which the images here were taken. The corridors and halls were decorated by a superb display of photography and artwork, and several gardens had brought displays about their work with alpines, giving us a lot to look at.

Meconopsis delavayi
The talks were almost all about plants in the wild, inspiring us to get out and see these beauties, and then try to grow them. Not surprisingly, some genera reappeared time and again, especially in a series of talks on the Sinohimalayan flora - there was a heavy concentration on Meconopsis and Primula, and Rheum nobile featured frequently. Rosulate violas received their mead of adulation and we learnt a lot about Fritillaria. I spoke about African alpines and also gave a workshop on snowdrop propagation. What was in short supply were talks on actual rock gardening, but the two we did have were splendidly vivacious in each case, with Ian Young from Aberdeen and Keith Wiley from Devon expounding their particular, but very different, techniques and styles - though sharing a common love of Erythronium.

The amazingly black Primula euprepes,
a new introduction from China
It was a fantastic event, and all credit must go the conference team led by Kit Grey-Wilson and Robert Rolfe, and everyone from the Alpine Garden Society who had clearly worked incredibly hard to ensure its smooth running and success. In 2021 (yikes!) it will be the turn of the Scottish Rock Garden Club to host the conference and many of us are already looking forward to it.

The show on Saturday afternoon: Todd Boland
from Newfoundland taking notes at the left.
The Farrer Medal was won by the big Trillium grandiflorum
in front of him, shown by Chris Lilley

Second in contention for the Farrer Medal was this
Cypripedium Ursel Grex, but it was given an Award of Merit
 by the RHS Rock Garden Plant Committee.