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

Wednesday 15 June 2016

Garden open on Sunday

View across the gravel beds.


On Sunday 19 June my garden at Kirkhill Farm, Settrington, will be open from 2-6 pm, as part of the Yorkshire Arboretum's open garden's scheme. Sixteen gardens are taking part, and there are several more to come over the next few months - see the programme on our website for full details of them all. So far I've been to them all - and now it's my turn! Despite the misgivings expressed in The Garden about the June gap the garden is looking well enough, I think, although a rabbit did get in for a while, and there is currently a mole...

I'm glad that my Iris sibirica "Tall Blue" seedling is in flower for the occasion.
Seed of my white poppies and quite an assortment of good plants will be for sale.

The garden will also be open on 7 August and 18 September.

Sunday 5 June 2016

A weekend of orchid-hunting

I have wanted to see a wild Lady's-slipper Orchid in this country for over 40 years - but how wild are these?
After a week of cold greyness a fine weekend was to be made the most of, and I've spent much of it looking for orchids. Yesterday I visited a site on magnesian limestone just north of Pickering, and today I've been across to Gait Barrows National Nature Reserve near Silverdale in Lancashire, returning via Kilnsey Park in Wharfedale. Here are some of the orchids seen: 13 species, including those not in flower yet, plus three hybrids.

Early Purple Orchids (Orchis mascula) have done well this year, and the Pickering site had some of the longest 'long purples' I've ever seen. It was also abundant at Kilnsey Park.

This site is known for its tiny population of Neotinea ustulata, the Burnt-tip Orchid, which is tiny in stature too. I had not seen this species before, so it was a good start to the weekend. 

Just three plants were visible, in the shortest turf on a site that is being undergrazed and in quite a parlous condition. The colour of the sepals was noticeably different in these two.

Also growing in short turf in the open were a good number of Fly Orchids, Ophrys insectifera, always a nice plant to see. In addition Common Twayblade, Neottia ovata, Common Spotted Orchid and a butterfly orchid (Platanthera sp., indistinguishable in bud) were still in bud.

The highlight of the weekend was seeing the reintroduced Lady's-slippers, Cypripedium calceolus, at Gait Barrows. A visiting area has a number of clumps ranging from this stunner to eaten-off stumps, in areas demarcated by tape to reduce damage. They are the progeny of native parents, grown at Kew under the auspices of the Sainsbury Orchid Project, as part of the effort to re-establish this almost mythical plant back into the wild in suitable (often former) localities.

Every bit as gorgeous as expected!

Sadly thefts still occur, although nursery-grown stock is now freely available. The Gait Barrows site is amply publicised and signed, within an easy walk of the car park, so very accessible. The plants are still being gardened though, with each shoot trained through a presumably slug-repelling copper tube. Slug pellets are also visible near each plant. Success of the project will presumably be when self-sown youngsters are discovered away from the parents.

The limestone pavement of Gait Barrows is a well-0known site for Dark-red Helleborine, Epipactis atrorubens  It  was too early for it to be in flower, but good to see this clump. Broad-leaved Helleborine, E. helleborine, was also present in the woodland. Marsh Helleborine, E. palustris, was growing in the flush at Kilnsey, but is also weeks off flowering.

In the hay meadows Common Spotted Orchid, Dactylorhiza fuchsii, was just starting. Yhis is a small one, but very typical.

Northern Marsh Orchids, Dactylorhiza purpurella, with broad lips and unmarked leaves, were also present.

In consequence there are hybrids... D. × venusta, intermediate in flower colour and faintly spotted on the leaves.

Moving on to Kilnsey Park, behind the trout farm is a wonderful flush, full of good plants including Primula farinosa and Pinguicula vulgaris, but also lots of orchids including the Narrow-leaved Marsh Orchid, Dactylorhiza traunsteinerioides. This is typically rich purple (this one is exceptionally dark) with three rounded lobes on the lip and spotting on the leaves - but dactylorhizas often don't follow the books. Another new species for me.

Another specimen, showing the long spotted leaves expected in this taxon.

Many diminutive specimens of Early Marsh Orchid, Dactylorhiza incarnata subsp. incarnata, were present too. The looped markings on the simple lip and unmarked leaves, as well as the flower colour, make it easily recognisable.

A putative D. incarnata x D. traunsteinerioides

A perfect intermediate between D. fuchsii and D. incarnata,
D. × kerneriorum.

And to finish the weekend, Southern Marsh Orchid, D. praetermissa, most handsome of them all, at home in the Yorkshire Arboretum.

Sunday 8 May 2016

Summer dresses in new bloom

The glory of the moment is a magnificent display of dandelions.
This morning I had the rare opportunity to walk around the Yorkshire Arboretum alone, and on a glorious summer-warm day. The change over the past few days, from chilly April to warm May is remarkable, and very welcome. Here are a few pics taken on the iPad.

Pear Glade with the Cruck house dressed as for a wedding.

Bluebells have been sown in and are steadily expanding their area.

A nice tuft of Wood Sorrel, Oxalis acetosella, in a fork of a cherry.

A view along the 'back ride', where the trees have quickly come into leaf.

The bright foliage of Fagus sylvatica 'Albovariegata'.

Rhododendron pseudochrysanthum is at its very pretty peak.

A cloud of white flowers on a wild-origin Prunus yamasakura from Japan with Cedrus deodara behind.

White flowers and bronzed leaves on Prunus jamasakura.

Wednesday 13 April 2016

Ian Butterfield's Pleione nursery

Pleione Michael Butterfield gx 'Condor' - the most eye-catching plant in the place, noticeable as one walks through the door.
As I've written previously in this diary I first grew Pleione in the 1980s, and fell in love with these easy, almost hardy orchids from the Sino-Himalaya. At that time only a few species were in cultivation and hybridisation was in its infancy, and the vast majority had flowers in shades of pink or white, varying to darker magenta, though a few, of great rarity, had yellow flowers. At this time I made the acquaintance of Ian Butterfield, a nurseryman principally (then) growing dahlias in the village of Bourne End not far from my home in Maidenhead. But he had developed an interest in these orchids and was already the leading grower and breeder of Pleione in the UK, collaborating with Phillip Cribb of Kew in studying them. From him I acquired a number of clones and had a moderately good collection, but this was decimated in the early '90s by a then new pest, the mite Brevipalpus, and for some years the interest lapsed. While at Colesbourne I acquired a few again, buying some most years from Ian on his stand at the Malvern Flower Show.

I hadn't visited the nursery for probably twenty years until the opportunity to do so presented itself on Monday. What a revelation! Although I was aware of the progress in breeding work in the genus I was not prepared for the spectacle that awaited - a tapestry of vibrant colours from white to crimson, and cream to deep orange - the result of thirty years' worth of dedicated effort by Ian and a few other breeders. The traditional pinks are still there, and very lovely they are, but they're eclipsed by the new colours.

The breathtaking display in Ian Butterfield's glasshouse.
Orchid breeding is a funny business, at least nomenclaturally. All the offspring from any cross between two parents belong to a 'grex' (Latin for group) which can be given a name that is written in normal script without inverted commas followed (officially) by the letters gx. It's not ideal, as seedlings may be totally dissimilar in appearance, but it means that everything can be named. Within the grex individually fine seedlings can be selected and named as cultivars. The first artificial Pleione cross, made in the 1960s, was P. formosana × P. limprichtii and was called Versailles gx, from which the clone 'Bucklebury' was selected. When  any clone of Versailles is crossed to any clone of P. formosana the offspring are Alishan gx: Alishan crossed with Soufriere gx (Versailles × P. × confusa (a wild hybrid)) gives Mazama gx - all very confusing and requiring an exceptional memory, but ultimately tracing the ancestry. Ian Butterfield has named most of his new grexes after volcanoes (and some family members) and selected cultivars bear birds' names; another breeder, Paul Cumbleton, uses primate names for his grexes. For details of parentage of any hybrid orchid names the ultimate reference is the International Orchid Register, maintained by the RHS.

My hour and a bit at Ian's nursery, under his patient guidance and expert commentary, was a pure delight - the finest candy store any kid could be dropped into, and I shan't miss a visit again next year. Plants are for sale - a pic of my acquisitions finishes this post - and Ian sells dormant pseudobulbs in winter, but he is no longer attending shows. He is not online, but a pdf of his 2015-16 catalogue is available here for anyone wanting to see the options available. A new catalogue will be available later in the year - and I can't wait to put an order in!


A pale form of Pleione chunii, a very beautiful Chinese species.
A particularly good clone of one of the earliest hybrids, P. Alishan gx 'Mother's Day' - a classic pale pink Pleione .

Pleione Santorini gx 'Yellow Wagtail' is a hybrid of the rare Nepalese species P. coronaria

Pleione Leda gx 'Palm Thrush'

Wonderful rich orange colour in Pleione Suswa gx 'Golden Eagle', which has a habit of producing bifurcated lips - as in the centre flower.

Pleione Edgecombe gx 'Bat Hawk' - a peachy rarity.

Seedlings from the same cross (Turkana gx) showing superb poise and robustness; the yellow one has excellent colour but a somewhat imperfect flower (this season at least).

Picked from the candy store - my purchases, glowing under a lamp; at back Piton gx, top left Alishan gx 'Mother's Day'; Orizaba gx 'Fish Eagle', P. formosana 'Snow White', Mageik gx 'Black Kite', El Pico gx 'Pheasant', front left Kenya gx 'Bald Eagle', Michael Butterfield gx.