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.

Sunday, 6 March 2016

Harry Dewey, 1921-2016

Harry Dewey, June 2006
A brief notice in the Washington Post has announced the death of Harry Dewey on 17 February. A native of South Carolina, his career was as a librarian in universities and colleges in the Washington DC area, where he lived in Beltsville. He was interested in alpines and was a member of the Potomac Valley Chapter of the North American Rock Garden Society (NARGS), within which he was mildly active. He was early to perceive the power of the internet for communication, and in 1995 he founded the online rock garden society Alpine-L, based on the Listserv system.

Alpine-L was, I believe, the first online plant group, the precursor of today's thriving online community of plantspeople who now use Facebook groups, or for example, the Scottish Rock Garden Club's forum. It functioned entirely by emails being multiplied to its members - there was no journal and no (formal) meetings ever occurred, but it brought together enthusiasts from across the world and a flourishing and friendly group soon developed. It flourished, and was friendly largely due to benign but firm moderation by Harry, whose admonitions under the pseudonym Miss Emaily Post were generally promptly acted upon. I joined in late 1995, and the diversion of the correspondence certainly helped me get through the completion of my thesis. Through it I made contact with many people in American horticulture and enabled me to build strong connections there, notably with Bobby Ward, the horticultural author and current Executive Secretary of NARGS, who consulted on my first book The Gardener's Atlas, and remains a great friend. Another was Nina Lambert, from Ithaca, NY, with whom I exchanged plants in those less restrictive days, reusing a padded envelope for numerous missives across the Atlantic. Her orange celandine, Ficaria verna Aurantiaca Group, was much admired by garden visitors today.

I met Harry in Washington DC in 2006, and his first comment was 'the bloom has faded', but we had a lovely evening at the home of fellow rock gardener Sasha Borkovec, in humorous good company. I've never forgotten Sasha's wall built of newspapers, a remarkably long-lasting and effective construction.In December 2007 Harry had a severe stroke and faded from view, just as Alpine-L has faded as other platforms have become available. It still functions, just, hosted by the University of Utrecht Botanic Garden. Traffic is almost non-existent, but the archive of past posts is maintained, a mine of information, if only one had time to delve into it.

Sunday, 28 February 2016

The first Slovenian Snowdrop Festival

Joint second prize in the school snowdrop art competition.
I've spent the weekend in Slovenia, as a guest of the Ljubljana University Botanic Garden, which is hosting the first Slovenian Snowdrop Festival. This has taken the form of a series of guided tours, talks, demonstrations and an art competition. Snowdrops are much appreciated in Slovenia, occurring widely across the country as wild plants, and commonly in gardens. There is an old tradition of picking bunches for the home or for sale in the markets, so they have considerable cultural resonance in the country. The press had also recognised this, and the festival was featured by several television and radio shows over the weekend, even featuring on the main national news. It was fascinating to see how much interest there was in snowdrops, and it was an honour to be involved with the first of what everyone hopes will become an annual event. Many thanks to all the kind people who made my visit so pleasant.

Dr Jože Bavcon, Director of the Ljubljana University Botanic Garden, and pre-eminent Slovenian galanthophile with three books on snowdrops to his credit, explaining the fine points of some of his selections.

School children from across Slovenia contributed artworks featuring snowdrops - zvoncki - to the competition and the diversity and quality of interpretation was outstanding. What was extremely interesting was that it was clear that there was a distinction between those children who knew zvoncki to be Galanthus, and those who understood it to mean Leucojum vernum. Botanic garden staff could even correlate this to their own knowledge of regions with or without one of the genera.

On Friday there was a demonstration of lace-making - a strong local tradition, and a number of ladies produced some beautiful lace snowdrops.

Jože Bavcon has been studying the wild snowdrops of Slovenia for many years, and has an extensive collection in the cold frames, with some extremely attractive and interesting selections.

A large-flowered clone of Galanthus nivalis.

A pale virescent clone.

Much of the botanic garden has been colonised by masses of local Galanthus nivalis, with the local Crocus heuffelianus and other early bulbs. It's very interesting  to see that these are mostly singletons or in small tufts, and are not clump-forming, very different to the typical clump-forming G. nivalis seen in the UK. Unfortunately the weather was dull throughout the time I was there, so they remained tightly furled.

Tuesday, 9 February 2016

Celebrating 25 years of snowdrop open days at Hodsock Priory

George, Belinda, Andrew and Kat Buchanan in the snowdrop wood at Hodsock Priory
Twenty-five years ago Sir Andrew and Lady Buchanan decided to open their garden at Hodsock Priory, Nottinghamshire, for people to see their snowdrops, the first of the 'big' snowdrop gardens to do so. They quickly realised there was a market for snowdrop viewing and developed the garden and adjacent woodland into a winter garden destination, attracting huge numbers of visitors in snowdrop season. The garden was extensively replanted for winter effect under the guidance in the 1990s of Kate Garton and the snowdrop collection and plantings significantly expanded.

As with the Elwes family at Colesbourne the Buchanan's connection with snowdrops is ancestral. Andrew's grandmother was Lady Beatrix Stanley, commemorated by the eponymous double snowdrop and an Iris histrioides cultivar, and his mother Barbara Buchanan is commemorated by 'Barbara's Double' and 'St Anne's' for her residence. Andrew and Belinda have now passed the reins of the house and garden management to their son George and his wife Kat, who were the hosts this morning at a press day - a miraculously sunny and calm press day, after the terrible recent storms and dull weather.

My first contact with Hodsock came in 1997 when I was dispersing Primrose Warburg's collection of snowdrops and other plants from South Hayes. Primrose had acquired a lot of snowdropos from Lady Beatrix's old garden at Sibbertoft Manor and these were grown on a rough bank always called the Sibbertoft Bank, where they had self-sown and produced a number of excellent seedlings. I gave Kate Garton a number of clumps from the Sibbertoft Bank and these were planted in a particular area of the garden at Hodsock - see below. My solitary previous visit to Hodsock had been in the following year, so this revisit was long overdue - it certainly won't be another 17 years before I return!

The main display in the woodland area is of Galanthus nivalis 'Flore Pleno' - the common double snowdrop it may be but nothing creates such solid white carpets.
Hodsock Priory never was a priory; the main house dates from the 19th C, but the Tudor gatehouse is original.
It's good to see that the snowdrops from South Hayes are still remembered and honoured as having come from the legendary Primrose Warburg.

The South Hayes snowdrops have been happily sowing themselves and have made a nice patch of variable G. plicatus  (mostly), preserving the Sibbertoft genetics.

The garden round the house has been planned and planted for winter effect, and was looking good in the bright sunshine today.

This large, robust Scilla bifolia, which I've always known as 'Praecox' is a rare plant, but very much associated with the older generation of galanthophiles - it was nice to see it at Hodsock, linking the generations.

Friday, 1 January 2016

Plant of the Day 2016

I've set myself the challenge of tweeting an image of a different plant every day this year, along with a few summary words within the 140 character limit of a tweet. The tweets will be linked to this blog in a column on the right of the screen and can be seen there, or directly through Twitter by following @POTD16

The subject matter may be anything that catches my eye that day, so is bound to be diverse - let's see where this takes us!

Thursday, 31 December 2015

Plant of the Year 2015: Monarda 'Gewitterwolke'

Monarda 'Gewitterwolke', October, with Miscanthus 'Yakushima Dwarf'
Last year my friend Jimi Blake, from Hunting Brook Gardens in Co. Wicklow, brought me a selection of Monarda cultivars that he had found to be good additions to his regularly changing garden assortment. Among them was the German selection 'Gewitterwolke' - the name means "thundercloud", which he particularly rated. This spring space was found to accommodate the small plant in the main border: it motored ahead and with a judicious pinching-out of the shoots quickly formed a nice multi-branched plant, nestling between Miscanthus 'Yakushima Dwarf' and Aruncus 'Horatio', which between them have given it the perfect setting for the rest of the year. It is perhaps because it worked so well with the surrounding plants that it caught my eye repeatedly through the season, and thus has become my Plant of the Year 2015.

The dusky flowers and bracts must have suggested the name; here 'Gewitterwolke'  is seen in August with Dahlia 'Freya's Paso Doble' behind, another candidate for Plant of the Year.

Evening light just catching the flowers. Aruncus 'Horatio' behind and Dahlia 'Twynings Revel' beyond (Plant of the Year 2013)

Another very pleasing combination was formed with Persicaria amplexicaulis 'Orangofield'
Another excellent Monarda also deserves a mention - 'Scorpio', a Piet Oudolf selection that plays a big part in his plantings at nearby Scampston Hall, where I got the plant from, in fact (promptly split and shared with Jimi). It's a slightly brighter purple and stood a bit higher than 'Gewitterwolke' this year (next year may even them out), and made - and makes - a superb contribution to the garden. Both are supposedly mildew resistant, though they both had some mildew by late September or early October, but insufficient to be unsightly or cause diminished growth. Such mildew-resistance is essential in any Monarda I'll choose in future.

Monarda 'Scorpio' in August

'Scorpio' (bottom right) still looking great in early October.

Seeding heads of 'Gewitterwolke' standing firm this week, alongside (though not visible) the Miscanthus and Aruncus, despite best efforts of Storms Desmond to Fred over the past month. 'Scorpio' is also still in good vertical condition.