Saturday, 17 January 2015

The importance of records

Rhododendron 'Fugen-no-tsuki' (flower is 3 cm across)
Before Christmas I was surprised to find a few flowers on an azalea in our garden in Ray Wood at Castle Howard. I took a sprig home with me, writing the accession number on the back of a leaf as usual, and looked it up. We have it labelled as Rhododendron kiusianum 'Fugenno-tsugi', but the International Rhododendron Register gives the spelling as 'Fugen-no-tsuki', and the plant seems to match the description given there (though it doesn't mention that the calyx is petaloid, as it is on these flowers).

The Yorkshire Arboretum database contains the notes made on each plant added to the collection by the late Jim Russell, and in this case there is a general commentary on the variation of R. kiusianum and its propensity to form hybrids with other species. There is also a line giving the information: "Wild collected forms introduced by the National Arboretum, Washington. A plant each from Windsor, autumn 1981. NA 40818".

Intrigued, I emailed my friend Dr Richard Olsen at the United States National Arboretum to enquire if anything more was known about this source. He passed the enquiry to their Plant Records officer Stefan Lura, who replied with all the details one could wish for. In 1976 Dr John Creech and 'Skip' (Sylvester) March from USNA went to Japan to collect interesting plants from small nurseries, which, it was felt, were disappearing and good plants were at risk of being lost. One of the groups of plants they focused on were selections of Rhododendron kiusianum, or hybrids thereof, that had been collected in the mountains and brought into cultivation. Their success with this is described in detail in an article by Ronald Bare, fortunately available online. 'Fugen-no-tsuki' was one of fourteen cultivars obtained from a nursery "called Kyoma Yokota, located near Mt. Unzen in Kunimiche, Minami Takaki-gun. The nursery is run by a young Japanese woman under the watchful eye of her elderly father." It was given the collection number C&M 563, and then the accession number NA 40818.

By 1979 the USNA had propagated enough cuttings from the imported plants to offer them to other institutions. Their database shows that in that year material of eleven clones was sent to Wisley and to Sir Harold Hillier. I enquired how, in that case, had Jim Russell obtained material from Windsor. This prompted Stefan to hunt through records that had not made it to database: sure enough, in the distribution records for 1980 he found a request form, completed by Skip March, authorising the sending of 16 clones to John Bond, then Keeper of the Royal Gardens in Windsor Great Park. The material was sent on 24 November 1980. It was obviously on one of Jim Russell's forays there, in autumn 1981, that he acquired the plants we now grow (we also have several more of these clones, which I'll look out for in normal flowering season). Whether he grew them from cuttings, or whether John Bond gave him the original plants is unknown, but the next step is to find out if any of them are still grown at Windsor - 'Fugen-no-tsuki' is no longer cultivated by USNA in Washington DC, and it's not at the Hillier Gardens or Wisley either.

All this information is now recorded in our database, making the history of one small, obscure azalea that much more complete - I'm very grateful to Stefan Lura for his interest in hunting out the records.

Wednesday, 31 December 2014

Plant of the Year 2014: Dactylorhiza × grandis

Dactylorhiza ×grandis from Blackthorn Nursery, in the garden border June 2014.
 My Plant of the Year 2014 is the hybrid marsh orchid, Dactylorhiza ×grandis, which impressed me this year in many places, wild and cultivated, during its flowering season of May and June. Typically a robust plant with big spikes of deep pink to purplish flowers, it can be an excellent garden plant whether grown in the border, as the clump illustrated above is, or naturalized in a meadow situation.

Dactylorhiza ×grandis is a hybrid between the Southern Marsh Orchid  (D. praetermissa) and the Common Spotted Orchid (D. fuchsii) and is usually present where they grow together. The name is applicable to any derivative of the cross and as plants have some fertility, and almost certainly backcross to either of the parents, a swarm of intermediates can develop within a population, making interpretation challenging at times. To help decipher it, here are pure examples of the parents, and then some hybrids.

Dactylorhiza praetermissa, showing the typically wedge-shaped lips with a central band of spots/. The flowers are usually a deep purple (this is a pale example) and contribute rich colours to the hybrid.  The leaves usually lack spots. (Yorkshire Arboretum June 2013)

Dactylorhiza fuchsii is much paler in colour, with a strongly three-lobed lip decorated by dark lines and loops. Leaves are usually spotted. (Wharram Quarry June 2014)

A swarm of parents and hybrids: the very dark spikes are D. praetermissa, pale ones D. fuchsii with intermediate hybrids in darker pink (e.g. fourth from left along the lower edge of the image). (Roadside verge A166, E. Yorks, June 2014)

A ×grandis that is close to D. praetermissa, with only slightly lobed lips, but with a more elaborate pattern of dots and dashes. (Yorkshire Arboretum June 2014)

A very robust hybrid with well-developed lip markings but also less lobing than in D. fuchsii.

A good dark-flowered hybrid, with attractively spotted leaves, and an obliging clumping habit. (A166 verge, June 2014)

 D. ×grandis growing in the meadow at The Garden House, Devon, surrounded by classic meadow plants (late May 2014).

Both parents, and the hybrid, are available from specialist nurseries and are well worth acquiring and planting close together; if conditions are right a swarm of hybrids is bound to result.

No hybrids, just a wonderful stand of Dactylorhiza fuchsii at Chatsworth, June 2014.

Tuesday, 30 December 2014

Garden people 2014

Florist: Phillipe Chadwick

American galanthophiles: Susan and Kent Cadwalader, Ernest Cavallo, Susan Alexander

Pogonophile: Razvan Chisu

Student: Terry Huang

Designer: Arabella Lennox-Boyd
Plantsman: Tom Hudson

Bulb planters: staff and volunteers of the Yorkshire Arboretum

Judges: John David, Stephen Lacey, unknown, Rosie Atkins

Curator: Colin Crosbie 

Deputy Curator: Matthew Pottage

Monday, 29 December 2014

Bean Online

The home page of 'Bean Online', showing one of several banner images (Ray Wood in  this case).
Before this year comes to an end I must post about a project that has taken up a good deal of my time in the past couple of years - 'Bean Online'.

For the past century - the first edition appeared in two volumes in 1914 - the encyclopaedic WJ Bean's Trees and Shrubs Hardy in the British Isles has been an essential reference for anyone interested in woody plants. The four fat volumes of the eighth edition, plus their Supplement, crouch upon the shelves of many gardeners and are usually dog-eared from much use.

My set of 'Bean', with other essentials.
William Jackson Bean was born in 1863 in Malton (my nearest town - note to self, find his birthplace in 2015) but spent most of his working life at Kew, becoming Head of the Arboretum and ultimately Curator. During this period the flora of China was pouring into western gardens thanks to the efforts of the great plant-hunters; Bean got to know it all as it came in and grew to maturity. In consequence his text has a firsthand authority to it, and it has always been regarded as very 'readable'. He died in 1947 and the seventh and eighth editions were prepared by teams of contemporary experts - but to everyone the work is still 'Bean'.

Unfortunately, the eighth edition, edited largely by Desmond Clarke, who also prepared the supplement, went out of print a few years ago and a complete set has become very expensive (I'm astonished to see online this evening that a five volume set can be had for only £195 via Abebooks). It was in this context that, about three years ago, Hugh Johnson asked the publisher for John Murray (now Hachette), Tim Hely-Hutchinson, if there were any plans to reprint Bean. Not surprisingly, the answer was no, but the offer to hand over the copyright that followed was astonishing. To cut a long story short, the publisher's interest in the copyright was passed to the International Dendrology Society, and a quest was started to find the copyright holders from the Bean and Clarke families. They were eventually tracked down through a combination of detective work and good luck, and, even more fortunately, all agreed to give the IDS permission to reproduce the work. The project was taken on by a subcommittee of the IDS Scientific and Education Committee, with support from the Dendrology Charitable Company.

Part of the Bean Online subcommittee: L-R: Bill Hemsley, Hugh Johnson, Lawrence Banks, Nicola Manisty (Chairman), James Greenfield IDS Secretary, somewhere in the upper stories of the Linnean Society's premises)

From the start it was Hugh's intention to make the text of Bean available online, but the question was how? The services of Bill Hemsley, a specialist in online publishing who works with Hugh on his wine books, were called in and options were discussed. A set of Bean was sacrificed to a scanner, which ran through the 4000 pages in no time, and produced an active version of the text through the magic of optical character recognition (OCR). Although this was not a perfect rendition it was remarkably good, and a team of specialist proof-readers in India tidied-up the errors. Bill organised the text into discrete entries, and devised the website functions that make it work as a searchable site.

It all took longer than hoped for, but after internal trials the site was launched a few days before Christmas and can be found at  It presents the whole text of the eighth edition in easily searchable format (see below), but it is the original text only, with no amendments, so it is inevitably somewhat dated. We considered making changes but decided that at this stage we should publish only the text as it is, while reserving the option of upgrading it in future. One amendment is to link the names used by Bean to the online reference The Plant List from Missouri and Kew, which brings in modern nomenclature where there has been a change in the past forty plus years and thus makes it accessible to modern users.

We very much hope that this will be a popular resource, used by as many people as possible. No doubt there will be times when we reach for a comfortable fat volume, but Bean Online is available anywhere with an internet signal - on your phone or iPad, which is a lot more convenient than lugging around the books! We hope to start work on a upgrade before too long, but a lot of fundraising is needed first.

The search or browse facilities are very easy to use, bringing up lists of names by genus, each hyperlinked to its entry. Bean names are on the left, with currently accepted names from the Plant List on the right. 

The entry for Common Beech - the text exactly as in the eighth edition, with handy cross-referencing in the margin..

Sunday, 28 December 2014

Peacock project 2014

Peachicks at about ten days old: the one on the left was assumed to be female, and the other two males (brothers) almost from hatching
I have always had 'a bit of a thing' about peacocks, as may have been apparent from previous entries, but I've never previously had a chance to do anything but admire from afar. This summer, though, having hatched a couple of clutches of Lady Amherst's Pheasant eggs and feeling confident in the incubator, I decided to have a go at raising some. In season there is an extensive trade in poultry eggs on Ebay, so I bid for and won two clutches of three eggs each, both for just over £10.00. The eggs were set in the incubator on 18 June - images tell the rest of the story.

Incubation time for pea-eggs is 27-28 days: the eggs started pipping on 15 July.

By next morning three chicks were out. The others did not hatch, but the chicks were fully formed. I have no idea why they didn't emerge.

After a day or so in the incubator the chicks were transferred to a cardboard box with a brooder to act as surrogate mother. They were tame and confident from the start, quite unlike the pheasants.

Growing poults perched on the by-then redundant brooder, after about 6 weeks.

The young peafowl were transferred to a spacious shed at the arboretum at the end of August, where they lived with an earlier brood of pheasant poults. Growth was very rapid, and the first coloured feathers appeared on their necks in September.

In October arboretum staff and volunteers created a large pen for the peafowl, pheasants and a flock of 10 guineafowl I acquired at the Malton poultry auction... The peafowl and guineafowl will be allowed to roam free in the grounds once spring comes. All being well the males should moult into full colours next summer, but it takes three years for the full train to develop. They love ripping into a cabbage. Picture taken 24 December, showing the two males to the left and the back of the peahen.

Tuesday, 9 December 2014

Unintended consequences of a blog post.

The fantasy flowers from the National Gallery's Virgin of the Rocks

In January 2012 I wrote about a visit to the great exhibition Leonardo da Vinci, Painter at the Court of Milan, at the National Gallery, and commented on the differences in the plants portrayed in two versions of the Virgin of the Rocks - the post can be read here. Life moved on, and I gave no more thought to the subject until a few weeks ago when I received a call from Dalya Alberge, a journalist writing for The Guardian, who started her conversation with 'I believe you're an expert on Leonardo da Vinci...' I was about to say she had the wrong number when she mentioned this blog.

It seems that in a new book, Tweeting Da Vinci, the American geologist and Renaissance scholar Ann Pizzorusso, advances the case that the London Virgin is a derivative version of the earlier one, indisputably by Leonardo, in the Louvre. Her thesis is based mostly on the accurately observed geology of the latter. This, says Ms Pizzorusso, is typical of Leonardo's careful observation and rendition of natural phenomena, and she found support for this view in my comments on the botanical accuracy of the Louvre version against those of the London painting. I haven't seen the book, so can't quote her directly - the first I knew of it was Dalya Alberge's phone call, which necessitated getting the brain quickly into gear to answer her questions. The result of her investigations has now been published online by The Guardian in an article entitled The daffodil code: doubts revived over Leonardo’s Virgin of the Rocks in London

I very much doubt that this is the last word on the attribution of this painting, but I will leave that to genuine Leonardo experts to debate.

Saturday, 29 November 2014

Ethiopian alpines 2: the Sanetti Plateau

The dramatic profile of Lobelia rhynchopetalum: so unexpected in a high alpine environment.
The high point, in every way, of the trip to Ethiopia, was the day we had in the Bale Mountains National Park; it was my third time there, but the first with really good weather. The previous trips had been a month or so earlier and the rains hadn't quite cleared southwards.

The Bale Mountains are a large massif rising south of the Rift Valley, the largest of several mountainous areas there, and an extremely important area for biodiversity in all classes of organisms. Much of the massif is nominally protected by a National Park, but encroachment is a problem and there is continuous forest clearance on the flanks of the mountains. Nevertheless, the park has been instrumental in preserving a large area of habitat that would otherwise have been lost, and under its protection reasonably healthy populations of several large mammals remain.

The centre of the park, the high altitude Sanetti Plateau, the largest contiguous tract of afroalpine habitat,  is easily reached from the town of Goba to the north of the massif - a dirt road leads up and over the top to settlements on the other side. It's used by a surprising number of buses and lorries, and to judger by the great ruts inm the road many obviously have significant difficulties ion the wet season - as we did in 2007 when trying to get around in a minibus. With a 4X4 the road presents no problems when dry.

Looking toward the northern edge of the Bale mountains: little tarns are a feature of the Sanetti Plateau.
The ascent is quite rapid, from about 2700 m at Goba, to treeline at 3520 m, and the lip of the plateau at 3800 m: much of the Sanetti Plateau is at or slightly above 4000 m, so there is a risk of altitude sickness. Fortunately none of us was affected beyond a tinge of headache and slight breathlessness.

Without doubt the botanical highlight of Sanetti is the largest of all of the giant lobelias, L. rhynchopetalum. This gigantic plant, standing 4-6 m tall in flower, is endemic to the highlands of Ethiopia both north and south of the Rift Valley - none of the other species come close to it in stature. We seem to have hit a really good flowering year for it, to judge by the number of spikes to be seen, but most had now finished and were maturing their seeds. In a few a ring of light blue flowers could be seen on the spike, but in all cases too far up to be accessible for a picture.

Mass-flowering of giant lobelias: the big rosettes will flower in a year or two's time.

Seedlings start off as small, stemless rosettes.
The rosette develops over a number of years, getting larger and increasingly elevated on a stout stem, taking about 12 years to reach flowering size. The inflorescence in the background still has fresh flowers in its upper portion, but the leaves are already senescing.
After seeding, the plant dies and collapses, leaving a heap of rather attractive 'skeleton'. 

The giant and the dwarf: the tiny spangles of blue just visible in the foreground are the flowers of the minute, prostrate Lobelia erlangeriana - there could not be a more striking disparity in the sizes of plants in the same genus.

Lobelia erlangeriana - a very pretty little plant.

A tight tuft of Swertia lugardae. Swertia replaces Gentiana on the African mountains.
A widely-distributed plant, Erigeron alpinus is common in the European mountains, and occurs through Ethiopia to Mt Kenya.

The very beautiful mat-forming Helichrysum gofense - white capitula above silvery leaves. A common plant on the Sanetti Plateau, but it is endemic to high altitudes in Ethiopia south of the Rift Valley.

An Augur Buzzard, Buteo augur, on a roadside boulder. The grey vegetation in the background is the classic Afroalpine Helichrysum moorland, here dominated by H. citrispinum and H. splendidum.  The subtly spicy scent of Helichrysum moorland is one of my favourites, now a very rare treat. The hill to the left, with a radio station on top is Tullu Demtu, the highest peak of Bale at 4377 m. We trudged to its top in foul weather in 2007.

A bush of Helichrysum citrispinum covered in flowers.

As its name suggests, Helichrysum formosissimum is the most beautiful of  the Afroalpine species, though it grows just over the lip of the plateau, not in the exposed upper places.

The Sanetti Plateau is no place for murophobics: it has an extraordinarily high density of rodents, and mice and grass-rats can be seen scuttling about all over the place. But the most interesting of all is the Giant Mole Rat Tachyoryctes macrocephalus, another endemic, that hardly ever ventures away from its burrows and the grassy hills that they form, eating grasses and Alchemilla rhizomes. Their eyes are placed very high on their heads, enabling them to sit in their burrow-mouth and keep a look out for predators...

of which the Ethiopian Wolf is the most notable. Half of the extant population (somewhere around 400 individuals) of this beautiful animal occurs in the Bale Mountains - we saw 5 on this occasion - but they are threatened by habitat loss and from diseases caught from domestic dogs. They are specialist rodent hunters, with a long muzzle for nabbing them from their holes.

While writing this entry I realised that it marks the fifth anniversary of this diary, which started with a post about Kenya on 27 November 2009, a pleasing African symmetry.