Sunday, 30 March 2014

My plants from Exeter

The Alpine Garden Society show in Exeter is always good for three things; the immaculate and spectacular plants on the show bench, the delicious cakes on the cake stall, and the wealth of rare and interesting plants available at the plant sale.

Money is tight this year (as it is for most people), but I missed the plant fair at Tavistock a few weeks ago and haven't bought anything else so I thought I would take £25 with me. I like the challenge of working to a tight budget, leaving my cheque book at home. Providing I find one exciting plant at a plant fair I'm not disappointed, and I'm certainly not compelled to spend unnecessarily. This year's plant fair certainly gave me plenty to choose from, and I came home with a small amount of change in my pocket!

Not a bad little load...

I did cheat a little with my budget by taking along a plant to swap with anyone who was interested, and soon enough I had interest from Julian Sutton from Desirable Plants, who gladly swapped my form of Impatiens stenantha for one of his hybrid Epimediums. The two options given to me were very difficult to choose between, but in the end my 'plan for the future' mind kicked in and I chose Epimedium 'Winter's End'.
Epimedium 'Winter's End'
 Superficially this variety is just another nice yellow Epimedium, but the parentage gives this hybrid the potential to be a very popular garden plant. By crossing E. pinnatum and E. flavum, Julian Sutton has created a hybrid that has all of the resilience and drought tolerance of E. pinnatum while holding its flowers above the leaves where they can easily be enjoyed. Once this is better known and more widely grown this variety will become the Epimedium for dry shade. 
Nice foliage!
I also succumbed to a pot of 'unselected seedlings' from Julian's breeding program. Although these have been rejected as not making the grade I think the flowers are beautiful and that this is a lovely garden plant. 
Epimedium wushanense seedling
I'm not a massive fan of variegation but I do love plants with a 'weedy' look, so Ajuga incisa is a candidate for cultivation. For some reason this variegated form appeals to me... maybe as it grows and develops I'll find out why I like it. In the meantime it can brighten up a shady corner.
Ajuga incisa 'Bikun'
I do enjoy growing hardy Impatiens, one of the best of which is definitely I. omeiensis. I grow two clones of this species, but my breath was taken away when I saw a pot of I. omeiensis 'Pink Nerves'. Now I must say I think the name is a strange one, and so far I can't see why 'Pink Nerves' would have struck anyone as a good name for a plant. However this is a very exciting plant for a shaded garden, with beetroot-pink stems and veins, as well as the undersides of the leaves. There was no way on this earth that I was leaving without this plant, so this was my first acquisition of the day! 
Impatiens omeiana 'Pink Nerves'
I was pleased to see a larger plant of Impatiens omeiana 'Pink Nerves' in the foliage section on the show bench- it didn't win a prize, so clearly Emei Shan is not a big enough mountain in the eyes of the judges.... (Controversial opinion there!)
Impatiens omeiana 'Pink Nerves' on the showbench
I don't quite know what drew me to Impatiens insignis as a species, especially as the label says that it rarely flowers. According to Ray Morgan's monograph on the genus this species can grow to 1m tall; maybe in order to flower it needs a long season to grow to full height and set buds? Nonetheless getting this species into flower will be another project for me. At least it is fairly hardy, and the contrast between the green leaves and the purple stems looks good.
Impatiens insignis.
Anyone who knows me knows that I love my Hostas. Just to be awkward I love the very big and the very small varieties, although I will make allowances for the 'mid-sized' species. I can always rely on Tale Valley Nursery from Cullompton in Devon to tempt me with a miniature variety or two, and this year was no exception. Interesting piece of advice from them; they find that smaller Hostas dislike being waterlogged (makes sense with them being smaller than the larger, thirstier cultivars), so drainage is crucial.
Hosta 'Kabitan'
Hosta 'Thumb Nail'
Last but not least I wanted to grow a dwarf shrub in my woodland containers. One of the best selections of dwarf ericaceous shrubs I've seen for sale is on the table of Simon Bond from Gloucester. Many of his dwarf Rhododendrons and Cassiopes are simply not seen elsewhere, so a rummage through his plants yields some real treasures, but in the end I chose a nice little specimen of Kalmia polifolia. This small wiry shrub only reaches 60cm in height and has narrow dark green leaves. It is native to North America, where it grows in swamps and boggy areas. It was introduced to the UK in 1767 but is still largely unknown outside specialist collections, despite having attractive heads of pink/purple flowers in April. At £4 I couldn't really pass up on the opportunity to grow this charming species.
Kalmia polifolia bought in bud!
I took a budget of £25 with me and did come home with change. I did however cheat a little; the first Epimedium was a swap for an Impatiens I took, but also I had a very generous offer on two plants after looking after someone's stall while they had their lunch. I am extremely pleases with all of these plants and look forward to seeing them grow and develop in time.

Not pictured is the huge slice of jam sponge and the fantastic homemade biscuits which I devoured without recording for posterity! 
The sad thing about these shows and their plant fairs is just how precarious some plants are in cultivation. It is fairly easy to find plants that are not in the RHS Plantfinder, and to find out that one person propagates and sells one or two bits of these plants a year; if that person gives up growing for whatever reason then that plant drops out of cultivation. On the one hand this is the cycle of things- Van Gogh's painting weren't appreciated until after his death, and maybe some plants will only be truly appreciated in books and pictures after they have become extinct.

Sunday, 16 March 2014

History and Higos

The history of horticulture is social history. Over millennia the highs and lows of civilisations has been reflected in horticulture, from early 'cottage gardens' where people grew vegetables and herbs (including or even especially medicinal herbs) close to their homes, right through the introduction of ornamental gardens and the landscape movement, and right up to today's gardening styles and trends.

The explosion of exploration in the 19th century brought thousands of new species to the gardens of Europe, many of which were tended by legions of dedicated gardeners, and many of which suffered serious decline after two wars tore Europe apart and decimated the army of labourers and gardeners. In the post-war years, increasing through the 1960s, Britain saw a major change in that more leisure time meant that more people were looking for ways to improve their gardens. Lawnmowers became affordable and accessible, meaning that pristine swathes of grass could be kept, and nurseries catered less for the major land owners and more for the 'man on the street', offering an ever widening range of plants. Garden centres were born, providing easy access to anything the modern gardener might need.
Magnolia sargentiana var. robusta; exotic to us but a native tree in China!
Looking back it's easy to think of horticulture as being a recent thing, but civilisations have been growing things for centuries. In Japan horticulture was traditionally intertwined with customs and culture; one very old Japanese tale tells of a man who had to burn his prized bonsai trees to keep a visiting Shogun warm during a bitter winter, and it can be argued that the concept of growing plants in pots is originally ancient Japanese, with Hepaticas and Asarum popular candidates. Japanese gardens are typically very precise, almost ritualistic; traditional Japanese gardens are often based around landscapes, with key features represented in miniature by stones or particular plants.
Higo- 'Okan'
If you ask people to think of things connected with Japan sooner or later they will mention Samurai, the elite military noblemen. Far from just being feared and revered noblemen the Samurai, these were clans with their own customs and rites. Revered among the elite of Japanese society, as well as by the Samurai, were a particular group of Camellias, now known as Higo varieties; these varieties were admired for their single flowers which framed a large number of stamens. Often families would have their favourite Higo variety, and these were planted on the graves of family members.
Higo- 'Jitsugetsusei'
Although Japanese culture has changed massively there is still a great affection for surviving Higo types. Best of all the Higo Camellias are simply flower forms of Camellia japonica, so if you can grow Camellias you can grow Higos! 
Higo- 'Goshozakura'

Tuesday, 4 March 2014

To label or not to label, that is the question

Anybody who collects plants will have been unsettled by recent news of thefts from gardens, more prominently the brazen theft of the extremely rare and endangered Nymphaea thermarum from Kew, but also thefts from RHS Wisley's alpine collection. Just strike up a conversation about theft among plant people and the chances are that they will reel off examples of plants being stolen from public gardens. The best way to protect specimens might be to leave them unlabelled, but then that spoils the garden for enthusiastic (and honest) gardeners who visit gardens to learn about plants and how they are cultivated.

Impatiens 'Ice Storm' is desirable, but would anyone steal it?
The other question is more to do with private collections; how safe are our own collections from theft? Gardeners are usually more than happy to share information about plants with other enthusiasts, whether on the internet or in person, but how safe is that? Should be be more careful?

I'd say probably yes. Many private collections have interesting, rare and unusual plants that could be seen as desirable to others, and it's likely that labeling our prized plants would make them easier to identify if someone did want to come back and steal them. Increasing security at home is probably a good idea, but sadly the best way to protect our prize plants might well be to make sure nobody knows we have them.

Can you imagine how dull horticulture would be if everyone hid their best plants away, never sharing the joy of growing them with others?