Wednesday, 20 October 2010

Desert Island Plants

Morning! I'm afraid it's still dark outside so I have no idea what's going on out on the roof so I thought I'd do something a bit different today and imagine I was trapped on a desert island (with a multitude of suitable microclimates) and, a bit like Desert Island Discs, choose the ten plants I would not want to be without.

I'm only allowed one from each genus, which is going to make life difficult, especially when it comes to Irises.

So, in no particular order, I'll start with the Primula. I'm a huge fan of the candelabra group but in fact, if I could just have one it's an extremely difficult little things to grow  (my desert island would have a handy shady, peaty, well-drained crevice for P. sonchifolia, a very difficult Himalayan species that is just looking or excuses to die on you. I've never managed to keep it going for more than a year, as soon as the tight, round flower bud in the middle of the rossette gets wet you've had it. But when in works, it is a thing of exquisite beauty.

Primula Sonchifolia

I couldn't be without a Rhododendron and there are so many I could have gone for.  But R. falconeri, a mighty tree-sized species with deep red bark, huge trusses of waxy, yellow flowers held among foot-long leaves which are slightly fluffy and matt on top and beautifully covered in dusky impedimentum (the brown stuff below).

Rhododendron falconeri
While we're in the Himalayas, it would be impossible to ignore the meconopsis: some really do grow like weeds in valleys there. It would have been to easy to go for the iconic blue M. betonicifolia or grandis so I've gone for a far less well-known (and until recently almost impossible to get) species, M. Punicea, a delicate, papery little red thing discovered in Sichuan province, China, by Ernest Wilson (he of ... Wilsonii) in the early 1900s. It is often monocarpic (it flowers and corks it) but fresh seed should germinate with relative ease. It hasn't the "wow factor "of some of its big brothers but get up close and you'll see why I fell in love with it.

Meconopsis punicea
And so to my favourite genus, the iris, with its huge variation: bulbs, stolons, rhizomes, beards, no beards, every colour from white and yellow to red and almost black. I allowed myself an indulgence here by simply going for one of the rarest, hardest and beatiful, I. nicolai, a member of the juno group found in stony dolomite hillsides and screes in Afghanistan and Uzbekistan (if you have a very keen eye and don't mind the odd landmine). The only living specimens I've seen have been in the alpine house at Kew but it is so delicate, and so far removed from those enormous frilly orange bearded hybrids I wouldn't want to be without it.

I. nicolai

And so from the impossibly exotic to your local wildflower meadow (if you're incredibly lucky and European, in this case British) and the Snake's Head Fritillary, F. meleagris. This is a huge genus with some stunning, tall species festooned with chocolate bells such as F. persica and tiny, delicate little things like F. minuta but I actually think our own native beats them all with its nodding tessalated bells of prurple and white. Easy to grow in a dampish area of the garden and will naturalise where happy. Also easy from seed, perhaps the reason for its wildflower status as some argue it is actually a garden escapee but wherever it hails from, it's coming in my suitcase! The white and cream form which pops up when it feels like it is almost as beautiful.


If you can spell or pronounce my next choice, Paeonia mlokosewitschii (sometimes simplified to "Molly the witch" you should get one for free (it's a nightmare from seed, which loses viability quickly and permanently unless stored in damp peat in the fridge and even then a rigorous regime (which I'm halfway through) of cold/warm/cold/warm is required with the roots forming first and the leaves following some time afterwards. So to be on the safe side, I bought a mature plant too.

There's something about the simplicity of a single flower in a genus famous for its blousy hybrids that appeals, and the fact that it is the only yellow in the herbaceous group (P. lutea, a tree paeonia, is also yellow but lacks the charm of its smaller cousin. Establish it in a loamy, shady setting and leave it there: it hates being moved.

P. mlokosewitschii 

My next must-have might come as a bit of a surprise, it's an orangey-brown version of the foxglove, Digitalis ferruginea. At home in warmer, drier climes than would suit our native Digitalis purpurea, I've chosen it partly because it was one of the first oddities I grew from seed as a child but also because I find a strange beauty in its upright spikes of slightly hairy bells. Not everyone's cup of tea but I've got more than a dozen young seed-raised plants outside so someone is going to have to share my enthusiasm (or at least be polite enough to pretend to).

D. ferugunea
Next up we're off to the Rocky mountains for my next choice, Lewisia cotyledon and it's many hybrids, from white through yellow, orange, red to purple. It is a perennial alpine with succulent leaves and a thick taproot, producing a basal rosette of of leaves up to 10cm long and from which rise stems of these simple flowers which could be brash but in fact many have white veins that give a more subtle effect.

Easy in a clay pot or planted at an angle – or even vertically – in a crevice in the rockery, this little gem is a ray of Californian sunshine wherever it's grown. I've seen some huge pans of single plants a foot across at alpine shows and they really take one's breath away!

L. cotyledon
And back to the obscure and my beloved Himalayas next, to a plant I have had the pleasure of seeing in the wild, growing in a gorge in Tibet. Clematis Tibetana is a naturally occurring form of the same group that provides all those other spongy-leaved species such as tangutica. It is probably the blackest natural flower I have ever seen, not purple or deep brown like all those other "black" Tulips, Irises and Violas.

I suspect my attachment has more to do with the circumstances in which I saw it, travelling in a 4x4 along a cliff-hugging single-track dirt-track narrower than the vehicle (and I was sitting on the drop side and it was a long way down to the river below!). We spotted a yellow Incarvillea on the other side so stopped and I had to answer the call of nature so went round the other side of the vehicle and saw this amazing thing scrambling up the hillside. No seed heads, sadly, so no touchy but it was a very special moment. The Incarvillea was a stunner too.

C. Tibetana (black form)
And finally, a bit of blue to compensate for leaving off Meconopsis betonicifolia. It was a toss-up between Gentiana acaulis and sino-ornata but as I've already posted on the latter I went for acaulis (which reminds me, must sow seeds tomorrow). It  has a wide distribution throughout the mountains of Europe (Alps, Balkans, Carpathians, Jura and Pyrenees), and can be found in habitats ranging from pastures to rubble and scree and to coniferous woodlands at sub to alpine levels. It also grows in both lime and acidic soils. Acaulis means "stemless". 

G. acaulis
So, what do YOU think? Let me know what plants you wouldn't be without (and vegetables are banned, by the way). More conventional post tomorrow,  enjoy your day, I'm off to report on the far less interesting comprehensive spending review. Yippee!

Oh shit, I forgot Lilies. Nepalenis probably.

1 comment:

  1. Fun idea! I'll nick it,give you a name check and a link back to this blog unless you say NO!

    Cool choice of must haves!

    Did we discuss a Digitalis seed swap on Grows on You?