It takes just under an hour on the 2012 Olympics-themed ‘Javelin’ train service to travel from central London to Rainham in north Kent. During the journey you sight first The Gherkin and The Shard on the London skyline, then the mighty span of the Dartford-Thurrock Queen Elizabeth ²ӏ Bridge. Nearing the destination, the first of several chalk outcrops can be seen near to Gravesend, and soon after comes the spectacle of the ship/boat-massed River Medway estuary, at Chatham, overlooked by the twelfth-century Rochester Castle. Ten minutes later, as you disembark at Rainham station, a bona fide oast house once used for its prescribed purpose of processing hops, but now a community centre, provides a further landmark unmistakably declaring which part of England you are visiting.
But on arrival at Rainham Academy for Girls, there were people who had travelled from as far afield as Newcastle, the Isle of Wight, Wiltshire and Wales, bringing with them plants from around the world, though with a marked emphasis on those of a bulbous, cormous or tuberous nature from the Mediterranean and Turkey. Post-modern schools being much of a muchness, precise regional clues to the location of the first of the Society’s three autumn shows were thin on the ground, but the sophisticated array of plants on show greatly narrowed down the options for any seasoned observer.
The bench immediately below the stage was impressively massed with, in the main, large pans of Cyclamen: equally notable was the fact that almost all had been somehow been fitted into and later painstakingly extracted from just three car boots, belonging to Joy Bishop, Pat Nicholls, and Bob & Rannveig Wallis. Two species, C. hederifolium and C. graecum in its several guises, predominated. Back in the 1980s, Joy ran the (at that time) only AGS autumn show, held in London at Vincent Square, and my earliest photographs are from 30 years ago (almost to the calendar day), when she showed C. cilicium to a superlative standard not matched by the few plants at the Rainham event, and an accession of C. graecum from Mt Hymettus with around 40 flowers (which was then the benchmark for the species, though nowadays two or three times that number are routinely coaxed): what is now recognised as C. graecum subsp. graecum f. album had very recently been discovered (1980) in the Peloponnese, and was making perhaps only its second public appearance.
The latter species has now been split into three elements, and even those with memories not stretching back to the 1980s will recall a singular example of C. graecum subsp. candicum (from north-western through to central Crete), shown almost annually by Pat Nicholls at the Horsham Show in the 1990s and beyond, with elegantly slender flowers exhibiting the dark sinuses that constitute one of this segregate’s hallmarks. It was in rude good health at Rainham, earning its owner the Saunders Spoon for the best of the genus on display.
But the same exhibitor’s smaller, almost leafless, purple-indigo selection of C. hederifolium, richer and brighter still than the eastern German raising ‘Rosenteppich’, and traceable to the Green Ice (Netherlands) nursery run by Jan & Mieke Bravenboer, attracted even more attention. This tends to bloom not in a frantic flush, but sequentially over the course of a month or more, and is best sited in part-shade (the flower colour bleaches in full sun): 80% of the seedlings come true, so some judicious selecting is required.
The run of excellent Cyclamen was not confined to the Open Section, for both Pauline O’Leary and Audrey Dart also showed abundantly flowered examples of C. graecum. Both of them south coast exhibitors, the former lives at Hawkinge, close to the ‘Chunnel’, and had a likeably leafy example, the foliage with an inner ‘ace of spades’ banding, though in white, and with associated decorative veining, above which hovered a generous number of pale pink, fairly chubby flowers.
Her Sussex counterpart brought from Henfield an even more densely flowered exhibit, slightly deeper in colour and with barely a leaf as yet developed, although the half-exposed corm showed that these were starting to emerge, by the score. This business of whether or not to bury the corm comes down to personal preference (unless a hard winter strikes, and frost protection is not on hand, in which case ever vestige of shelter, topdressing included, is sensible), but it is certainly true that many wild plants have their corms fully exposed in near-vertical crevices or spots subject to storm-sluicing, so that sometimes only their thong-like roots keep them anchored, yet still they flower profusely.
Henfield is a village close to Lower Beeding, which is where Bob & Rannveig Wallis lived for many years (they ran the autumn Horsham Show very successfully during their latter years there, before moving much further west to Carmarthen almost 20 years ago). Their entries were a mainstay of the show, earning them wins in various classes, and a Certificate of Merit for a large pan of the pinkish-cream-cowled Biarum marmarisense, not quite at its peak (but well and truly over just a few days later, so that it was absent from their entries at the Loughborough Show just seven days later).
At Rainham they once again showed a particularly good range of colchicums, large (well large-ish: none approached the stature of C. ‘The Giant’ in the Intermediate Section) and small. Having witnessed the elegantly-chequered Colchicum macrophyllum slightly past its best 300 miles further north the week before, I was delighted to see it in its prime at this show: sensibly sited, who cares that the leaves can reach 35cm tall, given their elegant pleating, and the bountiful floral display in early autumn?
This under-appreciated species comes from Rhodes and Crete as well as the Turkish mainland, whereas C. cilicicum, as its specific epithet denotes, is from further southern parts of that country, and is mentioned here because Jon Evans’ handsome potful had been obtained from Rannveig’s ‘Buried Treasure’ catalogue, where it has been listed as ‘A free-flowerng species. Usually a few weeks earlier than the other large colchicums. This is a good dark pink form.’
The Wallises also had a small three-pan that brought together Lebanese C. decaisnei, a whitish form of the starry-flowered, otherwise pale pink C. troodii [left] (sometimes merged with the former, surprisingly, and not just from the Cypriot Troodos Mts; it also occurs in Turkey, Syria, Israel and the Lebanon) and a third component, from a 2006 accession, labelled C. corsicum (well shown by Lee & Julie Martin [below] in a much larger half-pan, with around twenty groupings in various states of emergence) but in fact the rather similar C. alpinum: labels had been mixed-up at the last minute.
In southern Corsica the two species’ distributions overlap, and given that the various characters are fairly similar, one could be forgiven for mistaking one for t’other, without examining their modest differences (the corms of C. corsicum are slightly larger, typically this species has 3-4 (rather than 2-3) leaves, and crucially the styles are slightly elongated, not pinhead-like).
Far and away the finest example of bona fide C. alpinum, at both this and any previous show within memory, was shown by Cecilia Coller, having been espied in the open garden by its owner several years previously, given a ‘that will do nicely’ appraisal, dug up the following year when dormant, and now appearing in a covetable clump that garnered the Keith Moorhouse Trophy for the best plant in a 19cm pot.
She could well have commanded this same award for others in her superlative small six-pan entry (the best in many a year at an autumn show) for her astonishingly abundant, buttercup yellow Oxalis perdicaria (shown as O. lobata, under which synonym it is often still distributed, and arguably the prettiest of the autumnal species, if not the largest-flowered), or perhaps a very handsome, deepish pink Cyclamen hederifolium), this trio teamed with a well-flowered, balancing-at-the-back, blazing beacon of Sternbergia lutea, a nicely bloomed Hyacinthoides lingulata, (still often listed as Scilla lingulata, echoing the Oxalis duality) and a seed-raised Cyclamen mirabile.
Other exhibitors too showed sternbergias, the best of them Don Peace’s S. sicula, which won the heavily-contested small Open Section one pan bulbous plant class: he also showed one of the very few crocuses as yet in bloom (most peaked a fortnight or more later), C. serotinus subsp. salzmannii f. albus ‘El Torcal’ [left], which reliably sends up two flowers in quick succession from a fully-developed corm, and benefits from a warm, dry summer of the stamp experienced countrywide in 2013.
No snowdrops at all, however (in general they came to their best in early to mid-October), and gentians too were only present in very small numbers. But one of the several Australian members of the Pterostylis/Diplodium alliance, D. coccinum, echoed orchid specialist Barry Tattersall’s pioneering efforts: he was present to witness the apotheosis of this elegantly candy-striped species, which won another more or less local exhibitor, Tony Jenkins from Maidstone, his first Farrer Medal. Very likely grown just frost-free (growing this and others ‘hard’ wiped out various stocks when a bitter winter struck three years ago), it had formed a neat, generous mat, overlooked by a well turned-out crowd of whiskery blooms, almost Arisaema-like in their comportment and sophisticated appeal. Elsewhere a greenish phase (‘interesting’ to the specialist, but less compelling) was on show, and good plants of both were for sale on the members’ plant stall. Those who habitually complain that such plants are unobtainable are quite often those who fail to keep their eyes peeled on such occasions.
A newspaper item, which I had read at breakfast-time, highlighted autumn’s surge ‘over Britain’s biggest bonsai tree collection in a wash of red and gold’, adding that ‘the Japanese maples are clipped daily to keep their shape and size at Heron’s Bonsai Nursery in Lingfield, Surrey’. But not all need such constant attention, nor are they all necessarily sourced from the several well-known British nurseries who specialise in this genus. Ivan Pinnick’s tiny-leaved Acer palmatum ‘Beni-hime’ can reach 60cm or more in 10 years, but has an authentically dwarf mien, with the tiniest leaves imaginable, at this stage a winning russet red, but progressing to flaming scarlet before they drop. Stefan Rau, onetime Wimborne show secretary, has long-standing links with several German nurserymen, and had sourced the specimen shown from one of these, handing it over several years ago to the exhibitor, who has since kept it in the same pot, and not been obliged to trim incessantly in the manner referenced in the foregoing extract.
Maintaining the foliage instead of flower focus, Michael Sullivan’s Ozothamnus selago was a mature, densely-branched specimen of note, recalling past glories such as the veteran specimen shown 20 years ago by at the time consummate exhibitor Una Green, and every inch as accomplished. He also displayed a cunningly contrived hotch-potch of contrasting Sempervivum rosettes in an acutely sheered-off pot, so that they flowed top to toe, very effectively.
For much of the morning I was involved in judging the show’s larger than ever Artistic Section, where I especially admired a meticulous, elegant and uncannily vivid painting of Pinguicula grandiflora by Caroline Jackson-Houlston. Had it been for sale, I would have readily dug deep into my pocket. Equally noteworthy were the various photographs taken by Kew stalwart Kit Strange, both in Armenia (a six-flowered clump of Iris iberica subsp. elegantissima, perfectly lit and with an elegant backdrop of other plants, was exemplary), and in the Falklands: I walked round later with Peter Erskine, who knows this part of the world better than most, and praised her unfailing distillation of this far-flung community’s characters. (Although she had earlier told me that, on first landing, and having travelled all those thousands of miles, the landscape ‘looked disappointingly just like home’). Having found her feet, she captured some compelling vignettes of plant communities, those from Mount Usborne and Gypsy Cove (where Nardophyllum bryoides and Bolax gummifera intermingle) especially ably composed.
Author: Robert Rolfe
Photographer: Jon Evans