Weak sunshine heralded the early hours of Saturday morning but happily, for those travelling from west of the Pennines, the intensity steadily increased as the journey wore on. By the time judging was finished, there was sufficient heat in the sun to encourage shirt sleeve order. The hall looked splendid with its five parallel ranks of tables ranged down the centre with additional provision made for two side benches. Sunlight filtered in through high windows to illuminate the plants which presented themselves in their most glorious colours.
Primulas, trilliums, rhododendrons, dionysias, saxifrages and a host of others showed off the exuberance of their various colours to best advantage when viewed as a whole from either of two low galleries set slightly above and on two sides of the hall. From here one might see the exhibitors toiling under the weight of well-furnished clay pots or carefully portering their delicate blossoms to the appropriate classes, so that once the room was cleared for the beginning of the judges deliberations, the hall was awash with the very best that growers could achieve. Now it was time to visit the many nurseries selling plants, novelties or replacements, that might grace the halls on future occasions if they could be brought to maturity. Sad to say the sunshine did not last: by the time the show closed, those travelling back westwards across the hills encountered heavy sleet and rain showers.
In its native south-eastern Australia, Rulingia hermanniaefolia forms low growing mats up to 1.5 m across and only 20cm. high. In cultivation it is well suited to a very sheltered rock garden as it flows over and around rocks, following their contours. However, its hardiness in much of the British Isles should be noted, for it may only withstand -4˚ to -5˚C. Pot grown, it requires little protection and prefers slight shade rather than full sun. Cecilia Coller, owner of the plant shown, advocates regular repotting in a sandy compost and infrequent feeding. The pink buds open to white starry flowers followed by 4mm red capsules in late autumn.
Also shown by Cecilia and considered to be the hardiest, finest clone of Rhododendron luteiflorum, Frank Kingdon Ward sent back the accession KW 21556 in 1953 from northern Myanmar, encountered at 3,050-3,350 m in thickets and on exposed ridges. The expedition took place when he was 67 years old and he suffered greatly – especially as the monsoon had arrived – from exhaustion and neuralgia. He was accompanied by his wife Jean who also fell ill: such were and, to a certain extent, remain the rigours of plant-hunting. As with all rhododendrons it requires acid, organic rich soils so that the fine, surface roots may flourish and the plant thrive; abundant moisture must be available at all times, an annual mulch helping in this respect.
Marsh Marigolds are a common sight in British wetlands in April with their shining yellow petals. A less vigorous white form, Caltha palustris ‘Alba’, has long been in cultivation; a relatively new, orange-bronze taxon, var. barthei, has been in cultivation for almost a decade. On the bench was another selection, var. himalaica, considerably more dwarf than those mentioned previously and certainly a midget compared with the Marsh Marigold that lavished its blooms a good couple of feet high, a few paces away along the table. John Richards finds the plant a bit of a thug and needs to control its spread occasionally by cutting off seed heads or lifting it for show, as on this occasion. It certainly needs plentiful moisture at all times to perform at its optimum.
Baba Dag soars to 3,629 m at the very south-eastern end of the Caucasus mountain range running down to the Caspian Sea, where the climate is drier than in the western reaches bordering the Black Sea. The eponymous Iris babadagica was found in 1956 and likened to two other species; indeed some botanists placed it in synonymy with either I. aphylla or I. furcata. Further studies concluded that it deserved specific rank, so in 1965 it was named for the mountain on which it was first gathered. It has made several appearances on the show bench at Chesterfield but Cecilia Coller’s potful seen this year, benefitting from experience gained in the interim, was abundantly flowered and in tip top condition.
On the day of the Grand National, a fine hybrid from the Ray Fairbairn stable was running in Tommy Anderson’s small six-pan entry and came home at a gallop with a Certificate of Merit. Combining the merits of Saxifraga ferdinandi-coburgi (which has golden yellow cymose racemes above greyish rosettes of congested leaves) from Bulgaria’s Pirin Mts, with those of the Iranian Saxifarga ramsarica from the Elburz (whose flowers are faint pink), S. ‘Allendale Harvest’ is an attractive, biscuit-yellow departure from the oft-seen rose hybrids.
Fritillaria aurea and F. pinardii are quite frequently exhibited but hybrids between the two very rarely occur. The grouping exhibited won Don Peace the Frances Hopkin Trophy for the best plant in a pan not exceeding 19cms [left]. The segregation of characters in a hybrid may make for a hotch-potch of form and colour but in this instance uniformity was the order of the day, no doubt achieved by careful selection of the seedlings when they first flowered. Grown in two parts of John Innes no. 3 and one part grit, they receive plenty of water when in active growth. Annual repotting in August means that no additional feeding is necessary. Incidentally, also on display was a backcross with F. pinardii showing considerable variation.
Your correspondent is renowned for preferring species to hybrids, so he surprised even himself when confronted with Lawrence Peet’s Androsace hybrid of much beauty. A. pyrenaica is so familiar that it needs no further mention, neither does its partner, although the latter is perhaps a less frequent visitor to our shows. Such was the delicacy of colour in their offspring’s clear, pale pink blooms that it resembled the slightly blushing cheeks of a Victorian damsel taken aback by the attention of a new, young beau. This will surely become a favourite with growers as it becomes more readily available with, perhaps, a cultivar name carefully and appropriately chosen.
Easily the best European plant exhibited and, in consequence, the winner of the John Saxton Trophy for a plant from that continent, Saxifraga desoulavayi was shown in a large pan and in perfect condition. It may be argued that a plant with scale- like petals is not so much of a problem for exhibitors as those with structures more prone to damage from unavoidable potholes in the road, careless handling or over-maturity (of which there was rather more evidence in this year’s show than judges usually like). Ian and Maria Leslie had tended this prize specimen for over 15 years, keeping it permanently under glass and only occasionally moving it to a larger pot – its last move five years ago. It is given a standard alpine compost, with liquid feeds just once or twice a year. New growth is very brittle, making propagation by means of cuttings a ticklish procedure.
Author: Peter Cunnington
Photographers: Robert Rolfe and Don Peace