This was David Hoare's 25th and final time in overall charge of proceedings at the Kent shows after coupling both the spring and autumn events for the last dozen or so years. Some might say 'a glutton for punishment!' but all would add 'a very good job well done'. David tells me he intends to remain part of the strong team that put these shows together, so we should have no concerns for their continued success. Thanks David.
Starting with the top honours, Lee & Julie Martin won the Farrer Medal (best plant in the show) with a spectacular pan of Sternbergia sicula. This vibrant clone does particularly well for them and indeed a smaller pot of the very same stock was judged to be the best entry in a pot not exceeding 19cm [below]. The 'Farrer' and the 'mini Farrer' at the same show is quite an achievement! Sourced from friends (who won the same award with it at the equivalent show in 2006), it is grown in their standard autumn-flowering bulb mix (3 parts loam; 1 part leaf-mould; 3 parts coarse grit; 1 part perlite; half of sharp sand, with a little Dolomite limestone and John Innes base fertilizer).
The clumps are left untouched in alternate years since they seem to flower better in their second year. The bulbs are liquid-fed (Maxicrop or Chempak No. 8) usually every other watering. Lee & Julie were selling spares on the members' plant stall and so others will be able to try it for themselves. I'm keen to see how it compares with one that I've grown for many years. Incidentally, this was Lee & Julie's 36th Farrer Medal (wow!), with doubtless more to come.
In recent years, I've come to expect that Biarum marmarisense will be represented on the benches at this time of year. However, this near predictability never diminishes the pleasure I derive from the annual appearance of this real oddity. It's definitely for those who delight in something different. Often delicate pink, this time a white form was on display. Sunlight entering through high windows in the hall provided Jon Evans with the ideal opportunity to demonstrate his photographic skills, capturing backlit shots of this extremely photogenic Arum relative, recently given specific status (split away from B. davisii). Martin & Anna-Liisa Sheader had first acquired it some 15 years ago but subsequently lost it. Or so they thought: it reappeared, phoenix-like, in their spoil heap of old spent compost (most of us can recall parallel experiences). Duly rescued and given a lattice pot plunged in a bulb frame, it has been much happier than when root-restrained in orthodox pot-bound captivity. It had been lifted and dropped into a clay pot just prior to its visit to the show. One of my fellow judges was unhappy about the fact that the 'flowers' formed an orderly line rather than a regular cluster but I felt more forgiving and it surely constituted a more photogenic presentation.
Jon Evans brought his plant of Empodium plicatum to Kent this year. I photographed it on the show bench last year with only one flower open but it had clearly progressed well in the intervening twelve months, responding to the regime that Jon imposes. Very similar to E. flexile that Bob and Rannveig Wallis have exhibited in recent years, it is however smaller in all its parts and Jon tells me that, with him, it also flowers two to three weeks earlier. In a mix approximating to 60% grit-sand to 40% John Innes no. 2, it dies down in mid-April, at which time it is moved to its summer quarters. I'm often wary of the old advice to give certain bulbs a 'summer baking' up on the greenhouse shelf, but this seems to be a plant that really does enjoy such treatment. Watering restarts at the beginning of September and the brief flush of flowers follows in swift order. Whilst this is one of the hardiest species, it would be prudent in a prolonged period of hard frosts to ensure the ‘bulbs’ (technically corms) do not freeze. E. plicatum, in the family Hypoxidaceae, is native to South Africa’s Cape Province, growing on seasonally-damp slopes and flowering there from April-June.
On a number of occasions I noticed judges and others getting their noses up close and personal with a selection of exhibits. Primary amongst these were the two above-mentioned plants (Biarum and Empodium), conveniently situated close together in the same class. Opinions always seem to differ regarding the appeal (or otherwise) of the scent (stink) on offer, and indeed on whether any can be discerned at all. It seems that some noses can tune in to certain 'frequencies' better than others. For the record: the Biarum has a surprisingly sweet smell, uncharacteristic within Araceae, while the Empodium has a scent that most witnesses likened to detergent!
One of the benefits of putting plants on the show benches is that we often learn something more about them. They generate discussion and often invite comparisons with other examples in nearby classes. The various colchicums on display at Kent provided a case in point. Two plants had been mislabelled – one as Colchicum cilicicum (which it wasn't) and a second, incorrectly labelled as C. decaisnei (which was indeed C. cilicicum). I can expose this inept labelling without fear of reprisal since both plants were mine! The point being that expert help was on hand to put things straight and to point out a useful diagnostic feature of C. cilicicum. In this particular species, the styles are typically pale coloured for the major part but their tips (the stigmas) are purple. These purple tips (see the accompanying photo) provide an easy way to identify this species.
Alan Newton can usually be relied on to provide correspondents with something new or rare and interesting to report. On this occasion the small terrestrial orchid Stenoglottis woodii from South Africa was produced. Alan says this small and long-flowering plant makes a wonderful pot plant to be displayed on a protected patio. It is easily grown in a fairly shallow container in a mixture of sharp sand and peat (or very well-composted, milled bark). His plants are fed every two weeks with a commercial plant fertiliser. During winter, when the plants are dormant and lose all their leaves, they should be kept in a cool, dry place until new growth begins in the spring. They should be grown in a lightly-shaded, well-ventilated place from then onwards and watered regularly, never drying out completely.
Another of Alan's plants that attracted attention was Eucomis vandermerwei. In my case it came into focus on the second (perhaps even the third) pass since the bright colours of the massed sternbergias and cyclamen provided the initial, instant impact. However, this South African native had a quiet, sophisticated presence. One of the so-called Pineapple Lilies, many of which are too imposing for our definition of 'alpine', this species is one of the smallest and surprisingly hardy to boot, despite its exotic appearance. The dark purple coloration of this particular clone makes for a somewhat sombre appearance and so it is easily overlooked. Close inspection, however, reveals a hidden gem. It was similar to the plant named 'Octopus' but without the characteristic wavy edges to the leaves associated with that particular clone. Alan grows it outside for most of the year and then ‘shoves it under the greenhouse staging’ for a winter rest where it is then kept reasonably dry.
The Kent shows move to a new venue next year (Sutton Valence School) and with a new team leader in Adrian Cooper. This should make for exciting and interesting times and I know that Adrian is already developing his ideas for building on the success of David's time in the lead role.
Author: Don Peace
Photographer: Jon Evans