Autumn colour on the Rock Garden

By: Joanne Everson - 12/10/2011

After the heat wave of last week, the autumnal weather is now back to normal. But don't worry, there is plenty of colour to see on the Rock Garden. Look out for Crocus, Cyclamen and even an early snowdrop.

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Autumn crocuses

One of the autumn flowering Crocus species that I look forward to seeing each year is Crocus tournefortii. This species is not often grown outside because, unlike other Crocus species, it doesn't close its flowers at night or in inclement weather, so they are susceptible to damage, especially from rain. We first planted it out on the Rock Garden three years ago in a variety of locations and, as you can see, if given some protection by a neighbouring rock, the delicate flowers and amazing, many-branched styles are a wonderful sight. This is an entirely island species, from the Greek Archipelago, occurring in coastal scrub.


Crocus tournefortii

Crocus tournefortii


Crocus speciosus, or the ‘Showy Crocus’, is one of the easiest to grow, as it doesn’t mind sun or semi shade and will naturalise in grass and beneath shrubs. Like C. tournefortii, it has a much-branched, bright orange style in the centre of the flower, which contrasts brilliantly with the deep lilac-blue petals. Found from the Crimea, through the Caucusus to Turkey and Iran this species inhabits woodland, pasture and alpine grassland up to altitudes of over 2300m.


Crocus speciosus

Crocus speciosus


Early snowdrops

The first of what I consider to be next season's snowdrops is already up, but it is not as early as you might think. Galanthus reginae-olgae is a predominantly Greek species, discovered in the 1870s in the Taigetos Mountians of the Peloponnese, and usually flowers through October. They are a reminder of what is to come in a few months time, when the Galanthus elwesii begin to flower, the first ones appearing around Christmas time. Galanthus reginae-olgae is a reliable and beautiful species for a sunny warm spot. The flower stems extend and the flowers open before the leaves emerge, making it appear more delicate than perhaps it is.


Autumn flowering Galanthus reginae-olgae

Autumn-flowering Galanthus reginae-olgae


Last of the Roscoeas

As Galanthus regiane-olgae can be called the first of next season's snowdrops, then Roscoea purpurea ‘Red Gurkkha’ is one of the last of the roscoeas for this year. There are almost twenty species of these hardy members of the ginger family growing out on the Rock Garden, but most are not so late flowering; their peak blooming being between May and August. Not only does this form exhibit red colouration of the 'stem' or leaf bases, it is the only true red flowered form in this noteworthy genus. It was found in one location in Nepal in 1992, growing in open scrub, on a steep terraced slope, and was first exhibited by Kew at a Royal Horticultural Society show in London's Vincent Square in 1994.


Roscoea purpurea 'Red Gurkha'

Roscoea purpurea 'Red Gurkha'


Red hot pokers

The red hot pokers from the mountainous regions of South Africa are always exciting to see as we move into autumn. They hold forth upright, dramatic flowers, forming strong stout spikes which are topped by flowers of hot colours. Kniphofia caulescens comes from damp grassland in the Drakensberg Mountains in Lesotho and has been growing outside on the Rock Garden for three years, going through our last few cold winters without any trouble. I think it is helped by its sheltered position beneath a pine tree.


Knifophia caulescens Knifophia triangularis

Left, Knifophia caulescens and right, Knifophia triangularis


I have a soft spot for Kniphofia triangularis as I remember it being one of the first plants I planted out on the Rock Garden when I came to Kew, ten years ago. It produces more flowers than K. caulescens and they also last a bit longer, well through October, and on a dull day they really make me smile as they are a burst of fire just before the days get noticeably shorter and more grey.


Red hot pokers on the rock garden

Red hot pokers on the Rock Garden


Dramatic irises

Moraea reticulata is a dramatic member of the Iris family (Iridaceae) and its route to the Rock Garden was via Kit Strange from the Alpine Nursery. She soon realised that it was too large and unruly for pot cultivation and so we decided to try it out on the Rock Garden. Here, in a south facing spot, it thrives and has more room to be admired. This species grows from a corm and has a very limited distribution in the wild, only being found in the mountains south of Queenstown in the Eastern Cape, South Africa. Plants are usually solitary and are found on steep grassy slopes, flowering in the wild in March to May (South African autumn). It is easily recognized by its channelled leaves and very characteristic cataphylls - a papery tunic that surrounds the corm and extends upwards well above the ground, forming a grey or brown fibrous network around the leaf and stem base. Moraea reticulata begins flowering in September here and has successive flowers right through October and sometimes into November.


Moraea reticulata

Moraea reticulata



Richard blogged about Cyclamen recently and whilst I was out taking photographs for this blog, I took these images of Cyclamen africanum and Cyclamen graecum, both flowering away whilst their tubers are quite exposed, well out of the soil. These species are often described as requiring protection from frost, but they have been happily growing and reliably flowering for several years out on the Rock Garden. We plant them in higher bays facing south or well drained cracks and crevices, where they thrive.


Cyclamen africanum Cyclamen graecum on the rock garden

Left, Cyclamen africanum, and right, Cyclamen graecum, both flowering from exposed tubers!

And finally...

Finally for now I should mention another South African plant that is looking good. On the Rock Garden the nerines are in full bloom, especially Nerine alta by the south door of the Davies Alpine House, and N. undulata, which can be seen further into the Rock Garden.


Nerine alta Nerine undulata

Left, Nerine alta, and right, Nerine undulata


These fantastic autumn flowers are just some of the highlights at this time of year so make sure to try and visit the Rock Garden in the next few weeks. 

- Joanne -

3 comments on 'Autumn colour on the Rock Garden'

Louise Horner says

20/10/2011 1:03:34 PM | Report abuse

Visiting Kew Gardens for the first time this past summer 2011, I was pleased to download the Kew App to my i-Pad, and to now check in to see what is going on in Autumn. The rock graden is lovely as well documented by photos that one who lives out of country can enjoy. ~ An American living in Poland.

Pauline at Gardens Weekly says

13/10/2011 10:58:30 PM | Report abuse

stunning photos of wonderful plants thank you

Christina says

13/10/2011 12:28:16 PM | Report abuse

The Rock Garden is such a fabulous place to visit, there are so many fascinating plants here. I'm amazed to hear about an autumn flowering snowdrop!

About us

Looking north towards the Davies Alpine House from the Rock Garden

Several people contribute to the Alpine and Rock Garden Team blog. Richard Wilford is the Collections Manager in the Hardy Display Section at Kew. His responsibilities include all the areas where alpines are grown at Kew Gardens. The three team leaders, Joanne Everson, Graham Walters and Katie Price, each have their own particular parts of the Gardens to look after. Between them, these four experts have over 55 years experience of growing alpines.

Alpines at Kew Gardens are not only grown to create colourful and informative displays, they also play an important role in the research Kew carries out around plant naming, classification, biodiversity and conservation.

Mountains are found on every continent and each range has its own unique alpine flora, but these plants are under threat from climate change. As temperatures rise, alpines are forced higher and will eventually have nowhere to go. The alpine collections at Kew are studied to help us all understand the mountain flora better and make informed decisions about protecting its future.

"Probably the most beautiful glasshouse in the world is the Davies Alpine House at the Royal Botanic Gardens Kew", John Hoyland, Gardens Illustrated, April 2011

Richard Wilford has written a book on alpines, 'Alpines from Mountain to Garden', published by Kew Publishing. You can buy it in the Kew shops or from

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