Alpine and Rock Garden team
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Alpine and Rock Garden team blog

The Alpine and Rock Garden team looks after a fantastic range of plants from the world’s mountain ranges. This blog includes stories about individual plants, growing techniques and trips to see alpine plants in the wild. You can visit plants from Kew's collection of alpines in the Davies Alpine House, the Rock Garden and Woodland Garden and read this blog to find out how the team gets to grips with cultivating them.

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The winter flowering Cyclamen coum

By: Richard Wilford - 09 Jan 2012
It is said that you can have a cyclamen in flower every month of the year and January belongs to the diminutive Cyclamen coum.
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The main flowering seasons for cyclamen are autumn and spring. The summer gap is filled with Cyclamen purpurascens and the rare C. colchicum and the winter is mainly left to Cyclamen coum.  Some spring cyclamens can flower very early, including the closely related C. alpinum and a visit to the Davies Alpine House will reveal a few more species, flowering in the more protective environment under the glass.

But out in the open, Cyclamen coum is now flowering on the Rock Garden at Kew. Although we haven't yet had much freezing weather this winter, this plant is very resistant to frosts, which seem to have no effect on the flowers or leaves.
 

Cyclamen coum in frost

Frosted flowers of Cyclamen coum on the Rock Garden

The leaves of Cyclamen coum are rounded to heart-shaped and often have attractive silvery markings. The small flowers have short, wide petals that vary in colour from deep magenta to pale pink or white. C. coum has a wide range in the wild. It can be found from Bulgaria, across northern Turkey to the Caucasus Mountains and from south-east Turkey to northern Israel. Over this range there is some variation in leaf shape and patterning, and flower colour.
 

Cyclamen coum ssp caucasicum in Georgian woodland

Cyclamen coum covering a woodland floor in Georgia, near Tbilisi

 In the wild C. coum grows in woodland, where it can create vast swathes of pink flowers. It can also be found on rocky ledges or on the sides of gorges, in gullies and along field margins.
 

Cyclamen coum on a cliff in Georgia

Clinging to a rocky gorge wall in south-west Georgia

It can sometimes be seen growing naturally with snowdrops, a combination that also looks great in the garden.
 

Cyclamen coum and Galanthus woronowii in Georgia

Cyclamen coum and the snowdrop Galanthus woronowii in the wild

Cyclamen coum is easily grown in the garden, in sun or partial shade. The soil should be well-drained but not too dry in summer, when it is dormant. In the wild it often grows in areas where the annual rainfall is very high, such as north-east Turkey and western Georgia. It will seed around itself to form large colonies over time, making a beautiful sight in the winter months. 

- Richard -


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Early daffs...and more!

By: Richard Wilford - 05 Dec 2011
The warm autumn has encouraged some daffodils (Narcissus) to flower early in the Davies Alpine House - and there are other interesting plants to see there too.
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The daffodils flowering in the Davies Alpine House now are normally among the first species of Narcissus to appear at this time of year but they have been out for over two weeks already and some, like the paperwhite, have been blooming since early November. The paperwhite, N. papyraceus, comes from the Mediterranean region and produces masses of small white, scented flowers, with up to 20 on a single plant. In countries such as Spain, where it can be quite common in the south, the flowers are picked for Christmas.

 

The paperwhite, Narcissus papyraceus

The paperwhite, Narcissus papyraceus

 

Another species flowering now, Narcissus romieuxii, is one of the hoop petticoat daffodils. Their common name comes from the wide, flared corona. In some daffodils the corona forms the prominent trumpet at the center of the flower and in others it can be very short like a shallow cup, as in the pheasant's eye, N. poeticus.

Narcissus romieuxii comes from North Africa and the flowers are usually a shade of yellow, some being deep yellow and others pale. It also comes in pure, glistening white. Originating from North Africa and flowering so early means this species is best kept under glass but another hoop petticoat, N. bulbocodium, does well in the garden and can be naturalised in grass, seeding around to eventually create large colonies that flower in mid spring. This group of species also includes the pretty N. cantabricus.

 

Yellow form of Narcissus romieuxii  White form of Narcissus romieuxii

Left, a yellow Narcissus romieuxii, and right, the white form

 

More highlights

Other plants to see now include the first of the 'juno' irises. These bulbous irises mostly come from Western and Central Asia and really get going in January and February but there is one species from the Mediterranean region that flowers in December, Iris planifolia. Like some of the daffodils, this iris has been out for a couple of weeks. It is normally blue-flowered but the white form is looking particularly good at the moment.

 

Iris planifolia white form

The white form of Iris planifolia

 

Late November and December is normally the time to see the giant Madeiran squill, Scilla madeirensis, in the Alpine House but this year it has already been and gone. There is a closely related species flowering now though, with similarly impressive, though slightly smaller flower spikes. Scilla latifolia is from Macaronesia - the islands in the North Atlantic off the African coast that include the Canary Islands and Madeira. Unlike S. madeirensis, the flower stems are not straight but bend over and then turn up at the ends to hold the spike of purple-violet flowers upright.

 

Scilla latifolia

Scilla latifolia

 

The species of Massonia normally flower in December. The genus is named after Francis Masson, Kew's first plant collector, who was dispatched to South Africa by Joseph Banks in the late 18th century. With two wide leaves, several centimetres across, lying flat on the ground and a tuft of sweetly scented flowers emerging from between them, Massonia pustulata is one of the more unusual looking plants on display at this time of year. The flowers have insignificant petals but prominent stamens holding the small yellow anthers. It comes from the Cape Region of South Africa, where the climate is mediterranean, so it is dormant during the dry summer months.

 

Massonia pustulata

Massonia pustulata

 

So plenty to see now, and before you know it the snowdrops will be out and spring will be here!

- Richard -


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The perfect Japanese maple?

By: Katie Price - 25 Oct 2011
The trees in the Woodland Garden provide shade for us to grow a range of woodland plants and bulbs, but they also add their own colour at this time of year. The Japanese maple, Acer palmatum 'Sangokaku', is one of the best.
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Acer palmatum ‘Sangokaku’, or the coral-barked maple, is a marvellous small tree for a woodland garden, with interest for every season. Here in the Woodland Garden, which surrounds the Temple of Aeolus at Kew, we have three specimens north of the Temple Mound. Right now they are awash with autumn colour – their small, deeply divided leaves range from butter yellow, through green and orange, to fiery red.

 

Acer palmatum ‘Sangokaku’ against a blue autumn sky

Autumn colour of Acer palmatum ‘Sangokaku’ (Image: Richard Wilford)

 

This year’s autumn colour is different from normal –  a largely uniform buttery yellow, with almost no red or deep orange. I guess this is an indicator of the abnormally warm, dry weather we had during early October.

 

Acer palmatum ‘Sangokaku’ in autumn colour

Acer palmatum ‘Sangokaku’, showing wonderful yellow hues (Image: Richard Wilford)

 

One of hundreds of named cultivars of the Japanese maple, the common name of "coral bark maple" celebrates the wonderful spring display. The young shoots and stems are bright coral-red, and before the leaves emerge the tree develops a pink halo. You can also see this bright red colouration on the petioles of the autumn leaves.

 

Acer palmatum ‘Sangokaku’ leaves

The leaves of Acer palmatum ‘Sangokaku’, showing their bright red petioles

 

The newly emerged leaves have a dainty pink flush, before becoming a vibrant lime green for the rest of the season, but it is in autumn that this wonderful tree steps into the limelight.

 

A tree of Acer palmatum ‘Sangokaku’ at Kew

Acer palmatum ‘Sangokaku’

 

What more can I say? It’s perfect.

- Katie -


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Autumn colour on the Rock Garden

By: Joanne Everson - 12 Oct 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

 

Cyclamen

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 -


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Autumn bulbs, inside and out

By: Richard Wilford - 16 Sep 2011
In their Mediterranean home, many bulbs burst into flower when the autumn rains arrive. At Kew you can see them on display inside the Davies Alpine House and outside on the Rock Garden.
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A bulb is an adaptation to survive long periods of drought. Tubers, corms and rhizomes perform a similar function, storing water and nutrients underground, and waiting for the drought to break so they can grow and flower. Seasonal droughts are typical of the Mediterranean regions of southern Europe and North Africa, as well as parts of California, Chile, South Africa and SW Australia. In the garden these autumn bulbs, corms and tubers provide a boost to the flowering season late in the year.
 

Cyclamen graecum on rock garden

Cyclamen graecum on the Rock Garden

Cyclamen can be seen in many parts of Kew, the most common being Cyclamen hederifolium, but on the Rock Garden you can find the less hardy C. greacum, which comes from Greece and Turkey. It does well in a sunny, south-facing position, where it can make the most of the autumn sunshine. Even less hardy, but still surviving outside in the most sheltered spots at Kew, is the North African C. africanum. For another African species you will have to go inside the Davies Alpine House, where you will see several pots of C. rohlfsianum, a species endemic to northern Libya and not hardy enough to grow in the open.
 

Cyclamen africanum on rock garden Cyclamen rohlfsianum in the alpine house

Left, Cyclamen africanum on the Rock Garden, and right, C. rohlfsianum in the Alpine House

 
Back outside on the Rock Garden, look out for the fantastic magenta-pink flowers of the South African Gladiolus carmineus. This plant comes from Western Cape in South Africa, an area that has a Mediterranean-type climate and is home to a huge range of bulbous plants in the Cape Floral Kingdom, one of the World's biodiversity hotspots.
 

Gladiolus carmineus in flower

South African Gladiolus carmineus on the Rock Garden

 Also from South Africa is the genus Nerine. These bulbs are mostly just emerging outside at Kew but in the shelter of the Alpine House, the delicate blooms of Nerine filamentosa are open. This species differs from the other plants mentioned here because it is a summer grower, appearing in the summer rainfall region of Eastern Cape, although the flowers bloom at the end of its growing season, in autumn. In a couple of weeks the more robust Nerine bowdenii will be flowering outside in the gardens. 
 

Nerine filamentosa in flower in the Alpine House

Nerine filamentosa flowering in the Davies Alpine House


Another plant that is flowering earlier inside the Alpine House than outside on the Rock Garden is Sternbergia lutea. On the Rock Garden, the blooms of this Mediterranean bulb are just opening but in the Alpine House they have been open for a couple of weeks. The impressive, bright-yellow, goblet-shaped flowers emerging from their large terracotta pots, make a real impact on the glasshouse benches.
 

Yellow flowers of Sternbergia lutea

Sternbergia lutea in the Davies Alpine House 


There are plenty more bulbs on the way. Over the next few weeks the autumn flowering species of Crocus will be blooming inside and out, brightly coloured Oxalis will appear, and in a couple of months the giant squill, Scilla madeirensis will make a dramatic return to the Alpine House. 

- Richard -


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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 Kewbooks.com.

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