Early daffs...and more!

By: Richard Wilford - 05/12/2011

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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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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