Thursday, 10 April 2014

Alpine Garden Club of B.C. Spring show from a judge's point of view

Thursday April 10, 2014 

It's my happy task to yearly play a part in judging the Spring alpine plant show for the garden club I belong to. I anticipate this extra burst of plant growing intensity, as competitors up their game and try for the many trophies available.

What a thrill being counted among these specialists. While I work as an alpine plant curator, others bring their years of wide and deep private growing experience as well as long memberships in various related societies. The judges this year (six of us!) were Roger, Dana, Margaret, Rex and me, presiding over a room full of plant treasures. Here is my overview of some of this year's best plants, followed by brief comments.

Trillium kurabayashii, grown to perfection, blue ribbon worthy

This trillium [Latin, trilix, triple, alluding to the flowers having parts in threes] species is native to southwestern Oregon and adjacent northwest California. It's coveted for obvious reasons, its beautiful, flat mottled leaves and deep maroon flowers standing above. The plant in question had not a single item wrong to find disfavour with the judges. Even the pot is immaculate! While on a botanical foray last July I was fortunate enough to find a huge colony of it in seed at a country roadside, in Del Norte County - now I too can finally grow my own. This plant was awarded two trophies, one for 'Best Bulb or Corm' and 'Best Native Bulb or Corm'.  Native in this case refers to the west coast of northern North America, or roughly BC south to California.  Those who are craving more of this luscious plant can visit Linda Cochrane's blog!

Androsace muscoidea

Plunging into the thick of true alpine plants, I offer this close up shot of Androsace muscoidea. First off, note the hairiness of the stems. This feature means one important thing to growers in our rainforest climate - difficulty! That's not to say it is against local club rules to keep it over winter in an unheated greenhouse, yet as a matter of fact, it must be unheated - but outside, all those hairs would attract and hold rain. Rain is death to a lot of these plants, as they're used to being under many feet/meters of snow every winter. The second point worth noting is that the eyes of its many flowers are either one of two colours. This is merely becaue some have already been pollinated and others not. Dark red means a visit from an insect has taken place, while yellow means no visit yet! Note the nice top dressing of gravel surrounding the plant. A fine presentation for a plant belonging above 3000 meters in the Himalayas!

Narcissus rupicola, epitome of Spring

This plant says "Spring" to so many of us, and there are so many species, and hundreds if not thousands of cultivars of daffodil. I love this tiny species, whose name rupicola means it's a lover of rock. Native to mountains in Spain, Portugal and over the Meditteranean in Morocco.  Three varieties exist, with my preference being var. watieri, the Moroccan, with pure white flowers and just 10cm/6" tall! What a charming potful here, presented in excellent health and timing.

As we slowly made our way round the room it was becoming clear which plants were contenders and which, while interesting and even elegant in their own way, were either not rare nor particularly show ready. This can be in terms of either the plant's age or its general condition, or even its difficulty of cultivation.  There is a class for 'expert' and I'll save that for the moment.

Trillium hibbersonii

Here's a prime example of another trillium, yet one which is not quite ready for serious competition. While it is grown as a rare native plant (found only on Vancouver Island, BC), and it is naturally dwarf, it isn't either big enough yet in its pot, nor grown to a high enough standard to be worthy for consideration.

This little fellow needs another three to five years of careful attention and he may come back stronger.

Here's a shot of colour from an almost contender.  This Corydalis is not uncommon, so its ranking is not among the elite of alpine and rock plants.  Positive traits are its health, apperance and symmetry. All good, but not first class.  Pretty as it is, I would grow it in my garden but wouldn't enter it in the Spring show.

Corydalis solida


Okay, now for the piece de resistance... the plant judged as 'Best in Show' for Spring 2014, this stunning Dionysia species.

Dionysia species, impossible to grow (for most of us), coveted by all in attendance

So what exactly is so special about this little mountain plant? Several points, actually. As I've already mentioned, it is near to impossible to grow into such top tier condition as seen here, as well as to its relatively grand size.  What's more likely is that it would first wither, dry up and blow away or rot down into an alpine mush pile instead of gaining such stature.  It is native to the Zagros mountains of Iran, which are much, much drier and colder in winter than Vancouver. Somehow, with the most careful and dedicated care it has surpassed all others on this day by the further multiple virtues of its extreme rarity, excellent condition, perfect presentation and timing on the show bench. As I bent over it in wonderment, I inhaled deeply its fragrance. To each of us it was something different, but to me it was redolent of sweet wood smoke.  That of a kind which might be sniffed on the air of a high mountain trail, near the end of a long day's trek, while looking for and dreaming of a warm supper and sprawling out under the stars. We found that we couldn't praise it high enough. It might as well have been native to Mt. Olympus. That was what it took to win us over one and all, as best alpine plant.

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