In The Gar­den

Country Life Every Week - - Contents - Charles Quest-rit­son Charles Quest-rit­son wrote the RHS En­cy­clo­pe­dia of Roses

Charles Quest-rit­son falls back in love with alpine prim­u­las

MANY years ago, we had a Na­tional Col­lec­tion of Prim­u­las that we as­sem­bled un­der the aus­pices of Plant Her­itage, an au­gust hor­ti­cul­tural or­gan­i­sa­tion that was, at that time, called the Na­tional Coun­cil for the Con­ser­va­tion of Plants and Gar­dens (NCCPG). We en­joyed mak­ing the col­lec­tion enor­mously and the gen­eros­ity of our fel­low en­thu­si­asts was im­mensely cockle-warm­ing.

Our prim­ula col­lec­tion was limited to Euro­pean species and cul­ti­vars, but they turned out to be le­gion. My main in­ter­est cen­tred on the Ver­nales sec­tion of the genus Prim­ula, which in­cludes our na­tive prim­roses, cowslips and oxlips. I raised thou­sands of their hy­brid seedlings; some were the re­sult of de­lib­er­ate crosses, but most of them were open-pol­li­nated foundlings freely pro­duced by this most pro­mis­cu­ous of gar­den flow­ers.

I had it in mind that, by cross­ing su­per-hardy species such as the Alpine oxlip P. ela­tior with the Cau­casian P. ju­liae, I might breed a gar­den-wor­thy strain that would flour­ish in such cli­mates as On­tario and the Amer­i­can Mid­west and so make my for­tune.

The NCCPG was keen that its col­lec­tion hold­ers should study their plants and make their own con­tri­bu­tion to hor­ti­cul­tural lit­er­a­ture. We soon dis­cov­ered, how­ever, that so many bril­liant botanists and gar­den­ers had worked with the genus that we’d never be able to add to the ex­ist­ing cor­pus of knowl­edge.

We were greatly helped by my run of old Alpine Gar­den So­ci­ety Jour­nals, which stretches back to the post-se­cond World War years in which plant-hun­ters were keen to tell their read­ers ex­actly where they had found the rare plants that they de­scribed. As a re­sult, it was easy for us to run them to earth in the Alpine re­gions where they oc­cur in na­ture.

I re­mem­ber find­ing Prim­ula marginata all over the Roya val­ley in the Alpes-mar­itimes and a mem­o­rable day in early March when Wil­liam Water­field took Chris Brick­ell and me on a long hike to find P. al­lionii flow­er­ing at a height at which we could pho­to­graph it. Then there were happy meet­ings with the ubiq­ui­tous P. hir­suta and its rarer rel­a­tive P. pede­mon­tana when the snows melted and the ski­ing re­sorts of Savoy seemed derelict and aban­doned.

We hunted for other species all through the Alpine ranges un­til we came to the diminu­tive P. min­ima in the Ta­tra Moun­tains. We never dug them up, nor were we even tempted to do so, be­cause the many botanic in­sti­tutes that run Alpine gar­dens in France, Switzer­land and Italy were so gen­er­ous in send­ing us seeds and plants.

We grew our Alpine prim­u­las in an un­heated green­house—cold but dry, as win­ter wet is their un­do­ing—and it was a great joy to go into the glasshouse on a sunny day in Fe­bru­ary and March to ad­mire not just their rich colours, but also the size of their flow­ers in re­la­tion to the rest of the plant.

Some­thing none of the books and ar­ti­cles on prim­u­las ever men­tioned was what a strong scent they have, dif­fer­ent from that of prim­roses and cowslips, but no less sweet. Alas, we did not know about vine wee­vils in those days; one year, we lost al­most all our pots. This dis­as­ter, the re­sult of our ig­no­rance, dented our con­fi­dence so com­pletely that we de­cided not to re­build our col­lec­tion.

Alpine prim­u­las are not as widely grown as they used to be. Am­bi­tious plants­men nowa­days fill their un­heated glasshouses with dif­fi­cult plants from South Amer­ica such as ro­su­late vi­o­las and un­named species of No­totriche, but I have a han­ker­ing still for our Euro­pean prim­u­las, their brave early flow­er­ing, their sim­ple, cheer­ful beauty and that de­li­cious scent. Changes of fash­ion are one of the main rea­sons why good plants be­came rare or even com­pletely lost to cul­ti­va­tion, so now, per­haps, is the right time to start a new col­lec­tion. The in­sec­ti­cide Provado Vine Weevil Killer will pro­tect us from wee­vils.

As for the Ver­nales prim­u­las, we have al­ready dis­cov­ered that prim­roses and cowslips flour­ish in the chalk down­land that we call our gar­den and their promis­cu­ity re­mains un­abated. Per­haps if I add some of the rarer species such as the su­per-florif­er­ous, mauve P. mega­seifo­lia and the dainty, droopy P. gran­dis, I may yet pro­duce new strains of im­mor­tal beauty, but I don’t ex­pect them to make my for­tune.

‘Some­thing none of the books men­tioned was their scent

Pur­ple patch: Prim­ula marginata, or the sil­ver-edged prim­rose, is one of the ear­li­est of the species to bloom in the spring

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