Gardening: Brightening up autumn with some crocus colour

Saxifraga 'Rubrifolia' (fortunei).

Saxifraga 'Rubrifolia' (fortunei).

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During the summer the alpine house takes a breath to recharge and now autumn is here there are splashes of colour appearing everywhere as the autumn bulbs begin to flower.

You think of crocus as spring flowers but there are several that flower in the autumn. Crocus speciosus is one of the best and there are several cultivars available like the deeper purple ‘Conqueror’. The flowers are lilac or white and quite large. When the sun warms the flowers they open wide revealing bright, glowing orange anthers. They grow well in a well-drained sunny spot and bulk up rapidly.

Also appearing now is the very popular Cyclamen hederifolium. The flowers appear now and the fabulously marked leaves follow later. They range from marshmallow pink to white and sometimes have stronger pink stains around the mouth of the flower. Once pollinated the flower stems coil up and the spherical seed capsule develops. A ball on a spring! The leaves that follow are often beautifully marked with silver splashes. Perfect to brighten a shady, dryish spot in the garden.

This year in the Alpine Zone we have a nice collection of Petrocosmeas, an unusual, cool growing African violet hailing mostly from high altitudes in Western China. They grow in forests and are often found on mossy rocks, they need to be kept shaded, or the leaves turn yellow. They can also be tender to frost, so best kept in a frost free area.

Another fabulous plant for dryish shade is Saxifraga fortunei and its hybrids. Discovered in China and named after Robert Fortune, a Scottish plant hunter who is most famous for successfully introducing tea plants to India. These Saxifrages make lovely clumps of leaves, often glossy or hairy in shades from bright green, through to red and darkest purple. The leaves are lovely but the flowers are spectacular, sprays of quite large, confetti-like flowers, ranging from white to deep pink. They really deserve to be grown more widely and we have a large collection of them this year in the alpine house at Harlow Carr. The waist height plunge beds allow close inspection of their beauty!

Saxifraga fortunei ‘Autumn Tribute’ has incredibly dark purple and green glossy leaves with red bristles, which really highlight the pink flowers. The large white flowers of Saxifraga fortunei ‘Rubrifolia’ appear against the bronzy red foliage. Another fabulous collection we have extended in the Alpine Zone are the Sino-Himalayan autumn Gentians. These are deciduous and make mats of glossy green lacy foliage with trumpets of exquisite blue or white, often spotted. They need a moist, sunny acidic spot and can be grown in pots. Gentiana ‘Ettrick’ has white flowers spotted with sky blue and ‘Silken Giant’ has huge, rich blue trumpets with white stripes down the outsides.

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