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.
Lilies are the classic summer bulb, with different species flowering from early summer to the first days of autumn. Their flowers range from small colourful ‘Turk’s caps’, with reflexed petals, to gleaming trumpets with a heady fragrance, like the glorious Lilium regale, from China.
A bewildering variety of lily hybrids have been raised, some with upward-facing blooms that are grown for cut flowers or for pots. But the wild species are ideally suited to a woodland garden in moist, humus-rich soil and dappled shade. Many come from parts of the world with a monsoon climate and are used to wet summers. The bulbs are made up of a cluster of scales and should be planted 15 to 20 cm deep from autumn to early spring.
Lily bulbs ready for planting in late autumn
Lilies with flowers that have recurved petals are often called Turk’s caps and they include the Chinese species Lilium henryi and L. davidii. Both have nodding, orange flowers with darker spots towards the centre and anthers held out on long filaments. They are lime tolerant and ideal for a partially shaded border.
Lilium davidii in the Woodland Garden at Kew
From Europe comes one of the easiest lilies for the garden, Lilium martagon. The leaves are held in whorls on a stem that reaches over a metre tall and carries up to fifty small Turk’s cap flowers. Colours range from deep plum purple to pale lilac and white.
A dark form of Lilium martagon
If you would like to learn more about bulbs in any season, Growing Garden Bulbs, published by Kew, can be bought for only £5 from the Kew shop and online from Kewbooks.com.
- Richard -
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The glistening white trumpets of the giant Himalayan lily (Cardiocrinum giganteum) are held in a loose cluster at the top of leafy stems that can reach over two metres tall. The lily grows wild in the Himalayan Mountains at altitudes up to 3600 metres. At Kew it can be seen in the shady Woodland Garden, at grid reference M8 on our handy garden map (pdf).
Cardiocrinum giganteum in the Woodland Garden (Photo: Richard Wilford)
Growing from a huge bulb, Cardiocrinum giganteum can take 7 years or more to reach flowering size from seed. The main bulb then dies but small bulb offsets are produced and can be separated and replanted for flowers in years to come. It is well worth the long wait to see these amazing blooms.
The white trumpets of the giant Himalayan lily (Photo: Richard Wilford)
The bulbs of these mighty plants are scattered through the Woodland Garden and at the moment there is a particularly good display of flowering sized plants. Some of the smaller specimens that have only grown wide, glossy green leaves will flower in the next year or two.
Cardiocrinum giganteum is scattered throughout the Woodland Garden (Photo: Richard Wilford)
If you want to read more about how to propagate this plant, read a previous post, Dramatic display of giant Himalayan lily seedheads, written in the autumn when the seed heads make another eye-catching display.
But right now, come to Kew and enjoy these wonderful flowers in their glory!
- Richard -
- Buy tickets to Kew Gardens
- Download the visitor's map to Kew Gardens (pdf)
- Help Kew save the giant Himayalan lily
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The photo below shows part of the Asian section of Kew’s Rock Garden.
A stream and waterfall in the Asian Section of Kew's Rock Garden
The orange flowers belong to Primula bulleyana, a Chinese primrose named after Arthur Kilpin Bulley, who set up Ness Gardens in Liverpool and the seed firm Bees Ltd at the beginning of the 20th century. He employed collectors, such as George Forrest, to find new plants and send back seeds. Forrest found this primula in north-west Yunnan in 1904. It first flowered in cultivation in 1909.
The plumes of creamy-white flowers below, are those of Rodgersia podophylla, an herbaceous perennial from Japan and Korea. The leaves are attractive on their own, reaching over 30cm wide and divided into 5 or 6 deeply veined leaflets.
Many irises do well in damp soil including the Siberian irises, such as Iris sibirica and I. sanguinea. Iris chrysographes has flowers in shades of deep velvety purple, with delicate golden yellow lines on the lower petals.
A word of warning!
The huge leaves on the left of the first photo belong to Lysichiton camtschatcense, an Asian version of the American skunk cabbage, L. americanum. The white spathes appear in early spring near ground level but the leaves soon follow and they are massive. This is worth remembering if you intend to plant this next to your garden pond! The other plants mentioned here do not need such boggy ground to grow in. They do best in moist soil and can also be grown in the lightly dappled shade of a woodland garden.
The waterfalls and streams on a rock garden replicate the conditions found in the wild, where melt water from glaciers and high altitude snow fields rushes down the mountainsides, dropping into steep-sided valleys and forming raging torrents through rocky meadows and woodland. Here you can find plants that grow in permanently moist soil. The water features in a rock garden mimic this habitat.
A river in the Pyrenees, near Pont D'Espagne
- Richard -
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This last tulip to flower is Tulipa sprengeri, a strikingly beautiful species. It is well-known in gardens as the tulip that marks the end of spring, but it is sadly thought to be extinct in the wild. If you hurry, you can still see this late-flowering beauty at Kew.
The bright scarlet flowers of Tulipa sprengeri
Where to see it
There is huge variety in tulips and some are very hard to tell apart, especially some of the species that grow wild in an area stretching from south-west Europe to Central Asia. Tulipa sprengeri is one of the more distinct, partly due to its late flowering. The scarlet blooms have pointed petals that form a funnel-shaped flower with six yellow anthers inside. The outer three petals are stained with buff on the outside. It makes an eye-catching display and can be seen now in the Woodland Garden and Rock Garden at Kew. Print out our handy Garden map (pdf): the Woodland Garden is at Map reference M8, the Rock Garden is at O8.
Tulipa sprengeri in the Woodland Garden
Tulipa sprengeri was first collected from north-central Turkey in 1892 but since the late nineteenth century it has never been found in the wild again. Remarkably it has survived in cultivation for all those years, mainly due to the fact that it produces copious amounts of seed. If left to fall the seed will germinate and new seedlings will grow up around the parent plants.
Flowering on the Rock Garden
Tulipa sprengeri grows best in soil that doesn’t dry out too much in summer. It can even do well in dappled shade or in grass, unlike most tulips, which prefer well-drained soil and full sun. Bulbs can be bought but they don’t like to be moved around too much and may not always establish well, so the best way to introduce it to other parts of your garden is to collect seed and sow it directly where you want it to grow. Thin, grass-like, seedling leaves will appear first and these eventually grow into flowering plants in 3 or 4 years. Learn more about this plant in Kew’s species profile.
- Richard -
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A 20-tonne heap of organic ‘stuff’ has appeared under the black walnut, Juglans nigra, in the Woodland Garden. The size of this pile of composted bracken could seem intimidating, but to us lucky ones who have to spread it on the beds, it’s an annual task that pays big dividends.
Bracken mulch to be spread over the woodland garden beds
In nature, autumn delivers a deep mulch of leaves to the woody and herbaceous plants growing on the forest floor. The fallen leaves insulate the ground and gradually decompose. Soil organisms work them into the ground where they deliver micro-nutrients and act as fantastic soil conditioners. It’s a perfect circle.
But here at Kew, we have to pick up the fallen leaves – to protect our turf and keep the paths accessible (and to prevent homicidal impulses from the Rock Garden team, who rightly object to the arrival of leaves on their beautifully kept beds).
So to make up for robbing the Woodland Garden of its leaves, in mid-November we mulch! Kew produces a ‘soft mulch’ using composted plant material from on site mixed with horse manure, but this has quite a high pH and high nitrogen levels, neither of which are suitable for the majority of woodlanders.
Why bracken mulch?
Bracken mulch (Pteridium aquilinum, composted for two years) is low in nitrogen and has a neutral-to-acid pH. It is a good soil conditioner too, increasing the soil’s ability to hold water and nutrients (Kew has a very free-draining soil, so we have to work hard to keep it in good health).
How and when
We mulch in November when the soil still has some warmth from the past season and before the spring-flowering bulbs start to emerge. We cut back the herbaceous plants, and weed and remove the majority of the leaves on the bed so that we can see exactly where to put the mulch.
Using wooden boardwalks to drive our loaded barrows onto the beds, we spread the bracken mulch in a layer 6-8 cm thick. We take care not to smother rosettes – like Meconopsis and Primula species, and we leave a good bare circle around the base of smaller shrubs (it is easy to over-mulch woody plants, effectively choking them).
It’s rewarding work, because the beds look beautiful with their rich, red-brown duvet... at least for a few hours, before the oaks chuck down another layer of crispy golden leaves. These we collect and put aside to make leaf mould (but that’s a story for a future blog).
And even now, plants are stirring under ground. The Trillium buds are just visible, gathering pace for spring which, despite the evidence to the contrary, is just around the corner.
- Katie -
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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.
Rock and water: Thank you for this! I'm planning a rock garden in a wetter part of my property and this information ... by: Lisa
The Woodland Garden dons its winter coat: bonsai. by: Nafi
Autumn colour on the Rock Garden: It appears you planted Nerine alta outdoors. I just acquired some bulbs of this species and am wond ... by: Clayton
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