Alpine and Rock Garden team
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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.

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Autumn colour on the Rock Garden

By: Joanne Everson - 12 Oct 2011
After the heat wave of last week, the autumnal weather is now back to normal. But don't worry, there is plenty of colour to see on the Rock Garden. Look out for Crocus, Cyclamen and even an early snowdrop.
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Autumn crocuses

One of the autumn flowering Crocus species that I look forward to seeing each year is Crocus tournefortii. This species is not often grown outside because, unlike other Crocus species, it doesn't close its flowers at night or in inclement weather, so they are susceptible to damage, especially from rain. We first planted it out on the Rock Garden three years ago in a variety of locations and, as you can see, if given some protection by a neighbouring rock, the delicate flowers and amazing, many-branched styles are a wonderful sight. This is an entirely island species, from the Greek Archipelago, occurring in coastal scrub.


Crocus tournefortii

Crocus tournefortii


Crocus speciosus, or the ‘Showy Crocus’, is one of the easiest to grow, as it doesn’t mind sun or semi shade and will naturalise in grass and beneath shrubs. Like C. tournefortii, it has a much-branched, bright orange style in the centre of the flower, which contrasts brilliantly with the deep lilac-blue petals. Found from the Crimea, through the Caucusus to Turkey and Iran this species inhabits woodland, pasture and alpine grassland up to altitudes of over 2300m.


Crocus speciosus

Crocus speciosus


Early snowdrops

The first of what I consider to be next season's snowdrops is already up, but it is not as early as you might think. Galanthus reginae-olgae is a predominantly Greek species, discovered in the 1870s in the Taigetos Mountians of the Peloponnese, and usually flowers through October. They are a reminder of what is to come in a few months time, when the Galanthus elwesii begin to flower, the first ones appearing around Christmas time. Galanthus reginae-olgae is a reliable and beautiful species for a sunny warm spot. The flower stems extend and the flowers open before the leaves emerge, making it appear more delicate than perhaps it is.


Autumn flowering Galanthus reginae-olgae

Autumn-flowering Galanthus reginae-olgae


Last of the Roscoeas

As Galanthus regiane-olgae can be called the first of next season's snowdrops, then Roscoea purpurea ‘Red Gurkkha’ is one of the last of the roscoeas for this year. There are almost twenty species of these hardy members of the ginger family growing out on the Rock Garden, but most are not so late flowering; their peak blooming being between May and August. Not only does this form exhibit red colouration of the 'stem' or leaf bases, it is the only true red flowered form in this noteworthy genus. It was found in one location in Nepal in 1992, growing in open scrub, on a steep terraced slope, and was first exhibited by Kew at a Royal Horticultural Society show in London's Vincent Square in 1994.


Roscoea purpurea 'Red Gurkha'

Roscoea purpurea 'Red Gurkha'


Red hot pokers

The red hot pokers from the mountainous regions of South Africa are always exciting to see as we move into autumn. They hold forth upright, dramatic flowers, forming strong stout spikes which are topped by flowers of hot colours. Kniphofia caulescens comes from damp grassland in the Drakensberg Mountains in Lesotho and has been growing outside on the Rock Garden for three years, going through our last few cold winters without any trouble. I think it is helped by its sheltered position beneath a pine tree.


Knifophia caulescens Knifophia triangularis

Left, Knifophia caulescens and right, Knifophia triangularis


I have a soft spot for Kniphofia triangularis as I remember it being one of the first plants I planted out on the Rock Garden when I came to Kew, ten years ago. It produces more flowers than K. caulescens and they also last a bit longer, well through October, and on a dull day they really make me smile as they are a burst of fire just before the days get noticeably shorter and more grey.


Red hot pokers on the rock garden

Red hot pokers on the Rock Garden


Dramatic irises

Moraea reticulata is a dramatic member of the Iris family (Iridaceae) and its route to the Rock Garden was via Kit Strange from the Alpine Nursery. She soon realised that it was too large and unruly for pot cultivation and so we decided to try it out on the Rock Garden. Here, in a south facing spot, it thrives and has more room to be admired. This species grows from a corm and has a very limited distribution in the wild, only being found in the mountains south of Queenstown in the Eastern Cape, South Africa. Plants are usually solitary and are found on steep grassy slopes, flowering in the wild in March to May (South African autumn). It is easily recognized by its channelled leaves and very characteristic cataphylls - a papery tunic that surrounds the corm and extends upwards well above the ground, forming a grey or brown fibrous network around the leaf and stem base. Moraea reticulata begins flowering in September here and has successive flowers right through October and sometimes into November.


Moraea reticulata

Moraea reticulata



Richard blogged about Cyclamen recently and whilst I was out taking photographs for this blog, I took these images of Cyclamen africanum and Cyclamen graecum, both flowering away whilst their tubers are quite exposed, well out of the soil. These species are often described as requiring protection from frost, but they have been happily growing and reliably flowering for several years out on the Rock Garden. We plant them in higher bays facing south or well drained cracks and crevices, where they thrive.


Cyclamen africanum Cyclamen graecum on the rock garden

Left, Cyclamen africanum, and right, Cyclamen graecum, both flowering from exposed tubers!

And finally...

Finally for now I should mention another South African plant that is looking good. On the Rock Garden the nerines are in full bloom, especially Nerine alta by the south door of the Davies Alpine House, and N. undulata, which can be seen further into the Rock Garden.


Nerine alta Nerine undulata

Left, Nerine alta, and right, Nerine undulata


These fantastic autumn flowers are just some of the highlights at this time of year so make sure to try and visit the Rock Garden in the next few weeks. 

- Joanne -

4 comments on 'Autumn colour on the Rock Garden'

Autumn bulbs, inside and out

By: Richard Wilford - 16 Sep 2011
In their Mediterranean home, many bulbs burst into flower when the autumn rains arrive. At Kew you can see them on display inside the Davies Alpine House and outside on the Rock Garden.
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A bulb is an adaptation to survive long periods of drought. Tubers, corms and rhizomes perform a similar function, storing water and nutrients underground, and waiting for the drought to break so they can grow and flower. Seasonal droughts are typical of the Mediterranean regions of southern Europe and North Africa, as well as parts of California, Chile, South Africa and SW Australia. In the garden these autumn bulbs, corms and tubers provide a boost to the flowering season late in the year.

Cyclamen graecum on rock garden

Cyclamen graecum on the Rock Garden

Cyclamen can be seen in many parts of Kew, the most common being Cyclamen hederifolium, but on the Rock Garden you can find the less hardy C. greacum, which comes from Greece and Turkey. It does well in a sunny, south-facing position, where it can make the most of the autumn sunshine. Even less hardy, but still surviving outside in the most sheltered spots at Kew, is the North African C. africanum. For another African species you will have to go inside the Davies Alpine House, where you will see several pots of C. rohlfsianum, a species endemic to northern Libya and not hardy enough to grow in the open.

Cyclamen africanum on rock garden Cyclamen rohlfsianum in the alpine house

Left, Cyclamen africanum on the Rock Garden, and right, C. rohlfsianum in the Alpine House

Back outside on the Rock Garden, look out for the fantastic magenta-pink flowers of the South African Gladiolus carmineus. This plant comes from Western Cape in South Africa, an area that has a Mediterranean-type climate and is home to a huge range of bulbous plants in the Cape Floral Kingdom, one of the World's biodiversity hotspots.

Gladiolus carmineus in flower

South African Gladiolus carmineus on the Rock Garden

 Also from South Africa is the genus Nerine. These bulbs are mostly just emerging outside at Kew but in the shelter of the Alpine House, the delicate blooms of Nerine filamentosa are open. This species differs from the other plants mentioned here because it is a summer grower, appearing in the summer rainfall region of Eastern Cape, although the flowers bloom at the end of its growing season, in autumn. In a couple of weeks the more robust Nerine bowdenii will be flowering outside in the gardens. 

Nerine filamentosa in flower in the Alpine House

Nerine filamentosa flowering in the Davies Alpine House

Another plant that is flowering earlier inside the Alpine House than outside on the Rock Garden is Sternbergia lutea. On the Rock Garden, the blooms of this Mediterranean bulb are just opening but in the Alpine House they have been open for a couple of weeks. The impressive, bright-yellow, goblet-shaped flowers emerging from their large terracotta pots, make a real impact on the glasshouse benches.

Yellow flowers of Sternbergia lutea

Sternbergia lutea in the Davies Alpine House 

There are plenty more bulbs on the way. Over the next few weeks the autumn flowering species of Crocus will be blooming inside and out, brightly coloured Oxalis will appear, and in a couple of months the giant squill, Scilla madeirensis will make a dramatic return to the Alpine House. 

- Richard -

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Alpine travels in Armenia (part three)

By: Kit Strange - 25 Aug 2011
Kit Strange from Kew's Alpine team continues her travels in Armenia, this time discovering food from the mountains.
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In Armenia most people use the countryside as an extra larder. In many places, where farming is non-existent, people harvest mushrooms to sell by the side of the road to subsidise their income. 

Collecting wild herbs in the Armenian hills

Collecting wild herbs (Image: Guy Moore)

They mainly sit by the one main-road, which goes through the whole of Armenia, and will sell the fresh mushrooms to people in passing cars and hungry lorry drivers. In the towns you can find little markets where people meet to sell and trade their herbs with each other.

 Selling and trading wild and cultivated herbs and vegetables in an Armenian market  Various mountain herbs for sale in an Armenian market

         Selling and trading wild and cultivated herbs and vegetables in an Armenian market 

The plants they are selling are as diverse as the people selling them. You get all the usual vegetables, like radishes and onions, but soon you discover that there are more exotic herbs on the menu. Small tender shoots of polygonatum are for sale, in handy little bunches, which no-one who knows the plant in the UK would think of eating.

Mallow-like wild vegetable

Mallow-like wild vegetable

Nice young leaves of a mallow-like plant were being sold, alongside large young shoots of Heracleum for pickling. Nothing it seems goes unnoticed in the countryside that might be of use. Allium paradoxum, which in this country is a pernicious weed, in Armenia they use extensively in cooking, thus controlling its rampant move across the countryside. Not a single herb which can be used medicinally is left untouched.

Young shoots of Heracleum on sale Allium paradoxum for sale

Left, Young shoots of Heracleum on sale, and right, Allium paradoxum

Thyme, for use as a tea, is also very popular and a complete mountain range has been named after it called the Urtz, which is situated in the middle of Armenia. Most of the herbs are cooked by first frying, and then adding to beaten egg, making a sort of vegetable scrambled egg. Other herbs are prepared with a salty brine, in which they are cured for a couple of months before being eaten as a compliment to meat and other vegetables. It seems that collecting herbs and vegetables in the hills is a family event; mum and daughter going out and collecting the herbs for their own use, and also teaching the new generation which ones are good to eat and what to do with them. 

 Wild medicinal herbs for sale

 Wild medicinal herbs for sale

This is my last Armenian blog. The trip was sponsored by a travel scholarship from the Alpine Garden Society which sponsors several alpine related trips every year.

- Kit -

Tags: tasty | edible | medicinal

2 comments on 'Alpine travels in Armenia (part three)'

Summer in the Alpine House

By: Richard Wilford - 03 Aug 2011
The main flowering season for alpine plants is spring, but there are many mountain plants that flower in summer. You can see plenty of these now in the Davies Alpine House. But why do they flower now?
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If you explore high enough altitudes in mountains such as the Alps and Pyrenees in July or August, you will reach elevations where summer has only just arrived. There you can find a range of alpine plants in bloom and meadows filled with colour. The following photograph was taken in the Caucasus Mountains of Georgia, in August, and shows a meadow above the treeline that was full of flowering plants, including Aquilegia, Campanula and the purple Geranium ibericum.


Alpine meadow in the Caucasus

An alpine meadow in the Caucasus Mountains of Georgia


When you grow alpine plants at low altitudes they often flower earlier than they would in their high mountain home, but if you give them enough water and keep them cool, many will keep blooming right into summer. The genus Campanula, the bell-flowers, contains many small, compact mountain plants that flower in summer. Two examples in the Davies Alpine House are Campanula fragilis and C. elatines, both from Italy. Campanula elatines, from the Cottian Alps of north-west Italy, is grown in crumbly tufa rock in the Alpine House because it needs perfect drainage and can easily rot in winter if it gets too wet. This plant flowers right through the summer months.


Campanula fragilis in flower Campanula elatines growing on tufa

Left, Campanula fragilis, and right, Campanula elatines


The only true summer-flowering Cyclamen is the European Cyclamen purpurascens. It comes from the Alps and further east into Slovakia and Hungary, and often grows in the dappled shade of woodland, in leafy soil among rocks. This species is found further north than other Cyclamen and is used to cooler summers and colder winters than other species, hence its summer growing season.


Deep pink flowers of Cyclamen purpurascens

Cyclamen purpurascens in the Davies Alpine House


In Turkey, summers are generally hot and dry but growing in limestone crevices in the Taurus Mountains, at altitudes as high as 2,400 m, is Pelargonium endlicherianum. This genus is mainly South African and most species are not hardy, but the habitats of P. endlicherianum can be freezing in winter and this species is hardy enough to survive alpine house conditions, where it too flowers all summer long.


Pelargonium endlicherianum flower  Pots of Pelargonium endlicherianum in the alpine house

Left, flowers of Pelargonium endlicherianum, and right, two colour forms on display


The Himalayan Mountains, especially the south-facing slopes, are subjected to the summer monsoon, which travels from east to west, dousing the hills and valleys with sometimes huge volumes of water. When the rains arrive the plants get growing, and summer is the flowering season for many Himalayan plants, including lilies, roscoeas and Incarvillea. Planted in the Alpine House is the trailing Incarvillea arguta, with pink flowers on stems a metre or more in length.


Pink Incarvillea arguta flowers

Incarvillea arguta, from the Himalaya


If you are lucky you may see the wonderful flowers of Tigridia pavonia in the Davies Alpine House. Each large flower only lasts a day and is best in the morning. This plant species comes from Guatemala and Mexico, where it is dormant in the dry winter months. It grows and flowers in summer when the rains arrive. Like all the plants mentioned here, it is climate that determines flowering time, whether it is the warmth of summer reaching the high Alps, the monsoon advancing along the Himalayan ranges, or the wet season arriving in Central America. It means we can keep the Alpine House looking good all summer long.


Yellow flower of Tigridia pavonia

Summer flowering Tigridia pavonia


- Richard -

2 comments on 'Summer in the Alpine House'

Alpine travels in Armenia (part two)

By: Kit Strange - 27 Jun 2011
Travelling in Armenia is fascinating, both botanically and culturally. Read on to find out about legends, mysteries and tales of the unexpected!
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Many churches and monasteries are scattered throughout Armenia, adding an extra dimension to your journey whilst travelling. Sometimes if you are lucky, you may have amazing plants and buildings together, in addition to the fantastic scenery. One highlight from our trip was seen when visiting Karahunj, also known as Zorats Karer, Armenia’s Stonehenge. In the grass I found a very beautiful Astragalus that was incredibly furry and bright. Absolutely amazing.


Karahunj the Armenian Stonehenge  Yellow Astragalus in Armenia

Left, Karahunj, Armenia's Stonehenge, and right, the beautiful Astragalus we found there


We had an entire day travelling around a very interesting mountain called Mount Arayiler, which is quite close to Yerevan. This mountain resembles a resting man when viewed from certain positions. The legend goes that the Armenian king had almost died after a very difficult fight. He was not sleeping and not dead, just being. His bride managed to wake him up after getting the dogs to lick him back to health again... Anyway, around Arayiler were many beautiful plants. On the north side of the mountain, in alpine meadows, we spotted large numbers of Bellevalia pycnantha growing happily in the wet meadow, which was soon to have cows grazing. The ticks were very happy to jump on us, as we were the only living thing they had seen since the snow melted!


Blue flowers of Bellevalia pycnantha

The bright blue flowers of Bellevalia pycnantha


We then travelled to the south face of Arayiler and after a very long climb in the car, we arrived at what was the last place Mount Arayiler erupted from. Even now you can see how the whole of the mountain blew out, and lots of volcanic tuff is scattered over the hillsides. Of course we cannot have lovely scenery without plants, and on that hillside we found lots of Tulipa julia, scattered all around. A lovely small, red tulip, which is quite common in Armenia, but this was in a truly fantastic setting.


Red flowered Tulipa julia on Mount Araylier

Tulipa julia on Mount Arayiler


The next day we were travelling up to a castle and church, called Amberd. On the way up we saw many lovely bulbs, mostly on the alpine meadows at high altitude, where the snow had just melted. There we found our mystery plant. We were looking at Corydalis nariniana which is a lovely stout, red and white corydalis, with a long bright red spur. In amongst this plant we found another corydalis that looked like nothing else we had come across before. It has small, short, stout flowers with up-turned lips, very unusual. We asked our botanist guides and they thought it might be a mutation in the population. Possibly even plant evolution in action!


Flowers of Corydalis nariniana  The unknown Corydalis in Armenia

Left, Corydalis nariniana, and right, the mystery plant!


Our second but last day was full of surprises and unexpected things. We had afternoon tea in an Armenian tea shop, which could rival anything in a swanky London establishment. This was next to a hillside full of obsidian and many interesting plants associated with this unusual growing medium, like Fritllaria caucasica and Pulsatilla albana.


Armenian afternoon tea Flowers of Pulsatilla albana

Left, Armenian afternoon tea, and right, Pulsatilla albana outside the tea shop


Then it was off to the Tsakhkadzor ski resort where we rode up in the ski lift to see alpines where the snow had freshly melted. Finally, on our way back to Yerevan, stopping by a very unusual hummocky landscape made up entirely of Onobrychis cornuta. There in the vegetation we came across a poisonus snake, which we first thought was an Armenian viper, but later found out it was actually an Iberian cat snake, which is not venomous to man. However it was still exciting to see as it was the first snake I have ever seen in the wild.


Onobrychis cornuta hummocks

Hummocks of Onobrychis cornuta, home to the Iberian cat snake!


- Kit -

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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

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