Share this story
Close X
Switch to Desktop Site

Passion for the Hedgehogs Of the Plant World

It's a mystery how childhood enthusiasms start. My burning interest in rock gardening, far from beginning up an alp, began on a bus. It was the same bus (or the same route) on which I had previously carried home a jam jar with George in it. George was a goldfish. I had won him at the fair.

On this later trip, sitting upstairs in the double-decker from Bradford to Bingley, in Yorkshire (where we lived), I carried home another sort of acquisition. Bought, not won.

About these ads

It was "Rock Gardening" by G.K. Mooney - "Amateur Gardening Handbook No. 12." It cost three shillings and sixpence. Before spending that much pocket money (I was given sixpence a week, making the extremely small book worth seven weeks' savings), I must have pondered hard.

Unlike one or two others I still have from the same series, this book has disappeared. But its memory may be more vivid than its actuality. Since it was the early 1950s, these books were economy jobs, with only one color photograph, on the cover, and a few line drawings inside. The rest was description.

I was immediately converted. I wanted to grow every plant mentioned - campanulas and gentians, edelweiss and saxifrage, erigeron and lithospermum. I drank in the seductive names, which made me visualize their forms and growth patterns, their flower colors and the shapes and shades of their leaves. I was greatly taken with the fact that this group of plants was often brightly colored and often neat and low. (My dad specialized in big plants.)

Some alpines clung like moss to the ground. Some liked to climb up or creep down over rocks. Some hung down wall-faces, rooting into narrow crevices. And some - really the most attractive - formed into tight little mounds or hummocks. These were like the hedgehogs of the plant world. And of all alpines, they were the ones (as evoked, I am sure, by the stimulating prose of G.K. Mooney) that could cover themselves so completely with flowers that you couldn't see the plant itself under them at all.

Before the bus stopped in Bingley I was an alpine specialist.


I keep meeting people who have grown out of their enthusiasms. I don't really understand this. They seem to shed interests as if they were out-of-date fashions. I do not, on the whole, drop my enthusiasms (except for goldfish; they have such a short attention span). For me, enthusiasms just seem to add and add.

About these ads

I have never lost my special feeling for alpines, even when the opportunity of growing them has been limited.

In fact, one of their appeals to a gardener is that many of the true alpines are very small, and actually can be grown more successfully in containers - clay pots and stone troughs, say - than in the ground. The reasons for their preference for separation and containment are that most alpines do not like to be shaded by larger plants; and that they need excellent drainage so that the rain does not settle bog-like round their feet but rushes past and down on its way to lower regions in the strata.

The garden we have now is damp and rather shady. In some places it is downright soggy. Great for primulas and ferns. And hellebores. But I have only now managed to construct a couple of beds with sufficient drainage to give alpines a real chance. And I have stocked up with some of the old favorites I first encountered on the bus, as well as a whole spattering of new guys. I am enjoying them like a kid who's seeing them for the first time.


Since my original introduction to alpines, I have had not only hands-on experience with them in the garden, but have also seen some of them growing in their native habitat.

I am no mountaineer. But it's amazing what you can reach by cable car or ski lift, even in summer. I know of few more enlightening experiences of a vegetative kind than observing the steady changes in plant life as you rise from river grasslands, through woods, to higher meadows several thousand feet up and then higher still into shale and scree and rock face. There, only the most tenacious miniature plants can keep a hold on survival. And then finally you are above the line where anything can grow.

While the plants of the lower regions all have their particular enchantments, their alpine cousins (since they are often of the same family) seem brilliant and intrepid, disciplined and essential by contrast. They have evolved to cope with conditions quite impossible for plants with long, wavy stems or lush foliage, or plants that have to have rich, moist, deep soil to flourish.

The specialists who over the years have collected alpine plants at anything up to 13,000 feet above sea level and then learned how to grow alpines in horticultural conditions at 400 or 500 feet up, have developed a remarkable craftsmanship. If you go to a plant show staged by one of the alpine societies, as we did not long ago in Glasgow, the astonishing achievements of such specialists (way beyond mere enthusiasts) are dazzling. They bring to our mundane level some of the breathtaking rarefaction of the alpines in the heights of Switzerland, Austria, or Colorado.


There are growers who give their time not just to alpines in particular, but to certain kinds of alpines. Such an individual is Duncan Lowe, a lecturer and judge in the alpine world.

His new book, "Cushion Plants for the Rock Garden" (Timber Press, $29.95), concentrates on those small glories of the high mountains that form themselves into little self-protective mounds.

Mr. Lowe's book offers clearly expressed, practical advice for gardeners attempting to grow such species. By no means are all of them rare and difficult. But clearly there is no point in simplistically trying to imitate the growing conditions of such plants in nature. This does not work.

There is a certainly apocryphal story that Reginald Farrer, sometimes called "the father of rock gardens," used a shotgun to fire the seeds of alpines into the limestone crevices in his garden in Clapham, Yorkshire. This would have been nearer to the turn of the last century, and today little remains of the plants Farrer tried to naturalize.

On the other hand, plants that he grew are still among favorites in cultivation today, including some of the hummocky cushion types. In nature, their seeds take pot luck as they scatter down mountainsides in the hope of lodging in a crevice. They produce large numbers of flowers so as to make enough seed: Much of it will be lost.

In a lowland garden, their seed is better sown by hand in small pots. Firing into crevices is not something Lowe recommends! However, he does not believe in "pampering the seed after sowing," he writes. He leaves them "open to the weather." But the degree of patience gardeners must exercise while they wait for seeds to germinate can be considerable. "Keeping pots for two or three years can pay dividends," Lowe reports.

Growing "cushion" alpines is not perhaps for those with a short attention span.

Follow Stories Like This
Get the Monitor stories you care about delivered to your inbox.