Plant of the month – Oct/Nov

Gentiana veitchiorum

As I write this piece in early October, a whole range of autumn-flowering gentians of the Frigida section are showing their abundance of flowers. In general this group of alpine plants is flowering much later (some 2 weeks) than is the norm, but with the ample, autumn sunshine their flowers are a real joy and should be more widely planted.

I have already highlighted this species as “one to look out for” (autumn 2011) but would like to write a little more in general about this species, as well as some of its allies. I was thoroughly motivated by the typically eloquent article written in The Rock Garden (July 2012) by Zdenek Zvolanek and superbly illustrated by Milan Halada, both excellent growers from the Czech Republic. The article reminded me of the writings of the great plant hunter and explorer, Frank Kingdon-Ward, 1885-1958. He wrote, “Few rock-plants give the alpine gardener more unalloyed delight than gentians. Not all gentians are the ultra-blue trumpet flowers we admire so much and it is a waste of time trying to persuade ourselves that geese are swans. The mere fact that a plant is the scion of a noble family carries no assurance that it is in itself noble”. So true! For us, we also need to sift through the dross and select the very best!

So, I wish to write for a moment about gentians of the Ornata Group belonging to the section Frigida, from a taxonomic point of view. When referring to the above article by my Czech friends, one can only imagine that these wonderful flowers must be seen to be believed. They are to be seen in nature at their flowering-best from mid-September to October at an altitude of 2500 to 3000m and up to 4800m. Many of the finest species are Sino-Himalayan and hale from the rich provinces of S.W. China, including Yunnan, Sichuan and Gansu. For many years the most widely planted species was the splendid Gentiana sino-ornata. First discovered by George Forrest in 1904, it was found growing in moist alpine meadows near the summit of the Michang Pass in N.W. Yunnan. Variable in flower colour in nature and tending to be rather straggly in habit, the popular form grown today is a good doer and forms strong clumps with deep royal-blue flowers.

Gentiana veitchiorum, the subject of this article is, by contrast more compact of growth and grows in somewhat drier terrain on grassland slopes, alpine meadows and within alpine scrub at an altitude of 2500m plus. It is particularly prolific around the S.Gansu/Xizang (Tibetan) border. The species was first introduced from Sichuan by E.H.Wilson in 1905. In habit, G. veitchiorum is stiffer than its allies such as GG. farreri and sino-ornata and more compact in growth. I yearn for its re-introduction and an opportunity to re-establish it as a fine garden plant. I suspect that few plants still survive from the Ludlow and Sherriff introduction (1938), G. veitchiorum LS. 13321. Some fine hybrids have been raised which show some influence of the featured species and are readily available in the trade. They include:

G. x stevenagensis ‘Bernardii’, G x s. ‘Frank Barker’ and the splendid range of cultivars raised by Dr. Keith Lever, including G. ‘Shot Silk’. Look out for his full range of cultivars with the epithet ‘Silken’.

All of these species and cultivars can be grown in an open position in an acid moisture-retentive mixture and are easily propagated by division by lifting established clumps in April and teasing the thong-like roots apart. Re-plant (at about 12 to 18 inches apart) in rejuvinated soil and water well until the young plants have established.


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