Waterperry Gardens: 85 Years of Saxifrages
Adrian Young, Saxifraga collections manager at Waterperry Gardens, describes the long history of the Plant Heritage National Collection of kabschia saxifrages held at the Gardens. - 16 June 2017
Valerie Finnis VMH (1924-2006)
Valerie was at Waterperry Horticultural School for Women from 1942 until 1971; unfortunately I did not meet her until 1972. In 1971 I had developed an interest in alpine plants and volunteered to help at the nursery on Saturdays, I rapidly became beguiled by the exquisitely formed kabschia saxifrages that Valerie had made popular during the previous twenty years. Alpines had been introduced to Waterperry in 1934 by Peggy Chaplin. It quickly became obvious that expanding my interest into knowledge would not be easy; there was a large collection of kabschia cultivars but no book or local expert to refer to. I put in a call to Valerie and asked for help; one thing that she had in abundance was enthusiasm, although she was busy shaping her new garden in Kettering she immediately sent me lots of information, contacts and most importantly she expressed her support telling me to continue the Waterperry tradition of cultivating Saxifrages. A year later Valerie came to see me and even gave me some of her wonderful large format slides, historic pictures in the world of Saxifrages. She kept in contact and visited the nursery from time to time. I visited Boughton House a few times and marvelled at her collection of special plants, I was particularly honoured to be invited to Lord David Scott's 90th birthday party, a wonderful event.
Valerie Finnis arrived at Waterperry in 1942 when she was 18 years old. Alpine plants became her great love and after the Second World War Valerie decided to become a teacher at Waterperry, and develop the alpine nursery, selling many rare alpines and kabschia saxifrages that alpine gardeners can't do without. There has been a nursery at Waterperry selling alpine plants since 1934, started by Peggy Chaplin, a qualified horticultural instructor who exhibited Saxifrages at the RHS Westminster shows in 1935 and 1936, including some new introductions from Russell Prichard of Riverslea Nursery. I have a copy of the 1934 catalogue which has a small selection of rock plants and 25 different saxifrages, most of these are priced at 6 or 9d; however S. x hornibrookii 'Riverslea' and S.x arco-valleyii 'Arco' cost a whopping 1/6d. Valerie and the Waterperry nursery gained a great reputation, and she was acknowledged as a skilled propagator of alpine plants and a great communicator.
S.x arco-valleyii 'Arco'
She made friends with many of the top alpine plant growers of the time. Cecilia Christie-Miller who gardened nearby was very helpful; she had many types of saxifrage outside in raised beds and a good collection in a large alpine house. Another friend was David Shackleton of the highly regarded Beech Park walled Gardens in Dublin, an Irish gardener with an interest in Saxifrages he acknowledged that Valerie was the best grower of Saxifrages. Valerie became very friendly with Wilhelm Schacht, curator of the Munich Botanic Garden, who shared her love for alpine plants. He had been Director of the Royal Parks and Gardens in Bulgaria, and made many plant collecting trips to the Alps and Balkan mountains with Boris King of Bulgaria. I remember one Saturday in 1973 a distinguished Japanese professor arrived at Waterperry in a chauffeur driven limo and introduced himself to me as a good friend of Miss Finnis, he was interested to know if the nursery could continue without Valerie, "the best grower of rare hardy plants" he said. He pointed to a Tricyrtis and and a variegated Smilacina in a shade bed, both of which he had given to Valerie with other plants a few years prior. After purchasing a huge quantity of plants he rapidly departed to catch a plane to Germany where he had more plants waiting for him.
In 1963, Valerie broke a record by becoming the first person to be given three plant awards in a day from the RHS. During the 1950/60’s she almost single-handedly re-vitalised public interest in saxifrages, the nursery was selling annually over 7000 Saxifrages, and there were 150 different varieties to choose from as well as other alpines. One of those Saxifrages was S. ‘Winifred’, an outstanding S. lilacina hybrid with rich purple-violet flowers. This important plant had been raised circa 1935 by Geoffrey Gould, who reportedly did not think much of it; apparently during the 2nd World War ‘Winifred’ was down to a single rosette. Valerie recognised the new qualities ‘Winifred’ brought to the Alpine house and made sure of its survival, and of course the rest is history. She was most interested in good cultivation; Valerie was not a raiser of new cultivars, which was left to others. I can remember two good seedlings that she selected, one was a good yellow that friends named S. ‘Valerie Finnis’, it was unfortunate that later it became clear that this clone was identical to S. ‘Aretiastrum’ an old German plant that was not common in the UK. The other plant was S. ‘Boughton Orange’, a chance seedling at Waterperry in the late 1960's, this was also something new, a good doer with orange flowers, however the priority rule had to apply again as an identical Sundermann plant called S. ‘Edgar Irmscher’ was already published.
S. x hornibrookii 'Riverslea'
Winton Harding OBE (1917-2005)
Winton Harding was introduced to Saxifrages in the 1960’s by Valerie. Winton did not just grow Saxifrages, he studied them in the mountains, in his garden and anywhere he could find them and, most importantly. he wrote about them, not since Murray Hornibrooke in the 1930’s had anyone brought detailed information on Saxifrages to the gardening public. In the 1970’s and 80’s I got to know Winton and his charming wife Nancye. He would come to Waterperry regularly and discuss many aspects of cultivation; he was keen that the plants be freed from their clay homes and released into the relative freedom of a stone trough. He was interested to see the new Himalayan introductions at Waterperry from George Smith, Ron McBeath, John Templer and others. Winton also collected fine saxifrages; his S. marginata ‘Sorrento’ from southern Italy is the finest form of S.marginata var. marginata available.
S. marginata 'Sorrento'
He brought me S. marginata boryi from the Peloponnese and superb forms of S. scardica and an albino S. grisebachii, both from Mount Olympus. I recall investing ten shillings on ‘Saxifrages – an AGS Guide’ in the early 1970’s, a great introduction to the genus and its baffling taxonomy.
One sunny Saturday Winton arrived at Waterperry with a small rosy pink saxifrage and said "try this in your raised bed", I put it in a piece of tufa and it quickly grew away, next spring it flowered abundantly and drew aahs and ooohs from all observers. It was S. ‘Red Poll’, the first poluniniana hybrid with S. ‘Winifred’. The following year Winton turned up with two more S. ‘Winifred’ hybrids, this time with S. cinerea. I also put these into tufa and one of them turned out to be a truly great plant, appropriately named S. ‘Nancye’, (for Winton's charming wife). in 1990 it deservedly won an AM (the forerunner of the RHS Award of Garden Merit). The other plant was S. ‘Anne Beddall’, a paler sister plant to the glorious S. ‘Nancye’. Other excellent W.H. plants are S. ‘Lemon Spires’, S. ‘Goring White’, S. ‘Lilac Time’, S. ‘Winton’, S. ‘David’ and S. ‘Ken McGregror’. S. ‘Winton’ is a good saxifrage for beginners, tough and floriferous. S. ‘Lemon Spires’ is definitely under appreciated although it is not as spectacular as its sister seedling S. ‘Citronella’. Put it on tufa in a sunny spot and you will quickly get a rock hard cushion that flowers later than most kabschia’s and nods to the early silvers with its tight heads of primrose blooms. I have one plant that is thirty years old and never lets me down.
H. Lincoln Foster
A significant event in Waterperry Saxifraga history was the introduction in 1982 of a selection of new cultivars from New England; these were the infamous Millstream hybrids raised by H.L. Foster. he was a teacher of Latin and English, a native of Newark and President of the American Rock Garden Society from 1964 to 1968. He was also the author of 'Rock Gardening' (1968) and many articles on plants and gardening. He also received many horticultural awards and was the creator, with his wife, Laura Louise (Timmy), of Millstream Gardens in Falls Village, Connecticut, a rock garden supreme. From 1960 to 1975 Linc raised many new beautiful kabschia hybrids, 51 in all, including S. ‘Peach Blossom’, S. ‘Dwight Ripley’, S. ‘Timmy Foster’ and S. ‘Moonbeam’, all outstanding cultivars. All these and many others Linc sent to Waterperry in the spring of 1980, he recognised that saxifrages were having a renaissance in Europe and was pleased to be able to contribute. Getting these fine new plants was a boost to Waterperry as they were not available elsewhere in the UK. Although I never met Linc, I feel I got to know him through his letters and of course his Saxifrages. Great credit is due to Linc for raising so many good Saxifrages in a country that has no real affinity for these Sino-European beauties.
(Photo: Adrian Young)
Sergio Bacci was not English but he felt at home in the green and pleasant land. He was also at home with saxifrages. In his native Florence he grew bearded Irises and won many prizes, but fell in love with kabschia’s once he had settled in leafy Surrey. I first met him when I noticed a figure huddled over the saxifrage frames on an absolutely freezing February morning; he said he was a beginner and wanted more saxes. I quickly realised how perceptive he was, asking difficult questions more befitting an experienced grower. From then on we were friends, and he spent much time at Waterperry helping me with various tasks; he just loved being around Saxifrages. He rapidly assembled a large collection in his Milford garden and began hybridising; in a three-year period he produced seed from around 60 different crosses. He had a fantastic germination rate; kabschia’s have minute dust like seed that needs good light to germinate and he had the skill to fill every pot with hundreds of seedlings. Before Sergio died in 1993 he asked me to take all of his new crosses to Waterperry for evaluation. 116 pots of new hybrids were carefully transferred to the sax frames at Waterperry and the long process began. Over the next few years I selected 23 crosses for naming - 23 out of 60 is a remarkable success rate. One other plant proved popular with kabschia aficionados, so that was published as S. ‘Eric Bacci’ in the The Alpine Gardener (the AGS bulletin) in December 2006. There is an article about Sergio’s Saxifrages in the same AGS bulletin. I recently re-found one of his crosses S. wendelboi x ‘White Cap’, SB E4; although it is a similar cross to S. ‘Jocylynne Bacci’ it is different and maybe worthy of a name.
Sergio managed to clear up the S. porophylla problem, after he and his wife Kay collected seed from Majella and Grand Sasso in Italy. The problem was that all the plants in cultivation were impostors, mostly S. media or S. stribrnyi hybrids, Sergio found an Italian flora, the Guida Botanica by Prof. E Baroni, published in 1907, that described S. porophylla with white petals, whilst all other engleria species have pink/purple petals. When the real S. porophylla flowered, sure enough they had white petals, thereby proving many saxifrage books inaccurate.
The Saxifrage Group and the Saxifrage Society
During the 1980's at Waterperry I was being asked constantly why there was no specialist saxifrage society. There are many plant societies for all sorts of obscure genera, so in 1989 I decided to form Saxifrage Group, greatly assisted by Brian Arundel and Winton Harding. Unfortunately there were serious disagreements about the purpose of the group and it was wound up two years later. Winton to his credit then persuaded John Whiteman and me along with Malcolm McGregor to start the Saxifrage Society, which is now over twenty five years old and the accepted source of Saxifrage knowledge.
The National Reference for Porophyllum Saxifraga
Moving on from 1220 to 1984 when the NCCPG made the Waterperry Saxifrage a national reference collection (Kabschia and Engleria sub-sections). Although we had some small raised beds nearly all the plants were cultivated in pots, several thousand pots, and this was the case until 2004 when the decision was made to begin a new collection planted out in raised beds. I should say that between 1995 and 2004 the collection was dutifully cared for by Dr. John Whiteman a scholar and a friend, sadly no longer with us.
We now have a 50ft. square alpine garden with five large raised beds and a lot of tufa. The south bed is completely sand and gravel around 2ft. deep. The north beds are the same depth but contains a mix of sand and moss peat in equal proportions. These bed are full of new plants; planting began in Autumn 2004, and as well as saxifrages includes Iris, including several Junos from Tony Hall, Phlox (both cultivars and species), some Daphne that do well, and Campanula, together with a collection of alpine Dianthus from Rick Lambert. The idea behind this catholic mixture is to present not a collection but rather a garden that includes a collection, demonstaryting how this interesting plants can be used by visitors in their own gardens.
In the south bed are some very well established kabschias that were planted into tufa over thirty years ago; this is really the best way to grow most porophyllum saxifraga. One of the toughest questions facing kabschia growers is how to stop them burning in our ever increasingly hot summers, it’s no good growing them in the shade; they need all the sunlight they can get. We adopted a dual strategy, firstly giving the roots an environment that does not dry out or get too warm and secondly discarding shade netting in favour of slat shading, and so far this dual strategy has worked a treat.
In 2012 Plant Heritage asked me about the possibility of creating a National Reference Collection of Silver Saxifraga (Section Ligulatae). I have always loved Silver sax and had amassed a good collection of them, so I was able to say yes to Plant Heritage, Tim Roberts and Beryl Bland have helped me obtain even more. Waterperry now has around 300 different species and cultivars. It is a shame that these beautiful plants are not more widely grown, I am sure these early summer flowering saxifraga will once again become popular additions to our gardens.
Waterperry's Collections of Saxifrages can be found within the Walled Gardens.