Notes from Upper Green

NGS openings

It has been a while since I have sat down to write something. The garden has been  looking lovely and when lock down eased a few weeks ago, we opened for the NGS charities on a number of weekends. The new system is so easy for garden owners. All we do is let the NGS know when we want to open, the length of each timed slot and specify the number of people that can come safely into the garden in each slot- in our case ten people per hour. No teas, no cake, no loo, no money to be collected as tickets are booked on line and no local advertising- it all happens on the NGS website. It worked very well. Everyone is keen to get out and we enjoyed chatting, albeit at a safe distance, to real people, many of whom were keen and knowledgeable gardeners. We will continue to open so do check the NGS website and come and see us.

I thought I would share some of the garden highlights over the last few months.

May

Tulips

Most tulips are over by May but the pillar-box red flowers of the late flowering species tulip,  Tulipa sprengeri, are a delight and as it self-seeds, it is slowly spreading. It likes well-drained soil so does particularly well in the gravelly soil on my rock bed. The fat striped seed heads are also decorative but I need to be careful I do not break the stems until the seeds are ripe.

Damp bed

The combination of Rodgersia podophylla and Iris pseudacorus ‘Variegata’  is particularly lovely in spring. We had a frost in early May, but this year I remembered to protect the rodgersia with a fleece blanket when I heard the forecast, so the only damage was at one edge where the wind lifted off the fleece. Those leaves soon curled up, became crispy and turned a sad dark brown. You can also just make out the small starry orangey-yellow flowers of  Epimedium ‘Amber Queen’  in front of the rodgersia.

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I was thrilled by my fabulous Formosan lady’s slipper orchid,  Cypripedium formosanum, which looked great in the damp bed throughout April and much of May.

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June

Roses and Lilies

By now the garden was in over-drive. The weather was hot and everything has been early this year. The roses were magnificent. The weight and shadow cast by the vigorous growth of the ramblers, Rosa ‘Paul’s Himalayan Musk’ and Rosa ‘Francis. E. Lester’, are threatening the health of the apple trees that support them. This year we will have to indulge in some fairly radical pruning. The apricot flowers of the climber, Schoolgirl, looked so lovely against the brick walls of the cottage and combined beautifully with the adjacent orange flowers of the lily ‘Forever Susan’.

Pots

I confess to having mixed feelings about pots because they need cherishing and even more mixed feelings about succulents which not only need cherishing outside but have to come inside in the winter. However I have to admit that I am enjoying this collection of odds and ends and the sempervivums are a tough bunch, which do tolerate my rather laissez-faire attitude.

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Bug Hotel

We have missed contact with the grandchildren but Peter made a fine bug hotel out of some old pallets. Lena (5) enjoyed adding to it when she finally came to visit us again.

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April at Upper Green

Plants and muntjac deer

It has been so mild that the garden has really come alive but  the unseasonably warm weather that led to all that flowering has also led to the rapid demise of some garden beauties including many small tulips. To my horror I discovered that the muntjac have been busy munching emerging tulips in the front garden – they had stopped doing this in recent years- so I have re-erected a protective barricade around the stately and rich dark purple  “Queen of the Night” – which means of course that neither I nor the muntjace can take pleasure in the  flowers. However the muntjac do not seem to be interested in smaller varieties of tulip and they are welcome to the leaves of the invasive spanish bluebells which I inherited from a previous owner and muntjac seem to enjoy. Fortunately muntjac show no desire to eat the wonderful Allium schubertii nor the large leaves of the colchicums I planted this year.

Spring Bed

At this time of year the spring bed comes into its own and Amelanchier × grandiflora ‘Ballerina’ is a definite highlight. The dainty white blossom is followed by unfurling bronze-tinged foliage. The profusion of large, white flowers gives it the name, Snowy mespilus, and these flowers produce little purplish edible berries  (I have never tried to eat them). The small tree adds to the dappled shade for woodlanders in this bed.

Camellias

My Dad’s old camellias have been magnificent this year in their tubs of special compost for acid-lovers. The blossom on Camellia × williamsii ‘Donation’ has been particularly fine. But it has been so dry I have had to water already using our precious rainwater.

More spring bulbs

Fritillaries are true stand-out plants. I love them all but fail to grow so many. However the crown imperials and snakes-heads have excelled. I am also delighted that the tiny clump of Scilla siberica below the apple tree is ever so slowly enlarging. Not a  river of blue or even a trickle yet – more of a small puddle, but on the increase nevertheless.

 

Spring and Social Isolation

Life in Upper Green

What difficult times we live in but thank goodness for the garden which is bursting with life. Daphne, camellias, daffodils, tulips, primulas, fritillaries and so much more. Spring has arrived with a bang. I have seen the first butterflies of the year- brimstones, small tortoiseshells and even a lone peacock. The birds are pairing up and nest building has commenced. But the local pheasant and the muntjac deer are not such welcome visitors- bother. A game pie would be very tasty.

Narcissi

Narcisssi come in all shapes and sizes, the deer do not eat them, most are easy to grow so the clumps thicken up with time, many are sweetly scented and, at this time of year, they provide so much pleasure.

Tulips

Tulips are another spring flower that give the garden a lift, but sadly the muntjac deer will make a meal out of them given half a chance and a deer was trotting through our “fenced off” back garden this evening. There must be a gap somewhere or the deer is prepared to leap higher than in the past and I wonder how many of my lovely tulips will still be standing in the morning.

Fritillaries

And then there are fritillaries. I have had problems with crown imperials in the past but this year they are standing tall and the yellow ones have even increased. The snake’s head fritillaries never fail – they are looking superb in the marsh and are even spreading in our little meadow area.

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Snowdrop Season at Upper Green

Snowdrop Legends

The sun is shining and drifts of snowdrops, “February’s Fairmaid”, are a joy. I have been preparing a very brief chat on snowdrops for the Friends of the Oxford Botanic Gardens who meet for coffee on the first Friday of the month. This prompted me to look up some of the legends associated with this most magical of winter flowers. For example did you know that snowdrops have been known as “Eve’s Tears” or “Eve’s Comforters”? Apparently poor Eve was weeping when she was cast out of the Garden of Eden and a friendly angel breathed on a tear and changed it to a snowdrop. They are linked to purity in the Catholic church and were traditionally carried in Candlemas processions which is why they are often found growing along the way to village churches.

In Greek mythology, Persephone brought back snowdrops from the underworld so they are linked to both death and, according to the language of flowers,  hope- the emergence of the hardy snowdrop heralds spring and the start of a new year.  The snowdrop may even have been the magical plant “Moly” that Hermes gave Odysseus to protect him from beautiful Circe’s magic. Snowdrops contain the centrally acting anticholinesterase, galanthamine, while Circe’s potions may have contained centrally acting anticholinergic toxins to induce amnesia in Odysseus’ crew (although I am not sure that includes turning them into swine- but perhaps they just thought they had become swine). Perhaps a snowdrop might have helped to vanquish Circe, but Odysseus also brought his sword.

I was pleased to read that, according to garden folklore, before moving a snowdrop, one should always tell it what is happening or it will not thrive- I am not the only gardener who chats to her plants. But I suspect my leaf mould and little bonemeal also help.

Snowdrop taxonomy

The taxonomy is complicated. There are at least 20 species of snowdrop and probably more than 2500 hybrids and cultivars. Identification depends on the morphology of both the leaves and the flowers and now DNA. My snowdrops are mainly types of nivalis (the Common snowdrop), plicatus (Crimean or Turkish snowdrop with broad dark green or greyish pleated leaves) or elwesii (Greater snowdrop with broad silver-grey leaves).

The first record of G. nivalis in this country is in John Gerard’s herbal (1597) and G. plicatus was brought back by soldiers returning from the Crimean war in the 1800s. One of these days the snowdrop market will surely crash, as with tulipmania in the 1600s. Many of the cultivars look pretty much identical, even when you “lift their skirts” to check out the green markings,  and I am not sure for how long these fancy snowdrops will command ridiculous prices. One bulb sold for more than £1000 in 2019 on e-bay- crazy! However I am enjoying my growing collection and it is a delight to share my love with other enthusiasts who visit the garden- as well as with the early solitary bees, queen bumblebees and other emerging insects who need the snowdrop nectar and pollen.

 

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Autumn and Rain at Upper Green

Frosts in November

We had a brief spell of chilly weather in November with the odd frost which I hope  destroyed some of the molluscs. The misty mornings were a bonus.

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Looking across the ha-ha at the bottom of the garden

Mahonias are flowering and the green flowers of Helleborus foetidus, our native stinking hellebore, always look rather lovely at this time of year.

The gravel bed has shape and colour throughout the year.

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Rain in December

Now it is just wet, very wet. It feels as if December has offered nothing but weeks of rain. The ground is sodden. Not a good time to walk on this heavy clay- stepping stones are essential in flower beds to prevent compaction. The sun has appeared briefly but this was soon followed by yet more rain or gloomy cloud. Despite the rain I have filled my leaf bin with a fine mix of mainly oak (collected from our village churchyard), and beech (collected from several nearby villages). Job done so I have removed my collecting equipment (large sack, 2 small boards and a bamboo rake) from the back of my car. 

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The pond is also full and ready for the return of the newts in the spring.

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Colour and Scent

The garden has colour and scent despite the prevailing gloom. One just has to wrap up (hap up as we say in Northern Ireland) and get out there to enjoy it. I was delighted to see an early crocus (Crocus laevigatus ‘Fontenayi’)- which sadly was all too soon eaten by a marauding slug or perhaps the local pheasant. There are still a few flowers on the climbing rose (Schoolgirl) and Iris unguicularis Walter Butt(previously known as Iris stylosa) has started to flower. This iris produced no flowers last year but this year it seems to be happy.

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Shrubs such as Pittosporum ‘Tom Thumb’ and Viburnum tinus also offer welcome colour-shiny black leaves in the case of the pittosporum and white umbels on the viburnum.

And then there are the snowdrops! Much to look forward too.

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Colour, Shape and Snowdrops at Upper Green

Autumn Snowdrops

The first snowdrops have been in flower for a couple of weeks (and I still think look a little strange at this time of year). Galanthus reginae-olgae has 19 flowers- what a contrast to previous years when I have been lucky to find one or two flowers. Something about this summer must have reminded them of their home in Sicily and the west and north-west Balkans. It is rather lovely to remember that the name honours Queen Olga of Greece (grandmother of the Duke of Edinburgh). The little snowdrops are overshadowed by the adjacent Nerine ‘Zeal Giant’ which has also done exceptionally well this year. The lovely pink Nerine bowdenii are also still in full flower.

I am fortunate to have one flower (a slug got the second one) on Galanthus peshmenii, a relative of G. elwesii, which I was given last year by my good friend and alpine expert, Barry Hennessey. Apparently G. peshmenii was originally thought to be a Turkish form of G. reginae-olgae. It grows in coastal Turkey and nearby islands, but it is now acknowledged to be a species in its own right. The little flower is dwarfed by the spectacular star-burst seedheads of Allium schubertii.

Autumn foliage and fruit

Autumn colours are reaching their peak. The light green leaves of Acer palmatum var. dissectum ‘Seiryu’  have turned a spectacular crimson, lighting up the patio but the show will soon be over and the leaves will start to fall.

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I am already collecting up leaves for leaf mold. It will take about 2 years for them to rot down to a fine dark brown tilth but it is worth waiting. I have just applied some  2-year old mold to my snowdrops- a most luxurious mulch. The addition of a touch of bone-meal should ensure a great display.

Colour in the garden is also supplied by the lovely rose-pink and orange fruits of the spindle, Euonymus europaeus ‘Red Cascade’ .

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Shape in the garden

The topiary and cloud pruning are taking shape and are already giving the garden year-round structure.

I have just bought a book on Japanese gardens and pruning techniques which is full of inspiration- more things to try out in 2020!

Summer, Roses and Flycatchers

Roses

Roses have been spectacular. The rambler, ‘Kiftsgate’, is still in flower reaching high into the trees at the bottom of the garden. ‘Bobby James’ which clothes the trellis along the drive has come to an end and we will soon have to take on the challenge of pruning to control and tie in the new growth which will produce next year’s flowers. Really it is too big and rampant for the trellis but the tree it did cover died (probably killed by the rose rather than silver leaf Mr B. maintains) and the trellis was a replacement support. We have also enjoyed the pale salmon flowers of the climber ‘Schoolgirl’ on the walls of the cottage, despite the fact that the leaves are disfigured by  mildew as the bed under the thatch is so dry. The china rose, ‘Mutabilis’ will go on giving pleasure until Christmas if we are lucky. The blooms start out dark red and gradually fade to shades of yellow and copper- sadly it has no scent but it is a beautiful shrub.

Rosa Mundi flourishes in the shady bed behind the pond but the old, wonderfully perfumed, shrub roses at the bottom of the garden are coming to an end. The rich deep red blossoms of ‘Charles de Mills’ are still my favourite.

 

Birds

The garden is full of baby birds- blue tits and great tits must have had second broods and the apple trees are alive with acrobatic infants. A constant cheeping is coming from what must be a blackbird nest in the hedge. However the real thrill is the spotted flycatcher nest in a open-faced box we put up on the wall of the house years ago. I think it is the first time it has been used. The flycatchers are an absolute joy to watch swooping down to catch insects and returning to their elevated lookout perches. We have not had any in the garden for years so this is a real treat.

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Shape and perfume

The lilies in their pots on the patio are coming to an end but the white tobacco plants I grew from seed provide evening perfume as well as food for moths. The seed heads of the various alliums provide great structure but I am determined to remove many of them before they actually seed into the flowerbeds- you can have too much of a good thing. The garden is full of summer colour- I really must spend more time just sitting and enjoying it. 

 

 

 

Spring Colour at Upper Green

Spring Flowers

The garden is welcoming and colourful with spring flowers of all sorts including self-seeded dog violets (Viola riviniana) and primroses (Primula vulgaris), Ipheion uniflorum, both blue and a purple form (‘Froyle Mill’), Anemone blanda– my Mum’s blue variety and a very large-flowered white form (‘White Spendour’ ),  Muscari armeniacum including the very pale ‘Valerie Finnis’  and pale blue Puschkinia scilloides var. libanotica (I can never remember this mouthful of a name). The lovely dog’s-tooth violet (Erythronium ‘Pagoda’) is also just opening.

A tiny clump of 6 x Scilla siberica are slowly spreading under the apple tree. Chicken wire protects the sky-blue flowers from marauding wood pigeons or the lone pheasant that frequents the garden. My mum’s Chionodoxa luciliae spread without any help from me adding a cheery splash of blue in unexpected places.

Euphorbias

The lime green flowers of the dramatic tall Euphorbia characias ssp. wulfenii  really stand out at this time of year. I have a self-seeded euphorbia which I suspect is Euphorbia characias with characteristic black nectar glands.

Irises

I am disappointed by the lack of flowers on my Mum’s Iris unguicularis (stylosain the bed by the back wall of the cottage. It did so well last year. I am not sure what has gone wrong as I paid it special attention, removing the old dead leaves and generally tidying up. This seems to have been a mistake so my attempts at care will not be repeated. Or perhaps it was just the exceptionally dry summer? Anyway I am going to ignore the clump this year and let nature take its course. A smaller clump in a more exposed, and therefore slightly less dry, site has managed to produce a few of the very welcome pale blue scented flowers.

The intriguing deep purple and green flowers of the Widow Iris, Hermodactylus tuberosus, are evident in the bed alongside the drive. My attempts to spread the seed seem to be working and more are appearing, albeit slowly.

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Narcissi

Most narcissi have done well, but I have particularly enjoyed the remarkably large-flowered hoop petticoat daffodil, Narcissus bulbacodium ‘Oxford Gold’  from Avon bulbs, which I have grown in a pot for the first time, and the expanding clump of delicate Narcissus fernandesii var. cordubensis under the maturing silver birch, Betula utilis var. jacquemontii, which is finally developing the silvery bark for which it is renowned. The clump of the dwarf Narcissus nanus  ‘Midget’  on my rock bed continues to enlarge and the tiny Narcissus ‘More and More’ has just opened. There are plenty of other larger narcissi, many naturalised beneath the apple trees in our strip of “meadow” alongside the drive, but some of these clumps produce more leaves than flowers. I must sort these out.

Newts and fritillaries

The new pond is full of newts, mostly great-crested I think,  returning for the mating season before they disappear into the garden again. I counted at least 30 the other night.

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Shadowy great-crested newt in the pond

To my delight, the snakes-head fritillaries, Fritillaria meleagris, have coped with the upheaval of redoing the pond. Despite being dug up and replanted into new soil they are flowering happily. My few Crown Imperials-Fritillaria imperialis ‘Lutea’  and Fritillaria imperialis ‘William Rex’ are also doing exceptionally well- the best year ever. The hot summer obviously suited them and the slugs and snails have not done their worst……. yet.

Colour and Scent

It has been a fantastic year for my Dad’s two camellias – Camellia japonica ‘Sylvia’ (crimson) and Camellia × williamsii ‘Donation’  (pink) – in their tubs of loam for acid-loving plants. They have been  in flower for weeks. The Daphne odora ‘Aureomarginata’, has been equally good but with the added benefit of scent which has richly perfumed the area around the front door, especially in the evenings.

Next Steps

Apart from pruning, weeding, mulching, feeding and even watering, I am planning what to purchase when we go to the Great Malvern Show. I would like to acquire more primulae and irises for the refurbished marsh bed to replace all those that were lost when the dreaded Houttuynia strangled everything. I have also, after some delicate negotiations with Mr B, managed to extend the hot bed in the bottom garden ever so slightly so there is room for some Mediterranean drought-tolerant plants which will do so much better than his lawn. Watch this space!

 

 

A Snowdrop Brunch and Newts

Snowdrops- what a joy

The snowdrops are still fantastic and I had the fun of sharing them with a group of friends when we hosted our first ever “Snowdrop Brunch” to-day. Between the showers (a pity it was not like Thursday when the sun shone all day) we all got outside and thoroughly enjoyed the snowdrop display. In fact the sun did come out later on so a number of our guests went out for a second look and I tried to remember both names and the subtle differences. I can cheat when they are in situ because I pretty much know what is planted where (and there is a helpful label) , but I have much more difficulty when they are in a vase.

I must have more than 60 different varieties now. Inevitably I bought some this year including Lapwing, Wasp and Comet from Pottertons Nursery as well as a few from Avon bulbs who have served me so well in the past. Chris Brown, our wonderful gardener, came bearing gifts on Wednesday – a bag with another 7 or 8 un-named varieties that he has selected and been growing up for several years. Each one is just that little bit different.  I have some way to go before I can call myself a true galanthophile but they do grow so well in our heavy clay lightened with a little leaf mold that I am determined to keep going. Perhaps I will be a galanthophile when I hit the hundred mark? And I really should be able to name them all without relying on a label.

 

The return of the newts

The newts are back- hurrah. We had to redo our leaking pond in the autumn, putting in a new liner and taking out the invasive Houttuynia cordata.  I was worried that our newts would not find the pond to their liking when they reappeared in the spring. Great crested newts hibernate between November and February in frost-free places and we sometimes find them in our log pile or under paving slabs. But they have made it back to the pond and we counted 14 by torchlight last night. They must trek across the garden to the pond. I did find one by the back doorstep and should have taken a photo. We saw them several weeks ago moving rather slowly in the chilly water and then the temperature dropped and the pond froze over. They must have hunkered down in the mud and gravel at the bottom of the pond and now they have re-emerged ready to mate and lay eggs. They are so tough. Nature is wonderful.

Spring treasures

Bulbs are pushing up all over the garden. I am particularly enjoying the Iris reticulata or are they Iris histrioides. Lady Beatrix Stanley in the rock bed provides a wonderful patch of cornflower blue. She appears very early each year because she is planted up against a grass that I wrap with fleece to provide some winter protection. Lady Beatrix appreciates being cherished and I have to remember to uncover her in January. An iris in a small alpine pot by the front door, also provides a fine splash of colour and it was only when I took a photograph that I realised how lovely the buds are, the feathered stripe of yellow contrasting with the purple. It is labelled Gordon but that cannot be right as he is supposed to be pale blue (Mr B says I could always call him “Not Gordon”) and nor does he seem right for the purple George. Still I will just enjoy him in all his glory.

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Christmas Colour and Snowdrops

Snowdrops

It is a good year for the snowdrops- the hot summer must have suited them. Galanthus elwesii ‘Peter Gatehouse’ , one of the earliest proper winter snowdrops, has been out for some weeks but the now flowers are looking tired. I plan to divide the clump while “in the green” as the bulbs are in a rather solid clay bank and the numbers have not increased as much as I had hoped. Some of my precious leaf mold around their roots should do the trick. The large flowers of the very worthy Reverend Hailstone- a relative newcomer in this garden- are making a good show. I know that two snowdrop flowers are not a lot to shout about, but it is early days for this particular bulb and there are more to come. A good effort in the first or is it the second year?

The clump of Galanthus elwesiiMrs McNamara‘, another early variety, continues to spread  and the flowers are lighting up the bed beneath my Tibetan cherry (Prunus serrula). Galanthus plicatus ‘Warham’ is close on its heels and has spread extensively. Both enjoy the shade in this north bed. I walked around the garden this morning and saw snowdrops nosing their way above the earth in  many places. I was particularly pleased (and relieved) to see the tip of Galanthus ‘South Hayes’. Last year I invested in one of these striking snowdrops and I am looking forward to admiring the bold green outer markings on petals that flare outwards in a pagoda shape. Perhaps this year I will have doubled my investment. How many bulbs does one need before one can say “I have a clump”?!

Heavy Wet Clay

The weather is mild but it is pretty damp and not really conducive to gardening. My heavy clay does not appreciate being trodden on when it is sodden and nor does the soggy grass appreciate the wheelbarrow. The grass never got a final cut despite my efforts to encourage Mr B into action, so it is really too long and of course continuing to grow, albeit slowly. The grass cutting question is an all-year debate.

Winter flowers, seed-heads and leaves

Judicious pruning has resulted in a superb show from both Jasminum nudiflorum, now studded with yellow flowers, and the Viburnum × bodnantense ‘Dawn’. The branches of this viburnum are covered in pink blossom including the lower ones. As the shrub grew, the sweetly scented blossom had become increasingly limited to higher branches, both less visible and out of reach of our noses, but the right pruning has cracked the problem.

Clematis are always good value. Clematis cirrhosa var. balearica– the fern-leaved clematis- is clothed in hanging white bells, the interior of which are dotted with maroon freckles. The finely cut, dark green leaves are supposedly evergreen, but I find that the  leaves turn brown in the summer and most are shed only to emerge again in time for the winter season. The decorative silky seed heads of Clematis orientalis ‘Bill Mackenzie’  have persisted despite the rain and wind, and are covering the old greengage tree.

The flowers of Cyclamen hederifolium have vanished to be replaced by attractive mottled ivy-shaped leaves. The flowers of Cyclamen coum will not appear until January or February but I can enjoy the small rounded silvery leaves now. The fat flower buds of Helleborus orientalis (the Christmas or Lenten rose) are just appearing. I have cut off the leaves so that the large clusters of saucer-shaped elegant flowers in shades of dusky purple, cream and yellow will be  easier to see but also to prevent spread of disease.  So much to enjoy despite the wet!

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Cyclamen Coum ‘Maurice Dryden’