The Vireya Family

I recall some years ago having two conversations in a short space of time where people regaled me with tales of coming to buy plants from Mark in the early days of our nursery. Both shared a similar experience. “It was at least 20 minutes,” said one, “before I was confident that I was going to be allowed to buy a plant.” Readers who know and like my Mark will be smiling at this point, recognising the likely truth in these accounts. He, himself, sees humour in the retelling but retorts slightly defensively that of course he was right. There is no point in selling elite and difficult plants to people who will fail with them. It will only backfire all around. It is a philosophy of retailing to which I am forward to returning.

I have one plant here which I insist on an interview before allowing anybody to buy it. It is very slow to grow, scarce as hens’ teeth and likely not available anywhere else, expensive and I don’t want to waste precious plants on unsuitable people. It is a tiny vireya species, saxafragoides. After about five years, you get a little bun of a plant measuring around 7cm across. It is reported to be the most cold hardy of the vireyas (it is in fact the mother of hybrids Jiminy Cricket, Saxon Glow and Saxon Blush) and also the most tolerant of damp conditions. But not only is it very slow to grow, I have also not had great success with it in the garden, despite, I thought, giving it optimum conditions.

A decade or more ago, vireya rhododendrons were all the rage. A fashion plant of the day, it was predicted by some that these sub tropical rhododendrons would supplant the hardier, traditional rhododendrons in areas where they could be grown. Mark even heard one self proclaimed expert claim that vireyas were as hardy as maddenii rhododendrons. They are not. Nor are they as easy to grow well in the garden as many of us hoped. In fact as we go through the process of winding down the nursery, vireyas are the crop that we most often agree we will not be sorry to farewell out of commercial production.

Don’t get me wrong. We are vireya aficionados. They are a wonderful family of plants and we would not be without them. Our association with vireyas goes back to the mid 1950s when Mark’s father collected a form of R.macgregoriae in New Guinea and brought it back here to Tikorangi. In those days border control was considerably more lax. That plant still survives in the garden here and mass flowers every year without fail. It was the start of a father and son plant breeding dynasty which has seen more than twenty five different hybrids named and released on the market over the years and is still continuing.

Sweet Cherry

Vireyas are deceptive because they are very easy to put roots on, as we say. In other words, even home gardeners with no special facilities can have success with cuttings (although the aforementioned saxafragoides may be a challenge). They grow quickly (except for saxafragoides). Because they come from the equatorial areas where day length is pretty standard all year round and seasons are not defined by temperature change, they don’t have the set growing season that other plants show. So if plants are relatively warm, they will put on growth spurts most of the year. They also have the endearing habit of flowering randomly and often over many months. Indeed some are almost never without a flower and if you have enough plants in your garden, you can pretty well guarantee something in flower for twelve months of the year.

The down side is that they have pathetically little root systems and even well established plants can up and die on you when your back is turned. Being sub tropical, they are frost tender (any touch of frost will burn them and more than about three or four degrees of frost will kill them). With such small root systems, they are also extremely vulnerable to wet conditions and many soil fungi can take them out.

Readers who have lost vireya plants will be heartened to hear that it may not be their gardening skills at fault. In nursery production, we have always had a better cuttings take on vireyas than any other production line. But from then on, it is mostly an up hill battle. We always have a much higher death rate in the finished crop of vireyas than any other plant line we have grown over the past twenty five years. It can be very disheartening going through and pulling out the deaths. And we work harder to get bushy, well shaped plants than any other plant line. I figured this year that they are easily the most under priced crop we grow and were we staying in production, I would want a much higher wholesale price to justify the effort.

Compounding all this is that, of course, it is the highly desirable varieties which are the hardest to keep alive. Many if not most of the fascinating species are difficult. The named hybrids with big, luscious, scented trumpets are also more vulnerable whereas the utility toughies are more reliable but less coveted. Ain’t that always the way?

If you want to try taking vireya cuttings, select a stem of new growth which has hardened sufficiently to be firm. Make a clean cut across the base and then take a sliver off the outer green stem layer for about 2.5 centimetres from the base on two sides. It is very important to take it on both sides because this is where the roots are formed on vireyas. Reduce the cutting to two leaves only. If you have rooting hormone, it will increase success but you can manage without it. Stick the cutting in potting mix and place it somewhere warm but not in direct sun. You can cover it with a loose, clear plastic bag or a cut-off plastic PET bottle if you want to keep it warmer. Keep the potting mix damp but not saturated. You may see roots forming in about six weeks or so but they are best left undisturbed for three or four months.

Well grown vireyas are a delight and a great addition to the garden. But as a plant family, they are just not quite as easy and bullet proof as some of us hoped back in their hey day. They are great container plants and excellent for people who like to make a fuss of their plants but are certainly not an easy care option for the garden in the way that their hardier cousins are.