Not for us the refinement of declaring we garden for foliage and form. Give us floral extravaganza, we say, and August obliges. In the deciduous magnolias, it is the reds that dominate. By the end of the month and well into September, the softer pinks and whites come into their own but at the start, we have an unrivalled display of the stronger colours which just gets better every year as the trees get ever larger. Floral sky-paper, I call it when looking up from below. I say it is an unrivalled display because nowhere else in the world gets the same intensity of red in these magnolia, nor have they done the breeding on them that has been done in this country over the past 40 years. First Felix Jury, now Mark Jury and also Vance Hooper have pushed the boundaries with the reds. Mark was very pleased to find recently that Britain’s Royal Horticultural Society has given an Award of Garden Merit to the magnolia he bred and named for his father, ‘Felix Jury’. While we admit to being biased, it still takes our breath away each season.
It is also michelia time – or as they have been reclassified botanically, magnolias. Do not confuse them with the evergreen grandiflora magnolias which are the summer flowering trees with big, glossy, leathery leaves. I admit we still call them michelias in conversation or we go with the “Fairy Magnolia” branding that has been placed on Mark’s new cultivars. Because michelias flower with their leaves, they are not as individually spectacular as the deciduous magnolias but they are a wonderful addition to the spring garden.
Mark has been breeding michelias for coming up to two decades now and we have many hundreds, maybe over 1000 of them, planted around our property. Out of all those, he has only named and released three so far. Fairy Magnolia White is the earliest of the season to open and has the loveliest star flower as well as being strongly fragrant. There is a purity in such white flowers, especially when contrasted with deep green foliage and wonderful velvet brown buds. One of the breeding advances has been to eliminate the tendency of some cultivars to drop their leaves and defoliate after flowering. Readers with Michelia doltsopa ‘Silver Clouds’ may recognise this trait.
Nothing excites the tui more than the Prunus campanulata. These are somewhat controversial, especially in warm northern areas, because too many of them set seed freely, threatening to become noxious weeds. Both the tui and we would be grieved to see all campanulatas banned, though we are vigilant weeders on the germinating seed. We have a number of different trees that come into flower in sequence and we can have literally scores of fiercely territorial tui bickering and fighting in these trees as they try and claim their feeding space. There are times it can appear as if the trees are dancing with the tui.
Until a whole lot more work is done on selecting and marketing sterile forms of campanulatas (in other words, they don’t set viable seed so will never become weedy), if you live in Northland, Auckland, Waikato, Bay of Plenty, Marlborough or the West Coast, where regional councils are understandably touchy on this topic, look for Prunus Pink Clouds or Prunus Mimosa which are sterile options.
From the big to the small – narcissi season is in full swing here. The little pictures they create give wonderful detail in a big garden. We have such a problem with narcissi fly that we struggle with the later flowering hybrids which comprise most of what is sold through garden centres (commonly called daffodils). The dwarf forms tend to flower earlier so they are over and going dormant when the narcissi fly are on the wing later in spring. The little cyclamineus ones, with their swept back skirts, seem to have a look of perpetual surprise. We are delighted with how well they are naturalising on our grassy banks where conditions are harder than in cultivated garden areas.
We looked enviously at Russell Fransham’s magnificent bananas in the June issue. They are a pretty marginal crop this far south and as we live 5 km from the coast, we have to take extra care and cover them in winter. We do this with giant bamboo frames and old shade cloth. A bunch of 50 is a triumph for us so we were in awe of Russell’s 200. We won’t remove the covers from ours until later in spring, just to be on the safe side. I call these constructions here the Theatre of the Banana.
First published in the August issue of New Zealand Gardener and reprinted here with their permission.