Category Archives: Plant collector

flowering this week, tried and true plants

A colchicum is not an autumn crocus

Crocus to the left, colchicum to the right

It is that time of year, dear Readers, when it is time to remind some of you, that the larger bloom to the right is NOT a crocus. Not at all. It is not even a relative. It is a colchicum. The left-hand flower is an autumn flowering crocus, probably one of the C. serotinus group, maybe salzmanii.

Colchicums come from the family of Colchicaceae and the order of Liliales.

Crocus belong to the subfamily of Crocoideae, family of Iridaceae and order of Asparagales.

That is the botanical explanation. The lay explanation is that crocuses are much smaller and daintier and bloom at the same time their fine foliage is coming through. Many of the 90 or so species flower in spring but some will bloom in autumn.

Colchicums flowering now

Colchicums, on the other hand, bloom well before their foliage ever appears and have much larger chalice blooms – and more stamens if you can be bothered counting. Compared to the crocus, they look as if they are on steroids but in fact it is the product of colchicine which is extracted from them. Colchicine’s main use was – or is – as an anti-inflammatory for the treatment of gout. Not one to try yourself at home, however, because it is highly toxic in the wrong hands. When the foliage appears much later, it is large and lush all winter until it dies off, untidily, in mid spring.

Because they flower before the foliage appears, colchicums are sometimes referred to as “naked ladies” (even “naked boys” I found somewhere on the internet though I have never heard that), but that is merely confusing to those of us who understand belladonnas to be naked ladies.

Crocus, but probably serotinus, not the saffron crocus

Crocus, on the other hand, give us saffron. Well, the saffron crocus does but we failed with our efforts to grow it here despite starting with a fair number of corms. They did not reappear after the first season. Too wet and humid, I think.

Colchicums are a better bet when it comes to naturalising bulbs in a meadow setting, being somewhat tougher and showier in such circumstances.


Plant collector: Schizophragma hydrangeoides pink and white

schizo-1Yes, Schizophragma hydrangeoides  looks like a climbing hydrangea but it is not the common climber which is Hydrangea petiolaris. This one comes from Japan and we prefer it to the usual form despite its difficult name. It is a close relative and a member of the same family but one step further back on the plant hierarchy from species to genus to family. Planted side by side, the schizophragma (pronounced skitsofragma or shyzofragma, whichever you prefer) is more floriferous and has significantly larger flower heads which seem to dance on the vine. This may be because its larger, winged petals (technically bracts, not petals) are held singly whereas H. petiolaris has its smaller bracts grouped in four, like a little flower all on its own.  The schizophrama is self-clinging and relatively slow growing so it doesn’t take over and swamp neighbouring plants. It needs something to climb up, however. If left to ramble at ground level, it doesn’t seem to flower though it does layer its way along so you can get more plants from it by this strategy.

img_6642The pink form is even more unusual. This fact was often not appreciated in the days when we used to sell plants. I recall too many customers who were at best ABP – Anything But Pink, at worst IOBW – I Only Buy White (flowers). Such self-imposed rules can certainly limit appreciation.

Schizophragma are hardy and deciduous so, to all intents and purposes, they fill an identical niche to H. petiolaris. However, petiolaris seems to perform better overseas where it is more floriferous and even gives autumn colour. Talking to our friend and colleague, hydrangea expert Glyn Church, we agreed that it is likely that petiolaris prefers a colder winter than we have, whereas the schizophragmas are perfectly happy in our conditions. As with lacecap hydrangeas, the winged ‘petals’ or bracts are the showy part whereas the proper flowers are the small, less spectacular bits behind the bracts.

For the purpose of comparison - Hydrangea petiolaris

For the purpose of comparison – Hydrangea petiolaris

Plant Collector: Calycanthus floridus

Calycanthus floridus in a New Plymouth garden

Calycanthus floridus in a New Plymouth garden

Commonly known as Carolina Allspice, this is the best example I have seen in bloom. We had it here once but dug it out because it was a bit insignificant where it was located. It is better as a border plant than a specimen plant and this particular one shown above was well located beside a steep path, so it could be viewed from both above and alongside.

It is a largish, deciduous shrub from the coastal plains of south eastern USA. The foliage is scented when crushed, variously described as spicy, aromatic or smelling of camphor (which means like Vicks Vapour Rub to me) but I wasn’t going to pick a leaf and test it, given my position as a garden visitor. Nor did I smell the blooms which are reputedly scented though the online references run the gamut from ‘highly scented’ to ‘evening scented’ to the sage advice to buy the plant in bloom because the strength of the scent varies greatly between individual cultivars. I think it likely that most plants in New Zealand will be from a single clone so there may not be choice on this aspect.

It is one of those curiosities that is not commonly seen in gardens here with blooms that are interesting rather than spectacular. It is never going to be as showy as the viburnums that are in bloom right now but pretty much every garden has those whereas only a few will have the calycanthus. For some gardeners – and some garden visitors – the delight lies in something less predictable.

For anybody out and about visiting Taranaki gardens during the festival this week, this fine specimen can be found in Tainui Close, the city garden of Chris Paul and Kevin Wensor. Mark tells me he has another plant of it languishing in his Pile of Neglect – his term for a collection of plants waiting for him to find the right location before he gets around to planting them out.

Viburnums - also flowering now.  I think this one is probably V. plicatum 'Mariesii" or Lanarth.

Viburnums – also flowering now. I think this one is probably V. plicatum ‘Mariesii” or Lanarth.

Plant Collector: Camellia amplexicaulis

Camellia amplexicaulis

Camellia amplexicaulis

We missed the opportunity to buy Camellia amplexicaulis the one time it was offered commercially in New Zealand. That was by Peter Cave, before he closed down his nursery, if my memory serves me right. And when we saw it in China, we were disappointed that we had not picked it up at the time – though at least it is in the country so we should be able to get a scion at some stage.

It is one of the tropical camellias, a relatively recent discovery in Vietnam. We saw it growing outdoors at the botanic gardens* in Foshan, amongst the yellow camellia collection which is similarly tropical. It was reasonably substantial – a handsome, large shrub at maybe 2.5 metres tall. The foliage was striking with huge, lush, textured leaves while the flowers had very thick petals. The information board below said it flowered from summer to autumn and sometimes all year round. This would be because it is a tropical plant from a climate without marked seasonal change. We were viewing blooms in early spring.

Camellia amplexicaulis in bud

Camellia amplexicaulis in bud

At Kunming Botanic Gardens, it was growing in a covered house with the yellow species. Presumably it is too cold in winter for it to be grown outdoors there (Foshan is coastal while Kunming is inland). The buds have a similar tight, round ball form to the yellow species – more on those in an upcoming article.

Whether our mild, temperate climate would suit Camellia amplexicaulis is not certain. We have trouble getting the tropical yellow species to bloom here. But it is such a handsome and interesting camellia that it is worth a try. And if it does flower here, it may bloom outside peak petal blight season and the heavy texture of the blooms means it would not be as prone to weather damage as many other softer textured camellias.

Not quite a forestry institute as we understand it - Foshan

Not quite a forestry institute as we understand it – Foshan

*I refer to the botanic gardens in Foshan though the official itinerary names it as the Institute of Forestry Science. While we associate forestry with commercial production of Pinus radiata in this country, the southern Chinese forests contain many wild camellias and the forestry institutes appear to have a conservation responsibility for indigenous plants.

Plant Collector: bauhinia

bauhinia (1)I have a sentimental attachment to bauhinias with a personal memory of Mark bringing me a bauhinia flower in our early days together. It was just the most exotic and beautiful bloom. So they caught my eye, growing in southern China in the Xishuangbanna area (near the border with Burma).

IMG_7893The bauhinia family is huge – around 500 different species – and in the fabaceae family (so a legume). I can’t unravel them to identify the ones I photographed, though the dark pink may be Bauhinia x blakeana, otherwise known as the Hong Kong Orchid Tree and the floral emblem of that island. They are not orchids, they just look as they should be. Or maybe exotic butterflies.

The one Mark picked all those years ago was from a small tree growing in the garden here – a leggy, rangy specimen maybe 5 metres tall. History does not recall if it died out or his late father removed it. In our garden conditions, it was not a specimen of beauty and was somewhat shy on blooming. Essentially these are tropical trees, extending into the sub tropics. While we grow many sub tropical plants here, we are actually temperate (not sub tropical). Just because a plant can be grown here, doesn’t necessarily mean it performs to its peak or even justifies its space in the garden. These days, I just have to admire bauhinia blooms when we travel to warmer climes. Though, I should maybe add that when I think about it, even in the tropics it is all about the flowers. The trees themselves were not sensational in form or foliage.

bauhinia (4)

Plant UNcollector – the tale of our disappointing white nepeta

In reality, it is even more insignificant than in this photo

In reality, it is even more insignificant than in this photo

There are not many plants as disappointing as our white nepeta. Before you rush to set me right by telling me that your white nepeta is absolutely gorgeous, I will declare that I have had a look at the internet and I see there are various white forms around and most of them look to be an improvement on the one we had here. Note the past tense. We have taken it out – and there was a fair swag of it – and it is now on the compost heap.

Nepeta is not exactly a plant of class and distinction but it is easy to grow, forgiving and on its day, it gives a haze of colour as well as feeding the bees. We were quite taken by its use in plantings that resemble rail tracks in a couple of English gardens we visited, despite my reservations about both the use of edging plants and planting in rows.

The railway track effect at Tintinhull in England where the nepeta looked lovely

The railway track effect at Tintinhull in England where the nepeta looked lovely

We came home and looked at our nepeta in askance. I could not remember ever being wowed by its lilac haze in bloom but it was certainly spreading widely. This season, I said to myself, I will take special notice. It was not growing in a spot I walk past every day but it was relatively prominent. Dammit, I thought, when I saw seed heads on it. How did I miss it again? Was it really such a flash in the pan? Mark, it turned out, had been thinking the same. We stood looking at it together and realised it was possibly the world’s most boring white nepeta with the tiniest of insignificant flowers at the same time as setting seed. Sure the bumble bees liked it but they will like our lilac nepetas just as much or maybe more. Mark has a tray of seedlings raised, ready to plant as an immediate replacement.

Mark is unconvinced by the notion of white nepeta which, in his mind, contradicts the very nature of nepeta which should be blue or lilac. But the joke is on us that we had both failed to notice that ours never flowered in the right colour.

Plant collector: the curious native Muehlenbeckia astonii

An unusual clipped specimen, M. astonii

An unusual clipped specimen, M. astonii

The proper name of this plant is not easy to spell – Muehlenbeckia astonii – but I have never even heard it referred to by its alleged common names of ‘shrubby tororaro’ or ‘wiggy-wig bush’. Not that common, apparently. The plantings in a prominent position at Auckland Botanic Gardens have caught my eye before. I am guessing they are planning to extend the clipping up another layer. In this interim phase. Mark chuckled and suggested they resemble Kim Jong-Un. The hair, dear Reader, the hair.

This is another of our native plants now threatened by loss of habitat. These days it is limited to the eastern coastal lowlands, stretching from Wairarapa to Banks Peninsula but it may have been more widespread in the days before extensive land development. Fortunately, it makes a good garden specimen and it is the ability to integrate into gardens that has saved critically endangered plants like Tecomanthe speciosa, Pennantia baylisiana and the kakabeak (clianthus).

Divaricating plants are not unusual in this country – divaricating being that tight criss crossing of the branches, often combined with tiny leaves. The ever-handy internet advances two botanical theories for the prevalence of divaricating plants here. I like the first theory which is that plants evolved this way to protect themselves from moa grazing on them. The second theory is that the plants have adapted to withstand harsh climatic conditions, particularly wind and dryness found in exposed coastal conditions and maybe hard frosts.
Muehlenbeckia astonii (7)
M. astonii will be deciduous in hard conditions but retains some of its tiny leaves in Auckland. The orange and red tones in the wiry zigzag branches add interest. It clips well and is apparently not difficult to strike from cutting or raise from fresh seed. We don’t have M. astonii in our garden but we do grow a comparable tiny-leafed divaricating coprosma which has a natural form of mounding layers that is often described as cloud form.

Muehlenbeckia astonii, featuring prominently at Auckland Botanic Gardens

Muehlenbeckia astonii, featuring prominently at Auckland Botanic Gardens