Category Archives: Plant collector

flowering this week, tried and true plants

The somewhat extraordinary Queensland spear lily

July 14 this year

I first reported on the blooming of Doryanthes palmeri, the giant Queensland spear lily, back in July. July 14, to be precise. It had never flowered here before but we are nothing if not patient gardeners. Besides, this poor specimen had never even been planted. It was just tossed aside in the nursery and had rooted through its original planter bag in a spot by the hedge. In the decade or more since, the nursery has been closed and that area converted to the new garden.

August 17

August 17

I thought the leaning flower spike might be because the whole plant is leaning out to the sun, but I see that it is typical of the species and I can’t think of any perennial that is strong enough to hold a flower spike of that weight and substance on the vertical. As more flowers opened, the spike weighed further and further down until it now rests just a few centimetres above the ground.

This solved a mystery for me. As we lumbered along on the slow bus from Sydney airport to Bondi Junction in July (we were not in a hurry and travel lightly so the bus exercise cost about $A3 each instead of over $A70 for a taxi), Mark pointed out the spent doryanthes flower spikes standing tall on a plant. Crumbs, I thought, ours is just opening and theirs are already finished. But as those spikes were very upright, I realise now it must have been the other doryanthes species, D. excelsa. It’s natural habitat is a little further south, in limited areas of coastal New South Wales.

September 2

I continued to photograph our plant through August. By September, I was working out that it was never going to open en masse as I had thought, but individual flowers would open in sequence and remain cup or goblet-shaped, not opening flat. The bees loved it and every time I passed, I could hear the hum. Each flower held a little well of nectar and I caught sight of the occasional tui bird feeding there but mostly the bees held possession.

Pools of nectar

It is now the end of November and still it flowers on. Past its best, maybe, but four months have now passed. The flowers are still pools of nectar.

November 28

This is not a plant for every garden. The leaves are a metre and a half long so it needs a space that is over three metres across in all directions. But I have just the right spot for it when I get to plant the new Court Garden next autumn. I see on the Australian National Herbarium site that each rosette only flowers once but then smaller rosettes are formed at the base. Like the giant  cardiocrinum lily, in fact. But we will have to wait more than another decade at least for flowers on the new rosettes.  Fortunately, we have another plant (also still in a pot) which may star in one of the interim years.

The doryanthes is listed as ‘vulnerable’ in the wild, largely because of its very limited natural habitat in the south Queensland coastal area.

We grow a fair number of plants that have a short flowering season of maybe a couple of weeks. If you take a plant that flowers from July to December once a decade or so, the time in bloom averages out to something similar. And the doryanthes is a handsome foliage plant in the years between blooming.

This plant was not going to let a small planter bag deter its growth

Foxgloves – the fine line between weed, wildflower and garden plant

I like foxgloves, in a wild flower sort of way. But the common pinky-purple form around here, not so much. In fact I have been pulling them out this week. I haven’t gone to the effort of trying to get white and pale ones established to see them all gradually returning to that hard shade of deep pink. I had a pretty honey peach coloured one that flowered in isolation in a gravel heap last year and left it to seed, thinking that as it was standing alone, the seedlings would be the same colour. There were over a hundred seedlings and at least half have gone back to the deep pink colour I spurn. I have been pulling them out as soon as they reveal their true colours to try and preempt the bees cross pollinating.

No the left, yes to the right

This unceremonious rooting out of the spurned colour was because of a series of photos I saw recently showing a local garden’s ‘English-style herbaceous planting’. Leaving aside the somewhat dodgy descriptor, what struck me was the jarring appearance of the common deep pink foxglove in a more refined garden setting. To my eye, it would have worked were these white or pastel, but in that hard colour – no thanks. It takes a deft touch to bring a local weed into a garden and make it appear harmonious.

The range of shades with the common wild form to the right

On my rounds of dealing to the plants whose sole crime is that they are an undesirable colour, I see that most of the seedlings from the pure whites we had are now more pastel. Naturally I wanted to pick an array of them to arrange in gradations of hue. There is quite a bit of variation in the size of the flowers too. Some have freckles and some don’t. I like the peachy tones more than the pale pinks.

Some tried to outwit me by opening creamy lemon and ageing to purple, all on the same stem, but I can see them!

I resisted the temptation to go back to childhood habits and use them as gloves for my finger tips. In those days, we didn’t worry about their toxic properties. These days they come with a warning so I try and wash my hands after handling them without gloves. But on the scale of poisonous plants, they aren’t up there with the most toxic ones.

There are about 20 different species of foxgloves but only Digitalis purpurea has naturalised in the countryside here. I bought some seed of a yellow variant from a local supplier but Mark tells me that only one germinated. It will take years of culling to get the more desirable shades established as the dominant plant here.

The best ornamental planting I have seen remains the white foxgloves at Hidcote that first inspired me to look more closely at this plant. I wonder if they start afresh each season or let them seed down? But maybe they don’t have any other colours around to contaminate the purity of the white strain.

Mark was raised on the flower fairy books by Cicely Mary Barker. I can’t think how my English mother ever missed out on introducing them to me, especially as the author bears the same uncommon spelling of her first name as my mother did. But we raised our own children with them.  Though if I am honest, the charm lies more in the illustrations and the small book format than in the poetry which  never scanned sufficiently well to read aloud comfortably.

“Foxglove, Foxglove,
What do you see?”
The cool green woodland,
The fat velvet bee;
Hey, Mr Bumble,
I’ve honey here for thee!

“Foxglove, Foxglove,
What see you now?”
The soft summer moonlight
On bracken, grass, and bough;
And all the fairies dancing
As only they know how.

Cicely Mary Barker, 1927.

Hello and goodbye, Ammi majus

 

Ammi majus in Mark’s ‘allotment’

I like umbellifers and I was casting around for suitable white umbellifers to dance in the auratum lily border.  “Ammi majus,” they said, “plant Ammi majus.” I have scattered some ammi seed in that border but now I am hoping they will not germinate.

Mark planted some in his vegetable garden, aka his ‘allotment’. The first year it was charming. It is sometimes known as the bishop’s flower or false Queen Anne’s Lace and, curiously, its natural habitat is the Nile River Valley. Mark was wondering about using it as a green crop. It is a member of the apiaceae family, as are most umbellifers including carrot, parsley and coriander.

Self-sown ammis already towering at 3m high

Well…. allegedly this ammi is an annual that reaches about 120cm in the UK, maybe up to two metres in NZ. Not in our conditions. Semi-perennial, we would say. Mark’s wildflower patch is swamped by towering ammis up to three metres high already and still growing (it is only spring here). The hollow stems are about 3cm across and brittle with it, so inclined to lean and fall. It is a triffid, intent on smothering everything around it. Mark thinks many of these plants probably germinated last summer to autumn so are maybe 10 months old now. It is clearly not a suitable candidate for allowing to self-seed and naturalise in a wildflower situation. That said, it would work if it was cleared out each autumn and fresh sown in early spring. I just can’t be bothered with giving it that amount of attention where I hoped to use it.

Orlaya grandiflora – more knee height than the waist or chest height I wanted but well-behaved!

I think I would be safer with the pretty Orlaya grandiflora, carrots and coriander amongst the lilies, grown solely for their dancing flower heads and ethereal nature. The orlaya seeds freely, enthusiastically even, but is easy enough to curtail if necessary.

There is no substitute for trialling plants before unleashing them in a naturalistic situation.  I learned this lesson with Calamagrostis ‘Karl Foerster’ and I am eyeing up Salvia uglinosa with similar caution.

The cutting of the rampant ammi – too rampant

The later flowering lachenalias

Left to right, probably arbuthnotiae, aloides tricolor, aloides vanzyliae, glaucina x 2, mutabilis, what came to us as carnosa but probably a hybrid, don’t know (or can’t remember) and contaminata – a round up of some currently in flower this morning 

Back in August 2015, I wrote what I called part one about lachenalias, covering the early bloomers.  It has taken me three years but I return with part two on the late bloomers. Back in our days of putting out a mail order catalogue, we used to offer a range of over a dozen different lachenalias, all but one or two being species, and we gathered up every different one we could find for the garden. By the way, our last mail order catalogue went out in 2003 (yes! 2003!) so we have long since stopped supplying plants. If you are in New Zealand, try Trade Me which is one of the last places you can source some of these less common bulbs.

In the years since, some have proven themselves in the garden and others have faded away. The early season varieties in that first post are all easy and reliable as garden plants (L. bulbifera, L. aloides quadricolor, L. aloides var. aloides and Mark’s L. reflexa hybrid). Others are best kept in pots if you want to ensure their continued survival.

Lachenalia glaucina flowers, nestled in amongst the foliage of narcissi which have already finished blooming. The lachenalia’s foliage is much sparser and close to the ground

In the blues the absolute stand-out is Lachenalia glaucina, or at least the good forms of it. It can throw a lot of seedling variation. It was difficult as a nursery plant, partly because it was frost tender and we were growing the bulbs in open conditions, not under cover. Over the years, it has become one of most successful varieties in the garden – in an understated sort of way. I used to encourage less experienced gardeners to choose L. mutabilis instead because it was much easier and more reliable, while still a good blue. Now I can tell you that it was easier in a pot.  I am not even sure that we still have it growing in the garden. I rounded up one somewhat moth-eaten flower from a bulb that is struggling on in the heap where we dump our used bark potting mix. The other blues we used to grow like unicolor, mediana, and ‘Te Puke Blue’ have not thrived in garden conditions and the only plants we have left are in Mark’s covered house, where only he ever gets to see them. The same with the beautiful cream lachenalia with the terrible name of L pustulata (on account of its warty leaves).

Lachenalia aloides tricolor and aloides var. vanzyliae

Lachenalia aloides is an interesting species. It gives us the most common of all lachenalias in New Zealand – the strong growing orange and yellow one that looks as if it should be sold amongst the fake flowers at The Warehouse. That form has finished flowering for the season, as has its four-coloured variant, quadricolor. But look at these two late flowering forms of same species. L. aloides tricolor is a combination of green, yellow and red, finer in form than the usual aloides. It is easy to grow and reliable. And then there is L. aloides var. vanzyliae – surely the most desirable of them all and also the most unreliable. Ain’t that just the way? Who wouldn’t want a big patch of this little charmer in pristine white with highlights of aqua blue and lime green? It is at least still growing for us but I would hardly describe it as flourishing.

The other two from the top line-up that have proven to be easy and reliable here as garden plants are creamy L. contaminata (it has naturalising potential) and the pink one that came to us L carnosa but Mark thinks is a hybrid.

As always, it is the detail that gives us delight in our garden, not just the big pictures.

Glorious glaucina – the best performing blue lachenalia in our garden

Postscript: rather than rewriting the same information, I copy below the general info I wrote earlier about the genus of lachenalias:

Lachenalias are South African bulbs, mostly from the Cape Province. Some are very easy to grow, others less so. Naturally the very choice varieties are the ones that are less amenable but that is always the way. Some are desert plants and we struggle with those, but the ones that grow in areas of winter rainfall are generally easy and reliable in our conditions. A few, like L. glaucina, are particularly frost tender. Lachenalias last very well as a cut flower and will out-bloom most other late winter and spring bulbs in the garden. L. bulbifera is already in bloom by the beginning of July while the white L. contaminata flowers through November. A family of easy-care bulbs which gives us a full five months of blooming across the colour spectrum – what is not to like?

Our winner in the white camellia stakes – C. yuhsienensis

Camellia yuhsienensis

The world of white camellias is quite heavily populated, especially if you narrow it down to white species camellias. Over time, we have gathered up most of the species that have been available to us, and very lovely many of them are. But the one we have singled out as the most attractive specimen plant is Camellia yuhsienensis.

You can tell how much we love this plant by the fact that we have chosen to use it as a feature plant. I just counted and found we have no fewer than seventeen of them as specimen plants, each sitting in its own space – not hedged or jammed in with other plants. It is not usually our style to repeat a single cultivar like that. Mark threaded it through the new gardens – the grass garden and the lily border – to give winter interest.

Threaded through the lily border to give winter interest. That is visible frost this morning. And a freshly dug rabbit scrape. The rabbits are still winning here. We may yet have to get a cat again, given our dogs are pretty useless on the rabbits.

What do we love about it so much? It has handsome, bullate (textured) foliage which is not the usual shiny green associated with japonica camellias. It sets an abundance of buds in pointed clusters and opens them over a long period of time. But it is the flowers that are the real delight – pristine, white single blooms, good-sized and looking more like michelia or magnolia than classic camellia. And it holds its blooms well out from its leaves and branches. The blooms are not substantial but that can be an advantage in a camellia, especially when there is a long succession of fresh blooms waiting to take over. It is just a delight to us.

Some reports mention an overwhelming fragrance but we think that either that claim is exaggerated, the Chinese have greatly sensitised nasal capacities or the clone we grow here didn’t get much fragrance. It is really only lightly scented and that requires sticking one’s nose right up to the bloom. Nothing, alas, is perfect and we need to give the bushes an occasional shake or brush to get rid of spent blooms because they don’t always fall cleanly.

For NZ camellia purists, we grow the mounding selection chosen by Neville Haydon, back in his days at Camellia Haven

The native habitat of C. yuhsienensis is in the Hunan area of China which is, loosely speaking, southern(ish) and inland, with mountains, so it is not a tropical area. We have found it to be completely hardy in our conditions, although our winters are hardly testing. Because it is a species, plants raised from seed will show species variation. We started with two forms but always vegetatively propagated them to keep the selections stable. We had an upright columnar form but ended up cutting it out because the foliage and flowering were nowhere near as good as the mounding form we kept.

The bad news is that I doubt that it is commercially available these days in NZ so you will have to search hard to find one. I have to say that because it is disconcerting to me how many people read these posts and assume they are commercially driven and we must therefore be selling the plant and can send them one. Um, no. I write these posts because I am a writer by nature, we love gardening and it is greatly rewarding how many readers share this pleasure. I appreciate the comments. The phone calls and emails trying to order plants from us – not so much.

Superstar

And just because I took a nice photo of it this week, I close with Superstar. It grows at least four times the size as C. yuhsienensis, probably with a quarter of the flowers, if that, but it can show a lovely bloom. It is hard to beat a beautiful white camellia on its day.

Blooms to sweeten a winter’s day – luculia

Luculia gratissima ‘Early Dawn’

Here we are, a mere three days from the winter solstice and outside my window, rain is pelting down while thunder and lightning is keeping the dogs safely in their beds by the fire. So I bring you winter sunshine, in the form of luculia, with photographs I took just yesterday when the sun shone and the daytime temperature was around 18 degrees Celsius.

I am very fond of luculia with their heady fragrance and their balls of flowers. Perhaps they are a bit like the wintersweet equivalent for mild climates. These are not particularly hardy plants even though their original homeland is declared as the Himalayas and Southern China. Think not of high, snowy peaks but more of temperate, protected, lowland forests and by the time you reach southern China, it is distinctly tropical. Luculia are okay with cooler temperatures and a degree or two of frost but that is all. The will not survive much beyond that.

There is not a huge range of luculia – there are only five different known species and, as far as I know, named cultivars are species selections, not hybrids. We grow gratissima and pinceana, grandiflora is also widely grown but I have not seen intermedia or yunnanensis except on line.

I am not a massive fan of L. gratissima ‘Early Dawn’, which is a smaller growing species. That sugar pink flower is very… sugary. Also, when grown in full sun or high light levels, the foliage can take on autumn tones which are not a great foil to sugar pink. Too often, ‘Early Dawn’ is clipped into obedient, rounded stature. Let it grow as it wishes in woodland conditions and the foliage stays bright green giving clean contrast to the pink, while the shrub becomes willowy and graceful. That is when it looks best, to my eye, although it won’t flower as prolifically in shadier conditions.

Luculia pinceana ‘Fragrant Cloud’

‘Fragrant Cloud’ is a different species, being L. pinceana. It is larger growing with considerably larger flowers in pretty almond pink, a stronger fragrance, more rangy and open in its growth and if you prune it too hard, it is highly likely to die on you. If you like tidy, contained shrubs, this may not be one for you. ‘Fragrant Pearl’ is one we named, another L. pinceana selection that came to us as a seedling from our colleague, Glyn Church. It is much more forgiving than its pink sibling and will take harder pruning. Left to its own devices, it will be just as rangy.

Luculia pinceana ‘Fragrant Pearl’

We used to grow ‘Fragrant Pearl’ commercially and it was one of the quickest turnarounds we had. Most of the trees and shrubs we grew took 3 or even 4 years from taking the cutting before becoming saleable. We could get ‘Fragrant Pearl’ through in 15 months. We would take the cuttings from nursery plants as soon as the new growth had hardened in January. They rooted really quickly and with a high percentage in the propagation beds. We would pot them from root-trainers to finished bag size in late winter or early spring, stake and shape them in January and sell them in bud in March and April. ‘Fragrant Cloud’, the pink form of the same species, was nowhere near as easy to handle as a nursery plant and the reason we don’t have L. grandiflora is because it was not that easy to propagate from the cuttings Mark tried and we don’t want it enough to go out and actually buy a plant.

I can not advise on how to make the flowers last longer when cut. Sometimes they have held reasonably well, other times they have gone limp and flaccid within hours. This probably has more to do with the time of the day they were cut than whether the stems were crushed or sealed by burning. But we heat our house to such a degree in winter that there is no point in trying to keep cut flowers in a vase.

Left to right: gratisima ‘Early Dawn’, pinceana ‘Fragrant Pearl’, pinceana ‘Fragrant Cloud

More on belladonnas

Needing a break from a garden task, I wandered around with my flower basket, curious as to how much variation there is in the belladonna flowers still in bloom, given that ours are all seedlings. A fair amount, it turns out, in colour and size. This was not an exhaustive survey into the average number of blooms per flower spike, variations in flower form and length of time in bloom. There are limits to how interested I am in this particular genus.

Paler hues – 3rd from left has quite a sweet picotee edging. The one on the hard right was a noticeably different colour verging on more apricot tones – presumably the yellow throat bleeding colour further into the pink

There were a few interesting breaks – the palest form with pink picotee edging, the one which appeared to be developing apricot tones rather than shades of sugar pink, a big deep cerise one with an attractive white star within the trumpet. Some plants have noticeably larger blooms but, as with many plants, this can make the flowers more vulnerable to weather damage and often with fewer flowers to the truss. There is always a trade-off in the plant world.

The deepest coloured forms – cerise almost getting to red – tend to be later flowering and are  the only ones that we have ever had picked by passersby. But that was years ago. These days our road verges are so steep that there is nowhere safe to stop and nowhere to walk so the flowers are safe. It is an ill wind, I guess, though we would prefer more hospitable road verges and slower traffic.

There is only one single species in this family of Amaryllis belladonna but clearly that species is variable within itself. I am not sure that there is a great future for them other than as casual clumps on road verges or in wilder areas of the garden. Lovely though they are on their days, their blooming season is brief, they form large clumps of large bulbs and hang onto their foliage for a long time before it dies off untidily. They don’t lend themselves to the flower garden where they will swamp anything around them and take up a lot of space for their 10 days or so of glory.

  • From the Cape Province of South Africa.
  • Known as ‘naked ladies’ because they put up their flower well before the foliage appears.
  • Summer dormant.
  • Prefer to grow with their necks above ground so they can bake in the summer sun.
  • Thrive on benign neglect and can be left undisturbed for many years.