Category Archives: Plant collector

flowering this week, tried and true plants

Plant Collector: Jade Cascade

Meet ‘Jade Cascade’. It has an appealing name though, to be honest, there is nothing jade about it. It really is a plain, somewhat dull green though it has attractive long ribs running the length of the leaf. It does at least cascade, or maybe it fountains, from its central point. And it is simply a terrific and eye-catching performer in the garden.

When we used to grow hostas commercially, we had maybe 40 different varieties in production. ‘Jade Cascade’ was over-shadowed by the showier members of its family and it did not sell well. Most customers did not want to buy a plain green hosta. No, they wanted the big, showy, variegated ones and the new releases. I would counsel that it is the plainer hostas that show the fancy ones off to better advantage and that planting a whole mass of striking variegated ones looks a mishmash. My wisdom was not totally ignored – customers would buy the solid coloured gold or blue ones but green varieties? Rarely.

When we went out of production, I planted many of them out in the garden and that is a very interesting exercise. Some, like ‘Jade Cascade’, have romped away and gone from strength to strength. But not that many. Of the newer varieties we had in the nursery, many have just quietly languished, doing very little. The greatest disappointment of all was ‘Great Expectations’. Aptly named, Mark says. We had great expectations of this showy, variegated variety though we had decided it was too slow to be commercially viable for us, even in optimal nursery conditions. It became Unfulfilled Expectations before transitioning to Disappointed Acceptance. Despite being given optimal conditions (well cultivated soil, plenty of compost and humus, little direct competition, summer moisture and semi shade), the plants have languished. They are still there after many years but have failed to do anything of note, let alone increase and thrive.

Pot culture in nursery conditions is one thing. Hostas are a really easy nursery crop to get looking large, lush and enticing given the controlled conditions of a production nursery. We came to the conclusion that in the quest for the new and the novelty, hosta sports were being separated off and trialled but only in nursery conditions. Garden performance is very different. We have seen the same thing with hellebores and have even bought some which looked simply terrific in the garden centre but failed to replicate that performance once put into garden conditions. Consumers can’t generally tell whether the plants they are looking at in a garden centre have been rigorously trialled so it becomes a case of win some, lose some. Were we ever to go back into business, I think I would sort out a range of tried and true performers.

‘Jade Cascade’ would earn a place close to the top of such a list. Plain green it may be, but it has a most graceful form, good slug and snail resistance and a robust disposition. In its quiet little way, I find it draws my eye every time I walk past the area where it is growing. That is a good plant.

Jade Cascade now occupies a similar amount of garden space to the established vireya rhododendron behind it

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Plant Collector: Malus ioensis ‘Plena’ – (Betchel Crabapple)

My first sighting of a juvenile plant in a Taranaki garden last spring

When I first spotted this pretty, young tree in a local garden last spring, I could not identify it but it sure was a charming sight. In Canberra a couple of weeks ago, there were SO MANY of these trees in bloom that I felt I had to track down a name. It is a flowering crabapple, a malus. The nurseries that supply Canberra are clearly making a killing on producing this cultivar (along with the pretty dogwoods). It is being used widely as a street tree on suburban road verges, it was strongly represented in the gardens at Parliament House that we visited and was featured in many, many (many) gardens.

It is a pretty blossom tree though it does flower as its fresh foliage has broken dormancy, so the display is not on bare branches. Crab apples fit a similar niche to flowering cherries (prunus), though many varieties will flower a little later. Unfortunately, with ‘Plena’, you don’t get the bonus of coloured crab apples later in the season, although it can be used as a pollinator for the fruiting varieties.

Malus ioensis ‘Plena’ , not a prunus as I initially assumed

I have not looked closely at the plants in New Zealand to see if they are cutting grown or grafted. The Canberra plants were grafted, usually onto a rootstock that had an attractive, smooth pale grey bark. The problem with the plants in the Parliament House gardens (no photos allowed so I can’t show you), is that the lower grey bark of the root stock for the first metre or so was not particularly compatible with the graft so the union – where the grafted variety meets the rootstock – was already a bit lumpy and not attractive. They were not as bad as the linden shown here, but neither were the plants mature so they may well get worse. If you like your trees to last the distance over many years, just be cautious about buying plants that have been grafted as standards well above ground level. The closer the graft is to the ground, the less obvious any incompatibility will be.

It is a very pretty tree and one I expect we will see become as popular in this country as in Canberra.

A very pretty and presumably well behaved street tree in Canberra

 

 

 

Plant Collector: the good and the bad of nandina

There are not many plants that I actively dislike but the dwarf, coloured nandina is one. You can tell I do not care for it because I gave no loving attention at all to taking this photograph of a plant on a random street frontage in town. Yet this plant is everywhere. One of those bullet-proof, easy-care plants which is alleged to have ‘year-round interest’ with its coloured foliage so a perfect fit for non gardeners who merely want plants to act as low or no-maintenance soft furnishings in the garden.

The taller version – Nandina domestica ‘Richmond’ seen here – has sufficient aesthetic merit to justify a place in the garden

Mark was as surprised as I was when I told him I had looked it up and there is only one species of nandina and that this boring little coloured mound which is rarely above knee height is the same species as the far more graceful and attractive Nandina domestica ‘Richmond’ that we grow. I can only assume that the common name of heavenly bamboo was initially applied to the more graceful, taller type of selections like ‘Richmond’. I guess, at a pinch, one could claim it has a bamboo look to it, though probably only to those who have never actually looked at the real thing. It is actually a member of the beriberidaceae family (think berberis). Apparently nandinas only berry in warmer climates and ‘Richmond’ is self-fertile so will berry without needing the pollinator that most others do. It is worth growing – easy, reliable and low maintenance yet with a grace and elegance to it, as well as seasonal interest with its berries.

The institutional look of utilitarianism

The dwarf forms lack all of these more desirable attributes except utilitarianism. The more you have, the more utilitarian your garden will look. I have photos of a private garden which has planted a score or more of them but it is too easy to identify the place from my photos and I do not want to upset the owners.  I can, however, offer you this photo of it being used in a public garden. It will not look much different in your garden at home. But it will be easy-care.

The dwarf forms seem to be available under a whole bunch of different cultivar names with some variation in leaf tones and berrying capacity. You can tell it will be a dwarf form by the descriptions of it as clumping, compact or dwarf with projected heights of 60 to 75cm. The red berries, if you get a berrying variety, will never be as showy on a 60cm mound with coloured leaves as they are on their taller sibling with its green leaves and the panicles of berries displayed prominently at eye level or above.

In the interests of disclosure, I will admit that we have one of the dwarf nandina in our garden, though not in a prominent position. Its days are numbered. Probably in single digits since I worked out how much I actively dislike it.

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.