Category Archives: Plant collector

flowering this week, tried and true plants

The ornamental oxalis

The white form of Oxalis purpurea – the best of them all

Back in our nursery days, we had a large range of ornamental oxalis. I see in our old mailorder catalogues that we offered over 20 different varieties that we had in production at the time and I wrote extolling their autumn merits for several publications.

Twenty years on and the oxalis collection has refined itself down. It is the difference between gardening in containers and gardening in the soil. Some of those varieties were so delicate and touchy that we have lost them. Others needed to be kept confined because of their invasive proclivities. Some flowered prettily enough but their season was so short that it was hard to justify their place in the garden. I decided years ago that I was not going to fluff around with plants in containers. We have quite enough garden with many different micro-climates. If plants couldn’t perform in the garden, I didn’t have the time or inclination to nurture them in controlled conditions in containers.

These days, the oxalis we still have are the stand-out performers (and a few of the nasty weed ones that most of us battle – particularly the creeping weed which I think is Oxalis corniculata). The star has always been and still is the beautiful, well-behaved Oxalis purpurea alba. Large white flowers in abundance over a long period of time and not invasive. At this time of the year, I am more than happy to use it as ground cover in sunny positions. Oxalis flowers don’t open without the sun so they need to be in open conditions.

Oxalis purpurea nigrescens

O. purpurea is a variable species. The striking red-leafed form (O. purpurea nigrescens) with pink flowers comes a bit later and is invasive so needs to be kept confined. We also have a strong-growing (somewhat invasive) green-leafed form with very large pink flowers which is worth keeping and also has a long flowering season. Back in the days, I recall more than one person telling me that there was a red leafed form with the large white flowers but I have never seen it so I rather doubt its existence.

Oxalis luteola as runner-up in my best garden oxalis list

The standout yellow is Oxalis luteola. It, too, is well behaved and forms a gentle, non-invasive mat that flowers for a long time in mid- autumn, combining well without competing with other bulbs like the dwarf narcissi that are in growth but won’t flower until late winter and early spring. It leaves the rabbit-ear Oxalis fabaefolia in the dust for length of flowering time. Both have large, showy yellow flowers but the latter’s flowering time can be measured in days rather than weeks.

Oxalis massoniana

I am very fond of little Oxalis massoniana with its dainty apricot and yellow blooms but it needs a bit of nurturing to keep it going. The popular old candy-stripe O. versicolour is happy left to its own devices in the rockery but will not come into its season for a few weeks yet. It is the only one I know that looks more interesting when its flowers aren’t open because the striped buds disappear into a fairly ordinary white flower on sunny days.

I have hung onto the strong-growing O.eckloniana for its large lilac blooms but I keep it confined to a shallow pot sunk into the rockery. I could rustle up a few of the others from around the garden, like O.hirta in both lavender and pink, O. bowiei, O, lobata, the unusual double form of O. peduncularis  and O.polyphylla but they are not the star performers that luteola  and purpurea alba both are.

If you are into container gardening, a collection of different ornamental oxalis species give interest on a sunny terrace or door step from autumn to mid-winter. I saw somebody listing a whole range of different oxalis on Trade Me at one stage. In fact, it looked like somebody had bought our full collection all those years ago and kept it going so they are still around. If somebody offers you O. purpurea alba or O. luteola, don’t reject them just because they are oxalis. They are worth having.

Oh look! Here is a little display board I prepared earlier of under half of the oxalis that we used to grow

Back from a near death experience – an obscure fig

 

Very curious fruit on Ficus antiarus

The most asked about plant in our garden was Ficus antiarus. I say was because the small tree became collateral damage when a massive pine tree fell over last April. We feared for its long-term survival as all that remained in the ground were some of the longest roots.

Brought down by an enormous falling pine last April. That is the root system, uprooted. 

It took a couple of weeks to clear the area sufficiently to have room to move and then Mark and Lloyd levered up what remained and installed a prop to hold it more or less upright. Mark took a chainsaw to it to remove most of the canopy and the broken branches. He pruned to keep the shape while reducing the stress on the tree by reducing the smaller branches and much of the foliage. Too much leafy growth would mean increased loss of moisture and we hoped it would put its energy into re-establishing the root system over winter. We crossed our fingers.

levered more or less upright, pruned by chainsaw and propped in place last April

Behold the fresh leafy growth now. It is a sight to behold. It set no fruit this year but we didn’t expect it to after such a shock. It appears that it will live on for another few decades. I asked Mark how long the prop would need to remain in place and all he said was that he had no idea so I guess he hasn’t thought about that yet.

Ten months later and we are delighted by all the fresh growth

Mark’s father Felix brought Ficus antiarus back from his one and only intrepid plant-hunting trip – to the highlands of New Guinea in 1957. He thought that in the cooler temperatures of the areas with altitude that he might find interesting plants that would survive back here. He didn’t bring a big haul back but the ficus, Schefflera septulosa and Vireya rhododendron macgregoriae have all stood the test of time.

The ficus has mid to dark green leaves with an interesting rasping texture – not unlike green sandpaper. It is evergreen, unlike most eating figs. What is most remarkable about it is the generous set of tiny figs growing out of bare wood. They start out cream, ageing through orange to red. Birds don’t strip the tree so the fruit must not be very inviting to them. I have nibbled the odd red fruit and they have a faint figgy flavour but not enough to make them an addition to the diet. We just like it as a curiosity at the end of the Avenue Garden.

Before it was knocked down – we are now optimistic it will return to this state.

Plant collector – Tecoma stans (with an aside on a hot week)

Tecoma stans

How pretty is the yellow tecoma? It must be having a particularly good flowering season because I have never taken much notice of it before though Mark tells me it has bloomed previously. Maybe it is that it is visible from the swimming pool and I have spent a bit of time floating around on the water on my air mattress in this week’s heat.

As an aside, I can not complain to our children about the heat. We have had temperatures in the late twenties (Celsius) all week and NZ has been ‘in the grip of a heatwave’ with temperatures in the early 30s. Our children are currently living in Australia in a heatwave that has seen temperatures well into mid 40s. Sydney daughter has previously commented that the heat only really becomes a big issue when the air temperature is higher than body temperature – above 37 degrees. So, there is the voice of experience. Canberra daughter declared yesterday that our grandson would not be going swimming that day because it was a *cool* day of *only* 26 degrees. We start wilting much above 26 degrees, but let it be known that we have high humidity and particularly bright sunlight which makes moderate temperatures seem much hotter. At least that is our story and we are sticking to it. I have been swimming (or floating in a leisurely fashion) at least three times a day.

Back to the tecoma. It is a plant from south and central America in tropical to sub-tropical areas. We are more warm-temperate than sub-tropical – maybe sub-sub-tropical – but sufficiently frost-free and well drained for it to grow and bloom here. It forms a large shrub to about two metres, somewhat rangy in appearance but I am sure it could be pruned to keep it tidier. Apparently it can be grown as a hedge so it must respond to pruning. The flowers are the giveaway that it is a member of the bignoniacae family – trumpet flowers. It attracts bees and butterflies, as I have observed, but has so far failed to attract any hummingbirds on account of the absence of such feathered delights in this country. It is scented, though not powerfully so.

We only grow it for the flowers and I will start to take note of how long it blooms because it can flower all year round in warm climates. Mind you, it is also becoming a pest weed in parts of Australia and Kenya, I read.

Should Armageddon come, Tecoma stans has some useful properties. Not only is the wood good (though you would need many more plants than our one to start harvesting wood), it has many medicinal properties capable, it is said, of treating diabetes, stomach pains, water retention, syphilis and intestinal worms! I just hope that, in the event of Armageddon, we get to keep the internet. It is rather too easy to get traditional remedies wrong in inexperienced hands. 

I cannae do cannas, myself

I am really not a fan of canna lilies. We only have one in our garden, which I assume is Canna Tropicana but I don’t love it enough to give it a prized position in order to star. I find them a bit coarse, lacking any element of refinement. And they don’t die down gracefully at the end of the season. There are many other plants we prefer that we can use for the tropical look in our climate.

But the fact that I don’t want to grow them myself does not stop me from seeing their merits elsewhere. Down the road, so to speak – as in maybe 5km and a couple of road changes down the road – is a fine patch of red cannas that I admired all last summer each time I passed. They are very… bold. And undeniably cheerful. When passing in a car, they are bright enough to catch my eye every time and they do appear to have a long season in flower. Pat, who owns these, offered me some when I stopped to photograph them yesterday, but I declined. I get my pleasure from looking at them in her garden.

If you are going to grow them, my advice would be to plant them in blocks of a single colour for maximum effect. I did not realise until I looked them up to get their species name that they are edible. My cursory study of them indicated that it is the tubers you eat, not the flowers. They are Canna indica, not lilies at all, but that is probably no surprise. Their widespread natural habitat takes in large parts of South and Central America, stretching up into the southern states of USA.

Cannas are a mainstay of the summer plantings at the Te Henui cemetery. Mercifully, Cemetery Sue who leads the team of volunteers who tend those gardens, has kept the colours separate.

Auckland Regional Botanic Gardens also uses big plantings of cannas in their summer herbaceous displays. Some of these are better than others. The symphony in pink was, I thought, charming on the day. The garish stripes in primary colours, not so much. 

 

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