Category Archives: Plant collector

flowering this week, tried and true plants

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

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.